So you want to climb a mountain. Scratch that — a volcano. For many, especially those living in the Pacific Northwest, climbing Mount St. Helens is a great way to dip your toes into mountaineering.
Prior to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the mountain stood at 9,677 feet. The eruptive activity reduced the volcano’s elevation by about 1,370 feet, leaving behind a horseshoe-shaped crater. Mount St. Helens is a nontechnical climb, but that does not mean it is an easy feat.
The Oregonian’s Vickie Connor made the trek in August and has some tips to help prospective climbers.
Note: This climb is for experienced hikers. Do not attempt climbing Mount St. Helens without prior experience with difficult hikes involving scrambling (using hands and feet). Prepare accordingly.
How do I get a permit?
Permits are required when climbing year-round. The number of daily climbers is limited from April 1 to Oct. 31. To snag a coveted permit during this time frame, visit recreation.gov. Permits are released the first day of the month — one month ahead of when you wish to climb. For example, I wanted to climb in August, so I went online to purchase my permit July 1. As of 2022, the cost after fees is $18 per permit.
When is the best season to go?
If you are new to mountaineering, it’s best to go, in my opinion, during the later part of summer. This way, most of the snow on the mountain will be gone, and that is one less thing to worry about. Without snow, there is less gear involved and less technicality in the climb. However, if you’re looking to level up on this climb and do it with snow and ice, it is possible to do it any time during the year. Be sure to check the forecast and pack winter gear accordingly.
How long is the climb?
If you are starting at Climber’s Bivouac and taking the Monitor Ridge route, it is about 5 miles to the top, and about 10 miles roundtrip. From trailhead to crater rim, it was a four-hour climb for me. Roundtrip, it took about nine hours for me and my climbing partner to complete.
What is the elevation gain?
The elevation gain is about 4,500 feet over the course of 5 miles.
What time should I start?
This depends on a few factors. I lucked out because the forecast for that day was warm, clear and sunny. I started around 4:14 a.m. We left Portland around 2:30 a.m. It was dark, but the goal was to complete the climb before the warmest part of the day. Plus, watching the sunrise during the climb was an unforgettable experience.
How much water should I bring?
I brought 3.5 liters. I carried a 1.5 liter hydration bladder and several other bottles to refill it. In addition, I brought a bottle of Gatorade to replace electrolytes.
How much food should I bring?
Bring a lot of snacks. Your body will need the energy as you exert yourself heading up the volcano. I brought a few different energy bars and fruit snacks to eat easily on the way up. I also brought a sandwich and pretzels to eat lunch at the top.
What gear do I need?
Preparing and dressing appropriately is key.
• Comfortable hiking boots/shoes that you’ve already broken in.
• A backpack. Preferably one built for day hikes.
• Gloves with grip. I purchased a pair of gardening gloves for $7. Your hands after scrambling will thank you.
• Trekking poles
• Downloaded map of the trail. I used AllTrails.
• Gaiters. Keep that volcanic ash and scree from getting into your shoes.
• Ice axe and crampons, if there is snow on the route.
• Food and water
• First aid kit
What is the terrain and landscape like?
Climbing Mount St. Helens is often broken down into three parts. First, is the 2.1 mile hike through the forest. There is some steady elevation gain, but nothing close to what comes after. Second is the scramble. You’re making your way up the mountain through large boulder fields, often using your hands and arms to hoist you up. Gloves are key here. This is also roughly two miles. Follow the white pole markers to keep on track. The last part before the summit is the volcanic ash. Two steps forward, one step back. It feels like you are going straight uphill, while sliding down at the same time. My achilles were aching. Take breaks frequently. This part is a mental battle. Slow and steady wins the race.
What if I ... need to use the bathroom while climbing?
There is a toilet at the trailhead, as well as a restroom one mile in. Otherwise, blue plastic bags are provided at the trailhead. Pack it in, pack it out, as they say. There is a disposal bin in the same place at the beginning of the trail when you’re finished.
How should I prepare?
Do not underestimate this hike. Prepare months out with day hikes that gain elevation quickly. Be sure to hydrate and rest in the days immediately leading up to your climb. Eat a breakfast before you start that will give you some good fuel.
What was the hardest part?
Going up the volcanic ash and scree is definitely a battle. You’re so close, yet feel so far away. However, if you’re like me, and have some cranky knees, going down is actually the hardest part. There is a lot of high impact on the joints.
What was the best part?
Scrambling up the boulders was a ton of fun. I can’t reiterate how helpful a pair of gardening gloves are here. Mid-scramble, the sun rose over the mountain and the colors of the sky turned a perfect pastel blue and pink.
Any final advice?
Pace yourself. Don’t be in a rush and don’t overexert yourself on the way up, because going down is a completely different animal. Take in the experience and have fun. Doing the climb with one of my closest friends made the time go by pretty quickly and helped keep the morale up. Most importantly, make sure you’re both physically and mentally prepared. We originally got permits for June, but did not feel ready to make the climb in the snow. Don’t force yourself into something like this. If you don’t feel ready, maybe go another time. Finally, take the time to acknowledge that you’re climbing a literal force of nature. For many, it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Happy climbing!