April 27 (Mount Saint Helens, WA) —
A 4:30 a.m. start for climbing Mount St. Helens turned out to be a good idea even if V admitted that she “ha[d] never intentionally woken up at 3:45 a.m. in [her] life. Not even for a flight.”
There were two factors driving our early departure: (1) the temperature had not been below freezing all night even at the summit (which meant that the skiing conditions would be mediocre at the start and get progressively worse as the day warmed); and (2) the avalanche risk would increase as the snow warmed because in the spring, other than fresh storm snow, the greatest risk is usually southern facing slopes getting too warm from the sun and then running in wet, loose slides.
Given the less than ideal conditions (high winds were also expected), the avy risk, and a lingering cold, J’s friends bagged and it was just V and me. We put the skis on our packs and hit the road with a moon just past full and our headlamps lighting the way.
The skin track was torn up from people booting up and down, so we kept our skis on our backs for the first hour and a half and climbed up through the trees. The light was gorgeous. I noted that I used to hate this color of sky because if I was seeing it, it normally meant that I was at the end of a (work) all-nighter. This time, there was nothing but smiles on our faces:
After an hour of half of climbing, we cleared the timberline and the sun started to light up the mountain.
We still had another 3,000′ of climbing to go, but we were feeling great as we got our skis off our backs and started to skin.
The views were tremendous and we could see Mt. Hood in the distance.
We could also see the lenticular clouds surrounding the summit of Mt. Adams, indicating extremely high winds there.
After a short bit of climbing, we came to the proverbial fork in the lava flows. The easiest route was up an obvious avalanche path where the lava had flowed 23 years ago. Easiest because we could have kept our skins on and just made switchbacks. Alternatively, we could put our skis back on our packs and scramble up the ridge of the lava flow itself.
While we discussed our route plan, we broke for breakfast (peanut butter, banana, and honey sammies).
Had it frozen last night, we would have had no problem taking the avalanche path up (because if it was frozen there is zero chance it would slide). But it hadn’t frozen for several nights, and with the rising sun, we did not want to risk it, especially because there was a risk free (although more labor intensive) option right there.
So onto our backs went the skis again and up the lava flow we scrambled.
After we cleared the avalanche path, we put our skins back on and continued up the face. By now, that wind was really starting to pick up. After another hour and a half of skinning, the wind was strong enough that at one point while we were stopped, it literally blew V four feet away from me. Knowing that the snow was only going to get worse as the day wore on, and that the winds were likely to get worse once we got near the summit, we decided to use the last rock outcropping before the final ridge as a wind break to strip our skins and head down.
The snow was actually really nice corn and we enjoyed our turns.
We continued to be careful with our route selection because, on almost every rollover, we were able to start a small wet slide.
As we approached tree line, the snow got really thick. Thick enough to hide the snow snake that got V.
After approximately 45 minutes of descending, we hit a nice spot to stop for lunch and took in the views.
Even though it was now closing in on 11am, there were still people heading up. Much to our chagrin, they were heading up the known avy path that we had avoided earlier, and at this time of day, that was a risky decision with the snow very warm and slushy. We were reminded that just because someone has gone up a route earlier (i.e., there is a prior boot pack/skin track) does not mean it’s a good idea to follow.
By 11:30 a.m., we were back at Tigger and had a Guinness* and some steak chili to celebrate a good day.
* I know it’s before noon, but it was a 4:30 a.m. start.
After a three hour nap, we headed to check in with the climbing permit office to confirm we made it down safely. They informed us that no one was able to summit after 10 a.m. due to winds and then white out conditions. We decided to stay at the small rv park next to the permit office as it offered (a) hot showers; (b) pizza; and (c) cold beers. We got stuck into it around the campfire with our neighbors who we had seen up on the mountain (going up as we headed down). They confirmed it was miserable skiing and that the winds were terrible. Having learned so often by making the wrong decision, it was nice to finally get some positive reinforcement.
After a drunken night of sleep, we decided to head towards Portland to stock up on supplies. A bit tired from yesterday (and a bit hungover), we decided to hit a small diner near I-5 in Woodland — America’s Family Diner. Neither the hangover nor our exhaustion could explain quite how tremendous this place was. My order of country fried steak and eggs (with hashbrowns and sausage gravy) came with a side of strawberry cheesecake pancakes. They literally add a cheesecake to the pancake batter! As a side!
This meal was amazing, and I would put it on par with The Griddle in Hollywood. The only question is whether after skinning and skiing over 11,000 feet in the last five days, I actually took in more calories than I burned with this meal.