It seems fitting that I would spend the last day of winter on a climb of Mount St. Helens’ “winter route” essentially marking the start of the Spring alpine season. Of course this really just came down the coincidental timing of weather, avalanche conditions, and my schedule. Whatever, it’s more amusing to think it was all destined to be. Helens is after all the first alpine mountain I ever summited and my most frequented mountain by a longshot.
In any event, with this year’s winter it’s been hard to find a clear day for a climb so 10 hours of blue skies (pro tip: sunblock under your sunglass frames!) and fluffy snow surroundings was a welcome sight to say the least. The rough winter has not only made it hard to find a climb window, it’s impacted the mountains, even the roads to them. For months the standard route to Helens was inaccessible due snowfall and now the major road up to the park is blocked by a landslide (pro tip: go through Amboy to Cougar, you’ll save yourself a lot of time.) Not that you came looking for a driving report or anything but sufficient to say it’s been a lot more waiting than adventuring so far this season.
As soon as we reached the parking lot it was clear the wait was well worth it as piles of snow sit all around the well, parking lot. For the ski crowd this means a line as long as your climb (that’s about 5,700′ if you top out) and for the rest of us it means no need for approach shoes or putting up with any pesky dirt…. As it turns out storms = snow. Exiting the treeline at Chocolate Falls (presumably named for the rock the falls go over, not for actually spitting out Willy Wonka style chocolate) only thin bands of rock from the steepest ridges are even visible; it’s an exciting departure from a couple years ago when the first 2,000′ of the route were all on dirt — in February.
The strong snowfall has also brought some harsher realities to the mountain. Even from the flats it’s clear just how many avalanches have ripped across the mountain with half broken cornices, well crowned ridges and one massive debris field right along the route. The slopes of the upper mountain have built up in their own right, pushing the usually fairly straight forward climb towards the realm of steep and letting the ice build up along with it.
Heading up the mountain, the snow started stiff, solid and a bit icier than I’d expected (for climbers this means no need to snowshoe in and a bit of a pain to skin up to treeline though that reversed on the way out) and only got more solid until it finally relented under the sun and softened up in mid afternoon. The route also feels stepper this season with less options to cut around some of the notable hills and a complex line to the summit (again for the climbers, look for a low line over to Monitor Ridge just above its GPS station or some direct routes through the Swift Glacier.) Heading up at a moderate pace, we found sporty hills to kick step, solid views of the surrounding peaks, real type I fun!
The icy route, the steepness of the last 1,500′ and the direct push for the summit caused more climbers to turn back than head on up but I rarely heard a complaint or even a sign of serious disappointment. After months trapped on rainy hikes or stuck gazing at a sweet view only to be shut down by avalanche risk, it seemed like everyone was just happy to get out and play no matter where they ended up. And by the time of most people’s descent, the snow was ready for a zippy line or a decent glissade on back.
With my own late start and a far stronger climber partner (see the excuses building already, ha), I bailed just below the Swift Glacier. It was my first time turning on a Helens climb after a long string of successful summits last year but I have no complaints about getting a chance to enjoy the views and brew up some Apple Cider while I waited for Mike to grab a summit view for me. For a day that I had originally planned to spend doing a simple Hood hike, it was pretty freaking epic.
Thinking about a visit of your own?
Be sure to check out my Mount St. Helens winter climbing post. Also be sure to check with the Northwest Avalanche Forecast Center (NWAC) before attempting any alpine routes in the northwest. The Forest Service has details on the Worm Flows route including a map and list of essential gear but on top of that, understand that the mountain is ever changing and what your friends climbed with may not be enough. Not having crampons and ice axes (or knowledge of how to use them) cost several people from making a shot at the summit yesterday!