January 13, 2006.
Swift Glacier winter route: 12 miles | 5500 ft. elevation gain | 8 hours
On this dimly lit, early Saturday morning, Scott, Rick and I left from the Marble Mountain Sno-Park to climb St. Helens. Temperatures were just into the double digits as we made the initial trek through the woods along the XC ski trail at about 7:30 am. Once moving, I quickly became very warm, had to de-layer and let the guys move ahead. The air was crisp, cold and perfect. Only a few clouds disrupted the lovely blue sky. As the sun began to rise, St. Helens was bathed in a pink alpenglow.
I met up again with Scott and Rick at the base of the climber’s trail at treeline. Mt. St. Helens rose impressively up ahead. Although she is the smallest of the Cascade volcanoes, St. Helens is still a big mountain. We still had lots of elevation to gain, as the mountain gets steeper and steeper as you go along.
Thus began the long ascent: Scott in his skis and Rick and I in snowshoes. The snow felt pretty solid, which made for easy walking. Eventually we ran into patches of crusty snow and ice that made travel slightly more difficult. Rick and I switched to crampons, Scott continued in his mountaineering boots. The mountain got steeper, icier and windier. I remember feeling quite small in the vastness of the bright, white snowfields. They seemed to stretch on forever, undulating into the distance, broken occasionally by stegosaurus-like spines of rock that jutted up from the snow cover.
Eventually Scott turned back due to the ice and spent the rest of the day playing on the snowslopes in his skiis :). Rick and I determinedly pressed on. The wind died down and left us baking in the hot sun. Amazing, how in the middle of winter on the side of a snowy mountain, you can feel like you’re on a Miami beach. I took off my jacket and kept stopping to cool down as we climbed. We took a couple more snack/water breaks perched on the slope with crampons dug into the snow for support. I watched the wind whipping up cyclones of snow near the top. Plumes of gray gas occasionally rose from within the crater and clouds were blowing in as well. We wondered what the conditions would be like at the summit. Okay, break’s over, let’s go.
The final push for the top was well worth the effort. Soon, the crater rim came into view and suddenly my legs weren’t so tired. Rick stepped aside and let me lead the way since this was my first trip up here. I read that the cornices sometimes extend up to 100 feet over the edge so I carefully stepped closer and closer get a view of the lava dome and the crater itself. Visibility wasn’t great and the winds were blowing steadily so we looked around for a few minutes, shared some brief words and headed down. We’d reached the rim at about 12:20.
Going down is so much easier than going up! We descended to a good spot for another food break and chatted a bit before heading back to the lot. Somewhere along the way I lost one of the snowshoes attached to my pack, major bummer. I also almost lost my gloves and a ski pole…a very strange day for me since I’m usually on top of all this stuff. It must have been the excitement for being on top of a volcano for only the second time. Rick and I had fun chatting as we left the mountain behind us. Around 2:30 or so we met up with Scott who was heading back up to make sure we were okay. In another hour we were back at the parking lot which was congested with the sounds and smells of snowmobilers.
This was yet another great adventure with good friends, great conditions, and a hearty workout. I’d like to head up in the summer for comparison, and to check out the official summit.