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Mount Saint Helens

Capool Ratio (people/cars): 1.6
Excursion Time: 11 hours

A hardy and enthusiastic group of seven Santiam Alpine Club climbers reached the crater rim of Mount Saint Helens, and succeeded in returning safely to polite society, on May 29, 2009. The team consisted of: Climb Leader Fritz Capell; 2009 Climb School Students Simon Boyd, Michael McCusker, John Van Boxtel, and Victor Whitacre; 2007 Climb School Student Tom Strauch, and Michael's wife Julie. Victor served as Assistant Leader (as I usually can't get a prequalified co-lead, I choose one from the crew).

Myself, Victor, Tom, Michael, and Julie bivy'd the night before at the Marble Mountain trailhead. Our target departure time was 5am, but we weren't ready until 5:15, and then we waited the prescribed 15 minutes for John and Simon, who were driving up in the morning. We couldn't afford to wait any longer, so we left their passes on my car and headed up the trail at 5:30.

We made the approach up to the treeline by around 7am, where we stopped for a break near Chocolate Falls. John and Simon caught up to us at that point, having left the trailhead at 6am and made excellent time on the approach.

(I take the blame for their difficulties; I had been too brief on the directions, being pressed for time, and assuming that the Sno-Park would be easy to locate. Usually I am more careful with the driving instructions.)

The usual route crosses the gully at Chocolate falls, and then takes the ridge immediately to the west and follows it upward. We took the gully instead, because I had been there last week and found it quite negotiable due to a deep snow-pack, and pleasantly shady. This route went well for a few minutes, but we soon realized that the last week of melt had changed things; the snow was low enough that escaping the gully would be a challenge, and significant melt had weakened the snow in the middle. After some sketchy footing and a nasty post-hole, we decided to take a pass to higher ground to the east. This put us in a mess of ridges and valleys that is difficult to track, so as we ascended we tracked to the west again to reorient to the usual route.

We traversed several ridges and gullies until we could see the usual route, but elected not to go over there. Instead we took the next gully to the east, which turned out to be a pretty cool route. There was evidence of other climbers choosing that option also. It's easier to follow than the dog-route, because it is consistent and organized all the way up above 6000 feet, whereas the dog-route bumps around a variety of ridges and valleys that can be difficult to follow, especially for descent. The gully in which we traveled offered good snow-pack and some shade, though there was evidence of inactive rockfall, and some dangerous cornices above to watch.

The weather was perfect; sunny, but with a cooling breeze. As we ascended, the breeze increased to a sustained wind when we reached the crater rim at 11:30, about a half hour ahead of our noon target. My wind meter measured it as 10mph, but we were all relatively certain that the wind was higher; we had to put on all our layers.

The view from the crater rim was spectacular, really indescribable. If you haven't been there, you simply must go see it for yourself. Looking down into the crater, you can see the fumaroles spewing steam, the building dome, the massive crater cliffs... not even photographs can do it justice. We also got good views of Rainier and Adams, and a distant Hood. The air was not very clear this day, so Jefferson could hardly be distinguished and the Sisters were lost in the haze.

After a few minutes enjoying the view of the crater, we tracked the rim to the west toward the optional "true summit", but the going was difficult due to poor, icy footing and high winds, and the true summit was a treacherous cornice, so before long we abandoned that quest, sat down for lunch and reconfigured for the glissading descent.

The glissading was very nice - not too slushy to slide, but not too icy either. The main challenge is avoiding the many gullies that the fall lines pull you into, so you slide for a while and then get up and track to the west, then repeat. We followed the dog-route as best we could. For each slide, I sent assitant Victor first with the instructions about where to stop and track from there, then the rest of the team, and I went last. For most of our climbers, this was a first time glissading, but they caught on to the technique quickly and were sliding in a confident and controlled manner before long. Simon didn't glissade very much, and surprisingly had no trouble keeping up with us.

An interesting thing happened during one of the between-glissade walks: Tom's foot punched through the snow several feet and immediately became stuck fast, such that he couldn't pull it out. I presume it must have gone through a layer of ice under a couple feet of snow, which then collapsed on his foot and caught it in the sheet ice, held down by the snow and perhaps the impact of his fall. He could not get it free, no matter how he pulled in any direction. Julie was right behind, and I was following, and it took about ten minutes of digging and picking with our ice-axes to free his foot. A scary idea, if one happened to be climbing solo.

We reached the treeline soaked but happy, of course, and sloshed the last hour out, returning to the cars at about 4:30pm - perfect time for a pint and a burger at the Lone Fir on the way out.

It was an excellent day, perfect weather and solid footing, nearly all on snow. It was sunny, but the breeze kept us from overheating. Though it was difficult - being a mountain after all, and that route quite nearly the same altitude gain as Mount Hood - everybody kept going, and that's the important part. The experience was well worth it. Thanks to the team for having such a positive attitude, and congratulations: first summits for Michael, Simon, John, and Julie! Glad I could be part of it, and hope you all have many safe and fun climbs.

Hope to see you all on future climbs!

Fritz Capell

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