Ascent of Mount Saint Helens in winter via the Worm Flows route
12 miles round-trip
5,699 feet elevation gain
I got into Portland around midday on Friday and dropped my bags on the floor of my friend Seamus’ empty house. He and his partner were both at work but the cats were there, mewing and batting at things, and I curled up on the couch for a nap. It was cold and drizzly outside but inside was warm and soothing and soon I was asleep. I woke with a start in the long afternoon light- I’d been dreaming about mountain climbing, cold deep snow, all of the unknowns. Lia and I had plans to climb Mount Saint Helens the next day, but I’d never climbed a mountain in the wintertime. How hard would the wind be blowing on the summit? What even was I supposed to wear? My phone bleeped- Lia was off work, and on her way to pick me up. Our plan was to camp at the trailhead at Marble Mountain SnoPark tonight and set out for the summit in the morning, via the Worm Flows route. The weather forecast was crummy- cold and rainy. But it was supposed to clear up on the mountain after ten a.m., so we weren’t too worried. What was a little rain?
I threw my bags in Lia’s car and we drove around the city, getting ready for our expedition- renting crampons and ice axes from Next Adventure, eating cheap tacos, buying a tail light for her subaru at walmart. An ice-axe and crampons are necessary for a winter summit of Mount Saint Helens, and I’d never used either. But as far as wintertime summits go, Mount Saint Helens, according to the internet, is fairly straightforward. The Worm Flows Route follows snaking ridges of snow and lava rock up to the crater rim at 8,364 feet. It’s a six mile climb, with 5,699 feet of elevation gain. I’d done similar climbs before, on South Sister, Mt. Adams, and Telescope Peak- just not in the snow. At Next Adventure I hefted the ice-axe in my palm- although I’d never used one, I’d had an ice-axe self-arrest explained to me so many times that I figured it was embedded pretty good in my brain. If you fall and start to slide you just roll over onto your stomach and dig that fucker in, right? How hard could it be?
By the time our errands were finished and we were headed north on I-5, the backseat full of gear and snacks, it was nine p.m. We reached Marble Mountain Snopark just before eleven and set up Lia’s massive, bomb-proof double-wall tent in the dark forest that edged the parking lot, running back and forth with our gear in the cold rain. Ours was the only vehicle in the lot. Once inside the tent, I felt as though I was in a palace- it was roomy and dry and the storm pattered harmlessly against the heavy rainfly. Anyone who’s spent half the year on the trail with only a nine-ounce single-wall tarp as protection against the elements knows the glory and wonder that is a good double-wall tent. As I arranged my things around me I didn’t have to worry about water dripping inside from the edges of the tarp, about condensation soaking my sleeping bag whenever it brushed against the sides, about water flowing under my sleeping pad in a river. I could lean my pack against the wall. I could set my phone on the sturdy tent floor. I was Dry, and I was going to Stay Dry. It was wonderful.
We both slept amazing until my alarm woke us at four a.m.- we’d agreed the night before that if it was clear at four we’d make a break for it but if the storm continued we’d sleep in. The rain was still falling steadily outside our cozy little house and so I turned off my phone and pulled the sleeping bag back up over my face, content.
It was eight a.m. when we started our hike, drizzly but warm, with the sun threatening to burn through the fog at any moment. We were sweating as we hiked up through the snow-free forest, and by the time we were navigating over lava boulders above treeline we were both in our t-shirts. The fog came and went, came and went- now you could see a bit of the smooth white mountain that loomed above, now you couldn’t. The boulders alternated with patches of slushy snow and then we were at the weather station- a hunk of metal sticking up from a flat place in the rock just below where the snowfields began.
In icier weather this would be a good place to put on crampons but the snow was soft and slushy and I felt pretty good about continuing up the snowfield in just my boots. The snow here felt like the snow on the passes I’d gone over on the PCT in May, in the Sierras- it was easy to kick steps into the stuff, and I didn’t feel like I was in any danger of falling. Just to be safe, though, I held my ice-axe like Lia had shown me- fingers around the top, the tether of nylon webbing safely around my wrist.
The fog closed in solid as I began to climb in the snow, and the wind picked up. Then the fog became a solid thing, a sort of blowing rain, and I stopped to put on my rain jacket, which was quickly soaked through. Still, I was feeling good- the climbing was making me warm and this was a rhythm I remembered from the PCT- kick, step, kick, step. I was following the footprints of someone ahead of me- there was one dude ahead of us on the mountain this morning, and a group of three dudes just behind us. I found it fun to try and match my gait with this dude’s gate, to follow his meandering progress up the snowfield. It was also very helpful to have his bootprints there, as I could no longer see anything ahead of me. How much farther was the crater rim? I wasn’t sure. But I was going up, and that was all that mattered.
And then, I fell. In just a few steps the snow had turned from soft deep slush to a thin layer of slush over hard blue ice, and before I could register this I slipped and began to slide on my stomach down the steep white slope, unable to stop myself and picking up speed at a terrifying rate. Below me yawned the endless white mountain, sloping down, down, down, and somewhere at the bottom were jumbles of volcanic rocks. I pawed uselesssly at the mountain. My jacket rode up on my stomach, filling with bits of ice and grit. Suddenly I remembered the ice-axe in my hand, gripped it as hard as I could, and dug that fucker in. I slid for a few more feet, and then stopped.
“Holy shit!” I shouted down to Lia, who was below me, but the wind carried my voice away. “Holy fuck! It’s icy up here!”
To my right was a patch of rocks, and I made my way carefully over to it, kicking steps with the ice-axe clutched in my hand, my whole body shaking. Lia, who had seen me fall, was shouting and waving her arms, and she made her way over to the rocks as well, and then up to where I was.
“I think it’s time to put on my crampons,” I said. Lia was already wearing hers.
“That was really, really awful to watch,” said Lia.
“Yeah,” I said, as I adjusted the metal spikes over my boots. “I guess my ice-axe works.”
Walking up the snow with crampons was one thousand percent better. I felt in no danger of slipping, and I cursed myself for not having put them on earlier. The weather, however, was getting worse- as long as we climbed we were warm, but what about when we had to turn around to head back? Lia and I were both soaked to the skin, and the wind blew stronger the further up we went. And the crater rim was still obscured in fog- where even were we? The three dudes had caught up with us and we all climbed together, sort of spread out in the snow. And then one of my crampons came off.
“I don’t know what the problem is,” I said as I sat on my butt in the slush, trying to adjust it. “I thought I had it on there really tight.” a few steps later, the other crampon came off. Then one of Lia’s came off and we sat in the snow again, trying to adjust them. As we sat we grew colder, until we were both shaking. And then we began to climb again.
A few minutes later, the visibility grown even worse, all five of us decided to turn around. The dudes quickly disappeared into the fog, racing down the slope in their super-functional crampons. I stared down the steep white slope, which alternated between crampon-destroying slush and super slick ice, dreading the descent. We would learn later that we were just four hundred feet below the crater rim.
For a reason that we could not discern, our crampons would not stay on in the slush. Every time we had to stop to adjust them we grew colder, and finally we decided to pick our way down the slope without the spikes at all. Then, we both fell. Lia, who was a few feet below me, was able to self arrest and she grabbed me, slowing me down enough that I could self arrest as well. We both lay there on the ice, clinging to the mountainside with our bodies, shaking from cold and fright.
“Holy fuck,” I said. “We have to put our crampons on right now.”
“Yeah,” said Lia. This was easier said than done, as it mean maneuvering around onto our butts on the steep slope and fiddling with the stiff, frozen crampon straps in order to get them over our boots while still holding onto our ice axes so that we wouldn’t slide any farther. Our feet were soaked at this point, and mine were so cold they felt like numb, sodden bricks. Some of the water in my boots had frozen into chunks of ice around my heels. I looked down the steep white slope as I yanked the crampon straps as tight as I could with my stiff, cold fingers and the stinging rain pummeled us. I had to walk down all of that steep white, somehow without my crampons coming off, somehow without falling again.
I began to hyperventilate.
“I think I’m having a panic attack,” I said to Lia. No no no no no, I thought. Not now, not now. I was sobbing, and my stomach dropped. I felt like I was going to throw up. All of the muscles in my body began to seize. I was literally frozen with fear.
“We have to keep moving,” said Lia. “I’m getting really cold.”
“Ok,” I said. “Ok ok.” But it was the hardest thing in the world, to get my muscles to cooperate. To get myself to stand and begin to pick my way down the slope. Everything inside of me was screaming. My adrenals were emptying themselves. I couldn’t remember ever feeling this scared. Ever. In my entire life. Literally ever. I was stiff and clumsy, and I couldn’t get my breathing back to normal. Everything around me escalated my panic- the storm, the icy slope, how cold and soaked I was, the stupid crampons. We could die so fast out here. So fast. Way up on this mountain, with no way to safely descend. I became more and more panicked, like a snowball rolling downhill. Why, I thought. Why now. How useless was this panic attack. How utterly useless. How completely at the exact worse possible time. But once it was underway, there was no way to stop it. I knew that all I could do was make my body move as best I could, and wait for it to run its course.
Lia stopped regularly to wait for me.
“We’re almost there,” she said, when our crampons came off again, and again. “Just a little while longer. We’re going to make it. I can see the weather station.” She told me later that she’d been lying- we weren’t almost there, she couldn’t see the weather station, and she wasn’t sure if we were going to make it. Still, her words were incredibly helpful. I wanted to say something back, but I couldn’t speak. “We have to keep moving,” said Lia, every time I sat down in the snow for a moment, frozen with fear. But every couple of hundred feet the wind lessened a little bit, and the rain grew warmer, and the snow more slushy. I ended up climbing most of the way down to the weather station with just one crampon. At the weather station we barely spoke- Lia had lost her water bottle to the storm gods on the way up so I shared my water with her. As we picked our way down the boulders the sun finally burned the storm away and there it was above us, the pure white cornice of the crater rim. And below us the rolling forested hills, valleys strung with fog, Mount Hood far away on the horizon. A couple of groups passed us on their way up, smiling and happy.
“Beautiful day for a climb, eh?” they said. They’d missed the storm completely.
We didn’t talk much on the walk through the forest to the SnoPark. We picked up our extra layers where we’d stashed them under a boulder and put them on, even though they’d gotten soaked in the rain. We were so, so cold, and our feet were still numb. I felt empty inside, and fatigued beyond belief. I didn’t even know how to process what had happened.
“I don’t think climbing mountains in winter is something that I like,” I said, as we sat in the car at the trailhead, eating snacks and waiting for the heater to warm us. We’d changed into dry clothes and I was wearing the old fleece poncho I’d found in the bargain basement at Next Adventure, which fit me like a blanket. The light was slowly fading from the sky. An hour later, on the drive back to Portland, we started to talk about what had gone wrong. We agreed that it had been stupid to hike in the storm, and that we needed to figure out what was up with our crampons.
“Maybe if the weather is good next weekend,” said Lia, “we should try again.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.”