Hiking Mount St. Helens: It's no cake walk

LONGVIEW, Wash. — Recently, I signed up with Longview Parks and Recreation to play ultimate Frisbee and completed a survey about my fitness/endurance level.

I checked the "I am in decent shape but will need a break after 10-15 minutes of intense play" box because I assumed my training regiment of Doritos and hammock anchoring isn't best suited for long stints of physical activity.

Then, on a recent Tuesday, while resting on a jagged rock at about the 6,500-foot elevation level on Mount St. Helens I knew I checked the right box.

But that's the beauty of climbing one of the world's most famous volcanos: almost anyone can do it despite their fitness/endurance level. Some are just faster than others.

As Peter Frenzen, the scientist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, said as our group left the tree line and headed up the mountainside, "It's not a technical climb, it's just a very long, arduous, steep walk."

Think walking up snow-covered stairs for five hours. Sometimes you slip and fall to your knees, other times your leg muscles scream, "Stop!" For me, both happened about every 25 steps.

Later in the summer, the climbing rangers said, the snow will melt and climbers will need to navigate giant, dangerous boulders. On Tuesday, there were few boulders in our way and just a steep white wall leading up, up, up.

A climber navigates one of the unstable boulder areas that the route crosses on the way to the top. In past years, between 11,000 and 12,000 people have received climbing permits. With most making it to the summit, Mount St. Helens is one of the most-climbed peaks in the world. So far this climbing season, about 2,000 have made the trek.

Most weekends through August are already full but several hundred permits are still available for weekdays throughout the summer months, according to the Mount St. Helens Institute. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays have the most permits left.

The institute doles out climbing permits required to go above the top of the Ptarmigan Trail.

The route starts at the Climber's Bivouac, a campground at elevation 3,700 feet at the end of Road 830. The first two miles of the route is along the Ptarmigan Trail, which gains 1,100 feet to timberline and the base of Monitor Ridge.

From there, climbers slather on sunscreen and begin the steep ascent, which is well-marked with wooden poles.

The view, especially on a crystal clear day, gets better as the elevation increases. Mounts Hood and Jefferson to the south, Mount Adams to the east and the valleys of the Lower Columbia to the west highlight the amazing landscape. (Later, Mount Rainier to the north.)

Rocks from ancient lava flows and trees struggling to survive in the harsh environment offer close-up, hands-on geology and ecology lessons. But as the sweat starts pouring, muscles start aching and the climb starts getting steeper, the heavenly view takes a back seat to intense focus on your goal: the top.

From my rest stop at the 6,500 feet elevation level, the climb to the rim at 8,250 feet was over several steep snow fields. (Later in the summer, the path becomes smooth, sandy ash that provides loose footing.) Finally, wispy, sulfur-scented plumes of gas escaping from the crater marked the rim.

Dimi Besheva of Seattle said she decided to climb the mountain after seeing a picture of the volcano on a co-worker's desk.

"I said, 'that's a nice picture. Where is that?' My co-worker told me it was Mount St. Helens," she said. "The crater was the best. It was amazing. Worth the hike."

Since the latest dome-building eruption began in October 2004, new lava slowly has been piling up in the crater atop and adjoining a previous dome built in sporadic eruptions from 1980 to 1986.

Between them, the two lava domes have replaced about 11 percent of the mass of the volcano that shot skyward or toppled into the Toutle Valley in 1980, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. At its current rate of dome growth — now less than a cubic meter a day — the volcano could take about 180 years to replace the old summit, the USGS estimates.

Scientists still don't know when the current dome-building eruption will end, though some volcanoes have had dome-building eruptions that have lasted decades, the USGS said.

From the crater rim, you could actually hear the growth. Rocks that were recently extruded from deep beneath the surface were crumbling and tumbling down the sides of the dome — about 550 feet below us. The intermittent rock landslides echoed throughout the crater.

After oohing and aahing for nearly an hour, down is your next direction. And you have several options.

The most popular — when snow still covers much of the hike — is glissading, which is basically sledding down the mountain on your rear end. We were able to sled two miles down the mountain — almost all the way back to timberline.

A handful of people even packed downhill skis and boots up the mountain.

"This is one of the best springtime skis," Ernie Powers of Seattle said back at the trailhead. "Now, the (trailhead) needs a beer and burger joint. With 100 tired people every day coming off the mountain, they don't care how much a burger costs. I'd pay $12 for one right now."

I would have bought two.

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