Peak(s):  Mt. St. Helens - 8,363 feet
Date Posted:  10/06/2010
Date Climbed:   10/03/2010
Author:  Aubrey
 Mt. St. Helens  

"Why would anyone want to climb that thing?!" my mom texted me, after learning that we had just climbed Mount Saint Helens. "It could go any minute."

Technically, she's right, as the mountain has had many small eruptions over the years. And the lava dome in the crater continues to belch its way to new heights. But there are so many scientists and sensors monitoring that mountain's every move, it's relatively safe to climb. Or at least that's what I told myself.

Thirty years ago, when I was just a lad, I vividly remember watching news reports of the Mount Saint Helens eruption. It was the most destructive volcanic explosion in North American history.

The eruption blasted away approximately 3.7 billion cubic yards of earth, and plumes of ash reached 80,000 feet in less than 15 minutes. The mountain's elevation was reduced from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet, and a crater more than 2,000 feet deep was left behind. Countless animals and 57 people were killed.

Some of these things went through my mind as I stood on the eroding crater rim of the most active volcano in the Cascade Range. But I was distracted by the mountain's unbelievable beauty, so fear took a back seat while the views took my breath away more than the thin air.

I took these photos of Mount Saint Helens the previous day (from the southeast side), which, luckily for us, was nice and sunny:



And here's a photo of some waterfall (also taken the previous day):


Earlier that morning, Jen, our friend Pavel and I set off to climb the world-famous stratovolcano - or at least what was left of it - from Climbers' Bivouac via the Monitor Ridge route.

The first couple miles of the easy-to-follow trail meander through a dark forest blanketed in tree moss. Elevation gain is pleasantly gradual.

The air temperature was in the 30s but the humidity coupled with exertion made it seem warm. Unfortunately, it was foggy and cloudy, so we didn't know if we'd get any views on top.

We kept saying to ourselves, "Wouldn't it be cool if we broke above the clouds?!"


And right about 4,800 feet in elevation, we could tell that our wish would come true.


Above 4,800, near timberline (and where climbing permits are required), the terrain transforms into a lunar-like landscape. Fog only added to the mysterious nature of the mountain.



Wooden poles mark the route among large lava boulders.



Higher up, some talus hopping is necessary, but the difficulty never exceeds Class 2 scampering and scrambling.



This is why it's called Monitor Ridge:



Beyond that, a calf-burning slog up loose scree and sinking ash is all that's required to gain the top.




We had some awesome views of nearby volcanoes. Here's Mt. Adams:


Then more slogging up the ash and scree. You know: one step up, half a step back down.



After hiking four-and-a-half miles and gaining 4,600 feet of elevation over three-and-a-half hours, we reached the summit ridge.



Some shots looking toward Mt. Rainier:




The 360-degree views were much better than I anticipated, and the weather could not have been better.


As I gazed upon the horizon, it seemed like we were on a desolate island in the middle of a sea of clouds, with the majestic "islands" of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount Hood all rising toward the sky in the distance.


The highest point on Mount Saint Helens' ridge is about a quarter-mile to the west of where most people turn around, but it's only slightly higher and it essentially offers the same views. For most people, walking along the loose and unstable ridge is not worth the effort or risk. And finding that exact high point may be a moot exercise anyway, as 1,300 feet of the mountain's true summit was blown away 30 years ago. Not to mention, the ridge is prone to avalanching, which will undoubtedly change the highest point again one day. In 2008, a USGS time-lapse camera was destroyed after a 50-foot-wide by 20-foot-deep section of the crater rim collapsed.

Regardless of where you stand on the crater rim, gazing into the belly of the beast is the real prize when climbing this mountain.


When you peer over the edge and into that massive, horseshoe-shape crater, which is more than a mile wide, you can see steaming vents and crevasse-choked glaciers covered in pumice. And when you consider the enormous void of where the mountain top used to be, you get an overwhelming sense of how powerful and violent that 1980 eruption must have been.

There's also a growing lava dome in the crater. Scientists believe that this is evidence that the mountain is rebuilding itself (similar to the Russian volcano, Bezymianny). One estimate I read says that it will only take 100 years until the summit crater is filled in and 200 years until the mountain is back to its pre-1980 size.

As we hiked back down into the refreshing mist below the cloud deck, I felt privileged to have seen such raw and rugged beauty created by one of earth's most destructive forces.



For more information, visit the U.S. Forest Service's Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Web site at Climbing permits (during the warmer months) are sold online through the Mount Saint Helens Institute at

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Grab your ash and run!
06/02/2011 14:57
I am from South Dakota and remember the day of the eruption well. My grandparents lived on Vancouver Washington at the time. Until it exploded they had a view from their house. I got to fly over the mountain in July '81 in a small plane. Still remember the smell of sulfur and all the trees in Spirit Lake as well as all the trees lying like toothpicks for miles. Thanks for sharing.

BTW, ”Grab your ash and run!” was the saying on the T-shirt I got from that trip.

Doctor No

Nice work!
10/07/2010 00:30
This is still on my short list - growing up in Seattle, the eruption was a big deal (I still have a huge trash bag of pumice somewhere, back from when we didn't know any better).

Check out ”Echoes of Fury” if you want a good compelling read about the eruption and its aftermath.


I remember the ash over Denver
10/07/2010 01:13
Little kid, I remember the story in National Geographic published right after it blew; of old Spirit Lake lodge-owner Harry Truman who died under hundreds of feet of firey ash... surreal. So glad to see the earth healing itself, I suppose wrecking itself more... lol. But it's always renewing itself somehow.

As for your trip, I've often thought of that as a good excuse to head NW, now you've planted the bug big time! Thanks for the trip report.


10/07/2010 01:22
Great to see these pics. My wife and I climbed it this June and it was still 100% snow covered, which may have actually helped some. I know it helped on the way down - super glissading!! Although at the top, the huge cornice was still there which prevented us from looking down into the crater.


10/07/2010 02:10
Nice report Aubrey. Looking forward to many more PNW tr's in the future. Climbing Hood next year? Or Rainier again?


Islands in the sky...
10/07/2010 02:20
What a great description... that's exactly what those peaks look like, rising up out of the clouds. Love the shots of Rainier and Adams. Looks like an incredible climb! Well, except maybe for the scree/ash combo. Never thought there was a way to make scree worse, and now I know - just add ash!

I admit I knew very little about Helens before reading your report... thanks for posting, and keep the PNW reports coming!


Man, I miss your CO reports...
10/07/2010 03:21
your adventures here helped me plan my own. But I'm really digging this move you've made to the PNW and the resulting reports. I've always thought the Portland or Seattle areas would be a great place to live, and it's one of the few places where I occasionally search for jobs.

Now I'm convinced - the next time I visit Portland I'm making the time to climb Mt. St. Helens. I too remember it strongly from my childhood. Thanks for posting.

Wish I lived in CO

Thank you
10/07/2010 12:50
Climbed half way up this with my wife in 2002, but for reasons left unsaid we had to turn around. That dissapointment helped give me the desire for climbing. Someday I'd like to finish St. Helens, but until then your pictures of the second half the hike will tide my curiousity over. Thanks again, great report as always.


Great pics !
10/07/2010 15:01
Thanks for sharing your report Aubrey. Looks like you and Jen are doing well ! Keep climbing !


There's so much more to that area ...
11/30/2010 17:28
Hope you take the time to do all the "touristy" things on the other side of the mountain. There's a cool visitor center (with a short film presentation), and many trails that give you a very overwhelming picture of the devastation caused by the eruption (you can even get fairly close to Spirit Lake). I recently read a trip report of a loop that sounded extremely interesting. Thanks for posting. Glad you guys are out and about. Take care and Happy trails!


nice report
10/07/2010 18:22
I still remember the eruption from when I lived in IL. I went up on the rim in 1990. That whole PNW area is beautiful! Thanks for the TR and interesting background.


10/08/2010 00:30
Great report and awesome pics....I remember when she erupted too. A few days later the entire TX panhandle had a light layer of the ash that had been carried up into the jet stream and drifted over us. Love the pics of the other nearby mountains!


10/08/2010 21:44
Thanks, everyone, and thanks for sharing your comments!

bjohnson17: Still have that vintage t-shirt?
Doctor No: You should put the pumice in vials & sell 'em on ebay
wildlobo71: Plenty of good reasons to head NW
denvermikey: Good thing you didn't get too close; that's how a guy died earlier this year ... fell through a cornice and down the 70-degree slope into the crater
EatinHardtack: Hopefully Baker next summer ... & Hood's still on the long list
wooderson: Yep, the ash sucked ... got in the eyes, lungs, boots ... I decided, if god made dirt, then the devil must've made ash
kimo: Thanks, and I've enjoyed your reports and great photos, too
Wish I lived In CO: Come here after climbing a couple 14ers and it'll be no problem ... btw, the 2nd half is much better than the 1st half
mtgirl: thanks! Hope you're doing well, too ... got any more road trips planned?
Presto: Thanks again for all your suggestions, links, etc.; very handy and much appreciated
unclegar: Thanks, my pleasure
huffy13: Amazing how ash made it to so many parts of the country ... something I read said that some of it made it all the way around the world


10/09/2010 21:19
Very nice trip. I climbed St. Helen's in 1994. Unlike your trip, when I reached the rim, it was engulfed in cloudcover; there was no view down into the crater or out to the neighboring peaks. Wanted to give it a go again this year in acknowledgment of the 30th, but have run out of time. I vividly remember the step-slip approach up near the summit and the soreness of my throat for several days as a result of breathing in that ash.
Thanks for sharing your report and photos.

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