(Original post date: 11/22/2015)
Worm Flows Climbing Route with Monitor Ridge descent, then Loowit Trail back to Swift Ski Trail (13 miles round trip, 10 hours 40 minutes—all breaks included)
Mount St. Helens has always had a special place in my heart. It may not be the most majestic peak in the Cascade Range, and, following the 1980 eruption, its “formerly interesting summit climb…has been reduced to a strenuous tourist hike” (Jeff Smoot, Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes), but its towering presence in my hometown of Chehalis remains a vivid part of my childhood memories.
Mack and I originally planned to wait until after our Steep Snow Climbing course with Timberline Mountain Guides—taking place in May 2016—to climb Mount St. Helens. However, after lots of scree hiking on Mount Hood and Mount Adams this past summer, I thought it would be more enjoyable to avoid climbing on this terrain. In addition, permits are free and self-issued from November 1st to March 31st. Win-win!
We opted to use the Worm Flows Climbing Route (the winter route) rather than the standard Monitor Ridge ascent due to road conditions. Worms Flows starts from Marble Mountain Sno Park, which is lower in elevation than Climbers Bivouac, and, therefore, less likely to present hazardous driving conditions.
After leaving Portland at 3:45 am, we arrived at the sno park around 5:20 am, signed into the climber’s register, and began our hike in the dark on the Swift Ski Trail around 5:40 am. We hit snow early on and had to don our microspikes well before reaching the climbing route. The sun began to rise just after we reached timberline. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. The clear sky provided views of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and even Mount Jefferson. I knew it was going to be a beautiful day for climbing.
The elevation gain from the sno park to the junction with Loowit Trail and Worm Flows was fairly gradual. That all changed once we reached the ridge. The going was slow and tedious as we maneuvered our way around giant boulders, occasionally postholing in deep snow. At the end of the ridge, we took a short break to snack, take in the increasingly gorgeous view, and prepare ourselves for the massive snowfield that lay ahead of us.
Prior to this climb, I’d had at least some experience hiking through snowfields (Illumination Saddle on Hood, Lunch Counter on Adams, and Mount Bachelor). This was Mack’s first time. While I was thoroughly enjoying the challenges of steep snow climbing, Mack was feeling more or less the opposite. (I should add that yesterday was Mack’s first day off since November 1st; he was incredibly exhausted and I asked him to climb a mountain…am I a bad girlfriend?) We stopped consistently to catch our breath and hydrate.
For the most part, our microspikes sufficed in stabilizing each of our kick steps. However, we did hit a few icy sections where crampons would’ve been more reassuring. Although I found microspikes to be perfect for previous hikes in similar conditions, crampons are definitely the way to go for a Mount St. Helens climb in late November, even if only for a few sketchy sections. In addition, I will definitely be bringing an ice axe next time; I have one at home, but didn’t bring it since I have yet to learn how to properly use it.
Unfortunately, we learned the above lessons the hard way. We were more or less 1,000 ft below the summit when Mack slipped and I watched helplessly as he slid down nearly 20 ft—there was no deep, packed snow to help him slow down or stop—before coming to a halt. He was pretty shaken up, so we stopped climbing for a little while to mentally regroup. I was prepared to abandon the remainder of our climb, but Mack decided he was okay to push on.
The last stretch up to the crater rim was, thankfully, a little less terrifying than the previous portion. Though quite steep, the terrain was easier to kick step in; suitable for our microspikes. We reached the summit at 11 am. Only one other person was up there at the time, so we had most of it to ourselves! We were rewarded with breathtaking views of Mount Rainier, Spirit Lake, and the smoking lava dome within the crater. All the fear and stress that came with the previous incident seemed to wash away as we looked out over the winter wonderland below us, basking in the beauty of a successful ascent. After reveling in the moment a few minutes longer, we began the long descent back to the trailhead.
Now, if we had descended the way we came up, this post would already be over. However, in an effort to avoid the section where Mack had slipped earlier, we decided to descend part of the way down the Monitor Ridge route with the intent of crossing to Worm Flows around timberline. Naturally, this did not end up going according to plan. The longer we stayed on Monitor Ridge, the further away our intended destination became. After descending for two and a half hours, we finally pulled out our map—which we should’ve done much earlier—to see if there were any ski trails we could turn on that would intersect with the one we needed to get back to. There weren’t. It was already past 1:30 pm—sunset is around 4:45 pm—and we were at least 4 miles from our car, with no idea how to get back. Not sure what else to do, we decided to continue on to Climbers Bivouac in hopes of begging for a ride back to Marble Mountain Sno Park.
We reached the Ptarmigan Trail/Loowit Trail junction at 2 pm and were just about to continue on Ptarmigan when I remembered that the Loowit Trail, which circumnavigates the mountain, intersects the Worm Flows route! After consulting the map to confirm that this was indeed going to work, we began the 2-mile stretch to the junction. I wish I could say the rest of the way back we faced no more obstacles. But, then again, what’s an adventure without a few?
The part of the Loowit Trail we were hiking on had not been used since the recent snowfall. The trail was covered in knee-deep snow and there were no tracks to follow. The contour of the trail was fairly discernable—I think it helps that we’ve hiked a lot of trails—and there were bright orange tags tied onto tree branches every once in a while, but there were definitely times when we lost it and had to spend several minutes searching for where it picked up again. The tediousness of walking in deep snow and having to navigate an obscured trail meant we were moving slower than we wanted, especially since we were pressed for time. It was a little stressful, but our spirits remained high and we actually had fun. Our hard work eventually paid off, and around 3 pm we made it to the junction with Worm Flows. The rest of the way was easy and familiar. We made it back to the car at 4:20 pm while it was still light outside.
Mount St. Helens taught us a few lessons about being prepared with proper gear and the skills to use them, as well as consulting with a map whenever there’s even the slightest change in route itinerary. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful learning experience and we both look forward to trying a few more non-technical climbs following our class in May. Middle Sister, South Sister, and Mount Adams here we come!