I have been planning to ski Mount St. Helens with my two friends, Paul and Watson, since fall 2013. Our first scheduled date in early March fell through due to high-risk avalanche conditions. Luckily, we were greeted this weekend with weather that couldn’t have been better, the forecast called for sun and temperatures in the 60s! This hike can be done as a snowshoe or a backcountry ski tour. We used the new Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding Washington book to plan the trip. You can also find out more about the trip through the Washington Trails Association.
We split the trip into 2 days to avoid having to drive 7 hours in a single day and to make the hike up a bit less strenuous. Plus, we wanted to do a little winter camping and catch the sunrise and sunset while on the mountain. The plan was to meet at the Tukwila park and ride at 2pm and be headed up the winter trail by 6pm. After being good Samaritans and giving a couple’s minivan a jump we were on the road heading south at around 2:45pm. From I-5 we got some great views of the mountain that had me thinking the mountain looked a lot taller than I remembered it looking. As we got nearer to the mountain on the forest roads we were amazed at the views we were graced with. Then a bit later, we were all confused by the fact that we hadn’t seen the mountain for a while. We’d gotten distracted by talk of the large earth dam we had passed and completely missed the turn-off to the sno-park. After overshooting the road by 15 miles we looped back and finally arrived and parked at about 6:30pm.
We expected the parking lot to be pretty full because, when we signed in at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar to get our permits we noticed the log book had many entries for the day. What we didn’t expect was that most of these people would be starting as late as we were. The parking lot was full of people grilling and lounging in camp chairs. It felt more like a ski resort than a trailhead. We packed up our gear and divvied out community gear. I don’t have much experience winter camping because as a Boy Scout I successfully managed to avoid all of those trips. I had to pick Paul’s brain a lot on what would be best to take to avoid having a super heavy bag. Paul was the director of the winter program at Tomahawk Scout Reservation in Birchwood, WI, so he knows his stuff. All 3 of us had brought our small backpacking tents but we decided to leave them in the car in favor of two tarps. We also brought 2 small backpacking stoves and a water filter. The water filter proved worthless since there wasn’t any running water.
Since there was no snow in sight we strapped our skis and boots to our packs and started hoofing it up the trail as quickly as possible so we could make the most of the remaining sunlight. My pack was crushingly heavy. My splitboard (it’s a snowboard the splits in two so you can ski) is old and heavy and my thick snowboard boots weren’t helping any. We kept a decent pace of about 3mph hiking on the trail as we kept hoping for snow to appear so we could skin. After about 1.25 miles we were able to transition and start skiing. On the way we encountered a few other groups who were making their way off the mountain. They all looked really exhausted but they said it was amazing.
At 2.45 miles in and 3600 feet we stopped and made camp. We had hoped to make it to what our guidebook referred to as the treeline camp at 4800 feet but we were running out of daylight. After debating a few different options we finally settled upon a small clearing away from the trail which featured a nearby group of trees with a large snow-free tree well. Sleeping on the dry ground would be a lot warmer than having the snow suck up our body heat. Paul dug out a sweet cooking pit with his avy shovel and started cooking our dinner. Watson crafted an amazing snow sofa out of a nearby tree. I don’t remember what I did during this time – I think I was just taking pictures. Paul made an amazing dinner with rice, beans, kale, zucchini, and sausage. It was nice to have a good warm meal as the sun went away and the temps started to drop. Plus he made a ton of it so we all got 2 or 3 helpings. We sat tightly packed together on the snow sofa, cushioned by a Thermarest eating our meal and watching the stars come out. The moon came out and was so bright you didn’t need a head lamp. Soon it was getting late and we wanted to wake up at 5am so we crawled into sleeping bags beneath the trees.
Reggae music confusingly woke me up at 5am. Paul has an interesting taste in alarm sounds. I really wasn’t ready to wake up but I had slept ridiculously well considering it was my first time sleeping under the stars in a really long time. Paul and I stayed really warm all night, but unfortunately Watson was a little cold in his sleeping bag. We were all thankful we were able to sleep on the ground instead of on top of the snow. All of the snow that had been soft last night was as hard as a rock but my water didn’t freeze so the temps were most likely around 32 degrees overnight. I cooked breakfast – dehydrated ham and eggs in a tortilla shell and handed out apples and muffins. We stashed our overnight gear under a tree to lighten our packs and began skiing up to the summit at 6am. Almost immediately we had to remove our skis to cross a dirty patch and boot up a steep part of the trail but then we were able to skin for a while. As we went along we found where most of the other people were camping as we began to pass tent after tent. Some of the occupants were waking up and getting geared up for the big days hike ahead of them. This is also the time where we began to realize that we definitely wouldn’t be alone on the way up as we kept passing people or in some cases being passed.
As the trail got steep it soon became much more efficient to boot than to skin. I wasn’t super psyched on the prospect of lugging my board on my back again but trying to skin over all of the boot imprints covering the skin track was becoming very difficult. The hike in the night before had left my legs rather tired and I was already starting to fall behind Watson and Paul. Maura and I have been doing a lot of short, easy and flat hikes since she’s 6 months pregnant and I didn’t realize how out of shape I was. Watson offered to take my bindings which shaved off a good amount of weight and Paul took the JetBoil we brought along in case we needed to melt snow for drinking water. I was embarrassed that other people were having to pick up my slack but was thankful that they were so generous. We would carry our skis on our backs for the remainder of the ascent.
The guidebook recommended packing crampons and an ice axe in case of icy conditions. All of us had ice axes which we never ended up using. Wason and I had ski crampons but since we were booting they never were really necessary. I had brought microspikes as a poor mans crampon substitute in case of an emergency and I gave them to Paul since he didn’t have ski crampons. On the way up it would’ve definitely been easier to have crampons – but they weren’t necessary. So many people had hiked up in the slushy warm snow the day before that good bootprints were frozen making for a solid staircase. Unfortunately, a lot of the bootprints were from people on their way down when they were post-holing about a foot deep and going really fast making their steps spread out. I wasted a lot of energy trying to connect these distant foot prints as Watson and Paul took a more sensible switchbacking approach. However, when I tried to go diagonally up the hill I ended up in an icy section that made me nervous and sent me crawling back to the more established bootprints. As we made our way higher in elevation I found myself taking more and more frequent breaks. Soon it was ridiculous and I would take 3 steps and have to stop to wait for my legs to have the strength to do 3 more steps. Watson and Paul were getting farther and farther ahead and I was beginning to doubt if I could even make it. I told myself to stop being so negative and to just keep going one step at a time and I slowly made my way up. One of the really demotivating aspects of Mount St. Helens is that the terrains is rolling so as you ascend you keep thinking you’re almost there only to find out there is another hump to cross. The last 500 feet were the hardest for me but eventually I joined Watson and Paul at the crater’s rim and was greeted with an amazing 360 view of Washington and Oregon. Peering into the crater of the mountain you could see smoke billowing out of the lava dome.
We spent an hour at the top eating lunch, taking pictures and enjoying the view. There were a large number of other people congregating at the top and more and more people were making their way up the final slope. One guy liked to talk about how he had summited the day before and the details of his father turning back after vomiting. Other highlights of our time up there was witnessing 2 kids under 10 years old summit, a sweet ski dog that could shred it with the best of them and 3 soldiers who carried an American flag the entire way up in uniform.
We were all waiting for the snow to soften up and form corn (Large-grained, rounded crystals formed from repeated melting and freezing of the snow that’s fun to ski). At 11:30am it was getting quite warm and we began skiing down. The first couple of pitches were still a little too firm and skiing over all of the boot imprints proved rather jarring. At one point I wiped out and bruised my tailbone from sliding on the ice. But we found that the south-westernly slopes were in perfect condition and soon we were whooping and hollering as we carved perfect corn. As we got lower in elevation the snow began to get slushy and our sluff (loose snow kicked off from turning) was beginning to get a lot larger. We passed others on their way up which had us shaking our heads due to the risk of loose-wet avalanches with the warmer temps later in the day. Lower on the mountain we had to navigate a few areas of thicker rocks.
By 12:30pm we were back at our campsite filling our backpacks up with the gear we had stashed. A lot more of the snow had melted from the trail so we had to take our skis off at a couple of places earlier than expected. Eventually Paul and Watson threw their skis back onto their packs and switched to their normal shoes for the final 1.5 miles. I opted to carry my board in my arms and walk in my snowboard boots. I assumed they would be much faster than me since I was so tired and suggested I walk ahead so they could catch up after strapping their skis to their packs. Unexpectantly, I actually made really good time and averaged 3.4 mph on the way back – not bad for snowboard boots! I came upon a guy and girl who were also hiking out but the girl was walking barefoot because her ski boots were giving her such bad blisters. Since I wasn’t using my hiking shoes I offered them to her to finish the hike out with. Granted I don’t know how comfortable my size 12 shoes ended up being for her! I passed two other women walking barefoot on the way out but I had no more shoes to give. This was a good reminder to me to be sure to always have some approach shoes packed when you can’t skin from the car!
I arrived at the car about 10 minutes before Watson and Paul and I got the grill set up for the brats that Watson had packed. After relaxing in the back of the Explorer and drinking some cold beers and enjoying some food we loaded up and headed out. Again, the parking lot had much more of a ski resort vibe than a trailhead with the cars surrounding us all eating and drinking and chatting. At one point a group of European tourists came over and asked if there were any good hikes nearby. How they even made their way to this particular trailhead I can’t say but we suggested that they could walk a few miles up the trail to get a good view of Mount St. Helens. They had the brightest neon green shoes on but none of us had the heart to tell them the hike would probably ruin their shoes. Watson gave them one of his maps so they wouldn’t get lost – hopefully they made it out okay!
The drive home was pretty uneventful. We made up dumb car games to pass the time stuck in traffic between Olympia and Tacoma. We also enjoyed the amazing views of Mount St Helens and Rainier from I-5. The weather couldn’t have been more beautiful for us.
Overall this is definitely a huge achievement for me. At 8,365 feet this is my highest summit in Washington. This was also my first overnight winter camping trip and longest backcountry splitboard tour. It was great to hang out with Paul and Watson for the weekend and to challenge myself to such a strenuous adventure.
Logistics: Mount St. Helens has a slightly confusing permit structure. Climbing permits are required above 4800 feet. Permits are available online only through the Mount St. Helens Institute April 1st thru October 31st. Permits are self issue and free of charge Nov. 1st thru March 31st and available at the Climbing Registers at Marble Mountain Sno-Park. After April and during the summer you have to pick up your permits at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar, WA. It’s right on the road so it’s difficult to miss. The tricky thing is you have to purchase your permits online during these months at least 24 hours in advance but then you have to physically pick them up at this store. You’re also supposed to sign in and out of the book there so they know if you don’t return and can send out a rescue party.
Also, a sno-park pass is required in the winter until April 1st.
You can find more trip reports and GPX tracks for this tour on our sister site Powderlines.