- Date: December 10, 2017
- Start: Marble Mountain Sno Park
- Distance: 12 miles
- Duration: 9 hours 12 minutes (breaks included)
- Type: Out-and-back
- Map: Green Trails Map 332S: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
- References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Washington Trails Association
“1…2…3…4…” I counted my steps silently to myself as I trudged up the steep snow slope. Cassie bounded alongside me, stopping to sniff something only marginally fascinating every few seconds before running to catch up. It was her first time on this big, beautiful mountain (and only her second Cascade volcano adventure) and I was overjoyed to see her having so much fun. Two years ago, when Mack and I first climbed Helens, we were slightly under prepared (no ice axe or crampons) for the winter conditions and just starting to toy with the idea of hiking up giant, snowy hills. Now, in 2017, we had two seasons of climbing under our belts, and we were finally returning to the one that started it all (very literally for me; Helens was my backyard mountain growing up!) and sharing the experience with Cassie, as well as a few human friends!
Our morning started off as most mountain adventures do: cold and in the dark. Mack, Cassie, our friend Ryan, and I moved quickly on the packed down snow of the Swift Ski Trail so our bodies could warm up. Helens had yet to reveal herself and remained shrouded by the dense forest for awhile longer. As I’d hoped though, we reached Chocolate Falls (located mostly out of the forest) just as the night sky began it’s dazzling transformation into the coming day. Vast swaths of pink and orange stretched across the dark, starlit sky, making it difficult to keep my eyes straight ahead as we hiked. I turned around every few seconds, never tiring of the scene unfolding behind me.
The easy-going gradual ascent of the Swift Ski Trail came to an end once we started up one of the ridge-like lava flows for which the route is named . Though not technical, I was quickly reminded that this stretch between timberline and the crater rim (another 2,000 feet or so higher in elevation) is indeed an ass-kicker. After all of our summer climbing adventures I’ll admit I thought Helens would feel easier. It was a humbling experience to say the least. We took a break while still on the ridge to strap on our crampons and eat some snacks. Just as we were about to start up again, I looked back and saw two vaguely familiar individuals quickly making their way up. After a few more seconds of squinting, I realized our friends Caylee and Kyle had caught up to us. Despite having not seen each other since our first–and only–adventure together more than a year earlier (Enchantments thru-hike), I don’t think anyone would’ve guessed that we’d only been acquainted once. The ensuing hours spent as a group felt more like being with old friends.
Following our navigation of the lava flow, we made it back onto a snow slope and continued the relentless ascent to the crater rim. At least we were able to conserve energy by not having to kick in or cut our own steps. The numerous boot paths leading up basically laid out a long, winding staircase of foot steps for us to follow. I was incredibly grateful to have friends, beautiful weather and views, and an energetic dog to distract me from the seemingly endless and somewhat monotonous final push to the summit. When it did finally come into view, we were actually pleasantly surprised because we thought we were still a bit further away.
One at a time we slowly picked our way up the final traverse, fatigued but incredibly happy that the hours of elevation gain had finally paid off. Ryan and Kyle (both climbing Helens for the first time) made it to the rim first. In true holiday season fashion, Kyle donned a santa hat then pulled out some beers he’d packed in for him and Caylee, walking one down to her once she was in a few yards of the rim. I was too excited to eat or drink anything and went straight to snapping pictures of everyone, especially Cassie.
It was relatively warm at the rim, with no wind and the sun beating down. We spent some time traversing it–I still don’t know if we ended up walking onto the true summit or not–and basking in the gorgeous view of the crater, Spirit Lake, the Mount Margaret Backcountry, and Mount Rainier. For being a bluebird day, it wasn’t very crowded up at the top. In fact, we were probably the largest group up there. Lack of Disneyland-esque crowds is definitely one of the perks of climbing Helens in the winter (in addition to free permits and snow climbing rather than scree climbing).
To expedite the long descent back to the car, we glissaded as often as possible. Our first one was directly from the crater rim, too! Although icy in some spots and a little too deep in others, the snow pack was just the right amount of depth and consistency for glissading for the majority of our descent back to treeline. Once we were most of the way down, Caylee and Kyle forged ahead while the rest of us hung back and took our time. Cassie was pretty tired by this point after the long climb and subsequently chasing us down the slopes, so she was moving a little slower.
Once we were back in the forest it was easy to pick up the pace again. I reminisced about our last time out here and how we were practically running back to the car in order to beat the setting sun after getting lost on the descent and having to wade through thigh deep snow on the Loowit Trail in order to reach Swift Ski Trail again. I laughed to myself thinking about how different this adventure had been. No stressful situations whatsoever. Completely Type 1 fun. Back at the car we celebrated with a couple of beers (and Cassie with her favorite dog treats) before heading our separate ways. I spent much of the drive home combing through the pictures on my camera, reliving an incredible Summit Sunday with an amazing crew.