Can I have two tickets for the top of Saint Helen’s, please? … $22 each? … Do you take American Express?
That is about what it takes to commit yourself to summiting Mount Saint Helens, an active volcano located in the Pacific Northwest’s aptly named “Ring of Fire”.
As described in an earlier post, K and I had spent the 2015 Fourth of July weekend circumnavigating this mangled beast of a mountain. We walked 36 miles around but zero up. As a novice backpacking pair, we had failed to realize that you need a permit to climb to the summit of St. Helens. So during our four-day lap of this lustrous lady we could only look up and wonder what it would be like atop her peak.
A few days after we returned home from the Loowit Trail, a “mystery” excursion appeared on my calendar (if you know me, you know that the only thing I love more than planning is my man planning for me). It didn’t take me long to solve this mystery: we had tickets to climb Helens! …In two months.
Turns out, Miss Helens is very popular. If you want in (or rather, on top of), plan ahead and book early.
K is a sensational planner because he thinks of everything. He had us summiting on a Tuesday to avoid the crowds, in September when the weather was cool and dry, and arriving on the day prior so we could have time to explore the depths of Ape Canyon, dine at the only Bar & Grill in the cute “town” of Cougar, and throw our glow-in-the-dark Frisbee around at Beaver Bay Campground.
The hike before us was just over 9 miles up and back. A long, but doable day. While many people camp right at the trailhead (known as Climbers’ Bivouac), we had no problem finding a parking spot just after sunrise when we hit the trail.
Since most of Helen’s trees were buried in the blast, it wasn’t long before we were exposed to the rising sun and back in the familiar moonscape of the mountain’s southern side.
K and I pride ourselves on being fast hikers but it took us about 4 hours to climb the 4,500 feet to the crater. Large wooden poles were easy to spot in pre-snow conditions, but the path was often unclear and much time was spent scrambling over and meandering through the fields upon fields of boulders. There was some pretty fancy footwork involved, but every now and then we remembered to look up and take in the scene that surrounded us.
The final push to the top was the kind of steep scree slope that makes your calves burn with every step. But it wasn’t long before we were standing at the edge of Saint Helen’s crater, numb with awe.
I’m not sure why most people reach the top of a mountain and immediately sit down in the middle of the trail. On a summit like this one, there’s almost a whole circumference to explore! Instead of immediately plopping down, K and I wandered farther along the rim to find the perfect spot to absorb the views and inhale the sulfuric fumes of this fantastic living earth.