A Beginners Guide to Climbing Mt. St. Helens

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Monitor Ridge - Mt. St. Helens - Nov 2015
Monitor Ridge - Mt. St. Helens - Nov 2015

For additional weather information please look at the following resources:

Trailhead Status

Check trailhead status before heading to one of the Mt. St. Helens climb routes:

Road Closures

The USDA reports updates on road status on Mt. St. Helens’ south side:

All climbers should be aware of the elements of risk associated with climbing on Mt. St. Helens. While some dangers are more likely to occur during particular seasons it’s important to be familiar with each type and how to avoid, prevent, or mitigate the risk associated.

Crater Rim

Crater Rim - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Crater Rim - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

http://trulyyoursjen.com/page/2/ What is it?

  • In 1980 the mountain erupted with an explosive force equivalent to 24 megatons of TNT creating a crater 1 mile wide.
  • In the winter, overhanging masses of hardened snow at the edge of the crater rim known as cornices can form and can extend out over 10+ feet.
  • In the summer the snow and ice can recede exposing loose rock which can be unstable near the edge of the crater.
  • Entry into the crater is strictly prohibited.

http://silverspoonthaiandsushi.com/some-pages/ Why does it happen?

  • Cornices form by wind blowing snow over sharp terrain breaks, such as the crest of a mountain, where it attaches and builds out horizontally.
  • The cascades are mostly made up of rotten rock which is inherently unstable.
  • Standing on or near the edge of the crater can be dangerous when the underlying surface is not structurally stable.

cheap topamax online When is it likely to occur?

How can it be mitigated?

  • Keep a healthy distance from the edge of the crater rim.
  • Ensure you are roped to a stable anchor point that is not attached to any part of the cornice if travelling on or near one.

Underestimation

Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - Dec 2014
Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - Dec 2014

What is it?

  • When you think you can eat a large bowl of pho but you can only eat a regular size.
  • Mt. St. Helens is often characterized as an easy hike, or a “walk up” by some accounts, and while many inexperienced / ill equipped climbers are successful, this is not a climb for those lacking climbing experience.

Why does it happen?

  • They might say: “I’ve never climbed before, but I heard it was easy so I’ll give it a shot and see what happens.”
  • They could also say: “It’s only 8,365′. How bad could the weather be?”
  • Inappropriate or the absence of specific gear required for a given situation will increase climber risk.
  • Lack of knowledge on the use of climbing equipment increases climber risk.
  • Lack of ability to properly assess a dangerous situation and/or potential risk increases climber risk.

When is it likely to occur?

  • Underestimation is most likely to occur when climbers have neglected to thoroughly understand the risks involved with climbing.
  • As with any mountain, conditions can change rapidly at elevation causing increased risk of exposure which climbers may not have prepared for.

How can it be mitigated?

  • Climbers should become as knowledgeable as possible about the route, conditions, risks, and up-to-the minute weather patterns on Mt. St. Helens prior to a climb.
  • Constantly re-assess risk and perceived danger as the climb progresses.
  • Proper attire & climbing gear, emergency equipment, backup plans with people not on the mountain.

Other Climbers

Summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

What is it?

  • Climbers may pass you quickly, stop in front of you, fall and slide into you, drop debris or equipment, etc. – In other words – Despite your best efforts, other climbers must be taken seriously as a variable of risk.

Why does it happen?

  • Improved weather during the Spring and Summer months attracts more climbers.
  • Whenever there are a lot of climbers together in a relatively small area there is the potential for danger.

When is it likely to occur?

  • Spring and Summer seasons.

How can it be mitigated?

  • Move quickly, carefully and efficiently along the path.
  • Yield to uphill traffic while descending.
  • Wait behind slower climbers, don’t pass unless they give you the OK.
  • Pass quickly and well to the side of other climbers / teams.
  • Give other climbers and teams lots of space.
  • Travel single file.
  • Be patient
  • Be polite.
Permit Cost 4/1 – 10/31 11/1 – 3/31
Climbing Permit $22 Yes
Climbers’ Registration Free Yes Yes
Northwest Forest Pass Varies Yes Yes

Climbing Permit

  • Required? Yes, between April 1st – October 31st.
  • Cost: $22.00
  • Quota:
    • 500/day from April 1st – May 14th.
    • 100/day from May 15th – October 31st.
  • Use: You must print your permit(s), fill in climber information, and carry it with you on the day of your climb.
  • Where to acquire: Permits must be purchased online.

Climbers’ Registration Form

  • Required? Yes, year round when climbing above 4,800′.
  • Cost: Free.
  • Use: This is a general form stating the people in your party, planned route, climbing dates and emergency contact info. However, if you don’t come back on your stated date, don’t depend on this form to initiate a search for you.
  • Where to acquire: In-person, self-register at Climbers’ Bivouac or Marble Mountain Sno-park.

Northwest Forest Pass

Washington State Sno-Park Pass

  • Required? Seasonal, December 1st – April 30th.
  • Cost: $20 – 40
  • Use: Required for parking at Marble Mountain Sno-Park.
  • Where to acquireparks.state.wa.us
Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Worm Flows Route - Mt. St. Helens - Jan 2015
Worm Flows Route - Mt. St. Helens - Jan 2015

Mt. St. Helens is a popular climb for both beginning and experienced mountaineers. Although strenuous, this non-technical climb is suitable for people in good physical condition who are comfortable scrambling on steep, rugged terrain.

Because climbing is a physically demanding activity many people will train to climb Mt. St. Helens by going on several training hikes. Training hikes should consist of elevation gains of 3,000-5,000 feet and distances of 2-4 miles to simulate the slope of Mt. St. Helens. Locally these are climbs such as Mount Defiance, Table Mountain, Dog Mountain, and Hamilton Mountain to name a few. Climbing other mountains like Mt. Adams or Mt. Hood, although more challenging, will give you an idea of what it’s like to climb at elevation. During these hikes, if possible, carry the equipment you will climb with. If you do not own all the equipment you will need, put other items in to simulate weight. A pack of 5-15 pounds is average for a Mt. St. Helens day climb.

A person who exercises regularly and is in good physical health should plan on doing 4-6 of these sorts of hikes before a climb. Those who do not get regular exercise or have other health problems should consult their doctor for an exercise routine appropriate for them, and slowly add in hikes with elevation and a weighted pack.

Winter conditions transform the mountain from a rock scramble to a more traditional snow traverse. When climbing on snow every climber should be trained and practiced in self arrest and crampon techniques. These are skills you will need for a winter climb. It is also important that each climber is familiar with other skills that conditions may require, for example: avalanche condition assessment, avalanche transceiver use, first aid and navigation. Be prepared with layered clothing to withstand sub-freezing temperatures and high winds at elevation during a winter climber. Remember that the safety of every climber on the mountain is at risk whenever a single climber is unprepared.

Monitor Ridge from Climber’s Bivouac

The Monitor Ridge route starting from Climber’s Bivouac is most popular during the spring, summer, and early fall months. It has less elevation gain and less round trip mileage compared to the Worm Flows route which is used in the winter.

Ascent

A typical schedule for a summer climb of Mt. St. Helens along the Monitor Ridge route might look like this:

  • 6:00 AM – Arrive at Climber’s Bivouac (3,750′).
    • Check in, organize gear and use the restroom.
  • 7:00 AM – Depart the parking area.
  • 8:00 AM – Arrive at timber line, beginning of Monitor Ridge Route (5,917’).
    • Take a break, eat a snack.
  • 9:30 AM – Reach 7,000’
    • Take another break, check weather and visibility.
    • If either is poor consider waiting for better conditions, or turning around.
  • 11:00 AM – Summit (8,366’).
    • Enjoy the views, eat a snack, take a drink, and capture some photos.
  • 12:30 PM – Begin descent.
  • 4:00 PM – Arrive back at Climber’s Bivouac.

Mt. St. Helens climbs can take between 6 – 12 hours round trip, depending on your schedule. Most climbers want to be done in a day and that means leaving in the early morning and returning in the early afternoon. Typically climbers leave the Climber’s Bivouac parking area between 6am and 7am. Someone who has prepared properly to climb can average 1,000 vertical feet per hour, at that rate it will take a little less than 5 hours to summit.

A start time should be established based on an estimated pace and your desired summit hour. Summit times are flexible if there is little to no snow at the higher elevations, however if there is significant accumulation be prepared for a slushy descent in the afternoon hours. Climbers who are in good shape and have trained to climb Mt. St. Helens can estimate 4-6 hours to summit. Other climbers should prepare for a longer climb, maybe 6 – 8 hours.

The trailhead is well marked and the trail up to timberline has some signage. However, if you are unsure of where to go play it safe and follow others or pay close attention to the worn path. When the permit requirement is in affect the Monitor Ridge route sees a lot of activity which means there will be opportunities to talk to other climbers to get your bearings. In conditions with poor visibility or a freshly snow covered trail you should consider using a GPS or map and compass to ensure that you are on the right course.

The terrain can vary – From entirely ash, pumice, rock, dirt and skree from trailhead to summit in the middle of summer. While on the other end of the spectrum the trail can be buried in snow and ice in the early spring and late fall months. Climbers should evaluate what conditions will be like prior to their climb and bring the appropriate gear. As many experienced climbers will attest there is a stark difference between scrambling on rock and climbing on snow. During Spring and Fall you may need to be prepared for both.

Descent

Monitor Ridge Route - Mt. St. Helens - July 2015
Monitor Ridge Route - Mt. St. Helens - July 2015

Descending from the summit to the parking lot will take you approximately half the time it took you to summit. If you reached the summit in 5 hours it may take you 2-3 hours to get back. Descending is a challenge in and of itself though. You will be tired, and using a whole new set of muscles, and if the trail is skree and rock progress can be slow. But gravity is on your side, and there will be far fewer breaks.

Generally you should descend the route that you came up. Under good conditions the path back will have been paved by the foot steps of other climbers. In situations where visibility is low or fresh snow begins falling it’s always a good idea to have a backup method for navigation, such as a GPS device or map and compass as well as knowledge on how to use both.

Worm Flows from Marble Mountain Sno-Park

The Worm Flows – starting from Marble Mountain Sno-Park – is considered to be a more challenging route to the summit. It has more elevation gain and more round trip mileage compared to the Monitor Ridge route but still remains non-technical. This route is more commonly used in the winter months when the road to Climber’s Bivouac is closed.

Ascent

A typical schedule for a winter climb of Mt. St. Helens along the Worm Flows route might look like this:

  • 5:00 AM – Arrive at Marble Mountain Sno-Park (2,675′).
    • Check in, organize gear and use the restroom.
  • 5:30 AM – Depart the parking area.
  • 6:45 AM – Arrive at timber line, beginning of Worm Flows Route (3,576′)
    • Take a break.
  • 10:30 AM – Reach 6,500′.
    • Take another break, check weather and visibility.
    • If either is poor consider waiting for better conditions, or turning around.
  • 12:30 PM – Summit (8,366′).
    • Enjoy the views, eat a snack, take a drink, and capture some photos.
  • 1:30 PM – Begin descent.
  • 5:00 PM – Arrive back at Marble Mountain Sno-Park.

Mt. St. Helens climbs on the winter route can take between 10 – 14 hours round trip, depending on your schedule. Most climbers want to be done in a day and that means leaving in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon. Typically climbers leave Marble Mountain Sno-Park between 4am and 6am. Someone who has prepared properly to climb can average 1,000 vertical feet per hour, at that rate it will take about 6 hours to summit.

A start time should be established based on an estimated pace and your desired summit hour. Summit times are a little more flexible on Mt. St. Helens if there is little to no snow at the higher elevations, however if there is significant accumulation you should be prepared for a slushy descent in the afternoon hours. If you are in good shape and have trained to climb Mt. St. Helens you can estimate 5 – 7 hours to summit. Other climbers should prepare for a longer climb, maybe 8 – 10 hours.

The trailhead is well marked and the trail up to timberline has some signage. However, if you are unsure of where to go play it safe and follow others or pay close attention to the worn path. Unlike Monitor Ridge in the summer months, the Worm Flows route may not see a lot of activity, especially when weather conditions are bad. This means you may not see very many other climbers and should be prepared to be self-sufficient with navigation. In conditions with poor visibility or a freshly snow covered trail you should consider using a GPS or map and compass to ensure that you are on the right path.

The terrain can vary – From entirely ash, pumice, rock, dirt and skree from trailhead to summit in the middle of summer. While on the other end of the spectrum the trail can be buried in snow and ice in the early spring and late fall months. Climbers should evaluate what conditions will be like prior to their climb and bring the appropriate gear. As many experienced climbers will attest there is a stark difference between scrambling on rock and climbing on snow. During Spring and Fall you may need to be prepared for both.

Descent

Worm Flows Route - Mt. St. Helens - Jan 2015
Worm Flows Route - Mt. St. Helens - Jan 2015

Descending from the summit to the parking lot will take you approximately half the time it took you to summit. If you reached the summit in 6 hours it may take you 3-4 hours to get back. The biggest danger of the climb, aside from the crater rim, is underestimating the task of descent which can have deadly consequences. You will be tired, and using a whole new set of muscles. But gravity is on your side, and there will be far fewer breaks (perhaps just the one to take off your crampons or shoe spikes).

Generally you should descend the route that you came up, however this can be challenging if you begin glissading down a chute that takes you too far west. In the winter, it’s very easy to mistake the Monitor Ridge route as the return path. When this happens you will have to follow Monitor Ridge back to the intersection with Loowit trail, then follow Loowit trail east until it intersects with the Worm Flows climbing route.

Mt St Helens

Mt. St. Helens can be climbed any time of year depending on your chosen route and weather. However, climbers looking for the best window to summit should plan on climbing from April to September. Picking a date to climb all depends on your preference and risk tolerance. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you want to climb on rock or snow?
  • Do you want isolation or a more populated climbing route?
  • Do you want to carry more or less gear during the climb?
  • Are you prepared for hot/cold, wet/dry or clear/cloudy weather?

A USDA permit system is in affect from April 1st through October 31st, which restricts the number of climbers on any given day during this period and makes for a less crowded climbing experience. See more details under Permits.

Average Temperature (°F)

  • MAX
  • AVG
  • MIN

Source for maximum and minimum temperature data came from USDA NRCS June Lake, WA (3,440′) SNOTEL. A date range of 1/2011 – 12/2015 was used to calculate 5 year averages by month.

Average Precipitation (in.)

  • Precipitation
  • Snow Depth

Source for precipitation data came from USDA NRCS June Lake, WA (3,440′) SNOTEL. A date range of 1/2011 – 12/2015 was used to calculate 5 year averages by month.

Guided climbs of Mt. St. Helens are offered through the Mount St. Helens Institute and are typically only available during the peak climbing months between June and September.

Monitor Ridge - Mt. St. Helens - Nov 2015
Monitor Ridge - Mt. St. Helens - Nov 2015
Monitor Ridge - Mt. St. Helens - Nov 2015
Monitor Ridge - Mt. St. Helens - Nov 2015

Lodging

The nearby town of Cougar, WA is home to the cozy & rustic Lone Fir Resort and the mom & pop-run Monfort’s Bed and Breakfast. Other lodging options might be found on AirBnB. The town of Cougar, WA is only 30 minutes drive from Climber’s Bivouac.

Other may prefer to stay at a more traditional hotel in Woodland, WA. It’s a longer 1 hour drive to Climber’s Bivouac, but the town is immediately off of interstate 5 and is only 30 minutes from Portland International Airport.

Camping

Many local climbers may opt to climb Mt. St. Helens in a day, but some climbers choose to camp at either the Climber’s Bivouac or Marble Mountain Sno-park camp areas. Camp spots are limited and availability is on a first come, first served basis.

If the trailhead campgrounds are full, no worries. Gifford Pinchot National Forest has many camping opportunities that are only 5-10 minutes drive from these climbing start locations. Many open camping spots are located off of national forest road 81, with the most popular sites being near Merrill and Yale Lakes.

If you’d like a longer stay on Mt. St. Helens, you may also camp on the mountainside. If you choose to camp above timberline, be sure you are off the trail and practice good camping etiquette. If you pack it in then pack it out.

You may need to adjust the driving route depending on your exact start location and intended trailhead. Climber’s Bivouac is the most common start location, but in the winter the end point may need to be set to Marble Mountain Sno-park.

Lewis River Road (Rd 90) and NF-83 are generally open year-round, but the road to Climber’s Bivouac may become gated off during the winter months. The section of NF-83 just past Marble Mountain Sno-Park is usually gated when heavy snow arrives in the area. Always check Current Conditions before heading out on a trip.

Required versus recommended gear selections are based on a well-rounded approach to mountaineering on Mt. St. Helens that aims for the least amount of risk and while maintaining minimal weight. You should always evaluate what gear to bring based on current conditions and your overall risk comfort level.

Clothing

Climbing Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Climbing Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

An improper clothing strategy on Mt. St. Helens can mean at best – chilly bits; at worst – limb devouring frost bite. The wide range of temperature and precipitation should determine your clothing strategy on the day of the climb.

The best approach for Mt. St. Helens is the 3-layer system: Base-layer, mid-layer, shell. Do not wear cotton – All layers should be either synthetic, wool, or another breathable material.

Base-layer – Top and Bottom – This can best be defined as a long-sleeve compression shirt and synthetic leggings. Your base layer should allow for a great range of mobility, moisture wicking, fast-drying, and be ultra-warm.

Mid-layer – Top and Bottom – Also known as the soft shell layer, this is the layer you should be able to climb in under ideal weather conditions. Similar to the base layer these items should maintain optimal breath-ability, heat/moisture dissipation, and retain adequate warmth. For example, this might be a fleece jacket and hiking pants.

Shell – Top and Bottom – This is the layer you put over everything else. While it may not provide much insulation, it’s primary purpose is to keep wind, rain, sleet, snow, ice, and any other undesirable elements away from your underlying layers. An affordable shell layer might be the Adidas Outdoor Wandertag jacket and O’Neill Hammer snow pants. A shell layer with more advanced, light-weight, protective materials might be the Arc’teryx Beta AR jacket and Mountain Hardware Torsun pants.

Insulation – (Winter only) – This is your deep cold layer and is typically only required for a winter climb. It comes in to play when conditions start getting chilly or you are not moving enough to maintain a comfortable body temperature. This is typically a down jacket (aka the puffy jacket). We personally like and have used the Black Diamond Cold Forge Parka and the Arc’teryx Thorium SV hoody.

Gloves / mittens – Durable gloves are recommended when climbing on exposed rock. When it’s colder we like to use a fleece glove or liner. In the winter these can be paired with a deep cold mitten. In most conditions you will find that your hands retain quite a bit of warmth with a decent fleece glove and that the mittens function as a great backup for when the wind picks up or the weather degrades. Why mittens? Because by not separating your fingers from one another in a traditional glove they stay warmer by sharing their heat. The REI fleece grip gloves paired with the basic cold weather mitten are a fantastic combination in most conditions. A similar combo is offered by Outdoor Research with their fleece gloves and Meteor mitts.

Hats – Fact: The majority of heat loss occurs through the top of your head. A wide-bill trucker hat may give you “bro” points, but it retains minimal heat. Beanies or other insulated head gear is the recommended choice.

Balaclava – Not to be confused with the Greek dessert (baklava), a balaclava is like a ski mask which protects the exposed parts of your face to the elements. You would be surprised at how much of an improvement even an inexpensive balaclava will make in cold or windy conditions.

Boots – A quality pair of boots can make or break a successful summit attempt. Considering the amount of abuse that your feet will experience on this climb, selecting a boot that is both comfortable and supportive is crucial. If you are packing crampons you will also need a boot which is compatible with your chosen style of crampons.

Socks – Arguably one of the most important selections behind boots. Your feet will be taking a beating during the climb and ensuring that they stay warm, dry and comfortable is a primary factor in having a successful summit. Long wool socks are highly recommended.

Eye protection – Depending on the wind speed, having a decent pair of ski goggles to protect your vision can help you focus on the path ahead. On clear, sunny days having a sturdy pair of sun glasses can prevent damages to your eyes and also prevent snow blindness in the winter.

Food

Eating pho at the summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Eating pho at the summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

Eat before, during, and after the climb. Load up on fats and proteins before the climb as these metabolize more slowly and will give you energy for a longer period.

During the climb snack every 20-30 minutes on high carbohydrate foods as these metabolize faster and give you quick bursts of energy. Eating at least one or two snacks per hour avoids large spikes in energy and helps maintain smooth, consistent energy levels. Keep in mind, roughly 50-100 calories can be burned every 15 minutes depending on your base metabolic rate, speed, grade, and air temperature. In the winter, the body will burn additional calories just trying to stay warm. For a 9 hour climb that’s somewhere between 1800 – 3600 calories. That’s the equivalent of between 8 – 17 regular sized Snickers bars, which apparently you can buy in bulk.

It’s also important to be aware that your taste buds may change as you gain elevation. Furthermore, altitude sickness may actually suppress appetite. In other words, if you only sort of liked a food at base elevation you’re probably not going to like it at high elevation. So bring foods that you know you’ll enjoy. I like sour gummy worms for high elevation expeditions.

After the climb, have a burger, sandwich or something high in fats and protein which helps muscles recover from lots of exercise. Remember your metabolism keeps going for an hour or two after you stop, so that’s the time to binge a little.

Water

Not actually sponsored by Arrowhead - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Not actually sponsored by Arrowhead - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

Science recommends 1 liter of water be consumed for every hour of high energy activity. For a south side climb that would be 8 – 12 liters (or 2 – 3 gallons), which is the equivalent of 27 – 40 pounds of weight on top of all the other gear you would be carrying.

Similar to food – we recommend the before/during/after strategy. Drink 2-4 liters of water a few hours before you start your climb to saturate your body and reach your muscles. For the actual climb, bring 2-4 liters of water to sip on constantly. While a bladder makes constant hydration easier, we recommend Survivor Filter collapsible canteens for their light-weight and compact size when not full or CamelBak water bottles to avoid the scenario where your bladder hose freezes preventing you from drinking any water. If camping overnight, Camelbak bottles also offer a usable container for storing melted snow water. If you do use a bladder, blow water back into the bladder to help prevent the hose from freezing or purchase a hose insulating layer. Another option would be to have a hybrid water bottle and bladder system in case either method fails. After the climb, have a gallon of water waiting in the car to replenish your reserves.

Navigation

Weather can change rapidly and white out conditions can descend on the mountain much quicker than you can climb down. Having and knowing how to use a map, compass, and altimeter can keep you on course.

Whether you’re climbing Monitor Ridge or Worm Flows it’s relatively straightforward to find your way to the summit. However, coming down can present a navigation challenge – especially in winter when there is fresh snow. Having a GPS with way points can help significantly.

First Aid Kit

Each climber should carry a medical kit from which they can dispense first aid to themselves or another climber, but you should never depend on another climber to be able to patch you up. Adventure Medical sells a great, light-weight kit that we bring on every outdoor trip.

Head Lamp

In theory, you could climb Mt. St. Helens in the middle of the night during a full moon and not need a headlamp. However, all other times you will.

If you start early enough you will be in the dark, and you’ll want your hands free. A headlamp with fresh batteries is the best light source.

Gaiters

Gaiters cover the vulnerable tops of your footwear to fully protect your feet and lower legs from the snow, water, dirt and rocks that have a way of sneaking into even the best boots. While not strictly required for Mt. St. Helens they can come in handy on the mountain in deep snow or in sections with a lot of loose scree. Even a less expensive product like the Moutain Hardware High Gaiter offers superb protection in most conditions.

Trekking Poles

Summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

As we’ve lamented on other trips, trekking poles are extremely advantageous to have, especially on mountains. They do more than just provide stability. Trekking poles actually transfer load away from your legs. This is most noticeable on downhill sections where your knees are most likely to take a beating. An affordable pair of trekking poles will do the trick, however if you’re feeling the need to go ultra-light Black Diamond makes a carbon fiber trekking pole. We like and have used both, but the Black Diamond product is mind-bendingly light and strong.

Sun Protection

Climbing Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Climbing Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

At elevation there is less atmosphere to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful radiation. Combine this with the reflective properties of snow and you can get a fairly severe sunburn without the proper protection. Having a strong sun screen (SPF 40+) or a hat that shades your neck, face, and ears can prevent this. It’s also easy to forget that your lips need protection too. Having lip balm with an SPF rating can go a long way to avoiding puffy, sun-burned lips. Wear sun glasses to protect your eyes as soon as the sun rises.

Mobile Device

Climbing Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Climbing Wormflows Route - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

Most people will be carrying their cell phones when they climb so that they can snap photos of their adventure, but these devices can also serve as locators for lost climbers. In the days prior to wireless phone technology it was common to purchase or rent an avalanche transceiver or mountain locator unit (MLU) which could be used to locate a person in the event of an avalanche. More advanced devices like RECCO reflectors, PLBs, and SPOTS are now available which use GPS and two-way satellite communication to provide emergency personnel with more accurate information about your location.

Additional information about the advantages and disadvantages of these devices is available here.

Crampons

Crampons allow you to grip into solid snow and ice providing stability and traction when you need it most. They are only truly needed when traction on ice and snow is required.

There are several types of crampons available on the market, but the key is matching the correct crampon binding system to your boot. In fact, REI has a great article describing how to choose the best crampons for your goals.

We highly recommend you pick your boot prior to selecting a crampon because at the end of the day a comfortable, supportive boot is preferable to ill-fitting footwear that you’ve attached some spikes to. One pairing that we’ve had a lot of success with is the La Sportiva Trango boot and Grivel G-12 new-matic crampons. Grivel’s new-matic system has a locking point in the rear and straps in the front to ensure a secure fit to this style of boot.

Ice Axe

Acquiring and carrying an ice axe is easy, but knowing how to use it requires skill, familiarity and practice in the art of self arrest. Neither of Mt. St. Helens’ south side routes are technical so we recommend a straight (or slightly curved) handled axe.

When choosing the length of an axe, stand up straight and hold the axe by your side grasping its head between your fingers. The spike (bottom) of the axe should rest by your ankle. A longer axe might be nice as Mt. St. Helens south side is relatively low angle. A shorter axe will require you to bend over to place it, a tiring endeavor. Also, a shorter axe may seem lighter but the difference is usually only an ounce or two. If using a shorter axe or ice tool look into a trekking pole for the other hand.

Your ice axe may come with a leash. This is important in case you do go in to a fall and the ice axe leaves your hand. A leash keeps the ice axe attached to your person either on your wrist or climbing harness allowing you to reel it in and perform a self arrest.

Overnight Gear

Camp - Mt. St. Helens - Dec 2017
Camp - Mt. St. Helens - Dec 2017

While most people plan a climb of Mt. St. Helens as a day trip, it is possible to turn it into an overnight expedition by camping anywhere below the treeline.

Tent / Shelter – A four season tent is recommended, however in good weather conditions a three season tent will pass. Despite it’s weight, we recommend the ALPS Mountaineering Tasmanian 3-Person Tent for it’s affordability while providing excellent protection on alpine terrain.

Sleeping Bag – A 0 – 20 degree bag will work under most conditions. The Marmot Sawtooth 15 degree sleeping bag is a great, lightweight bag which has proven to keep this climber warm on Mt. Shasta numerous times.

Sleeping Pad – Having an insulated sleeping pad is required in order to get your sleeping bag and body from being in contact with the snow and ice. Do not expect the tent floor to be sufficient thermal insulation even on a four season tent. The Therm-A-Rest ProLite sleeping pad does the job of giving you that extra insulating layer.

Stove

Summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017
Summit - Mt. St. Helens - May 2017

Portable stoves are useful for cooking warm meals and boiling water, but are invaluable in “creating” water by melting snow. Jetboil makes a great line of compact stove systems which we use on our trips.

Blue Bags

Blue bags are provided for free at the climber check-in. They are used for solid waste disposal.

Shovel

The primary reason for packing a light-weight shovel is to dig out other climbers in the event of an avalanche. If someone in your party gets buried you only have a matter of minutes to find and dig them out before chances of survival plummet dramatically.

The secondary reason is to be able to dig yourself a snow cave in the even that bad weather moves in suddenly and you find yourself trapped on the side of the mountain. Here is a great reasonably priced, durable, light-weight, component shovel which we use.

Helmet

A climbing helmet is not strictly required on Mt. St. Helens because there is less of a risk of less rock or ice breaking away above your head. The angle of the climbing slope is not as steep as Mt. Hood or Mt. Adams. But if you choose to wear one – your helmet should meet climbing certifications, meaning that it is rated for impact from above. Biking and ski helmets are not suitable substitutes as they are only rated for side impacts.

Avalanche Recovery Gear

Avalanches are less of a risk on Mt. St. Helens than on other peaks in the area. But while snow safety and avalanche awareness can help reduce risk, climbers should carry specific items when the risk of an avalanche on Mt. St. Helens is high:

  • Avalanche beacon– Each climber should be equipped with a beacon so that they can be discovered in the event of an avalanche. Many devices, like the Backcountry Access Tracker, act as both a transmitter and a  receiver- also known as a transceiver.
  • Avalanche probe – Similar in design to a trekking or tent pole, an avalanche probe is used to poke the snow to discover where a buried climber or object might be.
  • Shovel – Carrying a light-weight utility shovel allows you to dig other climbers out if they become trapped in an avalanche. We like the Yukon Charlie sport utility shovel for its compact, componentized-designed, durability and light weight.
  • Avalanche backpack – Like a regular backpack except these contain airbags that, when triggered, inflates the airbags and helps you float on top of the avalanche to greatly reduce the probability of being buried.

All climbers should have a plan in place for emergency situations. This includes a plan made with a friend or loved one who is NOT climbing, and a plan for the climber(s).

Friends/Family Plan: It is important that you leave an itinerary with a friend, family member or loved one who is not climbing. This way, should something happen and you are not able to initiate a search, rescuers will be alerted and a search will commence. This plan should include:

  • The specific route you will take
  • An alternate route in case of emergency
  • Timetable for your climb
  • A time when you will check in
  • A time to initiate a search
  • Contact information for Search and Rescue
  • Contact information for family members of each climber

With this information in place, the individual you leave it with will know when to expect a phone call, when to worry, who to call and what to tell them. We recommend you pick a time you will check in with your friend/family member that is 1-3 hours after you plan on returning. This way you have flexibility for any delays. Your search initiation time should be 6-10 hours after you were suppose to check in. If you do use this kind of plan DO NOT FORGET TO CALL, even if you are off the mountain safely, call. If you are running late, call. If you blow off the climb and go to a bar, call.

Climber(s) Plan: Within your team, or as a solo climber, you must have a plan in case of emergency. It is impossible for us to go through every scenario, but you must work through some common problems and agree on the solutions before you leave. Questions you should consider are:

  • What if a storm moves in?
  • What if we get lost?
  • What if we are behind schedule?
  • What if the route conditions are questionable?
  • What if someone is fatigued?
  • What if someone is injured?

It is vital that every member of your group agree on an answer to these questions. During a climb, ego and adrenaline are high and decisions can be rash. Discuss possible scenarios before you leave and come to a consensus. These are problems best solved in the parking lot, or better yet the drive up. Of course, there are a million things that can happen in a million different ways. You must be able to asses the situation and make good judgements, often on the fly.

At a glance

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Elevation - Summit (feet)
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Elevation - Gain (feet)
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Round trip distance (miles)
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Hiking time (hours)
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Summit Attempts (annually)
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First Summit (year)
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Glaciers

Permits & Fees

Climbing Permit (required)

Wilderness Permit (free)

Climber Registration (free)

Sno-Park Permit (seasonal)

When to go

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