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Mount St. Helens: Climbing a Slope of Pumice & Ash

A person standing in front of a mountain

National Monument, Oregon, U.S.A.

You may start to question your decision to make this climb, as you hone your focus and carefully navigate the last 1,000 (300m) of your ascent to the rim of the crater. It’s a slippery slope composed of the pumice and ash. But once you’re at the rim, 8,364 feet (2,509m) above sea level, and can peer into the crater, with its lava dome and volcanic debris, you’re thrilled you had the stamina to take the hike. The payoff comes in the way of the 360-degree views of three other volcanoes: , Mount Adams, and in the distance, as well as a glimpse of the ravaged blast area on the volcano’s north side and far below.

In early 1980, after years of dormancy, minor earthquakes started shaking Mount St. Helens, and ash and steam began spewing from the volcano’s top in fits and starts. In May of that year came the big eruption that literally tore away the north side of the mountain and blew an ash cloud 80,000 feet (24,000m) in the air. Today, Mount St. Helens has quieted down and hiking it has become a favorite quest of locals and tourists alike.

The route you choose depends upon your stamina, and hiking or climbing experience. There are two major courses you can take: the Worm Flows route, used in the winter, and the more popular summer route, . The Monitor Ridge Climbing Route is challenging, leading climbers up and over volcanic boulder fields. Although it does not usually require special equipment or previous mountain climbing experience, climbers should be prepared for variations in terrain and weather. It’s the most direct route to the summit and takes you past some of the older lava flows. From near Climbers Bivouac, follow the Ptarmigan Trail # 216A to the timberline. Blue markers on the trees will help you locate the trail as it weaves through the forest. From the timberline, wooden route-marking posts help guide climbers on Monitor Ridge, a 400-year-old lava flow, to the crater rim. Once you’ve arrived, don’t expect to see inside the crater and Mount Rainier in the distance until you navigate that last 1,000 feet (300m). Climbers should be in good condition for this route because it’s approximately 91⁄2 miles round trip and will take 7 to 10 hours to ascend 4,600 feet (1,380m) to the crater’s rim and then go back down.

If you want to get a real sense of the power of the 1980 blast, walk through the blown down forest, especially during wildflower season, on the popular 13-mile Boundary Trail #1 from the Norway Pass trailhead to Mount Margaret. The trail starts at about 3,800 feet (1,140m) above sea level and ascends to the highest point on the ridge, at 5,858 feet (1,757m). When you reach the junction at Independence Pass trail, you’ll have a spectacular view of Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens. From this point on there are continuous views of Mount Hood, the lava dome, the blast area, and peek-a-boo views of Mount Rainier.

No matter which trail you take, plan enough time to visit Lava Canyon #184 and Ape Cave. A steep narrow trail leads to a suspension bridge over Lava Canyon and gorgeous waterfalls below. Ape Cave offers a darker adventure in a basalt lava tube. This 2-hour rock scramble brings you through the upper cave and out into the light. Here, you begin your hike back over the forest that has grown over the lava tube to return to the parking area.

During the winter, skiers and snowboarders love to hike up the south side of the volcano and ski or ride down. One Portlander reports that it’s easy, intermediate skiing on un-groomed terrain. Make your own decision depending upon your skill level.

Climbing permits can only be purchased online through Mount St. Helens Institute (see below) and they are required for each day above 4,800 feet (1,463m) elevation on the volcano’s slopes between April 1 and October 31. Only 100 climbers per day are permitted from May 15 through October 31. November 1 through March 31, free climbing permits are self-register. E-mail confirmations must be exchanged for permits at the climbing register at the Lone Fir Resort, where climbers must sign in before and sign out after their respective climbs.

Mount St. Helens information (mountsthelens.com). Mount St. Helens Institute ( 360/891-5107 for registration or 360/449-7861 for climbing conditions; www.mshinstitute.org).

When to Go: Late June to mid-Sept, if you don’t want to climb on snow.

Portland, OR (71 miles/114km).

$$$ Blue Heron Inn Bed & Breakfast, 2846 Spirit Lake Hwy. ( 800/959-4049 or 360/274-9595; blueheroninn.com).

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