Ascent of Mount Saint Helens on 2004-04-25

Climber: Greg Slayden

Others in Party:Glenn Morrison
Date:Sunday, April 25, 2004
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Saint Helens
    Elevation:8333 ft / 2539 m

Ascent Trip Report

My alarm chirped me awake at the ungodly hour of 3 AM, and since I had done most of my packing the night before, I was able to get dressed quickly and be on the road by 3:25 AM. I was supposed to meet my friend Glenn Morrison at 4 AM in Tacoma, but I had underestimated the distance and despite the complete lack of traffic it was not until 4:15 that I pulled in next to Glenn's Isuzu Trooper at the South Tacoma Park and Ride. This became the theme of the day--basically, running late.

I threw my skis, pack, and other stuff into the back of Glenn's truck and soon we were motoring south on I-5, eagerly anticipating a day of corn skiing on the endless open south slopes of Mt. St. Helens. The highs in Portland were supposed to be about 80 degrees and there was not a cloud in the sky, so we were hopeful.

We stopped for a McDonald's breakfast and some relatively cheap (under $2.00/gallon) gas in Longview, WA, and after that exited I-5 to take Route 503 east into the forested foothills. The usual winter and spring route to St. Helens starts at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park and climbs the Worm Flows route, but we decided to climb using the summer route via the "Climber's Bivouac" and Monitor Ridge, and then find a lesser-used descent route. So as we approached the mountain we peeled off FR-83 to take FR-81 north, hoping the road to the Climber's Bivouac was mostly clear of snow. At first it looked OK, but about mile before the Climber's Bivouac road junction we very suddenly found the road blocked by a few snowbanks. Glenn shifted into 4WD and plowed his SUV through a few of them, but quickly the road was entirely snow covered. We parked at the last major patch of pavement.

It took us about half an hour to get dressed, put on ski boots, and get our packs together. At about 7:50 AM Glenn and I finally started uphill, skiing on the snow-covered road using climbing skins. There was only one short dry patch of road where we had to take off our skis as we went up the gently sloping road for less than a mile. Soon we came to the junction with the spur dirt road to the Climber's Bivouac, where a sign told us it was 3 miles up to the normal summer trailhead. I remembered this road from my first St. Helens trip in 1995--it had been blocked by snow then, too, and I remembered the miserable hike over a mostly snow-free dirt road. Now, though, the road was 99% snow covered, so Glenn and I could ski up it.

We passed a couple of other parties of skiers and snowshoers as we cross-country skiied up the road for the next hour or so in our heavy plastic boots and skis with climbing skins. The forest the road passed through was mostly snowy, but there were many banks on the sides more exposed to the sun where the snow had melted, and it seemed to me that the road was definitely the ticket to getting down, since it was holding the snow nicely. There was only one small dry patch on the whole road.

After a couple of gear adjustment breaks (sunsreen, clothing, etc.) and longer than we thought, we found ourselves climbing up the last slope to the flat, snowy expanse of the Climber's Bivouac, in summer a parking lot for those who elect to climb St. Helens by hiking up 4000 vertical feet of ash and scree. Judging by the craters the outhouses were in, the area was covered with about 6 feet of snow. Glenn and I took a break here to eat, clamber down to the outhouses, and chat with a skier who came up behind us. It was now about 9:30 AM, and we were getting more and more behind our ideal schedule.

We started off again, following the clear ski and snowshoe tracks that led to the far end of the parking lot and seemed to head uphill through very open forest towards the looming white slopes of the peak above. Glenn, though, was certain that this was not the route to Monitor Ridge, but a traverse over to the Worm Flows. I agreed that we didn't want to waste the effort we made skiing up the boring road only to traverse over to the normal winter route we could have more easily gained from the Sno-Park, so after a couple minutes I agreed to go back to the parking lot and find the Monitor Ridge trail. Once back there Glenn saw plastic blue diamond markers nailed to trees that marked the trail, leading uphill into dense woods. There were no footprints or ski tracks whatsoever, though, which made me a bit nervous--this was a very popular peak to climb, and I would have thought that someone would have climbed this way on a sunny weekend.

We started off following the diamonds, and Glenn was sure that this was the right trail, so for the next hour or so we skinned up through the trees, constantly on the lookout for blue diamonds on trees, our only route markers through the forest. I was annoyed by the route we seemed to be taking, since it was often flat or even downhill, but the trees were spaced widely enough and the snow was deep enough so that we could skin our way up with a minimum of tricky tree-well situations. Often the best way up was to cut straight ahead to a far away diamond and not try to link every single one--the deep snow completely obliterated the summer trail we were following. I had my GPS on in the top mesh pocket of my pack, breadcrumbing our path in case we got lost in the forest. After a while the uphill became more pronounced, and we could see a massive treeless ridge to our left through the trees.

This was the very base of the Monitor Ridge, and we finally broke out of the trees and realized we had to climb the steep, open slopes to the crest. There was a party of two guys resting halfway up this initial slope, a skier and a snowborarder, and we chatted with them briefly about how we had come up--they must have cut straight up and avoided the path, since we had broken trail on it. Glenn started to take off his skis to boot up the steep slopes of the ridge, but I decided to try skinning up it. I think I made the right choice, because the snow was heavy slushy stuff that made for excellent skinning. I followed the path the two guys had made that switchbacked up the slope, soon passed them (still resting), and was cranking up the vertical to a flat area and then up another steep slope to the very crest of the ridge. In a zone, I failed to notice no one was behind me as my final switchback let loose a big pile of slush and I reached the lone scraggly trees atop the ridge.

Here I waited about 15 minutes for the other party of two and finally Glenn to come up to me. The other party stayed a bit lower and went up another way, and I finally saw Glenn booting up to the flat area, then put on his skis, and then skin up to meet me. He explained that he had fallen in a deep posthole right after taking his skis off, causing his delay.

It was now probaby close to 11 AM, and it was a very bright, sunny, cloudless, warm day, with just the right breeze to keep us cool and just warm enough to be pleasant and not hot. We still had over 3000 vertical feet to the summit, so we started slogging uphill for the next 4 hours or so, slowly moving one ski in front of the other. The skinning was easy, and we picked lines that minimized switchbacking as we made our way up the various crests, hollows, and ramps of the wide-open Monitor Ridge. The only other party on this entire route was the skier/snowboarder pair we had passed, and we played tag with them a bit, but they were generally to our left as we took a route to the west of the normal summer trail, marked with posts in the snow we could see every now and then.

This was a long, long uphill experience. The only real landmark was a pointy false summit that looked very prominent from below, and I was very discouraged when I checked the map once we were above it to see that it was only 6000 feet high, 2300 feet under the main summit. Glenn broke trail at first, and once we had gotten to the top of a big ramping formation I took over and steered for a saddle, leading to a bowl, in the direction of the summit and its distinctive cornice visible far above.

Near the crater rim I used my GPS to steer us towards the highest point of the mountain, which was not in an intuitive place. We finally got up as far as we dared, just below the infamous overhanging cornices into the crater. It was now near 3 PM, definitely getting very late. We quickly ate and started downhill.

The skiing was excellent, and we took a line to the west of our ascent route on the wide open volcanic slopes. We swopped down the ridges, bowls, and hollows in terrain, looking for nice snow and steep fall line. As we neared treeline we started thinking about working our way back to our ascent route, but we eventually hit the trees to far west and had to hike back to the point where the trail entered the trees.

The rest of the journey was a long slog back home. Down through the trees as the daylight waned, following our upward skin track, then down the snow-covered road, where it was possible to just stand in our skis and glide downhill effortlessly. It was dark when we got to Glenn's truck, and I did not get home until midnight.

I was not especially productive the next day at work, for some reason.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:5653 ft / 1723 m
    Route:Monitor Ridge
    Trailhead:FR 81  2680 ft / 816 m
    Quality:4 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Bushwhack, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Skis, Ski Poles
    Weather:Cool, Windy, Clear
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip

 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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