Mt. Saint Helens
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Nearing the end of our PNW roadtrip, Adam and I had slightly different goals for these last few days. I would have preferred heading back to Oregon for two of the tougher county highpoints, including North Sister which we had failed on at the beginning of the trip. Adam preferred to stay in Washington for Baker and Mt. St. Helens. In the end we compromised, agreeing to climb St. Helens today, and the North Ridge of Jefferson in Oregon the following day.
Mt. St. Helens had never gotten onto my radar. In the pre-explosion time before 1980, it was 1,300ft taller and the highpoint of Skamania County. With it's reduced height, the county highpoint was moved to a liner on the side of Mt. Adams on the far eastern end of the county. Mt. St. Helens still has considerable prominence, but much less than the 6,000ft it once enjoyed. Since the eruption, permits have been carefully controlled, limited to 100 per day and must be purchased at least 24hrs in advance through the Internet. We had declined to get permits for both Adams and Rainier and would do the same for Mt. St. Helens. We had no idea how much or how little the mountain is patrolled. Our simple plan was to start early enough that no ranger was likely to stop us, and deal with whatever consequences might result if we encountered a ranger on the descent - the same plan we used for Adams and Rainier. We would use the standard route on the south side that ascends Monitor Ridge, the only trail leading to the crater rim.
We were at Climber's Bivouac at the end of Forest Road 830 (from Woodland on I-5, take SR503 east to Forest Road 83, then to Forest Road 81, finally Forest Road 830) sometime after 5a. It was sufficiently light by the time we started at 5:45a that no headlamps were needed. Starting at an elevation of around 3,700ft, we encountered a mix of snow and clear on the initial trail through the forest south of the volcano. Sunlight began filtering through the trees as sunrise came just before 6a. Part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the Volcanic National Monument was established in 1982 by Reagan and includes the volcano and surrounding lands. We entered the monument only a few minutes from the trailhead and spent the next half an hour making our way through the forest before starting to clear the trees. This is roughly the 4,800-foot level, the highest point one can climb legally without a permit. There was no one else in sight when we started up the restricted zone, mostly covered in hard, frozen snow.
The boot-tracked trail had disappeared as previous climbers were all over the map (or in this case, the slope) in chosing a route up the snow. Hard as it was, the snow was somewhat slippery, more so as the slope steepened. Ten minutes later we came across two other climbers ahead of us, looking to be a bit stuck on the slope. They were in fact moving, albeit slowly, due to lack of crampons and the need to check traction with each step. We had crampons and axe but left them in our packs due to laziness - it seemed that once we got up this 50yds of slope we could get back on rock and do without the crampons. We fared better than the other two, probably due to a bit more experience on such terrain. Adam was off to the right climbing ahead of one of the others while I made an ascending traverse to the left to get on the rocks sooner. Periodically, wooden poles marked the route up Monitor Ridge (presumeably so named because of the scientific monitoring equipment set up along the route), sometimes with pink flagging to make them more obvious. We climbed up this mix of rock and snow for the next hour, stopping for a break just once and hardly slowing. Of the two climbers we passed, the younger one had kept on our tails nearly from where we first met them, the other somewhere far behind. As we climbed ever higher we had fine views of Mt. Hood to the south and Mt. Adams to the west, both in the far distance but plainly visible.
Around 8a we were still about 500ft below the crater rim but had run out of rock and tractionable snow. Though more than an hour in the sunshine, the snow ahead was rock hard and growing steeper. The ridge had run out of rock. We paused to get out our crampons and axe. The young climber, perhaps not 19yrs old, caught up with us and was contemplating the route ahead. He had no crampons or axe and was dressed as if he had only planned a short hike in the woods, yet had impressed us with his stamina and ability to keep up. He asked us about his chances for continuing on as he looked enviously at the gear we pulled from our packs. Wanting to give him a chance to reach the summit, I offered him the use of my axe. Though hard, the snow was not icy and the crampons would bite nicely into the surface for adequate purchase without the security of the axe. Our new friend was reluctant to take gear from me that I might need for my own safety, but after sufficient reassurance he was happy to see if this might help him succeed. I gave him a very short lesson on the use of the axe with point and tip for different angles of ascent and he started up before we had finished with our crampons. It was evident from the start that the axe might not be sufficient and it could make for a sketchy ascent. Adam then spoke up and offered that he had a spare crampon in his pack that our friend could use. Who carries a third crampon in their pack as a spare? Adam, apparently. Another bit of help in putting the crampon on correctly and he was ready to go - this was enough to get him to the rim.
It took only twenty minutes for the three of us to climb the remaining distance to the crater rim. This was not the highpoint - that was still a short distance to the west - but the first views from the rim were stunning. Below us was the snow-covered lava plug that was still building itself up, more than 30 years since the big eruption. Steaming vents were evidence of the continuing activity inside the volcano's core. Beyond the plug, a full mile across the crater rim, was the breach in the north side of the mountain through which poured destruction in the form of liquid earth created from the mixture of volcanic rock, earth and instantly-melted glaciers. Several miles to the north was Spirit Lake which I had first seen on a visit in 1992. The heat-stripped logs of the denuded forest were still visibly floating in the lake, though they are slowly sinking with time and decomposition. Much further north rose Mt. Rainier and a mental image of what further destruction that mountain might wreak if a similar eruption were to occur there.
A short distance west was another climber who had come to the rim some time before us. We had not seen him ascend ahead of us. Our friend was satisfied with reaching the rim and expressed no interest in reaching the highpoint. Adam and I started west in the direction of the summit, but I soon returned to retrieve the axe I had loaned to our friend as I might need it for the steeper slopes on the summit ahead. The weather was quite fine and we expected the snow to soften quickly over the next hour, making the descent safer, even without the axe. We left him with the single crampon, saying we'd retrieve it when we caught up with him on the descent. As a backup, we described our 4Runner to him and told him he could leave the crampon on the vehicle.
It took another 20 minutes to traverse the crater rim with a modest drop to a narrow saddle before reaching the highpoint just before 9a. There were no tracks in the snow near the summit, but since it had snowed some in the last few days, this didn't say anything about when the last visitor had been to the top. It may have been a day, or several days prior. We didn't walk too close to the edge lest there might be a cornice that could break off. We hung around for about five minutes taking pictures and enjoying the views before deciding to head down.
Rather than return along the rim, we chose to descend more directly, down snowfields to the west of our ascent line up Monitor Ridge. The snow had softened up nicely by now and made the descent both faster and more enjoyable. What had taken two and half hours to ascend took us less than an hour and a half to descend. Because we were out of sight of the Monitor Ridge route for much of the time, we did not see the other two climbers that we had left at the rim during the descent. We rejoined the original route near the base of the mountain where we encountered more than a dozen other climbers on their way up. It was 10:30a by the time we were onto easier ground below 4,800ft. As we made our way back along the trail through the forest, we came across a park ranger carrying a shovel on his way up. Uh oh. As we approached, he asked casually, "How was the summit?" Thinking this was an intro to ask about our permit, I decided to head this one off quickly by responding, "Oh, we didn't go to the summit. We just came out to recon the route to the base of the mountain." This seemed to work as we passed each other without stopping and without further comment. I doubted he believed me, but what more could he say? Surely I will go to hell someday.
It was 11:10a when we returned to the trailhead, making for an outing of about 5.5 hrs. We looked about the 4Runner to see if the third crampon had been left by the young climber, but found nothing. We hung around for almost an hour, wondering what had become of him. I found his older climbing partner at one end of the parking lot, milling about the tent they had set up the night before. He too was wondering where his companion might be, having gotten back several hours earlier himself. I gave him my contact info so that the crampon might be mailed back to us some time in the future. Back at our own car, Adam and I started second-guessing ourselves as to whether we should have loaned him gear to begin with, and whether taking the axe back at the summit could have contributed to his delay in returning. We would spend the next several days conjecturing about what had happened. Should we just leave? Go look for him? Were we legally or morally responsible for him if he should have been injured? We never did get solid answers. We know that there were no reports of an injured climber in the days following. But there was also no word from either of the two and Adam never got his crampon back. I had neglected to get their contact information, thinking it a simple matter to return a borrowed crampon. And so the mystery was left unsolved.
As it was barely noon and we still had plenty of energy, we decided to see if we couldn't tackle something else. Having no maps or plans ahead of time, we had only our memories and the GPS to work with. Fortunately these would suffice. I'd recalled that there was a Goat Mtn somewhere in the vicinity of Saint Helens that was a county highpoint. A check of the GPS found two significant Goat Mountains, the one we were interested in being fairly close by, on the same network of Forest Service Roads that we had used to reach Climbers Bivouac. We used the GPS to navigate a series of increasingly deteriorating forest roads until we were within a few miles of the summit and had run out of navigable road. Our starting point was not the best - later we found there were TRs at cohp.org that described the shortest route, less than a mile from the summit. But ours would work.
Goat Mountain is the highpoint of Cowlitz County with a prominence of just over 2,000ft. There is no maintained trail leading to the summit, so we expected this could be a tough bit of bushwhacking in the typically dense undergrowth of the PNW temperate rain forest. We started off on an old overgrown logging road heading north and traversing the west side of Pt. 3,472ft. Not all logging roads show up on the GPS's maps, and not all those shown continue to exist, so it was a bit of guesswork to patch together the least brushy route to Goat Mtn. After about a quarter of a mile we left the road to climb uphill in search of a second road that was shown to traverse along the ridge NE of Pt. 3,472ft. This was a short bit of steep, desperate scrambling up loose dirt layered with pine needles, but we soon landed upon the road we so much hoped would be there. It too was overgrown and had not been driven on in many years, but it was still serviceable for hiking and we followed it to the saddle on the WSW side of Goat Mtn. This we found later was the start for the shortest approach. A cleared road headed north from here and with some circuitous driving would eventually lead back to Forest Road 81 which we had forked off from.
At this point we were less than a mile from, but still some 1,500ft below the summit and prepared ourselves for a difficult bushwhack, much like the assault on Buck Mtn we had done earlier in the week. Like that previous effort, we soon separated as we each tried to find the route of least resistance, neither finding a particularly advantageous route. But about five minutes after starting up from the saddle I came upon the first of a series of orange flaggings that marked a route up the mountain. I called out for Adam to come join me. These were a godsend, turning out to be the work of enthusiastic county highpointers that had forged a use trail up the mountain, marking the route and doing some key grooming and clipping. It changed the effort from slightly desperate to steep but easily managed. We made good time following the marked route, and 40 minutes after first spotting the flagging, we had reached the south summit. There is a fine view of Mt. St. Helens attained at this point to the northeast, a spectacular one at that. Goat Mtn has three summits, it turns out. The south summit is clearly the lowest and we paused only a moment before heading north for another five minutes to the middle summit. Here we found a benchmark and summit register left by Richard Carey in 2005. We also learned that there was an alternate highpoint about 15 minutes further north somewhere through the trees. The visibility was good only looking east to Mt. St. Helens, the other point had to be taken on faith. We might have pressed on further to visit both points if we hadn't gleaned from the register entries that the middle summit was probably the highpoint. Having had more than we had bargained for already as we were now getting rather tired, we decided this was good enough. We had a short break for a rest and a snack before starting back.
The return went faster in part because we followed the flaggings all the way back to the saddle. The flags actually gave out within about 200yds of the saddle, but it was not hard to find our way down through this more open section and we even found a crude sign that had been tacked to a tree to mark its start. We were back to the car by 4:20p, and not five minutes later starting back down. Our plan to climb Mt. Jefferson the following day meant that we needed to use the available daylight to drive south into Oregon, getting reasonably close for an early start the next morning. A couple of stops at the thrift stores we spotted from I-5 along the way helped break up the drive. Adam was again looking for used camera gear that could be resold on Ebay at a profit, but nothing of value was found. We took a room at the Motel 6 in Salem, one of the worst we'd ever stayed at. The typical clientele were not among society's most productive members, and even the female ones had Adam and I a bit nervous. It would prove an eventful evening on this 4th of July...
There is an alternate route up Goat Mtn that could be worth exploring. About five minutes up from the saddle at the start of the use trail, we came across a newly built trail traversing the west side of Goat Mtn, not shown on any of the available maps. A TR we saw later suggested this trail starts on the south side of Goat Mtn along Forest Road 81. This would be an excellent way to climb Goat Mtn with a low-clearance vehicle since any car can navigate the well-graded Forest Road 81. Exactly where to find this starting point is a bit of a mystery, however.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Saint Helens - Goat Mountain
This page last updated: Thu Sep 20 15:39:46 2012
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