I started planning our hike up St Helens back in February when the permit system opens. Access above 4,800′ on the mountain is restricted during the summer and the permits for weekends go fast, but I managed to snag two for the end of June.
Jaehee and I drove up to Climber’s Bivouc in cold rain on Friday night. But Saturday when we awoke the sky was brilliant blue and the moisture from the rain was quickly burning off in the shining sun. We followed the traditional summer route up Monitor Ridge. The hike starts at about 3,866′ and climbs to a height of 8,366′ over five miles to the rim. The hike is divided into three segments.
First is the forest. A roughly two-mile long and quite tame stroll through the woods with killer views at the upper end.
The next section is also about two miles long, on Monitor Ridge. This part is also known as the boulder field. As you go from the forest to the ridge there is an abrupt change. No more trees or shade or water for the rest of the climb. And no more tame dirt trail. Just big, jagged, often unstable rocks to scramble up and up and up – gaining over 1,000′ per mile! Some resources recommend wearing gloves to protect your hands, and I can see why. But if you have rock climber hands, your hard-earned callouses will do the job.
Near the end of the boulders we noticed that clouds were forming in the valley below, and quickly moving up the mountain. I’ve done plenty of hikes that started in the clear and ended with a view-less summit, so we began a [very slow] race against the clouds. Luckily, we won this time!
Finally a mile of ash to the rim. At first, leaving the boulders seems like a relief. But the ash is grueling. It is steep and soft, like climbing a sand dune. It was amusing to sit at the top an listen to one climber after another wheeze and grunt their way up the final stretch. By the way, I highly recommend at least trail gaiters to keep the ash out of your boots.
The rim at the end of Monitor Ridge Trail was still covered in snow, so we couldn’t go to the edge to peer into the crater without the risk of collapsing the corniced snow. (Seriously, don’t go to the edge.) We hiked west along the rim to claim the actual summit. Then we hiked east, losing some elevation, until we came to a completely clear, stunning view into the crater.
The first mile of our descent was on our butts down the snowfield to the west of Monitor Ridge. Eventually we were getting too far off trail, and heavy clouds were moving in, so we made our way back to the established trail and finished the descent on sore knees.
There are a lot of great sources of information for hiking St Helens. From my perspective, WTA has everything needed to get you going the right direction.