Elevation Gain: 5,700 ft
Summit: 8,364 ft
Mileage: 12 miles RT
Remember that small volcano that erupted back in the 1980’s? This time of year it’s completely covered under snow and it really isn’t season to be climbing it.
The Summit Seekers had Mt. St. Helens on our excel spread sheet of hikes (yes, that’s true we use excel) for the last weekend of March before permit season starts. We had this great plan of a hike for this week but when we saw the forecast we quickly check and adjusted our plans to make it to St. Helens because getting weather like we did this weekend in February is pure lottery.
Thursday night we came up with the idea, communicated a plan and Friday during my lunch break I picked up our harnesses, helmets, crampons, avalanche transceivers and mountaineering boots across the street from work. We hit the road right after work to car camp at the trailhead and get an early start. After a few logistical changes we didn’t actually get to the trailhead until about midnight and we woke up at 4:30 to start this hike.
So here we are Saturday morning starting our hike at about 5:45 AM in the dark with snowshoes and headlamps. There’s something about hiking in the dark that is invigorating but I also like to know what my surroundings are. Nothing makes you feel more alive than being up before the sun and watching it wake up andstart to turn shadows into a display of color and beautiful scenery. As the sun rose we started to get a good look at our objective for the day and it was breathtaking. Mt. St. Helens – I remember reading about this in books when I was a kid and after moving out here putting it on my bucket list.
After about 3 hours in we switched to crampons and got some good practice in our gear. We started up the true ascent as I like to call it and we really had to put our stepping and breathing into practice because that sucker was straight up with little mercy. We took 10 minute breaks about every hour to an hour and a half to fuel our bodies which really is a game changer from stopping and going a lot.
We weren’t quite making the time we had set as our goal but we still had it in us and motivation to summit. We were taking a quick break about 1700 ft or so from the true summit when we started to see people take some gnarly falls. As we were prepping to start back up we witnessed a terrifying accident that halted everyone on the mountain in their tracks. A man above us took an estimated 600-700ft fall off the side of the mountain and down into a gully to the left of the summit. As I’m sitting here on my balcony with my down booties on and drinking my coffee, I can still hear his scared to death scream that I think will stay in my head for a while. His scream was pure terror and it shook the mountain – we thought he had for sure busted his head open or broken bones.
A few by standers got down to him as quick as they could and it seemed that they had some medical background – everyone up the mountain was yelling to get signal from him, everyone on the line up to the summit was yelling “med kit” and searching for gauze to get down to the crew helping him. It’s one of those experiences I feel like I’ve been reading about in my mountaineering books but one you just don’t ever expect to be on the mountain when that happens much less witness it all go down. My eyes literally teared up and we were all humbled in that moment by the gravity of mother nature.
It was a beautiful sunny and clear day with PERFECT conditions or so it seemed but towards the summit the conditions started to decline and putting people in compromising positions. A lot of people started turning at that point once we realized he was okay because all of this happened while he had on the right gear – crampons, ice axe, etc. Our group reluctantly huddled to figure out our next steps.
We wanted to summit so badly in our hearts and we have enough drive to push the team up but we looked at this man in the gully, we recalled our talk with a girl who had just fallen off her ski’s and had a good fall and we thought about our goal of summiting Rainier. As we were making the decision a well versed hiker/mountaineer came by and said the top was sketchy and even steeper areas that she was hesitant about but she said “it’s optional to get up there, it’s mandatory to come down” and that kind of sealed our thoughts. We made the call to turn – so close but absolutely the right decision. As we came down we started to realize the elevation, the slush, the ice and all of the variables that could change even more over the next couple of hours if we pushed to summit.
Kim couldn’t have said it better “sometimes the mountain just reminds us, she’s in charge. When we’re fortunate enough to reach a summit, it’s a surreal experience because for it to be possible all the stars have to align; weather, route conditions, hazardous potential, turn around time, endurance and focus.” However, when we don’t make a summit it’s because we all have the same mindset, interests at heart and we care for each other and understand the gravity of the mountain conditions. I’m so thankful to be sipping on my Komodo Dragon coffee this morning after a delicious breakfast, 11 hours of sleep and fresh laundry. That mountain will always be there for us to return to ….unless it blows up again! In all seriousness – the reason why I’m attempting Rainier this season versus the past is because of this group and the alignment and support we have for each other. Stay tuned – we’re excited to share the rest of our journey!
In other news – HAPPY ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY TO OUR FEARLESS TEAMMATES, Kim and Joe ❤️