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Mount Saint Helens

Excursion Time: 22.5 hours car-to-car Carpool Ratio (people/cars): 2.5

A Santiam Alpine Club team overcame intimidating weather, camped on the mountainside, and reached the crater rim of Mount Saint Helens on May 23, 2010! The team consisted of leader Fritz Capell, and 2010 Climb School Students Jeremy Gish, Lisa Westerfield, Aurora "Rory" Mehlman, and Chris Relyea.

This climb normally does not require an overnight stay, but I had planned to stay up there the night before to try out a new tent; the idea caught on, and soon we were all planning to camp.

Our plan had us leaving the trailhead about 6m on Saturday the 22nd, in time to camp before nightfall, but both carpools ran into a huge traffic jam on the I-205 bridge into Washington that cost us about two hours. We had dinner at Quizno's in Battle Ground, stopped at Lone Fir for our passes, and departed from the Marble Mountain trailhead at 9pm in darkness.

The forecast was for scattered showers, and it was correct. It rained on us all the way up in the car, but as we ascended on the trail, most of what fell was snow. Fighting the temptation to throw down our packs and camp anywhere along the approach, we kept to our plan and set camp on the mossy green cliffs just below Chocolate Falls. We had packed in a few firelogs, so we sat by the fire and enjoyed sake and freeze-dried ice cream in honor of Rory's birthday.

It was a nice night; some snow and light rain fell, but the wind was gentle. The low temp was about 34F. When we awoke at 7am, it was 38F and lightly snowing as we cooked coffee and breakfast and prepared for departure, leaving the bulk of our camping equipment there. We departed camp at about 8:30am; there was no reason for a particularly early start, as the weather was not expected to warm very much, just to improve slightly throughout the day.

The weather was nice for our ascent. We never saw the sun (though several of us brought home sunburns anyway), but there was a light breeze, pleasant temperatures, and occasional light snow. Visibility was sketchy; several groups had turned back due to whiteout conditions above, and we definitely considered it, but I could always see features enough to guide us visually. We reached the crater rim about 2:30pm, and lunched there, hoping for a break in the clouds.

The cornices were of course a danger, a Victor line was already marked, and we stayed well away. Oddly, there was a foot trail leading right to the very edge, and what appeared to be a broken cornice. It could not have looked more like someone went to the edge and fell in. We asked the climbers that were up there, they said nothing had happened, and I believed them, but later I called the sheriff and asked if everyone was accounted for. They were, so apparently someone walked to the edge, broke a little cornice, and learned the easy way.

We were lucky; for just about 10 minutes, it cleared and we were treated to a gorgeous view of the crater. Then it clouded over again, and we battened our hatches for the glissading descent. The conditions for glissading were excellent; a few inches of nice fluffy snow over a hard pack, and there were many chutes to follow, some of which were quite thrilling.

Several groups were glissading in their crampons, and though it was awkward I tried to gently advise them of the danger. It seemed that most of them understood my case, but there was nonetheless an ankle injury that day, as I heard from the sheriff later.

At the weather station I call Tombstone Rest Area we saw the flowers left by the relatives of Joseph Bohlig a few days earlier, when they had ascended the mountain in his memory on May 18th. The flowers were intended for the crater rim, but most of the team had been turned back by bad weather.

We reached our base camp at about 6pm, found all our belongings intact, packed up, and made the rest of the hike out, reaching the cars again around 7:30pm.

I don't like to admit people's mistakes, but the tale wouldn't be complete without noting that Chris lost his keys somewhere during the trip, probably while glissading. So where we had once had two cars, now there was functionally one, my Subaru. With careful arrangement we were able to pack everyone and everything in, and it was full to the brim, even with my pack strapped on the roof rack. Not a square inch of lap was spared.

And thus it was that we drove back into the rainy lowlands, and everybody made it home safe. Another mountain adventure, and another successful Santiam Alpine Club climb! Congratulations to Lisa for her very first summit, and to Chris, Aurora, and Jeremy for their first summit with SAC! Thanks everybody for your enthusiasm and spirit, and I hope to climb with you all again soon!

Fritz Capell

Santiam Alpine Club


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