Mount Saint Helens

Worm Flows Winter Climbing route
~12 miles, ~5600 feet elevation gain

The weather gods cooperated.

We last climbed Mount Saint Helens eleven years ago. In summer, the Monitor Ridge route is basically a long pumice and boulder-ridden slog; although there is a barren, exposed beauty to the route, it’s brutally hot on a sunny, warm day, and I distinctly remember hating the traction (or lack thereof) hiking up the scree-ridden trail. Footing was just downright questionable at times. 

Since that hike, our local lady has thrown a few minor fits, including building a new lava dome within the crater. I also have to say that prior to last year, beyond our one summit hike, we hadn’t really explored the trails around Helens much, and she is quickly turning into one of my favorite local playgrounds. The entire area possesses a truly unique quality not found in other nearby hiking areas.

This year, snow con­tinues to linger and the Forest Service still has not opened the Monitor Ridge route to climbers. As such, our route to the summit would follow the Worm Flows winter climbing route, which was new to both Andy and me.

Monday evening, to avoid our local neighborhood July 4th party people, we packed in and made camp around 3800 feet. Prior to leaving the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, we spoke with several of the day’s climbers regarding last minute conditions: snowshoes? (overkill). Crampons? (not necessary, but probably also not a bad idea). Oh, and to be careful near the summit. One woman stated she got a little too close to the edge, punched through a piece of the cornice and “…almost saw daylight. When you see Rainier, be worried.”  

Alrighty then.

Our July 4th was perfect. Just Andy and I, above timberline, the stars, the quiet, and absolutely no one else around.

can you find the Big Dipper?

Morning dawned cool but not cold, and overnight the snow near our campsite took on a solid but sticky, consistency. We began climbing at the leisurely hour of 6:15 am; a party of three and a solo climber passed by about 45 minutes earlier and we would only distantly see their little micro-persons on the route afterwards.

Not ¼ mile from our campsite, we hit the first solid snow of the route. We would climb moderately, and then traverse off to the side to continue hiking up the actual worm flow. Here, the character of the hike reminded me very much of the hike up Monitor Ridge- crappy footing, the occasionally vague trail, and the sometimes necessary rock/boulder grab, which will tear your hands up if you don’t have gloves.

worm flows = crappy footing

I think I prefer hiking on snow.

We eventually came to a good point to hit the snow again. Neither one of us had done hiking like this in snow before; we donned our Katoolas and began the long kick-step process of making our way to the summit, still several thousand feet above us.

step, breathe. step, breathe.

Beautiful to watch the world wake up, to watch the dawn hit the mountains, to watch the sun creep over the lava flows and slowly light the snow into a blinding brilliance. Sunglasses and sun block are absolutely necessary in these conditions.

Adams in the early morning light

At only one point in the climb did I truly become uncomfortable, just prior to a false summit. No altimeter to record the exact location, but I’m guessing that somewhere just above 6500 feet the pitch of the climb increased dramatically, to the point where I felt distinctly nervous about a misstep. I concentrated on my footing, kick-stepping in at least twice and planting my feet solidly before attempting the next step.

steep stuff

Beyond the false summit, the pitch again became reasonable but the snow conditions became more questionable- sections of ice, deep snow, sun cups, and areas of exposed rock. Our biggest disappointment of the day: we had assumed (wrongly) that the edge of the crater would be somewhat melted off at this point, allowing us a good view into the crater to see the new lava dome. It is, in my opinion, the most dramatic part of Helens and the entire reason for the climb.

sitting a safe distance from the cornices

The cornices were nowhere close to being melted off. Given the recent spell of hot weather, they were highly unstable, and a ranger warned us to keep at least 25 feet back from the edge, but to “Use [our] own judgment.” Given that an experienced mountaineer died this year on Helens due to a sudden cornice collapse, we decided to leave the lava dome and crater view for another day. Disappointing, to be sure, but it can wait. The crater will still be there.

The best part of the entire day: glissading. Almost an entire 4000 feet of it, down to within a ¼ mile of camp. Now THAT is what I call fun.

Glissading Mt. St. Helens from Andy Park on Vimeo.

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