As some of you might remember, I had permits to climb Mt. Saint Helens last year, but was unable to because of my inconveniently broken foot.
This year I was healthy and made it to the summit, with my husband and my best friend on August 26th.
The volcano is about three hours south of Seattle, and we drove there the night before our climb. When we arrived, it was midnight. The sky was pinned back with so many stars, we slept with the rain fly off our tent so we could sleep under their light. Unfortunately, sleep proved elusive. I was so excited to start our hike that I don’t think I slept more than two hours before our alarm went off at 4am.
We started a little bit before 5, and were treated to a glorious sunrise over Mt. Adams and a beautiful pastel view of Mt. Hood.
The hike can be divided into four distinct areas.
- The Forest
- The forest takes you on a brief but gentle uphill. This is the most protected part of the hike, and we crept through it at dawn. It was sanctuary on the way down nine hours later when it was the hottest part of the day.
- The Boulder Field
- You step out of the forest and into a moonscape! The path becomes steeper, taking you over, around and through huge boulders. Your hiking poles are a hindrance here, use your hands to help you up towards your goal (I didn’t use the gloves I brought, but you might find them helpful).
- The Ash Field
- This was the hardest part of the hike for me. The yellow ash sends you backwards for every step you take. It’s an upward slog toward your goal, don’t give up!
- The Summit
- You made it!
The summit and crater are larger than life, photos don’t really do it justice. The muted colors of the ash, the soft white of the steam and the remnants of snow create a delicate palette, not exactly what one imagines when they hear the world volcano.
We had lunch at the top–never has a peanut butter sandwich been so satisfying–and started our descent. As tough as summiting had been, heading back was worse. The ash field was not as bad on the way down (we bought these gaiters and they were incredibly helpful-sinking in the ash is no joke). But the most treacherous section was the boulder field. What had been mild fun on the way up became bone jarring on the way down. We picked our way through the rocks, using our poles to slow ourselves. By the end, my legs were shaking and the tree line was a welcome sight.
The ten mile round trip took us ten hours. We started at 5am and reached our car at 3:00pm. Don’t forget your permit, your poles, your gaiters and your gloves. Start early! The hike is long and it takes you longer to get down than you would think. The earlier you go, the more you can avoid the heat, and some of the crowds.