Climbing Mt St Helens

The Build up

How did it all start ? Frankly speaking even I don't recall exactly but only have a vague idea. Yes it was a couple of weeks before thanks giving when I had conference call with Amit, Abhay and Sachin and we were making get-together plans for Christmas/new years holiday season. Well as usual nothing fruitful came out of that call as everybody had different plans, but I kind of put forward the idea of going for a camping/hiking trip early next year.

Amit mentioned that he had spring break in March second week. For Minnesotans this is a weird thought, as spring for us is sometimes in mid to late April depending upon how good or bad the winter is. I asked him if he was interested in going to Grand Canyon for hiking, he readily agreed so I went online and found out that booking for campsites begins way in advance and we had missed out on that so we decided to change our plan. We then decided to go camping in Olympic National Park, to which both of us agreed. Then came December and I had to go to Seattle/Portland area for some business purpose, I was around that area and was driving from Portland and Seattle on I-5 North and the sight of those beautiful peaks of the Cascades Range was a mesmerizing sight, and that's when I decided to go climb one of those mountains.

I was always fascinated by the beautiful mountains, and so it didn’t take me so long to find out the opportunities in around Seattle are to for mountain climbing. And during this process I stumbled upon the website for Mt St Helens and after some research I concluded that it was probably doable hike. The other peaks around the region are almost twice as tall as Mt St Helens. Well, Mt St Helens is no small mountain and the risks involved climbing St Helens are equally high and if you are unlucky perhaps higher than the others in the vicinity. At 8635 ft it is almost 6000ft shorter than Mt Rainier or 4000ft shorter than the deadly Mt Hood. But if you add the factor that it is an active volcano, it’s a whole different game. So, I asked Amit if he would like to do Mt St Helens hike instead, and after giving some thought he agreed. So in early January we made a tentative plan for the hike, which was later finalized soon. I bought the tickets and our itinerary was something like this…

o Friday evening 3/9/07: Chinmay and Tanuj reach SeaTac and join Amit and rest of the crew.

o Friday 3/9/07 : Nothing planned as of yet, maybe look around Seattle or go to Snoqualmie(?) falls

o Saturday 3/10/07 : Drive to Portland, tour the town, Either get motel or camp

o Sunday morning 3/11/07 : (i.e. 3AM) start climbing Mt. St. Helens, will take entire day. Evening drive back to Seattle

o Monday 3/12/07 : up for grabs. Ideas include

o Tuesday 3/13/07 : Boeing plant tour. Also go to boeing surplus store....

o Tuesday 3/13/07 : Boeing plant tour. Also go to boeing surplus store....

The Preparation

o Skiing

Being a mountain in the Cascades, March is still very much winter and the hike was going to be a winter hike, so I decided to train myself for the winter and the hike both. Right around the time when I booked my ticket the nasty winter of Minnesota touched its peak and my plans of going out in the cold and training were thwarted. But as they say 'Every dark cloud as silver lining' the temperature started to rise gradually and also it started snowing. Agreed that driving is nightmare but, I teamed up with my friend from Denmark, Henning who works in the same Department as I do at Mayo. We decided to take ski lessons and so we went to Welch Village ski resort. It is 40 miles north of Rochester. A nice place, which has slopes small enough for beginners like me and some decent slopes for the advanced ones.

The lessons were very helpful and slowly I started to do better. By the third day I was on the Blue squares, and the fourth time I actually did a couple of black diamonds, including one with moguls. Though I fell on the moguls miserably. But for a person who has never been on snow let alone on skis trying a mogul or even a black diamond was an achievement, and that boosted my confidence immensely and even though unrelated I felt that I could do the climb.

o Muscle training

I was doing pretty good at skiing, but I realized that every night after I would come back from skiing I would stiffness in my thighs and calf muscles. I knew I was decent at cardio vascular exercise. I could easily run continuously for 40 odd minutes without stopping at 8.5 mph on treadmill which I guess is roughly equivalent to running 6-6.5 mph outdoors. But then why I was feeling restless in legs, perhaps my legs were trained enough for hike/climb and I must admit I was out of practice in this department. So I started to train myself for more intense workout for legs. I started to work on step climber and weight training focusing primarily on leg muscles.

And I was getting a little better at it, the gym I go to introduced a machine they call it endurance tester, it looks and works exactly like a treadmill, the difference is that it has smaller belt length and the incline, declines are not arbitrary but actual degrees. I tried out this machine and it was such a wonderful experience, not only it tells you the distance you've walked but also how many feet you have climbed.

So I was doing pretty good in this area and on last Thursday/Friday I called up Jack's Restaurant in Cougar, Washington where we are supposed to register ourselves for the climb. After speaking with them I realized that it was snowing there quite a bit and so I called the forest services and spoke with a ranger and asked things I need to carry with me. He said the things that were absolute must were, excellent hiking-mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axe and snow shoes.

o Snow shoeing

Now because of lack of mountains it is difficult to train for crampons and ice axe and so I decided to rent them from REI store in Seattle Washington. But luckily I had recently bought good mountaineering or hiking boots made by Vasque. They have Gore-Tex material and so are snow/ice proof and to a certain extent water proof. I also got a decent pair of thermal socks so temperature wise I was well protected. The thing I had never tried was snow shoeing.

Luckily some of my friends from Mayo and IBM were going for snowshoeing on Saturday. I immediately decided to join them, and so I rented snowshoes from Tyrol Ski shop, and went for some snowshoeing at Chester Woods Park. It is some 15 odd miles east of Rochester. It has got nice trails and we did a decent 3 mile roundtrip hike. It was a small hike but doing it with snowshoes was a whole new experience. It is amazing how it easy it is to walk on knee deep snow with these snow shoes compared against plain shoes and crampons. Because of increased surface area the foot doesn't sink in the snow and also the cleats at the bottom act like claws and give decent grip while climbing up/down. I think overall it was a good learning experience.

The Hike

So, come Friday March 9th and I set out for Seattle, WA. A day earlier I had packed my bags and Tanuj had already picked them up. So around noon I left work and went to Tanuj's place. We did a final cross checking of all the gear that we were going to carry with us. Although It meant very little but still I called the forest services office in Cougar WA and check with them regarding the essential gear and of course the weather. The lady said it was raining and was supposed to rain the rest of the weekend. I wish she hadn't said that, but there was nothing that we could have done. With everything planned and tickets in the hand I was at the point of no return.

So as planned earlier, Shirine called us around 130PM. She was gracious to have offered us ride to MSP airport. I really think it was nice of her. Well, so we set out for MSP and during this 60 min drive to the cities Tanuj kept us entertained by telling us his experiences and stories from his life in Indian Army. When we talk about Military we always think about the wars, we usually over look the other part of the story. It has its own idiosyncrasies and of course there are some lighter moments. Anyways… the stories kept us entertained and we didn't realize but we had reached MSP in little over an hour.

I did the check-in and proceeded to security check. I was basically done by 330 PM and I still had to 2 hrs for my departure. Just roamed around the terminals watched flights landing and taking off. I was feeling hungry and so I had a Chicken Philly at one of the food joints. It was quite nice. I called Lindsay and asked her to book a couple of tickets for the up coming Pink Floyd ( Roger Waters) concert in the cities. 515PM and I boarded the plane, I was so tired that I slept right away and didn't wake for about an hour. The overall flight was fantastic no problems nothing… At Seattle Airport, Amit had already arrived to pick us up. From there we went straight up to downtown for dinner. It was a nice bistro, had a Stella and citrus Salmon. I gotta tell, it was probably best Salmon I had in long time. We then headed to an Irish Pub, nice crowd beautiful women good booze and very good music. We had co-incidentally met the performers on the street earlier. Left that place around 1AM(PST) , went home and slept.

Come Saturday, the weather outside was looking just perfect ( by Seattle's standard) a few clouds but no rain. Had a very healthy breakfast….just kidding a donut and coffee. We packed our bags and left and went to GI Joe's it’s a sports store, bought some thermal wear and rented snowshoes. Left that place and went to Qdoba 's for lunch, its like chipotle but I liked it. We then bought all the food stuff that we were supposed to carry with us at Fred Meyer's and then went to Bellevue WA. Over there we went to the Marmot Store… if you are an avid hiker/camper you know what an experience would that be. Amazing store, I checked out a few things there but most importantly we rented crampons, ice axe and avalanche beacons. It was 430PM by then and was time to leave for St Helens. On our way we stopped only once for gas and cup of coffee. Reached Cougar WA around 830 PM it was raining and so we were driving leisurely. We signed ourselves at the Jack's Restaurant. It's an alright place. If it weren't for the registration, I don't think anybody would like to stop there, but then that's just my opinion.

We drove further for about 10 miles where the Lone Fir hotel is located. It a nice place and we got a 2 story cottage with 8 beds and 2 bathrooms and kitchen for a mere 100$ a night. Apart from any thing else I would recommend there cheese burger with JoJo's its awesome. After our dinner we returned to our cottage and unloaded our stuff. Packed our bags and went bed. It was 1PM PDT by the time we went bed, and because that was the night of Spring forward we would have 1 hour less of sleep. We got up at 3AM PST rather 4AMPDT and stuffed our bags in the back of our truck and set out for our hike. The gear that I was carrying/wearing with me was

o The Gear

· Down jacket ( Marmot)

· Rain Jacket (Mountain Hard Wear)

· Head Lamp (Petzl)

· Helmet (Petzl)

· Water Proof pants (GI Joe's)

· Thermal wear by (Under Armor)

· Long T shirt

· 55Litre Backpack by Moutain Hard Wear

· Ice Axe

· Crampons

· Avalanche Beacons

· Snow Shoes

· Climbing Poles

· Extra set of clothes

· Tarp Sheet

· Towels

· First Aid Kit

· Vasque GTX climbing shoes with Gaiters

· Power Bars

· Trail Mix

· Camel Bag with 2 liters of water

That was quite a gear that I was carrying with me. It would easily weigh around 20lbs.

o Actual Hike : Failure but a good learning experience

So we reached the trail head around 630AM and by 650AM we had set out for the hike. Initially the hike looked alright to me. Snow wasn't much deep and compared to my earlier snowshoeing experience the first part looked quite easy. I was walking at a brisk pace, but had to slow down as there were a few of us who had a very little or no experience of snowshoeing. One thing I would recommend everybody is that, if you want to hike this mountain in winter you better practice snowshoeing, cos it lot different than walking normally. We started our climb at 2620ft altitude and were working our way through the forest. We were barely 15 minutes in to our hike and it started raining heavily. If you have seen my pictures already the haziness in the picture is entirely due to the heavy rain that was falling. There was no fog as at 45F you don't get fog. It was so warm that within the first hour or so most of us had taken there jackets off except for the rain jackets.

We had checked the weather forecast and they had issued severe weather advisory for the region. The forest and the weather service had even issued avalanche advisory for the region. Also there is this interesting weather phenomenon that was responsible for the heavy rains. It is called as the pineapple express. Instead of me describing it please follow this link. Normally people won't hike in these conditions and I admit that because things were planned in advanced I decided to at least give it a shot. Ideally I would have loved to reach the summit but I was ready for otherwise. Well, we did hike for a good 3.3 miles but with the nasty weather and other things it took us 3 hrs for the hike, normally without rain one could hike that distance in an hour if you are extremely fit but I think 90-100 minutes is a safe estimate.

We crossed the timberline and that's when the real hike started. We did see a couple of mini avalanches…. No they didn't occur in front of us but they were previous ones. As we went past the chocolate falls the ascent got steeper and steeper and with the blowing winds and the rain pouring down heavily we had to make decision whether or not to proceed with the climb. Honestly the point where we stopped was the best place to trun around. A few of us including me were willing to go ahead for another hour or so and see how things would work out. But looking at the inclines ahead of us it was quite risky and one small mistake could have thrown us down several hundred feet down the slopes. The grade had already changed from a 10 to 30 and every step we would climb the slopes were getting steeper and steeper with increased risk of triggering an avalanche. So we all (though some of us reluctantly) agreed to abandon the ascent and turn around. In retrospect I think we made a wise decision , cos when we returned to Jack's restaurant to sign ourselves out we found that we were the only 5 people climbing the mountain that day. There was another guy we met on our way back who was hiking but he only intended to go up to the chocolate falls.

So, overall I would say, with the conditions around us the hike we did was a decent one. May be I should not call it a failure but just a missed opportunity. But one thing I learned for sure… and that is if the weatherman in Seattle says its gonna rain… then never doubt the weatherman. If you care for your dear life and you are not an experienced climber stay away from mountains . Because you don't want to end up like the unfortunate climbers on Mt Hood.


UK said...

you should also post this to a travel/adventure website.. :)
it will help many others..

Anonymous said...

I climbed Mt. St. Helens this past summer so i know the area you are talking about. I think you made the right decision especially considering the weather was getting bad. If you have the time tough, i definately recommend climbing it again.