Contact us

 Activities  Climbing Instruction 

Mount Saint Helens

Excursion Time: 12 hours car-to-car
Carpool Ratio (people/cars): 2.25

A Santiam Alpine Club team reached the Crater Rim of Mount Saint Helens on January 31, 2010, and lived to tell about it, though the combination of unstable cornices and risky behavior on the part of other climbers brought a 1000+ foot plunge into the crater as close as I hope to ever come. See below.

The team consisted of: Myself, Fritz Capell; 2008 climb school student Chris Fought; 2009 climb school students Michele Artery, Simon Boyd, John Van Boxtel, and Victor Whitacre; and guests Leigh Castleton, Peter Urban, and Jenny Wang.

The weather outlook was not promising. Victor, John and myself camped up at the trailhead, and the rain poured on us all night. But it seemed there could be a window: the chance of rain was 40%, the snow level around 4000 feet, and we would be climbing from about 3000 to about 8000 feet, so it seemed that we might climb out of the rain into the snow. It was raining when we started from Marble Mountain around 6:30am.

By the time we reached the treeline, the clouds had burned off and it looked like it was going to turn into a sunny day. It didn't, as it turned out, but it was much better than it could have been. The weather worsened again in the morning, dipping down to about freezing and with quite limited visibilty, but the only precipitation that hit us was a light pelleting of ice, and by the time we neared the summit in the early afternoon, we were above all the weather and enjoying a beautiful sunny day. Temperatures ranges from 31 to about 42 F.

The terrain was about four inches of slippery wet snow, then an inch or so of packed ice, then a few more inches of loose snow, and another layer of ice. The footing was tricky, and some of our group used Yak-Trax, with mixed results. The snow didn't pack well, and kicking steps was difficult, especially with the underlying ice. Victor did most of the work, with some help from Simon and Peter, and taking turns with another team of two that was climbing nearby. There were probably 30 climbers on the mountain, and good tracks down low, but by 5000 feet the trail had dwindled, and we were mostly forging our own route.

There was only one section that seemed potentially unstable, mounting the last ridge at about 7500 feet. There was a short steep spot, and evidence that further down, the ridge had broken away. One team turned back at that point. I had originally intended not to ascend it, instead to cut across to the east and look for a better route. But another team went up before us, and from close up it didn't appear risky. The angle wasn't steep enough, given the snow and ice layers underneath us, to create an avalanche hazard. We ascended it slightly nervously, but without incident.

Our turnaround time was 3pm; we reached the crater rim at around 2:30. I had warned the team several times in strong language about the danger of the cornices overhanging the crater at the rim, and Victor, arriving with the first group, estimated a safe distance by looking to the cornices around the crater and setting back a couple feet, and drew a line in the snow, even marking it with several ice axes to remind us.

Soon the rest of us arrived, with a couple other groups near behind and a few climbers ahead, and we all took our summit photos and snacked and enjoyed the view. Oddly, we could not see Mt. Rainier at all, even though the sky was clear, due to the plume of smoke coming out of our crater. I don't recall ever seeing this mountain so active.

While we were sitting there, another climber reached the rim, and walked right through the group, past the line and dangerously far out on the cornice. Of course a chorus of voices warned him to stay back, and he complied, but with the attitude that we were all just being jerks.

Still he messed around on the cornices, and perhaps five minutes later, we heard a huge ice-ripping sound as a boxcar-sized piece of the cornice broke off and fell into the crater. The perpetrator dived for safety as the ground fell away beneath his feet, barely staying on the mountain. The break was perhaps two feet from where I was standing, and nearly right along the Victor Line. It all happened so fast that we had to count to make sure that nobody had gone down with the cornice, but indeed, all our persons and gear had remained on the safe side of the line, and on the living side of the crater rim - apparently Peter had even moved to the other side of the group before the break, just to get away from the guy. It was a scary and eye-opening experience for everyone that was there, with the possible exception of the risk-taking climber, who remained unapologetic and even commented offhandly that he had done that before. Everyone stayed clear of him.

At 3pm we began our descent. The snow was soft for glissading, and there were no chutes or trails made by previous glissaders, but some of us got our our plastic and slid down the steeper spots. After we pressed down the route we slid fairly well, but still had trouble keeping up with the walkers.

We reached the treeline just as night fell, as calculated, although I was rushing us the whole way down because in rechecking sunset time, I realized my earlier calculations were off by an hour, the visibility at lower altitudes was still poor, and I didn't want to be up on the slopes after dark.

We made it back to the trailhead around 6:30pm, right on schedule, and all healthy and intact, though still a little shocked by being within such close proximity of such a big and potentially violent occurrence, and still comparing observations of the few seconds in which it occurred and the surrounding circumstances.

All in all, another great day out with the Santiam Alpine Club! Thanks to everybody for a great climb, special appreciation to my team for being so sane and responsible at the crater rim. Also congratulations to Leigh, Peter, and Jenny for their first climbs with SAC, and I hope we'll see you soon on future mountains!

Fritz Capell

Santiam Alpine Club


E-mail group

GPS routes


Membership application

Member info update

Mountain climbing sites

Rope locker

Site map

Trip reports

Club officers


Mountain climbing school

Rock climbing at Smith Rock

Glacier travel and crevasse rescue

Ice climbing

Mountain Climbing School Manual

Mountain climbing terms