Mount St Helens Climb

I awoke at 4am to the hooting of an owl. I was snuggled in my sleeping bag in our tent at Climber’s Bivouac, a small campsite at the beginning of the Mount St Helens climbing route. The apprehension of the last few days gave way to excitement as I rose and put on my headlamp. From now on the mountain was in charge. I recalled the previous day’s walking through the underground lava tubes of the nearby Ape Caves and reading interpretive signs of the destruction that took place here, pondering the potential of a mountain that could create such things.

The sun makes it’s way up alongside Mt Adams.

I was not yet born when the news broke on May 18, 1980 of a massive eruption in the Pacific Northwest. The volcano was displaying the realities of it’s name, Loowit, meaning “smoking” or “fire” mountain by the Klickitat people.  A landslide triggered by the explosive blast sent two-thirds of a cubic mile of mountain top hurtling into the valleys below. A mushroom cloud of ash towered above as hot mud and debris flowed downward, taking with it the living things in its way. In all, 57 people were killed, 250 homes and almost 200 miles of highway were destroyed along with 230 square miles of forest and countless animals. On that day the summit dropped from 9677 feet to 8365 feet and it’s beautiful cone replaced with a mile wide crater.

Early morning climbing on Mt St Helens

As the sun began to rise my husband and I climbed above treeline. The forest we passed through was not only recovering but thriving in the thirty years since the blast, surprising scientists who expected this process to be very slow. But as we continued onto the rocky ridge, the moon-like appearance and ash on our boots reminded us that this is still a mighty volcano. The sun beat down on us from the cloudless August sky above and I imagine the unthinkable heat that formed the young rocks around me. We continue straight up the sandy ash, one step forward, two steps back, finally gaining the crater rim.

The moon-like terrain and lingering snow at the crest of the crater rim.

Standing at the top of the crater rim one cannot deny the fragility of life. Here we are, tiny vulnerable specks on this mass of a mountain. Yet this mighty dome has been weakened, it’s thousand foot top torn away in an instant. To stand on the crumbling rim looking out into the crater is to observe the incomprehensible power of this planet we call home. I am humbled while gazing upon the hardened mudflows of decades ago and the ghostly waterlogged carcasses of 500 year old trees still drifting like toothpicks in eerie Spirit Lake.

Hiking along the crumbly crater rim.

But ultimately this story is one of renewal and restoration. Mount St Helens is rejuvenating itself with fresh forest and wilderness, making room for new species of plants and animals to thrive and providing nutrients to the soil of the valleys that nurture our gardens and agriculture. In the decades to come this mountain ecosystem will become more lush and diverse than it was before. This same principle applies to life: change is essential. And it’s how we navigate these times in our lives that make us the people we are. Like the ever changing mountains we must be adaptable and resilient to change. We can choose to resist or we can embrace it and in the process allow ourselves to renew and grow into better people.

Looking into the melted crater from the rim, that big mound in the middle is the mountain rebuilding itself. The ghostly spirits of trees still float below in Spirit Lake.

Find out more about Mount St Helens:

Climbing and Permit Information

Mount St Helens Institute

Mount St Helens VolcanoCam

National Geographic Gallery

Bonus Camp Read!


In the Blast Zone edited by Charles Goodrich, Kathleen Dean Moore and Frederick J. Swanson

This post was very much inspired by this wonderful collection of essays and poems about Mt St Helens. In 2005, a group of scientists, writers and poets embarked on a 4-day trip to discuss, observe and ponder the changes happening to the mountain inspiring the writings collected here. I consider this essential reading for anyone considering visiting St Helens for the first time or those who have been visiting it for years.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Day Hike or Backpack
Slide this slim ode in your pack whether you are climbing to the crater rim, circumnavigating on the Loowit Trail or wandering with your kids on the trails around the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Hikes Featured in this Post:

Monitor Ridge, Mt St Helens, WA

Ape Caves, Mt St Helens, WA

One Reply to “Mount St Helens Climb”

  1. Beautifully written and photographed. I remember the eruption well; you used to be able to see St. Helens peeking above the ridge to the north from our house in east Multnomah County, but not after the top blew off (well, collapsed). It was such a beautiful volcano, such a lovely almost symmetrical cone. I wish I could say I climbed it before the eruption like a few people I know. I did climb it when it was reopened to climbing in the late 1980s, and the lava dome was not nearly that tall or big as I lay on my tummy and peered into the blown out crater. I remember also not being able to comprehend the energy and force that occurred just beyond where I lay/set/stood. BTW I knew a guy who disappeared and was presumed killed in the blast, he was older than me and came to a few parties at my parents house with his parents.

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