Wy’east & Loowit in a Day

  • Date: March 17, 2019
  • Start: Timberline Lodge & Marble Mountain Sno Park
  • Distance: 17 miles total
  • Duration: 19 hours (breaks, lunch stop, and drive time included)
  • Elevation gain: 11,000 feet total
  • Type: Out-and-back (for both climbs)
  • References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot
  • Ancestral land of the Chinook people and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Wy’east), and the Cowlitz people (Loowit)

Out in the open above timberline, the hot, merciless sun beat down on our tired bodies. Less than 10 hours earlier I’d been wiggling my fingers and toes to keep them from going numb while hiking up to the Hogsback on Wy’east. Now here we were shedding layer after layer and taking giant swigs of Gatorade every couple hundred feet of climbing. The snow had turned to mush from the heat of the sun. I groaned with each sinking step, trudging slowly up the steep slopes of unconsolidated snow. Just a few thousand more feet to go.

Back in January, the PNW was graced with an unbelievably gorgeous weather window for Saturday and Sunday. On a whim, Mack and I decided it would be fun to attempt a doubleheader mountain weekend: Loowit on Saturday, then Wy’east on Sunday. Unfortunately, neither summit was reached despite enviable conditions. We’d have to wait for another opportunity to arise. Fast forward to March…

After spending over two weeks sick with the flu and having to forgo numerous climbing opportunities and general social engagements, I was desperate to get back out to the mountains. The PNW was gifted yet another beautiful weekend and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. On Friday afternoon, we decided to give the Saturday-Sunday doubleheader another go. Earlier in the day [Friday], I’d attempted a pre-work Wy’east climb, which threw off my sleep schedule and left me physically and mentally depleted by the time Friday evening rolled around. When our midnight alarm went off for Loowit, I reluctantly told Mack that I didn’t think I could do it and we went back to sleep. Loowit was off the table, and I hated myself for it. At least we were still planning to climb Wy’east.

I woke up well rested a few hours later but couldn’t shake the guilt of having let our doubleheader weekend slip through the cracks yet again! Then, all of a sudden, something switched on in my head. From my sulking and self loathing, an idea came about. One that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t even considered before. Why not climb both mountains on the same day? Mack agreed to it without hesitation–BEST. ADVENTURE PARTNER. EVER!–and before we knew it we were driving out to Timberline Lodge for the start of a long, adventurous Sunday.

We met up with our friend, Emily (who was climbing Wy’east for the first time!), and proceeded up the climber’s trail. With a good deal of people having climbed up the previous day, numerous tracks were in place and made the overall ascent very quick. We were doing so well that we made it to Devil’s Kitchen over an hour earlier than I’d anticipated! Extremities began to succumb to the cold, so we decided not to linger despite being so early. We hiked up to the Hogsback and began the ever steepening crawl up the narrow spine. The Pearly Gates were a breeze–compared to the sheet of ice it had been at the end of January during my last climb–and we followed previous tracks all the way to the summit. The sun had yet to rise, but we made it for blue hour!

Mack climbing up the Pearly Gates
Mack, Emily, and me on the summit
10 fingers for 10 summits!

Sunrise was still 10-15 minutes away. On our way up (while we were still near Devil’s Kitchen), we saw behind us the inevitable stream of headlamps gradually moving up the mountain. Not looking forward to down climbing the gates and sharing such a small space with potentially large groups (or having to wait our turn while our fingers and toes froze), we opted not to wait for sunrise and descend while the crowds were still down lower. Still in the shadows and not having been exposed to the sun yet, the gates were in fantastic shape for easy down climbing. Probably the best shape I’ve ever seen them! 

Emily and I downclimbing the gates

We could see light from the sunrise slowly wash over the lower slopes where we were headed. The ever majestic shadow of the mountain, a sight I’ve been fortunate enough to experience numerous times now, stretched out to the west. It’s a sight that never fails to breathe life into me no matter how exhausted I am from climbing through the night. Aside from the unfailingly breathtaking sunrises, one of my favorite reasons for climbing so early is getting to witness the life cycle of this shadow. You’re only graced with its presence for a short window before it dissipates with the rising sun. 

After the Hogsback, the rest of the descent passed fairly quickly. The snow was mostly soft enough to plunge step all the way down to the parking lot. We arrived back at our cars shortly before 10 am and enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch in Government Camp with Emily before we began the long drive out to our next objective, Loowit. 

Mack and Emily downclimbing below the gates
Back on the Hogsback

The three hour drive to Marble Mountain Sno Park (which Mack was kind enough to do so I could get some sleep) meant most everyone was finishing up their climb by the time we pulled into the parking lot. Folks were either packing up or lounging about enjoying celebratory beers. The air was warm and the sun high in the sky when we stepped out of the car. Were we really going to do this climb in the hot afternoon sun and crappy snow?

By happenstance, we ran into our friends, Ali and Brad (we all climbed Eldorado Peak together over the summer), who had just finished skiing the mountain. It was tempting to just skip out on the climb altogether and enjoy some post-climb beers and BBQ (I mean, we’d already summited a mountain that morning!), especially after getting beta from them about the snow conditions. We pushed past the temptation and headed over to the trailhead. 

The hike up Swift Ski Trail wasn’t too bad despite the mushy snow. We stepped aside for numerous skiers flying down the trail, envious that we weren’t quite at that level yet (and that we didn’t own our own set-up to even give it a try). One day that’ll be us, I thought. Unfortunately, the cool air and shade of the forest gave way to complete sun exposure and softer, deeper snow once we reached timberline and started up the ridge. We received a few confused glances from climbers descending the mountain and one seemingly veiled warning from the climbing ranger (or volunteer?) who inquired about our equipment (mainly checking to see if we had emergency overnight gear and headlamps) and informed us we were still a few hours from the summit.

We encountered less and less people as we climbed higher, until it was only us two. As expected, the going was slow as we sank into the snow with each step. We kept a pretty good pace for awhile though, but near the seismic station (which sits about 2,000 feet below the summit) we were hit with strong, sustained winds. Our energy began to dwindle, sucked out by the incessant gusts that bombarded us. The final climb up the snow field to the crater rim, and subsequently the quarter mile climb along the rim to the true summit, felt never-ending. It was certainly the slowest we’d moved all day, but just as we’d hoped, we made the summit before sunset. 

Hiking alongside Pahto

Daylight was on its final leg now. Shadows had spilled into the mountain’s crater, but to the north, Spirit Lake and Tahoma were illuminated by the remaining light. To the south stood Wy’east, and we suddenly remembered that that climb had taken place several hours earlier! It already felt like an entirely different day.

Mack took out his phone to take pictures of his own and realized it had died. We’d been tracking and mapping our route on Gaia so we could easily navigate the descent. We’ve always mixed it up one way or another on every Helens climb we’ve done together. Not particularly interested in digging out my map and compass, especially with the wind still being an issue, we booked it off the summit and followed the boot track while we still had light. I knew once we made it off the snowfield and onto the correct ridge we would be fine.  

Looking out on the crater with Spirit Lake and Tahoma beyond
Summit selfie

We’d hoped to save time and effort by glissading down, but the paths were too icy now that the temps had dropped. Thankfully, the snow was still soft enough for plunge stepping (or, rather, plunge step running with how fast we were trying to move). The tracks were easy enough to follow though and I didn’t fear us getting off route this time around. Alpenglow now stretched across the horizon in bands of rosy pink and orange. The last light of the day. I thought back to that morning. How fortunate we were to have witnessed all the beauty and magic that comes with the start of a new day, and now to see it all again at the end while still in the mountains!

We were finally forced to turn on our headlamps somewhere around the seismic station. At least we’d already descended 2,000 feet! We even managed a little bit of glissading below that since the paths were less icy and steep, but it was short lived when the zipper on Mack’s snow pants got stuck and he could no longer zip up the side of his pants. The last part of the ridge just before reaching the forest was the worst. The post-holing had been bad, but tolerable, on the way up. Now that we were exhausted and ready to be back, I was no longer feeling tolerant about sinking into knee, thigh, and sometimes waist deep snow.

Once we made it back into the trees we were able to start moving uninhibited again and finally collapsed at the car shortly before 10 pm. We were starving, dehydrated, and a little delirious from lack of sleep, but the experience of climbing two of our favorite mountains in a single day, something we never would have thought as being fun or reasonable for us even a couple years earlier, was more than worth it. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. Hopefully when we repeat it, we might even be capable of skiing down both mountains!

Pahto basking in alpenglow

Backcountry Rise

  • Date: August 20, 2017
  • Location: Mount Margaret Backcountry
  • Start: Coldwater Lake Boat Launch (actual race begins at Mount St Helens Science and Learning Center)
  • Distance: 31.2 miles (may vary slightly if starting from boat launch)
  • Duration: 7 hours 59 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 8100 feet
  • Type: Loop
  • Map: Green Trails Map 332S: Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument (or go to race website)
  • References: Daybreak Racing

This year has been the start of our love affair with ultrarunning. Since last October, Mack and I have run the entirety of Forest Park’s Wildwood Trail (30.2 miles) twice, the McKenzie River Trail (26.4 miles), and two 50K races (three for Mack!). When Jeremy Long, owner of Daybreak Racing and creator/director of the Tillamook Burn (my first 50K!), announced his brand new race that goes right through the heart of the Mount Margaret Backcountry, I didn’t think twice before signing up. Not only would I get to do some serious trail running near my hometown volcano, Mount St Helens, but I would finally get to explore an area that’s been on my bucket list since we started getting outdoors more. Ironically, I always thought we’d be backpacking the area. Instead, we’d be running through it all in one long, strenuous day. Our jam-packed summer schedule has made it difficult to find a time to run the course prior to race day. After a few failed attempts to do so, we finally made it out for an exploratory/training run last weekend.

One of the reasons for our failed attempts was our inability to drag ourselves out of bed to drive out to Mount St Helens. This time, we drove out the night before and slept in the car down the road from the Coldwater Lake Boat Launch. Problem solved! We still didn’t get the early start we hoped for, but at least we only had to drive two minutes to the boat launch. By 7:20 am, we were making our way along Coldwater Lake on the first of two main trails this route uses: Lakes Trail. I’d been under the impression that the entirety of the course would be dry and exposed, but the first 4.5-5 miles are quite the opposite! Since this section runs along the shore, it’s cool, well shaded, and there are several small creeks that cross it. It’s also pretty flat, with only a few small ups and downs. The lake was still clear of visitors this early in the morning. The calm, stillness of the water was soothing and made me feel a little less anxious about the tough miles that lay ahead. Simultaneously, the jagged ridgeline and peaks in the distance filled me with excitement and wonder. Soon we’d be somewhere up there.

Coldwater Lake


Minnie Peak on the left

Nearing the end of the Coldwater Lake section

After the junction with Coldwater Trail, the route parallels Coldwater Creek, climbing higher and higher to reach one of the crown jewels of the entire course, the alpine lakes for which the trail is named. We definitely ended up power hiking a good portion of this relentless hill. Despite being one of the longer and steeper climbs of the day, the views more than made up for it. Mack and I also found signs of wildlife on the trail, including bear scat and numerous cougar tracks. We kept our eyes and ears alert as we ran. Nothing like apex predators around to keep you moving!


The neverending climb


Looking out on Coldwater Creek

At the top of the first big climb, we were rewarded not only with more spectacular views, but also with the biggest, juiciest, most delicious huckleberries we’ve ever tasted! Result of the heavy snow year maybe? Either way it was the perfect treat following all that elevation gain. We’ve already made plans to come back next August solely to do some huckleberry picking (and maybe a little running). A short ways up we were rewarded yet again with the first stunning alpine lake of the day, Snow Lake, as well as some wild strawberries, something I rarely see or taste. Less than 10 miles into the course and I was already floored by the incredible beauty (and tastiness) of it all! Little did I know how much better it would get as we continued.

A short lived flatter section after the big climb

So many huckleberries!

Snow Lake

The wild strawberries might’ve outdone the huckleberries!

One last look at Snow Lake

After gaining the ridge above Snow Lake and passing the junction with Whittier Ridge Trail, we feasted our eyes on the next showstopper, Shovel Lake. We got an even better view once we reached the section of ridgeline between Shovel and Panhandle Lake. Look down to your right and take in the gorgeousness of Shovel, then point your gaze straight ahead to Panhandle (and Mount Adams on the horizon). One of the best two-for-one deals you can get on a trail run!

Following the descent of the ridge, the terrain became more difficult. There weren’t any significant climbs besides the short ascents out of the basins containing Panhandle Lake and, a little later, Obscurity Lake. In fact, from looking at the elevation profile on the website, I thought we’d be flying through this section. However, the overgrown portions of an already narrow trail became our nemesis. Rather than running, we were bush whacking and tiptoeing over loose rocks and along precarious drop-offs obscured by the dense vegetation. It wasn’t like this the entire way through, but we were both a little frustrated that we couldn’t move faster. The scenery was stunning as ever though. After climbing up from Grizzly Lake, we stopped to rest and reset at Bear Pass, soaking in the first views of Mount St Helens and Spirit Lake while munching on Goldfish crackers and Honeystinger waffles. Still 15+ miles left…

View of Shovel Lake after climbing above Snow Lake

Shovel Lake with Whittier Ridge in the back


Panhandle Lake

Obscurity Lake

Mount St Helens and Spirit Lake from Bear Pass

We were now on the Boundary Trail, the second main trail of the course. The next eight or so miles between Bear Pass and the junction with Harry’s Ridge were my absolute favorite. The trail was no longer overgrown, so we were finally able to pick up our pace despite a few climbs here and there. The surrounding hillsides exhibited remnants of the devastating 1980 eruption, but, more so than that, displayed an abundance of new life. Young firs dotted the landscape amidst the felled trees of the blast zone and wildflowers carpeted the grassy slopes. The trail wound its way along the exposed ridge. Incredible views of Mount St Helens and Spirit Lake, as well as a few of the peaks along Boundary (Mount Margaret, the Dome, and Coldwater Peak), made for an exceptionally scenic section. I never thought ‘vibrant’ would be my word of choice to describe the area that took the brunt of the blast during the eruption, but it’s the first word that came to mind.




We knew we were nearing the end of this section once Saint Helens Lake, situated in a small basin below Coldwater Peak, came into view from the trail. It was a relief knowing that we only had around 11 miles left after the junction with Coldwater Peak, but I was sad to see us leaving behind the endless sea of rolling green hills and wildflower meadows. Saint Helens Lake was also the final lake we’d pass on the route (with the exception of Coldwater Lake, the start and end for the day). The view of the lake and the mountain side by side was one of my favorites of the day. After passing the junction with Coldwater Lake Trail, we continued up and over the Arch and descended to the junction with Harry’s Ridge, looking ahead at Johnston Ridge Observatory, less than four miles away.

Saint Helens Lake, Coldwater Peak, and the Dome in the distance


Approaching Saint Helens Lake


Mount St Helens and Saint Helens Lake

The final miles were the hottest and dustiest of the entire course, passing through the Spillover and running along Johnston Ridge. The hills and meadows of the Mount Margaret Backcountry were replaced with a very different landscape, the barren Pumice Plain between the mountain and the ridge. In addition to the contrasting scenery, the solitude we’d experienced all day had now been replaced with crowds the closer we got to the observatory. Fortunately, the numbers dissipated after we passed the observatory and the Loowit viewpoint. Unfortunately, though, we both realized we were completely out of water with another four miles to go.

Running beneath the hot sun in a completely exposed section didn’t help matters, but at least it was downhill to the Hummocks Trailhead. Despite not having to climb any big hills or bushwhack near precarious drop-offs, these final miles were the most difficult for us, especially combined with heat, dehydration, and hunger. I was so thirsty that I ended up walking the most runnable sections–including the final bit between Hummocks Trailhead and the boat launch–because I didn’t want to make myself more parched than I already was. The first thing we did when we got back to the car was crack open two cans of seltzer water and down them both within a few seconds. Once I had cooled off and rehydrated, I could finally savor the fact that I’d just completed my first 70+ mile running week (after two and a half weeks of not running) with the most difficult (and most beautiful) course I’ve ever run. It had been a long and trying day, but Mack and I were now even more excited about Backcountry Rise. I imagine it will be one we come back to run year after year.

Can you spot me?

Loowit Viewpoint


Mount St. Helens

(Original post date: November 22, 2015)

  • Date: November 22, 2015
  • Start: Marble Mountain Sno Park
  • Distance: 13 miles
  • Duration: 10 hours 40 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Balloon (due to descent via Monitor Ridge and Loowit Trail)
  • Map: Green Trails Map 332S: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
  • References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Washington Trails Association

Mount St. Helens Climb 2
Green Trails Map 332S: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Mount St. Helens has always had a special place in my heart. It may not be the most majestic peak in the Cascade Range, and, following the 1980 eruption, its “formerly interesting summit climb…has been reduced to a strenuous tourist hike” (Jeff Smoot, Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes), but its towering presence in my hometown of Chehalis remains a vivid part of my childhood memories.

Mack and I originally planned to wait until after our Steep Snow Climbing course with Timberline Mountain Guides—taking place in May 2016—to climb Mount St. Helens. However, after lots of scree hiking on Mount Hood and Mount Adams this past summer, I thought it would be more enjoyable to avoid climbing on this terrain. In addition, permits are free and self-issued from November 1st to March 31st. Win-win!

We opted to use the Worm Flows Climbing Route (the winter route) rather than the standard Monitor Ridge ascent due to road conditions. Worms Flows starts from Marble Mountain Sno Park, which is lower in elevation than Climbers Bivouac, and, therefore, less likely to present hazardous driving conditions.

After leaving Portland at 3:45 am, we arrived at the sno park around 5:20 am, signed into the climber’s register, and began our hike in the dark on the Swift Ski Trail around 5:40 am. We hit snow early on and had to don our microspikes well before reaching the climbing route. The sun began to rise just after we reached timberline. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. The clear sky provided views of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, and even Mount Jefferson. I knew it was going to be a beautiful day for climbing.

Mount Hood

Sunrise over a winter wonderland

The elevation gain from the sno park to the junction with Loowit Trail and Worm Flows was fairly gradual. That all changed once we reached the ridge. The going was slow and tedious as we maneuvered our way around giant boulders, occasionally postholing in deep snow. At the end of the ridge, we took a short break to snack, take in the increasingly gorgeous view, and prepare ourselves for the massive snowfield that lay ahead of us.

Mount Adams

Prior to this climb, I’d had at least some experience hiking through snowfields (Illumination Saddle on Hood, Lunch Counter on Adams, and Mount Bachelor). This was Mack’s first time. While I was thoroughly enjoying the challenges of steep snow climbing, Mack was feeling more or less the opposite. (I should add that yesterday was Mack’s first day off since November 1st; he was incredibly exhausted and I asked him to climb a mountain…am I a bad girlfriend?) We stopped consistently to catch our breath and hydrate.

For the most part, our microspikes sufficed in stabilizing each of our kick steps. However, we did hit a few icy sections where crampons would’ve been more reassuring. Although I found microspikes to be perfect for previous hikes in similar conditions, crampons are definitely the way to go for a Mount St. Helens climb in late November, even if only for a few sketchy sections. In addition, I will definitely be bringing an ice axe next time; I have one at home, but didn’t bring it since I have yet to learn how to properly use it.

Unfortunately, we learned the above lessons the hard way. We were more or less 1,000 ft below the summit when Mack slipped and I watched helplessly as he slid down nearly 20 ft—there was no deep, packed snow to help him slow down or stop—before coming to a halt. He was pretty shaken up, so we stopped climbing for a little while to mentally regroup. I was prepared to abandon the remainder of our climb, but Mack decided he was okay to push on.

The last stretch up to the crater rim was, thankfully, a little less terrifying than the previous portion. Though quite steep, the terrain was easier to kick step in; suitable for our microspikes. We reached the summit at 11 am. Only one other person was up there at the time, so we had most of it to ourselves! We were rewarded with breathtaking views of Mount Rainier, Spirit Lake, and the smoking lava dome within the crater. All the fear and stress that came with the previous incident seemed to wash away as we looked out over the winter wonderland below us, basking in the beauty of a successful ascent. After reveling in the moment a few minutes longer, we began the long descent back to the trailhead.

View of the lava dome, Spirit Lake, and Mount Rainier

Better view of Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier

Now, if we had descended the way we came up, this post would already be over. However, in an effort to avoid the section where Mack had slipped earlier, we decided to descend part of the way down the Monitor Ridge route with the intent of crossing to Worm Flows around timberline. Naturally, this did not end up going according to plan. The longer we stayed on Monitor Ridge, the further away our intended destination became. After descending for two and a half hours, we finally pulled out our map—which we should’ve done much earlier—to see if there were any ski trails we could turn on that would intersect with the one we needed to get back to. There weren’t. It was already past 1:30 pm—sunset is around 4:45 pm—and we were at least 4 miles from our car, with no idea how to get back. Not sure what else to do, we decided to continue on to Climbers Bivouac in hopes of begging for a ride back to Marble Mountain Sno Park.

We reached the Ptarmigan Trail/Loowit Trail junction at 2 pm and were just about to continue on Ptarmigan when I remembered that the Loowit Trail, which circumnavigates the mountain, intersects the Worm Flows route! After consulting the map to confirm that this was indeed going to work, we began the 2-mile stretch to the junction. I wish I could say the rest of the way back we faced no more obstacles. But, then again, what’s an adventure without a few?

The part of the Loowit Trail we were hiking on had not been used since the recent snowfall. The trail was covered in knee-deep snow and there were no tracks to follow. The contour of the trail was fairly discernable—I think it helps that we’ve hiked a lot of trails—and there were bright orange tags tied onto tree branches every once in a while, but there were definitely times when we lost it and had to spend several minutes searching for where it picked up again. The tediousness of walking in deep snow and having to navigate an obscured trail meant we were moving slower than we wanted, especially since we were pressed for time. It was a little stressful, but our spirits remained high and we actually had fun. Our hard work eventually paid off, and around 3 pm we made it to the junction with Worm Flows. The rest of the way was easy and familiar. We made it back to the car at 4:20 pm while it was still light outside.

Mount St. Helens taught us a few lessons about being prepared with proper gear and the skills to use them, as well as consulting with a map whenever there’s even the slightest change in route itinerary. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful learning experience and we both look forward to trying a few more non-technical climbs following our class in May. Middle Sister, South Sister, and Mount Adams here we come!

Successful glissade

Failed glissade

Still tumbling…