John Guilford's Hikes
Mt. St. Helens on 1994-07-17
People: (including myself): Joe Megaw, Gary Wong
My Alt. Real Alt.
Start: 9:15 3760 3760 0 miles
Treeline 10:05 4760 ~4800 2.3 miles
Rim: 1:00 8080 8300 4 miles
Leave Rim: 2:10 8020
End glissade 2:45 5800
Treeline 3:55 4760 ~4800
Out: 4:30 3760 3760
The bottom line is that this is a dirty/dusty hike. But more on that later.
Due to my rowing class on Saturday, I couldn't go down on Saturday morning
with Joe and Gary. I'd meet them at 7pm at "Climber's Bivouac" on the
south side of St. Helens (where we'd start the trail). I left home at 1:15
in the afternoon. In 140 miles, I got to the junction of Rt. 506 at 4:20.
This is the more northern exit to get to the visitor center on the north
side. I really wanted to go visit the visitor center and get a view of the
volcano and crater from the north, but I didn't have time. It takes an
hour one-way to get from/to the visitor center from I5. If I went to the
visitor center then I wouldn't get to Climber's Bivouac until after 8.
Reluctantly, I continued south on I5 crossing Rt. 503 at 183 miles at 5:10.
This is the more southerly exit to the visitor center. I continued south
to Woodland WA where I got off the highway and started west. I signed in
our climb at Jack's restaurant in Cougar at 5:45 and 208 miles. I had a
little time to kill before meeting Joe and Gary so I stopped off at the
Ape caves which is only about 7 miles from the bivouac. The Ape Caves
(named after a climbing group that used to take people on tours in the
caves originally) is a old lava tube. I got to the Ape caves at 6:15/223
miles. Thus it took about 4 hours to get from my house to the south side
of Mt. St. Helens (which is better than the 5 hours I was expecting).
It was pretty hot all the way down (it got to the mid-90's in Portland). I
ended up using the A/C on the way down after I got tired of hearing all the
wind noise from the open windows. To my surprise I could get my usual
radio stations all the way down to south of Centralia. I could get KIRO AM
even further, but I wasn't interested in the ball game playing on it.
A short walk from the parking lot at brings you to the lava tube. The
entrance is in the middle of the tube, with stairs leading down into the
cave. It is dark and cool (42F) in the cave. There are two possible
routes in the cave. One can go downward along an easy trail to a dead end
or one can go upward to a 2nd entrance/exit and hike back to the parking
lot via a surface trail. Each option is a couple miles long. The downward
trail is easy, mostly being flat, solid mudflow, with occasional rocks to
step over/across. The cave (at least the part I was in) is pretty large,
with a width of about 20' and a height of 20-30', though these dimensions
varied a lot. I did see a mouse down in the cave. I don't know if it
always lives there (I doubt it) or it was just down for a visit. It is
dark in the cave and a good light source is essential. A lantern would
probably be optimal, though my headlamp worked just fine. Due to the large
size of the cave, the lantern would be more illuminating. After awhile,
the lower passage got somewhat boring and I decided to see what the upper
passage was like. It is the more difficult of the two, not possessing a
flat even walkway. It is a bit longer and requires scrambling over rocks,
though the clearance was still quite large (no squirming necessary). It
was convenient to use hands in places and the lava is rough. Gloves would
be nice. I couldn't go too far before I had to turn around, but this seems
like it would be the more interesting trip to take, if one had the time to
explore it. Even though it isn't a limestone cave, the lava tube still had
an interesting texture/cross section to it. One interesting feature is
that there was a distinct flow of air down from the upper to the lower
caves. The air flow was approximately walking speed. The effect that this
had was that when I exhaled, I'd get a cloud of fog due to the chill air.
When heading towards to bottom of the cave, this cloud would tend to stay
with me. This was a pain since the fog in the air both obscured my vision,
not to mention tending to reflect my headlamp back into my eyes.
Unfortunately, one can't stop breathing, so this had to be lived with.
Going towards the upper end didn't have this problem since the breeze blew
the fog away. It was weird to exhale while going downwards, have this
cloud of fog hang around your head, stop moving and watch the fog cloud
just continue onwards.
I left Ape Caves and headed to Climber's Bivouac. So far, the roads had
been real good allowing a speed of 50-60 most of the way. The last 3
miles to the bivouac is dirt road with some major washboard. It really
bumped up the car. You really gain altitude along this stretch seeing as
how the bivouac is at 3700' while Cougar is more like 1000'. This road
slowed me down a bit so I didn't get to the Bivouac until 7:15. Joe and
Gary were already there (getting there at 7:05). The Bivouac is just a
small 'campground' at the end of the road. There is a 2 stall composting
toilet and flat spots around the parking area for setting up tents. I was
surprised how many RV's were up there. It looked like several groups were
there that possibly had some climbers in their group, but with the rest
just spending the day at the bivouac. Of course, there is Mt. St. Helens
filling the view to the north. I found Gary and Joe and set up camp. We
each had our own tent (Gary had a 2 man Sierra Designs and Joe brought his
7x7 umbrella tent and his queen sized air mattress, which filled his tent,
and, of course, had my tent). We pretty much had stuff set up by 8:00.
The next question was water. I had enough for drinking, but thought that
it would be nice to have some for washing, etc. There's no water
available at the bivouac nor at Ape Caves (I believe), so one would have
to go down almost to Cougar to get water. I suppose I should have gotten
some on the way up, but I didn't. I had signed up in on the registry on
the way in, so we didn't need to go back to do that. Gary and I elected
to go get some water and we drove down and stopped at some
campground/picnic area (managed by Pacific Power?) and filled my 2 folding
5 gallon containers. We drove back and got to the camp a little before 9.
At this point we started dinner. In hindsight, I think we should have just
gotten dinner on the way in and skipped cooking. On the other hand, I
hadn't planned on starting dinner so late. Joe had brought fixings for
shish kabob along with a small propane grill. I had brought some french
bread, some salad, and a can of beans. We decided that we didn't need the
beans so I skipped heating them, but put a pot of water on my stove to heat
for dish water. (Note: there seemed to be some leakage of gas around the
control valve of my stove - I should check on that at home. The stove
worked fine, however.) When I was loading up for the weekend I included my
lantern not expecting to use it. However, it was getting dark and I
started the lantern (which proved to be convenient). It started cooling
off and I ended up putting on my fleece pants and my sweatshirt, but I was
worried that it was going to be too hot to sleep in my down bag that night.
We fixed the shish kabob (chicken, beef, mushrooms, peppers, and onion) and
skewers and grilled them and ate them along with the salad and bread. Joe
and Gary brought a blueberry pie with them for dessert, though I was pretty
full after dinner and opted out of the pie.
We got dinner finished and cleaned up by about 11. I wasn't terribly tired
and took my time getting ready for bed. It was a clear night and the stars
were real plentiful and pretty. We had just past 1st quarter moon which
gave plenty of light when you weren't in a shadow. I spent some time
taking time exposures of the silhouette of St. Helens. I climbed into my
tent, did a little writing, read a little from my paperback, and went to
sleep around midnight. I left the rain fly off my tent since it wouldn't
be raining. I also left the windows open to try and keep it cool (I was
concerned with the warmth of my sleeping bag). I did need to keep the door
closed tightly as there were lots of ants in the area. As it was, I had to
remove a few ants from inside the tent before turning in.
To my pleasant surprise, I slept well (compared to my usual sleep the first
night in a sleeping bag). I awoke about 6 (sun already up) because of a
couple crows (ravens?) making a lot of noise outside. They kept cawing
around and by about 6:40 I decided that I wasn't going to get any more
sleep and got up. There were lots of little water drops hanging on the
roof of my tent (both inside and out) both from my breath condensing on it
and from dew on the outside. I had expected that with no fly and the
windows open that it wouldn't be a problem, but I guess the radiational
cooling dropped the tent below dew point and it collected water. I had to
be careful not to hit the roof, else a small shower would ensue.
I got up, initially in my sweatshirt, but the sweatshirt came off soon as
it was already getting warm. I figured it would be a hot day. I ate
breakfast (donuts and a bagel) and started breaking camp. Joe and Gary
were a bit slower to get moving than I would have liked. I wanted to get
the hike done early enough to go visit the visitor center on the north side
on the way home (while not getting home extraordinarily late). I also
thought that it would be better to get hiking before it got too warm.
I ended up having time to leisurely pack up my stuff, put on sunscreen,
repack my daypack (I took my Gore-Tex shell, my polypro 'grey fuzzy',
gaiters, and food). Joe decided to leave his tent set up to dry (and take
it down after the hike), while Gary and I took ours down before.
We didn't actually get hiking until 9:15 (which seems pretty late when you
get up at the trailhead at 6:40, but I guess we have different styles).
The first two miles of the hike are in trees, slowly but steadily gaining
altitude. It is a relatively pleasant and non-strenuous part of the hike.
Towards the end, it gets a bit steeper and you start running out of trees.
Several times I thought we left treeline (9:45, 9:55, 10:05) but we then
ducked back into the trees. The trail gets steeper, but not bad. You end
up gaining about 1000' by the time you get to tree line. Eventually we
left treeline and passed the sign that said that only climbers with permits
(they only permit 100 people a day climb Mt. St. Helens - 60 reservations
and 40 available first-come first-serve starting at 6pm the day before the
climb at Jack's restaurant) were permitted beyond 4800' with a minimum fine
of $100. I don't know how well enforced it was - no one asked to see our
After leaving tree line the going gets a bit rougher. The trail follows
Monitor Ridge up the mountain and on the lower mountain is marked by wooden
posts (5" diameter by 5' high) spaced within easy visual distance of each
other. The trail varies between packed ash (course sand texture) and
rocks. On the flatter sections the packed ash is easier to walk on, but on
the steeper parts, the ash is annoying to walk on as it tends to slide and
that makes the hiking difficult and tiring. At times like that the rocks
make a better path. It is convenient to stay on the marked trail which can
be difficult since there are places where the boot tracks diverge someone
from the official trail. There is no danger of getting lost, and the boot
tracks don't vary far from the trail, but sometimes the boot tracks lead
you to a more difficult route. The official trail is pretty good about
sticking nearer rocks or packed ash, while we found ourselves on looser ash
periodically. Usual this would be a clue that the official trail was 20
feet away or so. It wasn't too bad not staying on the trail, but you burn
up a bit more energy than necessary by not being on the easier (but only
slightly) terrain. It was hot and I was sweating pretty profusely here.
I'd hoped that there'd be a breeze, but there wasn't. During most of the
hike, there are good views of some of the other Cascade volcanos. To the
east, there is Mt. Adams. To the south is Mt. Hood with Mt. Jefferson
visible towards the west and behind Mt. Hood. From the rim, we noticed
even further to the west the very tips of the Three Sisters. From the rim,
one also has a good view, of course, of Mt. Rainier.
I had brought along my OM-2 (SLR) which I kept in my pack. Thus, any time
I wanted to take a photo I had to stop and take my pack off, which made any
picture stop take some amount of time. These delays, plus the fact that
Gary had a faster pace than I did tended to spread us apart a bit. During
the bottom half of the climb we kept pretty much together we me getting
behind but catching up. About half way up, though, they got ahead of me and
stayed that way to the summit. I saw no reason to kill myself to keep up
with them, so I just kept a pace comfortable for me and continued up by
There isn't much vegetation amidst the rocks and ash. On the bottom half
there is some heather, which was fully in bloom and quite pretty as well as
a couple other low shrubs.
The trail continues relentlessly, ruthlessly, doggedly upwards. As you
climb higher, the large rocks give way to smaller rocks and more ash, with
little rock near the crater rim. There terrain tends to form ridges and
valleys running radially from the crater. The valleys still had snow in
the bottom and higher on the mountain there are some small glaciers.
Initially it was hard to tell the glaciers from the snow fields but higher
up we could discern the crevasses in the glaciers.
From about half way up you get a good view of the upper part of the trail,
crawling with hikers by the time I was there. This is definitely not the
hike to take if you're looking for solitude.
The trail continues up with the scenery not varying much. I was tired by
the upper half and went into my put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mode.
Starting about half way up an occasional breeze developed that was welcome.
As I climbed higher the breeze developed into a continuous wind from west
to east. This cooled things off and about 7/8 of the way up I had to put
on my Gore-Tex wind breaker. The other problem the wind caused is that when
people came down (and up, for that matter) each foot step would generate a
cloud of dust. With the wind, anyone upwind would give you a good dusting.
The hardest part of the climb is the last part. Here the footing is the
softest and you're the tiredest. The rim is mockingly close, urging you
on. By just putting one foot in front of the other, you finally gain the
rim and a rest. This, technically, isn't the summit of Mt. St. Helens,
which is about 80 feet higher and is off on the west side of the crater
(while the trail deposits you on the south or central rim of the crater).
Most people (myself included) don't both traversing over to the true summit
(which involves a little descent/ascent due to valleys), but Gary opted to
do it. The first view of the crater is pretty awesome. Imagine a gaping
hole in the mountain (with a smaller cone in its center) that is about
1-1/4 miles wide and 2000' deep. Then imagine what it took to blow this
amount of mountain away. The crater side of the rim is more or less
relatively vertical, though just inside of the rim there is usually some
shelves or slopes before the big drop into the crater. The inside cliffs on
the crater are very rough and uneven and unstable. The whole time on the
rim one could hear rocks slides coming loose from the sides and falling
into the crater. They were usually hard to spot by eye, unless their dust
cloud gave them away. The rim is gradually eroding away, someone told me
that the height of the mountain is 100' lower than it was a few years ago.
Looking beyond the crater one sees Spirit Lake and beyond that, the south
face of Mt. Rainier.
Once one the rim, I settled down for lunch. The wind had subsided (more, I
think, due to the change in location than the passage of time). I had to
take my Gore-Tex off. I brought bagels and chicken spread. The only
difficulty I had was when some wind momentarily came up, there was a large
dust cloud with deposited grit into my lunch (which the spread was sticky
enough to trap). Oh well, it didn't kill me. While on the rim, we were
rewarded with a beautiful sight. The conditions were right for some cirrus
clouds to form a segment of rainbow from the sun. Since only a small
portion of the 'rainbow' was occupied by the clouds, what we saw was a
technicolor cloud. This happened when my camera was at the end of a roll
of film, so I had to change rolls, but the effect persisted for quite a few
minutes and I had plenty of time to change film and get some photos. This
trip is pretty hard on cameras. The dust gets everywhere, and I can only
hope that I didn't get grit in the camera where it might be scratching
film. I changed lens numerous times, and, although I tried to be careful,
it could have happened. I also think some grit may have gotten into the
lens mechanism (e.g. under the focus rings and aperture rings). I'll have
to do a careful cleaning job on my camera and I'm thinking about sending it
out to get cleaned and lubed. In many ways, my point and shoot, being dust
proof may have been a better choice, though I would have lost some of my
People were perched on the outside edge of the rim (since there really
wasn't much of an inside edge) and I wondered how much stuff got lost into
the crater. Most people were pretty careful to keep their stuff a ways
from the edge, although I did see a foam pad lost into the crater.
Gary went to climb the real summit and Joe and I stayed near the middle
taking photos. When Gary got back we started down. We planned to do as
much glissading as we could to ease/speed our way down. I was surprised to
see how many people were walking down when there was perfectly good snow
laying next to the trail. Later on I did see more people glissade down,
though there were still numerous walkers. I put on gaiters and just used
my nylon pants. Gary and Joe put on rain pants in addition (they were
wearing shorts). Since I figured that they would catch up to me anyway
(being faster hikers), I started off before them, with them leaving just
about the time I started the first glissade (about 100' below the summit).
Going down the ash to the snow was considerably easier than climbing up it
as you could take normal sized steps and let the sliding ground take the
impact. In this direction the sliding helped rather than hurt. I had a
little trouble with glissading in places as the slope was just barely
enough for me to slide (I had to push with my hands at times). Joe and
Gary did much better with their rain pants, which were slicker, and soon
caught up with me. The first glissade went for quite a while. After that
we had to walk a little over small ridges to an adjacent snow field, and
then continued out glissade. In a half hour we dropped over 2000' of
height that had taken us two hours to climb.
We tried to follow snow down as far as we could. Unfortunately, this put
us a couple ridges away from the trail. We eventually ran out of snow and
opted to climb over the ridge (thinking that the next one was the one we
wanted). We got to the top of the ridge (after doing some rock scrambling
that was only difficult due to the unstable surface - rockfall was a real
danger and we avoided climbing below anyone else) and discovered that the
next ridge wasn't the correct one. The valley in between had snow, however,
and we descended a bit on that. By now, the snow had enough rocks on it,
and was flat enough, that I just did standing glissades/skipped down the
snow. The snow was fairly firm, but not hard. After a few more snow
fields and some traversing ("bushwhacking"), which was a pain on the loose
rock/ash, we found the official trail and followed that down.
We soon reached tree line and the better quality trail. It was rather
uneventful and anticlimactic hiking out the last two miles on a downward
sloping, but comparably flat trail. Since Joe still had to take his tent
down and I was in a hurry to get moving as I still wanted to visit the
visitor center on the north side, I told Joe to not wait for me when I
stopped for some pictures. He and Gary went on. After stopping a few
times for photos, I continued on the trail. To my surprise, I quickly
caught up with Joe and Gary. I was surprised since, up on the mountain,
they climbed faster than I did, but here, on the relative flat, I had a
faster pace. It could be argued that my faster pace was due to the fact
that I wanted to get out quickly for the visitor center. Perhaps
otherwise, I would have been more content to amble along, which is what I
ended up doing.
Back at the cars, we spent a little over a half hour changing, drinking
some pops, washing up a bit (the extra water came in useful, though we only
used one of the two 5 gallons containers), and finishing picking up camp.
I felt pretty grimy by this time. While I washed the dust off my arms, my
hair was pretty yucko with the combination of sweat and ash dust. I didn't
feel up to trying to wash my hair at the trailhead, but instead looked
forward to a shower when I got home.
We left Climber's Bivouac at 4:55 and after checking out of the climber's
registry, made I5 at 6:10. I stopped for gas at what turned out to be the
lowest cost gas in the area (I'd guess, based on the crowd there), a Arco
next to the freeway. With the crowd there, I had to wait before I could
pump my gas, and then I was stuck blocked in by other people for a while
before I could get out. By this time we decided that it was late enough
that we weren't going to try for the visitor center. I was sorely
disappointed (I really wanted to get shots of the crater from the ground),
but, on the other hand, I didn't want to get home after midnight, either.
I guess I'll have to wait for some other trip to get those shots. The next
question was what to do about dinner. We had been talking about stopping
someplace for a sit down meal (e.g. Mexican). I decided that I would just
as soon make tracks and grab a burger to eat in the car. Thus, we split up
there and went back home separately. I stopped between Olympia and Tacoma
for a burger and continued on, arriving home a bit before 10pm and just
short of 500 miles from Climber's Bivouac.
I survived the hike just fine, except for my tail. For some reason that
isn't clear to me, I managed to make it sore from the glissading. The snow
wasn't particularly hard nor did I do any more glissading than I've done
before (e.g. my last Vesper trip). But, in any event, my tail was a little
scraped up and sore for several days after the hike.
Camping below Mt. St. Helens before the climb.
On the crater rim: Gary Wong and Joe Megaw
View from the rim into the crater, Mt. Rainier in background.
Rainbow clouds seen from rim.
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Last updated on: Mon Jun 8 16:50:16 PDT 2015