As a child, I was terrified of Mount St. Helens. Honestly, I had watched The Fire Below Us, Remembering Mount St. Helens one too many times and I could not forget Mount St. Helens. She haunted my dreams. So the younger version of myself would have been shocked that the current version of myself decided to go climb that same mountain this last weekend. By choice. Actually, I was pretty excited about it. Mount St. Helens would be our fourth big volcano climb in Washington. All that would be left, in order to tag all five, would be a climb up Glacier Peak.
Originally, Kyle and I had planned on heading in a couple of miles on Friday, setting up a high camp, and then heading up the Worm Flows route early the next morning. However, when we got to Olympia on Friday everything started to change. We had given ourselves a couple of hours to do some more food organizing for the PCT before we packed up and headed for the mountain at 2:00pm. My mom was hanging around the house and didn’t seem to have plans for the weekend so, of course, we asked her if she would want to join us on the climb. I could see the idea immediately entangle itself in her grey matter. She summited Helens two Octobers ago and described it as one of the hardest days of her life, but this would be a very different climb. That trip involved a lot of rock hopping and scrambling. This trip would be mostly on snow.
“But I don’t have an ice ax,” she hedged.
“So rent one from REI or call Teresa and ask to borrow one of her’s,” I suggested.
Teresa is a good friend of my moms and an inspiration to Kyle and me. She met her partner, Mark, while climbing and they have both climbed an impressive number of mountains. My mom disappeared for a bit and next thing I knew she was back, saying that Teresa and Mark might be down to climb Helens on Saturday and Sunday. I had actually already been in touch with Teresa, getting some beta on the route, and she had mentioned that if they were going with us they would show us their secret Gully Route. The possibility of a secret route with no one on it sucked us in immediately and in an instant all of our plans changed.
On Saturday my mom, Kyle and I caravanned down to Mount St Helens with Teresa and Mark in two separate cars. We drove up the road that takes you to Climbers Bivouac in the summer and parked when the snow got too deep to go any further. We loaded up our packs, grabbed our snow shoes, and trudged past some guy in a Mini Cooper who had tried to drive too far up the road and was stuck. He had a crowd of large, baseball cap wearing, men yelling directions at him. According to Kyle there is a certain kind of person who gets really into un-sticking cars from snowy situations. Since none of us are those kinds of people we left them in distress and donned our snow shoes when the snow became consistently deep.
The route continued up the road past the turn off to Climbers Bivouac. Shortly after that cut off we turned up a gully. Shortly after turning up the gully the gully became difficult. Mark and Teresa had left their snow shoes in Idaho so they where skinning in on their skis. We came to a downed log that was completely blocking the entire gully and had to climb out of it. We then decided to stay up on top of the gully, which proved to be a mistake. The snow was very patchy and everything was pretty brushy. Mark told us we where looking for an open area so we all just wandered North, biffing it occasionally off a log or punching through into a tree well. Finally we came to a very open wide wash with no snow it in. We took off our snow shoes and skis and continued on foot, aiming for a wide expanse of snow up ahead. We were getting close to it when I heard my mom yell in alarm from behind and when I turned around I could see that Teresa had face planted off of a rock. As she straightened up my mom gasped and I started to take my pack off. Blood was gushing down her face. I unzipped the top of my pack and grabbed, what now seemed like, a measly excuse for a first aid kit. Thank goodness for that WFR training, am I right?
Teresa had broken her nose. We got her patched up as best we could, and with some rolled up gauze acting as blood dams the bleeding seemed to slow. Strangely no one even suggested turning back and so once she was good to go we started hiking again. What a trooper. Soon we reached the snow, put our snow shoes back on, and continued down a snow mobile path for a short distance before turning up a second gully. This was the gully. The one that would lead us all the way to high camp at 4,400ft. The snow in this gully was much better and, although there were some tricky parts where we had to carefully skirt tree wells and drop offs, we were able to keep our snow shoes on and travel at a good pace.
Have I mentioned yet how little experience I had traveling on snow shoes? Before this trip I had gone on a couple of snow shoeing trips, little day hikes. But I had never tried snow shoeing with a thirty pound pack on or across difficult terrain. I learned a lot that first day in the gully. For example, after I had fallen down for the fifth time because I had stepped on my own snow shoe I learned to walk a little bow-legged. I also started out trying to kick the toe of my boot into steeper snow slopes, only to have all the snow slide out from underneath me. After some trial and error I figured out that if I tried to place the snow shoe flat on the snow and put more weight on my heel I had much better traction. Slowly, I improved at snow shoeing, but I continued to hate the ridiculous bulk and weight of them, cursing them with every step.
Finally, we followed Teresa and Mark’s ski tracks out of the gully and found them in the trees searching for good camp spots. We selected a space big enough for our three person tent and began to excavate. My mom had never been snow camping so we showed her how to dig a platform, burry snow stakes, and create foot wells next to each door so you could sit in the tent and take your shoes on and off. Then, while I set up the tent and my mom drank some Southern Comfort, Kyle dug us a mini kitchen.
Dinner was a disappointing affair because our Jetboil officially SUCKS. It took forever to melt snow and we were too tired and it was too late to wait for it to boil. Our dehydrated meals hardly rehydrated, Kyle ended up eating very crunchy rice, and then he was up until midnight melting enough snow for us to drink the next day. We are waiting on pins and needles to see if we get giardia right as we are getting ready to leave for the PCT… If there had been anyone else around we would have just given that damn Jetboil away. But we still hadn’t seen a single other person, all day. We could see Mount Hood lit up by the setting sun and a moon already high in the sky. We could hear the wind whistling through the trees and in between its gusts was perfect silence. Complete solitude. When I finally got warm under our quilt (quilts may not be the best for winter camping) I fell asleep with a smile on my face. Only to be awoken an hour later by Kyle shaking violently, trying to hold in a poop. Eventually he gave in and got out to take care of it, leaving my mom and I gagging on a particularly nasty fart.
To be continued…