Monday, February 21, 2011

Mt. St. Helens: Conquered

Last Saturday we again worked up the resolve to summit Mt. St. Helens - this time in the snow. Having climbed it a handful of times before (in the summer), we were fairly confident in our ability to reach the mountain's 8,525' summit in spite of the additional exertion required for snowshoeing. I, for one, underestimated just how hard it would be...

Jonathan was the de facto leader of the expedition since he knew the most about mountaineering and had pulled together most of the logistics. He, Chelsea and the kids came over on Friday and spent the night at our place, so we could be ready for our 4:00 a.m. departure the following morning.

We were on the trail from Marble Mountain Sno Park by 6:30 a.m. and made pretty good time up to timberline. The sunrise was beautiful, glistening off the freshly fallen snow that blanketed the surrounding forest. In the days preceding our hike the mountain had accumulated a few feet of fresh powder, but that wasn't a major concern since the trail was fairly well packed. It was awesome for the skiers and snowboarders I'm sure!

As an anecdote, last week I attended a Winter Safety presentation put on by Portland Mountain Rescue in which they discussed the hazards of hiking in winter conditions and told some stories to illustrate their points. Though I paid careful attention to their warnings and advice, I couldn't help but think, "that would never happen to me." I mean, I can understand other people succumbing to the elements or to fatigue, but not me. This hike was my reality check.

I could tell almost right away when we hit the trail that I would need to warm up and kick into gear if I was going to summit. My pack certainly wasn't helping; it weighed in at 36.5lb fully loaded - nearly as much as I carried on a 3-day backpacking trip a few years ago. But, I wasn't carrying extraneous gear - it was all needed. In winter conditions you have to be ready and it generally pays off to be over-prepared.

Like many other mountains, Mt. St. Helens has a few tricks up its sleeve, the worst of which is its false summits. From the base you can see what appears to be the summit, but when you reach it, it turns out to be just another ridge. Of course, you're positive that the next "summit" is the real thing, but it's not. The best plan is to assume that what you're looking at is not and never could be the actual summit - fewer disappointments that way.

When I reached the last false summit I was exhausted. I thought the likelihood of me reaching the top was extremely slim, unless I could make it up there by sheer willpower. There were several times where I just wanted to fall on my face in the snow and stay there, but I kept going regardless. The last 50 feet were pure misery, but God gave me the strength and I finally collapsed on the summit with the other guys. (I really did "collapse." The other guys were understandably concerned ;)

The view from the summit has become somewhat familiar to us, but it's a completely new experience in the snow. Being careful to avoid the cornice (the overhanging snow along the rim), we set up our little stove and melted some snow to replenish our water supply. Jonathan and I took some photos, at one point venturing to an overlook which allowed us to see Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier to the north. I shot a few photos holding the camera way above my head so I wouldn't have to get any closer to the edge. Not that I'm afraid of heights...but there was no telling where the edge actually was and I wasn't about to take any chances.

Some people say that going downhill is just as hard as going uphill, only faster. In this case, I disagree. I found the descent to be comparably easier than the climb, especially when we broke out the avalanche shovels and started sledding down the mountain!

As we neared timberline we got to enjoy one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. It was so worth it to pull out my camera and get a few panoramic photos (even though I fell behind the rest of the group).

The 2.5 mile stretch to the car was arduous. Mike and I teamed up for the last mile and we couldn't believe how far a puny little 1/2 mile was! We finally reached the Jeep about 30 seconds before our 6:30 p.m. goal, and thus were on the trail for almost exactly 12 hours.

When we got home supper was waiting. After we ate I was so whooped that I just sprawled out on the floor for a while. Kaylee kept coming over and giggling at me - she had no idea, but it was cute anyway!

Make sure you head over to Jonathan's blog to read his trip report and see his photography.


JessicaCynthia said...

Wow- That looks really hard. I mean, really, really, really hard. I am not sure if I would ever make it up there! Though, that sledding down on shovels sounds really fun... ;p
Well, great job on photos, as always, and get some rest!

Sereina said...

Wow! Such a gorgeous view! I love the panorama.

Peter J. Serven said...

Beautiful Ben!