March 6, 2018
A high orbit of Mount Saint Helens should be on every ski tourers bucket list. Besides being the easiest way to visit all its named glaciers (a goal of my Washington glacier project), any circumnavigation of a volcano is immersive. You see every facet of the most recognizable of Washington State’s mountains, from all sides. For this reason, I’ve been wanting to ski circumnavigate each of the five major volcanoes in Washington – Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens. I completed Mount Adams in 2008 (link) and Glacier Peak in 2017 (link).
In March 2018 I set out to add Mount Saint Helens to the ‘finished’ column. Seeing that unique adventures sometimes lie right under our noses, I drew my route before researching anyone else’s. The only online reference I found was by a guy who cross country skied a fantastic, low country route near the 4000 foot level. He basically followed the Loowit Trail (link). Since the 1980 eruption and subsequent ejection of the top 1300 feet of the mountain, I realized there was a new opportunity, a high country path unlike any other in the Cascades – an orbit of the crater rim itself!
Leaving my beloved Winnebago View and occasional ‘home on wheels’ at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park at 5 AM, Jeff Rich and I skied into moonlight, spearing tree shadows along snowshoe-packed Swift Creek Trail. For either of us, this was our first big tour of the season. Weather windows have been few and far between. Even this break has had its challenges with 6 avalanche deaths in Washington in only the past week (link).
After an hour of walking, the moonlight gave way to morning alpenglow. Rim to forest blushed from dull grey to vibrant pink. Of these early hours, I never tire. You can never have too many sunrises in your life.
Ten minutes later, it was daylight and the peak had transformed to pearl white. Headlamps were traded for sunscreen, at least for Jeff. I’d forgotten my light! When such an item is forgotten, you’re certain to have a trip longer than expected, undoubtably past dark. Take note and remember this ski-tourers axiom whenever you fall prey to such inane inattentiveness: Gilligan and his crew went on a 3 hour tour; they’re still lost!
The next 5700 feet to the crater rim is a relaxing climb that proceeds up 30-35 degree terrain. To avoid wind slab we traversed further east than expected, but could’ve just as easily gone west. Even with our detour, a lackadaisical pace put us on rim by 10 AM.
Looking over a bulge of lumbering cornices and steep walls, I saw the heart of this mountain nestled below. A gentle rise of steam curled upward and a plain of devastation beyond is still in evidence. My thoughts lingered on the crater. What a privilege to witness living geology on a timescale I can comprehend and see in my lifetime – no words.
Since the last minor eruption in 2005, the volcanic dome has grown by leaps and bounds, covering the original dome entirely. What’s equally fascinating for me is the growth of the Crater Glacier, the last glacier in the contiguous US that is currently expanding. In places it is now over 650 feet thick! The sum total of the ice now is more than all the glaciers that were on the mountain pre-1980 eruption.
A summit stop, food and banter kept Jeff and I motivated. I spoke about gummy bears and their important health benefits. The fact that one package an hour is enough. No expensive alternatives needed. Jeff responded, “How do you crap after that?”
I smiled, thinking about Lucky Charms, and retorted, “I crap rainbows!”
Further traversing of the rim kept me on my toes. We found a dozen small steam holes that appeared mostly inactive, but still posed danger if you became jammed into the ice and rock during a fall. Of course, we didn’t examine them in depth (pun intended). I’d suggest if you are uncomfortable (and especially boot packing), to just avoid this area above the Talus Glacier entirely by descending a hundred or so feet below the rim. It’s what we eventually did.
From the edge of the Breach, we rode the snow two thousand feet down. Because you are required to stay out of ZONE 1, we worked our way around this area as best we could. The map (below), isn’t very specific since it’s not a topo, but with snow, you can easily cross the headwaters of the Toutle River (~4000 feet) and reattain the upper mountain by ascending the Forsyth Glacier.
The blast zone, even mostly hidden under snow, still hints at the convolution of rocks and torn up earth found throughout. One especially interesting find was a hot spring! We couldn’t help taking an hour to soak our feet. For a second I thought I was back in Japan or Iceland!
As we climbed around the mountain, a last look at the hot spring river and interior of the crater left me wondering about preconceptions on any adventure. The reality is, there’s always something cool to find if you look hard enough.
Near the top of the Forsyth Glacier, the sun rolled her one eye behind the mountain and in minutes we dug our coats and gloves out before continuing our way past a dozen ridges. A few proved interesting and required climbing or descending. Several had less than a dozen feet of rock, so we side stepped directly over them without losing altitude. The trap crust on the windward side and the punchy powder on the leeward side both proved challenging, especially when the twilight faded into darkness. Remember, when I say dark, I mean dark. Jeff was fine since he had a light, which you’ll remember I had forgotten. My way was by brail! When I was talking to Jeff about the terrain ahead of me, I remembered this Gilligan’s Island exchange:
“Professor Roy Hinkley: Listen, Gilligan, how far down was she? How many feet?
Gilligan: Professor, in navy circles, we don’t say feet. We say fathoms.
Professor Roy Hinkley: Alright, how many fathoms?
Gilligan: Oh I don’t know, about 15 feet.”
We followed couloirs and ridges into the Worm Flows and eventually back to Swift Creek Trail. By then a frozen luge track two feet wide by one foot deep awaited us. If I was careful and kept my skis from jamming into the snow, I figured I could peel away down the trail at high speed like a rat through a pipe. I turned my skis into the track and let ‘er rip. Between Jeff’s occasional light and lady luck, I was barreling down the path at 20-30 mph. It was one hell of a ride!
At 8 PM I skied by the RV like a blind idiot. Jeff turned around and yelled, “The RV’s over here!” I still couldn’t see it, so I took him on faith.
As the RV emerged from the moon shadows I popped my skis off, found my seat and sat down. After 15 hours, not even the cold beers interested us. Yet, not drinking them once opened is a cardinal sin among mountain brethren (and others), so we drank them. Slowly exhaustion faded. I looked over to Jeff and queried, “So, you busy next weekend? Do you want to ski around Rainier?”