Mount Saint Helens Summit via the Worm Flows route
12 miles round-trip
5,699 feet elevation gain
I’d only been back in Southern Oregon for a few days when I looked at mountain-forecast.com and saw that there was going to be one perfect day of bluebird weather on the Saint Helens summit- on friday.
“I have Friday off,” said Lia, when I texted her. The next day, Thursday, I was headed to Portland via craigslist rideshare, which works almost magically along this stretch of the I-5 corridor. I met Lia in the afternoon and we went to Next Adventure- this time we found someone knowledgeable at the rental counter and had him show us how, exactly, to adjust the crampons that they rent. We also rented sturdy mountaineering boots that felt like ten-pound ankle weights but would hold the crampons well and would never, ever let any moisture in. There are also, apparently, crampons that fit regular hiking boots but we had not known this the weekend before. Thus outfitted, we bought snacks and drove north into the evening, first on the freeway and then onto the smaller, darker roads that wind towards Marble Mountain Snopark, wherein Lia’s car abruptly overheated. We lifted the hood to find foul-smelling steam billowing everywhere and when we poured water into the radiator it promptly trickled out again, onto the pavement. We were in the middle of the cold forest and neither of us had reception.
We waited for the car to cool completely and then drove it extremely slowly the seven miles back to Cougar, Washington, watching the temperature gauge the entire way. The town of Cougar consists of one restaurant (closed), two gas stations (closed), and a motel. We sat in the motel parking lot in the car, which still stank of burned coolant, eating salt and vinegar chips and brainstorming. Tomorrow we would climb the mountain. We didn’t know how, but it would happen. And what about the car? When we got back here it would be evening again, and the next day would be Saturday, and on Saturday everything would be closed.
“Fuck the car,” said Lia. “Let’s scratch the VIN numbers off and light it on fire. All that matters is climbing this mountain.”
I knew that she was only half joking.
The motel clerk rented us a cabin at their steeply discounted January rate and we told him that we were trying to get to Saint Helens in the morning, and could we leave the car there during the day?
“Of course,” he said. “And there’s a fellow in room 4 who’s climbing the mountain tomorrow as well.”
We stood on the stairs outside room 4. The curtains were drawn and all the lights were out.
“Are we really going to do this?” I said. “Isn’t this rude?”
“Don’t worry,” said Lia, knocking. “I’ll do the talking.”
Neil was a good-humored older man from Puyallup. He’d done quite a bit of mountaineering back in his day.
“I’ve got four other people joining me in the morning,” he said. “And we’ll give you a ride to the mountain. Meet us here at six o’clock.”
Somehow, things always work out when you’re willing to talk to strangers. You know?
Our cabin was huge and had a kitchen and three beds. All that room for activities made us ecstatic and Lia and I did Fake Yoga on every available surface.
At five a.m. my alarm went off, startling me out of the most incredible sleep, and I blearily assembled sandwiches while Lia made drip coffee. We met our new friends in the dark parkinglot, transferred our crampons, boots and ice-axes from Lia’s car to theirs and soon we were on our way to the trailhead, headlights silhouetting the forest.
The sun was just rising as Lia and I started up the trail. Around a wooded bend we were greeted with the most epic alpenglow on the smooth face of Saint Helens, and we both pretty much came in our pants. By the time we got our cameras out the aplenglow was gone but the sun was there, dripping over the opposite horizon. The air was warming and the sky was clear and wide. It was going to be a very good day.
Since I knew there wasn’t going to be snow until the weather station, I wore my trailrunners and carried the heavy boots in my pack. Chocolate falls, which had been running the weekend before, was mysteriously dried up.
“It must’ve clogged with chocolate,” I said. Although the falls was clear water we had pretended so much that it was lumpy, slowly flowing mud that this was how I now remembered it. We crossed the falls and started up the long ridge of boulders and lava dust. Behind us somewhere in the woods we could hear our new friends.
At the weather station we ate bars and put on our boots and crampons and watched the sun rise higher in the bluebird sky. It was unbelievably warm and we were wearing our t-shirts. The day couldn’t be any more different then our failed summit attempt the weekend before.
We started clomping up the snowfield in our Magic Crampons, which affixed us like insects to the surface of the mountain. A few other people climbed in the snow near us, carrying split-boards. Lia declared several times that she would do anything to have her snowboard right now. ANYTHING.
After a few hours of kicking and stepping our ways upward we reached the spot where I had fallen on our previous hike. I couldn’t believe how steep it was here- it was even terrifying today, with crampons on. I don’t think, in the whiteout, that I had realized how steep this part of the mountain was. I am no mountaineer, I thought, as I crunched my way up past that spot. But I do like to climb mountains. So.
The slope grew steeper, and steeper, and steeper still, and soon in a ring around us we were able to see Mount Adams, and Mount Hood, and Mount Jefferson, and the Three Sisters. Everything was too big to actually photograph, although that didn’t stop me from trying. I felt as though I was trying to capture the ocean. At one in the afternoon we reached the summit- which is actually a steep, slippery hunk of snow cornice that rests precariously on the crater rim.
“Don’t go near the crater!” said Lia. “The edge of the cornice could break off and you could fall in!” I was already terrified, and I took one look over from a safe distance, saw the steam rising from the caldera, and then perched myself on the slope of the cornice to eat and drink, my crampons dug securly into the ice. A group of dudes had reached the summit at the same time as us and they were, unbelievably, going to split-board down.
“That’s terrifying,” I said.
“No way,” said Lia. “I feel so much safer on my snowboard. You’ve got two metal edges. You can stop on a snowboard.”
As we stomped our way back down the mountain I began to feel more comfortable in my crampons, and soon I felt as though I was a ninja. I could just walk down the mountain! Casually! Just casually stomping down this super steep frozen slope, with the whole earth spread out in front of me! Not even terrified!
We took the wrong ridge at one point and ended up on top of a huge fluted frosted cake which was very beautiful but much too steep to descend, and so we were forced to climb back up again and then cut across another steep white slope to get to the correct ridge.
How does one describe a mountain? I don’t know. At the chunk of rock with a metal thing sticking out that is the weather station I changed back into my trail runners and we began the long slow slog to terrestrial earth via miles of post-eruption lava rock mayhem and, ultimately, dull trail through flat damp forest, the sun setting somewhere through the trees. In the parkinglot I put on all my layers and laid on the cold concrete, feeling my spine release. I was hungry, sunburnt and dehydrated. Some youths in beat-up hondas were doing donuts. Another day, I thought. Another day worn down to a nubbin. The way life is meant to be lived.
One of the women in our hiking party, Daria, was headed back to Portland, and she offered us a ride. Lia
set her car on fire called a tow company to have it towed to the nearest mechanic and we curled up with snacks for the drive south, listening rapt as Daria told us stories of mountaineering in Japan and the brutal frostbite that almost took her toes. Back in Portland we ate some incredible soup that Lia’s housemate Katie had made and spent the evening watching the sorts of terrifying mountaineering documentaries where everything goes horribly awry. I thought about things like climbing up frozen ice sheets in whiteouts and wondered if I’d ever like to do something like that. No, I decided. Probably not. Or maybe one day, after I hike all of the long trails. And make up one of my own.
And then I was asleep.
Moar photos on instagram.