Sunday, June 1, 2008

Mt. St. Helens Ski Trip

After a week of planning, purchasing permits and watching the weather Quin, Ashley, Ben, Mike and I decided to attempt a ski descent of Mt. St. Helens via the Worm Flows route. Unfortunatley for us the road to the trailhead hadn't been plowed out this year because of lack of funds after such a harsh winter and high snowfall. This meant that we would have an additional 3 miles each way of skinning up the access road to the trailhead making the 12 mile hike an 18 mile trip. Permits were $22 bucks each for the mountain.
We all took off from my house on Saturday evening from my place after I got out of work bartending at 5pm. We stopped for pizza at a place called Mississippi Pizza in Portland. It started to rain while we were there which was not a good sign for our ascent on Sunday. The weather called for a 30% chance of rain in the morning and clearing in the afternoon around 3pm. We stopped at the Lone Fir resort to pick up our permits and stopped to get firewood as well (which we never ended up using). We drove up the road as far as we could before we hit snow blocking our path and pulled over to camp. After chatting for a bit and having some beers we all crashed at around midnight under a beautiful night sky of stars. I think we even saw an iridum flare.
We woke up at 5:45 and after some packing and breakfast we were on our way up the road in a thick morning fog. We made really quick progress up the road once we popped on our skis and skins, hopping onto a snowmobile trail to get to the treeline and the winter route up the volcano. Several snowmobilers passed us and we had to choke on their 3-stroke fumes for a little while. We quickly made the 3-4 mile skin to the treeline in about 1:45min. We then started skinning up the worm flows towards the summit in thick cloud cover, occasional showers, and heavy, hot humidity. I kept urging the group to ascend slowly as we were making great time and I wanted to give the weather a chance to clear out. As we climbed several rocks whipped by us on the snow as they dislodges from slopes above us. Quin's dog Jack chased each one of them down the slope regardless of his commands to stop until he was out of site, yet he always found his way back to us. As we passed 6800 ft the couple climbing with us started to ski down as they gave up on any views from the summit. This proved to be a poor choice for them because at about 7500 feet we broke through the clouds into beautiful blue skies.
The last push up the glacier to the crater rim was tiring and I was amazed to see Ashley taking the lead and blowing Quin and I away. Later I learned she is doing two 100mile bike rides every weekend and running 20+ miles on a regular basis to train for an Iron Man in Lake Placid, NY.... so I didn't feel so bad. Upon reaching the crater rim the clouds were pretty much all gone except for a huge plume of steam rising from the growing lava dome in the center of the 1980 crater. Standing on the edge of the rim was an amazing feeling. The crater had to be well over a mile in diameter. It really gave you a good sense of the massive energy involved in blowing the top 1300 feet of the volcano away. We were of course on snow the entire ascent and it was never so steep that we had to take our skins off but I've been told in the summer people often have to wear mouth shields due to the amount of ash and dust still on the slopes on dry days.
The overhanging cornices on the crater were immense. The last 20 to 30 feet of snow to the edge was all a cornice overhanging the crater. Where the cornice connected to the rock were cracks and fissures at it is slowly dislodging from the wall. We were very careful while traversing over this area as the entire thing could let go at any time and always stayed near the cracks so that we could lunge if we needed to. As the clouds started to clear we were afforded beautiful views of the surrounding volcanoes sticking up like islands in a sea of clouds (Hood to the south, Adams to the East, and Rainier to the North). The view over the steaming lava dome below north to Rainier was amazing. Where we emerged on the rim was still a quarter mile away from the true summit so Quin, Ashley and I took the extra 20 minutes to skin over to the true summit and "bag" the peak while Ben and Mike stayed back to take photos and wait for us. On the way over Jack decided to eat the lunch of a couple that was also on the top.. hehe. He also kept going very close to the edge of the cornice much to the dismay of all of us. Thankfully he never fell in. Ashley and I got some summit shots of us with Mt. Rainier behind us in our Mountaintech jackets (hoping for some points). We could clearly see down into crater from the true summit. We saw sulpher deposits, a ton of vents, growing fins of solidified lava, and the only glacier in the Northwest that is actually growing at a rate of 15ft of elevation per year inside the crater thanks to the shade of the crater walls. It really felt as if the mountain was alive underneath our feet.
We popped on our skis at the summit and started our descent on amazing snow. The snow was soft and forgiving and best of all, mostly trackless despite the 30+ other people supposedly climbing that weekend. On several occasions on the steeper slopes we set off very shallow slush slides about 30 feet wide which were fun to jump into and ski through as the slope was sliding around you. Jack ran by our sides the entire way down the worm flows back into the clouds below us. On the way down we all jumped cracks in the snow and jumped small crevasses as we came to them. It was a better descent than even Lassen earlier this spring. The views were fantastic (my lucky weather streak continues) and the skiing was fantastic.
When we got down to the road just before our cars we found the dumbass of the day. Some young kid had attempted to drive over the snow covered road to get closer to the trailhead... and got stuck in his Jeep Wrangler. Yes, we've all gotten stuck before but what makes him unique is that he had his overweight girlfriend with him, two young kids, bald tires, no chains, no snow shovel, no salt, and had broken his jack trying to jack the car for some reason off the snow.... yeah... a real winner. His girlfriend was using her flip-flop to scoop snow... So, all of us loaded up with shovels from the hike and back in the cars decided to dig him out. A few swift kicks from my AT boot quickly dislodged his broken jack uncer the car allowing the car to settle back down onto the wheels. Lucky for us some snowmobilers came along and pulled him out without us having to dig too much after a long day of skiing. Even while pulling him out backwards the kid almost steered the vehicle off the road again... unbelievable. After those shinanigans I was finally able to grab myself a beer from the car and celebrate with the others a highly successful and beautiful day of skiing.

That dot on the highest point in the last photo is me on the true summit. As always, click the title for a Flickr slideshow of all the photos! And make sure you have the "i" clicked so you can see descriptions of the photos.

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