Splitboarding Mount St. Helens, 5/18/2009


My 10 day long tour of the Pacific Northwest took me midway up the slopes of Mt. Rainier, trekking the urban streets of Seattle, touring the wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula and the Hoh Rain Forest, body surfing on the sandy beaches of the Oregon Coast, and the greatest “slackcountry” turns I’ve ever had making yo-yo laps on Mt. Hood until the sun went down.

On the final day of my trip, we awoke at dawn at 2700′ in the Marble Mountain Snopark, 5665 feet below the summit of Mount St. Helens. To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to the huge climb ahead, for I was all but done with my vacation and a bit homesick. But I figured “hey, I’ll just start up and see how far I get.”

There were already a lot of people ahead of us. We only caught a glimpse of a few skiers, some on skins and others with snowshoes on their feet and skis strapped to their pack for the long ascent.

The trail wound through the forest for a few miles on a long, flat approach on pine-needle covered brown snow very similar to most Colorado 14er approaches. Finally, we emerged from the trees and had our first view of the monolithic south slope of the volcano. It looked huge (just as Rainier and Hood had before), but most of the slope was low angled, which meant we could maintain an efficient pace with climbing skins.

First view of the whole mountain.

It was already getting very warm in the morning sun. Forecasts were predicting over 80 degrees at our elevation. As I climbed I could see Mount Adams dominating my view to the east. While on Mt. Rainier the week before, I looked to the south at these two mountains, and although they still looked very big, they were very far apart. Now, Mt. Adams appeared to be right next to St. Helens. The immense size of these volcanoes plays weird games on your perception.

Mt. Adams

As we kept climbing, I wondered when we would decide to turn around. Funny, however, that the farther up I got, the stronger I felt. At every stop, we set a new goal, whether to get to a rock outcropping, cornice, or ridge. Before we knew it, the summit was in sight, and felt attainable. There was a group of telemark skiers already on their way down, but I could see at least three other groups still heading for the summit.

Heading for the summit. It was so relieving to be able to skin up the whole thing!

At this point, some dark clouds began moving in. I have heard many things about Cascade weather, that when it comes in, it comes in STRONG. I was a little nervous about the oncoming clouds, but we hurried our pace and set out for the summit.

On the way up, I saw a lot of hikers “glissading” down. Some of them were on plastic garbage bags. Still others had on nothing but jeans and tennis shoes. I couldn’t believe they were up here, soaking wet with clouds rolling in, but I am no one to judge.

Are these people for real?

By the time I could have seen the summit block, it was a total white out. I could barely make out the figures of the group of climbers on the summit, and finally met my partner and celebrated our accomplishment. For not really being “in the mood” at the trailhead, I had made it to the top of the mountain roughly 5 hours later!

Conditions on the summit

On the summit, one man asked us “Did you guys climb this because it is the 29th anniversary of the eruption?”

We both looked at each other in surprise. We had no idea of the historical significance of this day, but thought it was really cool, almost ironic, that we had climbed to the summit on this day. I tried to peer over into the crater rim, but could barely see anything but some very steep spines that disappeared into the white abyss.

The team on the summit with the inside of the crater barely visible behind us

We tried to wait for some sort of sun break to make our descent, but finally realized we would not have the luxury, so we made some careful turns down the upper face of the mountain.

Dropping into a total white out

Once we got out of the clouds, however, it was sunny spring conditions again, and we were rewarded with 5000′ of excellent corn snow on the descent!

Brian making great corn turns

The author slaying the volcano

Life is not better than this!


Brian hucking the cornice

This trip has been a series of milestones after another. But the final day was the best of all, as I had finally snowboarded off of the summit of a Cascade volcano. I can’t wait to come back!

Tags: , , , , , ,

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.