Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mt. St. Helens Winter Ascend

When I first came to Washington State from Czech Republic, a small country in the heart of Europe, the concept of living in such proximity of volcanoes was new to me. I was instantly dazzled by the beauty of their snow blanketed ridges, their perfect shape towering above their territory like sentinels of the time witnessing centuries of changes.

Curiously I searched the internet and found myself immersed in articles about the first known ascend of Mt. Rainier by Hazard Stevens and P.B. Van Trump in 1852, the Native American tale suggesting that Mt. Hood (Wy'east) and Mt. Adams (Pahto) were sons of the Great Spirit competing for love of beautiful La-wa-la-clough (Mt. St. Helens), and many others fascinating stories.

Mt. St. Helens later became the first of the volcanoes I came in closer encounter with. It was back in 2003 when the drive up to Johnson Ridge observatory left me in awe of the power this mountain demonstrated during its eruption in 1980 that still was profoundly evident some 23 years later. Later when I stood on the terrace of the Johnston Ridge Observatory, surveying the barren area leading towards the jagged ridge line of the crater, I overheard somebody saying: “And can you imagine the crazy people who climb to the top?” I instantly knew I wanted to be one of them.

So I put a group together and we planned, and trained, and finally set our feet on the mountain on August 26, 2007. We summited in high winds, freezing, and having the volcanic ashes blasted in our eyes. The visibility dropped to about 2 feet so we only snapped a quick summit shot and retreated to lower, more pleasant elevation. But despite the gnarly conditions it was a unique experience to climb this living mountain and we knew we will return, which we did a year later on much nicer day, and from there it was just a matter of time before I started contemplating a winter ascend.

* * *

On Monday November 28 the forecast suggested it might be a sunny weekend so with fingers crossed I waited for the week to flow by, thinking about how cool it would be to finally pay Mt. St. Helens a visit during winter time, and then when the sun still shined from the NOAA web site, and avalanche conditions were favorable, I decided to give it a go and started planning. Looked for recent trail report, put a group together, called Lone Fir Resort....

Initially I considered climbing part of the route on Saturday, camping somewhere below the timber line, and then attempting the summit on Sunday, but not having any previous snow camping experience, in the end I opted to spend the night in a comfort of a warm cabin.

Then Friday came, and after what seemed a never-ending day at work, we set up on our journey. The drive to Cougar was, except for fighting Seattle's Friday night traffic, rather uneventful, and we arrived at Lone Fir around 9:30 p.m.

The only recent report written in the log book at the climber's register was from earlier that day and suggested that that particular group of 2 had to abandon the climb after they were unable to reach Marble Mount Snow Park due to large amount of snow on the road approximately 2 miles from the snow park.

Not too encouraging but hoping the road got plowed later in the day or will be plowed before the morning, we lay down to get some rest before out climb.

* * *

The road from Cougar was in a good shape as we sliced through the darkness of the frosty Saturday morning witnessing the awakening of the new day. Mist skimmed the surface of Swift Reservoir, silhouettes of hills stood against the pre-dawn blue, then soft colors of sunrise stroke across the sky.

We arrived to Marble Mount shortly after 7:00 a.m. The road was not plowed but there was hardly any snow on it. The group from yesterday must have accidentally turned on a wrong road (perhaps the one to Climber's Bivouac).

Quick gear up and we were on our way. We started on snow right from the trailhead but with several groups ahead of us, the trail was packed and had good traction.

The first part of the winter route leading on gentle ski trails was a nice warm up. Once we broke from the tree, that’s where the work started. Luckily there were good steps kicked in making the steepest part much easier.

Admiring the beauty of the snow capped mountain, we proceeded up in a steady moderate pace with occasional breaks for photo ops and hydration.

Most of the route was in a great condition with no traction needed to about 6200 ft. That's where the slope got wind blasted and at spots covered with a sheet of ice on which the rays of sunshine reflected and sparkled.

The ice became more serious as we climbed higher, and majority of the upper 800 feet was covered by it. The summit could safely and easily gained with crampons and ice axe, the sound of the ice layer crushing under our feel was a sweet music to our ears.

Needless to say it was scary to see people tiptoeing their way up in Yak Trax supporting themselves by ski poles.

As usually the summit was windy, and man, when the wind picked up, it was strong but despite the wind it was by far the best conditions I ever experienced on this mountain. Unlike the other times I was up here, this time the wind would take an occasional break, and even when wheezing by, it did not blast the typical sandy ash grains into our faces which was very nice and gave us an opportunity to stay at the summit for decent amount of time.

The snow was much softer on our way down. We chose not to glissade considering the icy sections, and when we got lower, we postholed our way the last mile or so of the ridge back to the ski trails. From there it was a long, but easy stretch back to the snow park.

GPS stats: 10.4 miles, 5746 ft el. gain

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