AT THE CLIMBER’S BIVOUAC on the south side of Mount St. Helens, the birds start chirping before sunrise. I ignore what sounds like hundreds of the little beasts as best I can until I hear my brother, Chris, and my buddy, Jason, rustle out of their tents around 6:15 a.m. I assumed they were going to clear camp and get ready to summit the volcano. In response, I pulled the sleeping bag over my head, briefly wishing I hadn’t drank so much beer, but then I remembered the laughs and conversation from the night before and promptly fell back to sleep. A few short minutes later my new Blue Ridge Camping Hammock started to shake, rattling my pounding headache into an unavoidable alarm clock — I’m not sure which guy was shaking my hammock, but the message was clear: “Time to go.”
We cleared our campsite in about 15 minutes, then loaded up our day packs. Jason and I joked that, on the west coast of Washington, when the weather forecast calls for a 30% chance of rain, what that really means is that it is going to rain for 30% of the day. I predicted that the drizzle and clouds would burn off, but Chris was skeptical. He lives in a state that actually has sunshine. Skeptical is sometimes good. I was wearing hiking shoes and a few layers of shirts. Jason was wearing the same. Chris — the more experienced hiker and backpacker — carried rain gear. He gave me an extra rain jacket, and I humored him, wrapping it around my waist. We attached our climbing permits to our packs. I popped a few ibuprofen, downed a bottle of water, and we started our climb in weather that was about 60 degrees, raining, and foggy (visibility 50 yards or so).
Low Visibility, Easy 2.5 Miles
I took the lead to start. I was hoping not to have to try to keep up with Chris and Jason, who are each about 6’4” and have the stride of a Sasquatch. The first section was the normal west coast mountain hike affair — easy, well-groomed trail, slightly sloping with beautiful forest all around. I kept my eyes open for Bigfoot and just in case, I also watched for the bear and mountain goat which had supposedly been sighted on the volcano recently. There was a lot of good conversation during this stretch. My plan to set the pace worked until we reached the first way point about 2.5 miles up.
Chris decided he was done mozzying, and took the lead with Jason hot on his heals. I have hiked and climbed with Chris before so I resigned myself to the race and kept up. We quickly left the tree line behind and started climbing over rocky steps, picking our way both over and around rough lava boulders. After leaving the tree line, climbers can essentially either scramble over a ridge of volcanic boulders (marked with wooden posts) for the next two miles or — if there is enough snow — climb up the snowfields. We didn’t bring any snow equipment so we scrambled up the rocky ridge.
Navigating the blocks and shards of rock turned out to be fun. We ran into about 60 people attempting the summit, some of which we saw climbing below us, who turned back. At one point about halfway up, Chris somehow thought it was a good time to claim that a black plastic garbage bag was one of the most useful pieces of survival gear . . . when not five minutes later we ran into a guy from Florida actually wearing a large black garbage bag as a makeshift rain jacket. No kidding. The guy was full of bubbling energy and claimed to have a poncho in his backpack before passing us by. After three and a half hours of climbing, and 3,500 feet of elevation gain, we broke out into the last stretch.
The weather had sustained the constant drizzle, nasty fog, and 30 yards of visibility. The temperature kept dropping as we gained elevation. The big DSLR Chris brought was useless in the drizzle, but he had a waterproof case for his smartphone, so we managed to get a few photos and a bit of video. I wish I had taken a rugged waterproof camera along. As for my clothes, my long underwear and cargo shorts combo just wasn’t holding up, but Chris had a spare pair of nylon pants in his pack. They were big, but blocked the wind and shed some of the drizzle. There was nothing to do but trudge up toward a summit we couldn’t see.
Somewhere Above There Must Be a Summit
The wind picked up, the temperature dropped into the low 40s, and the drizzle started alternating between sleet and rain. We were all tired and our legs were burning, but that wasn’t something that would keep us off the summit — after hours of this, the weather pattern, while messy, seemed stable enough to continue on.
The poor visibility, which sometimes dropped to just 30 feet, was the biggest downer. We couldn’t see a summit, couldn’t see the ridge line, and heck we didn’t even have a view out to the surrounding mountains to appreciate.
By this time, several other guys had already decided to turn back. Why slog up to the top with nothing to see but the inside of a cloud?
The last 800 feet of elevation gain to the summit is in a thick sandy gravel — scree. It was a lot like climbing a sand dune, but in our case it was climbing a monstrous sand dune in sleet, wind, and fog. I was about to call it, good enough for me — quit — when a guy from Switzerland came down the mountain smiling. Since we had no idea how long it would take us to get to the top, we asked him for a report.
“It looks like this,” he said, gesturing his arm around.
Rain, gusty wind, and white, white, white.
He said we had about an hour of climbing left to reach the summit. Another bummer. An hour?
“I had been dreaming of this climb for a long time,” he said. Then he shrugged his shoulders and grinned, “But we take what the mountain gives us.”
How could I bail on the summit after that? We took a quick break on the lee side of some rocks for a drink and an energy bar, then hit it again. About half way I stopped and had a good belly laugh about climbing a mountain in terrible conditions with no hope of a good view . . . for fun. After the laugh I came to the conclusion that fun and adventure are woven together no matter what.
At the Crater’s Rim
The summit turned out to be dirty snow, totally fogged in. It didn’t blow off and we were never able to climb above it. We had hoped for maybe a bit of wind that might reveal the crater, if only for a minute, but nothing. Seriously, you could see about 30 feet in both directions. About 15 climbers had made it to the top and were hanging out a bit, savoring the moment. The snow pack ended with a cornice that disappeared into nothingness. Somewhere out there was the crater that made Mount St. Helens special. The desire to peek over the edge, hoping to see something, anything, was strong, but the chance of falling into the crater under collapsing snow kept everyone back.
Being there still felt good.
We snapped a few pictures and started back down. Going down was the exact same only with gravity on our side. We did “shoe ski” a couple of the more solid and safer snow packs, which quickened the decent and added a little spice to the scrambling down the rough rocky ridge. Otherwise, the weather was the same. We lost the trail once where it makes a sharp turn near the bottom, but after a hundred yards without finding another marker post, we backtracked to the last known marker and spotted our mistake. Trudging off-trail down a wet and gnarly mountain could have turned downright ugly. All the old lava ridges and scraggly trees look the same in the fog, and a small error could have delivered us miles from the Climber’s Bivouac.
By the time we hit the tree line, my legs were starting to cramp. The trail for the forest felt like a highway, and changing my stride seemed to help.
When we made it to the bivouac we were too tired, wet, and cold to celebrate much. But it felt good to be there. By the time I arrived at home that evening I was totally exhausted — both mentally and physically. I smiled as I pulled into my driveway, though, thinking, I hope I feel like this many more times.