Climbing Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens is the second-most-climbed peak on the planet, exceeded only by Japan’s Mt. Fuji. With 16,000 people making the pilgrimage each year up Mount St. Helens, you’re bound to have company on your trip to the top.
All climbing routes up Mount St. Helens are from the south side of the peak, and a permit ($15 Apr.–May 15, $22 May 15–Oct., free the rest of the year) is required for travel above the 4,800-foot level. From May 15 through October, 100 permits per day are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, with up to 60 of these available by advance reservation via the Mount St. Helens Institute webpage (www.mshinstitute.org). Make reservations as early as possible after February 1, since most summer weekends are reserved by late March.
The other 40 permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 6 p.m. each evening for the next day’s climb. Stop by Lone Fir Resort (16806 Lewis River Road, Cougar, 360/238-5210) to purchase these. You’ll need to sign in at Lone Fir both before and after the climb, whether you booked in advance or not. These confusing rules may change, so check with the monument (360/247-3900, 360/247-3961 for a recorded message) before planning a climb.
The climb begins past the entrance to Ape Cave. Follow Forest Road 83 a mile beyond the cave, then turn left on Road 8100 for another mile, and finally right on Road 830 for the final three miles to Climbers Bivouac at an elevation of 3,750 feet. Even though the climb is not technically difficult, don’t underestimate the steep slopes and severe weather. The first stretch ascends through the forest at a gradual pace, but above the 4,800-foot level the pole-marked route is a scramble over boulder fields, volcanic pumice, ash, and snowfields (often present till mid-July). The crater itself is off-limits to the general public because steam explosions can create extremely dangerous conditions. Avoid the edge of the crater when snow tops the peak, since you may be stepping on a cornice that could give way.
Watch the weather reports before heading up the mountain; it can snow at any time of year, and low clouds can drastically reduce visibility. Call 503/808-2400 for the latest weather forecast. Listen to the report for Mt. Hood, as the weather on the two mountains is invariably similar. Climbing boots, sunscreen, and plenty of water are requirements (no water is available on the route or at Climbers Bivouac), and you need to start early—by 7 a.m.—to have enough time to get up and back before nightfall. Most folks take around eight hours for the nine-mile (round-trip) trek. Take an ice ax when snow is present, along with plenty of warm clothes and rain gear. Gaiters will help keep the snow and ash out of your boots. Primitive camping is available in the woods at the trailhead. Some climbers prefer to get a head start the night before, camping three miles up at the 4,800-foot level, where you’ll find a composting toilet. Camping is not allowed above this point.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition