“Want to climb Mt. St. Helens tomorrow?” Impromptu hikes are always fun, but this was a mountain. On a day’s notice. “Why not?”
My cousin Kris, his friend Mike, and I met at 5:00am PST on April 2nd. It was dark, we were still an hour and a half and 60 out miles out from the trailhead and we were already talking about the summit. We were expecting fantastic weather and as proof, Kris and I were covered in sunblock–a preemptive action against the notorious snow burns that catch hikers off guard each year. Not only does the sun beat down from above, but when hiking in snow, the reflection of sunlight can burn skin from below. Hikers are attacked from all sides on trails like this.
Eventually, we reached the trailhead. At about 2000ft in elevation, the winter parking lot is very low in comparison to Climbers’ Bivouac–the traditional summer and late spring launch pad. Since it was so early in the season, we were the only ones scheduled for the day. How exciting! We had the mountain all to ourselves. Sadly though, the clouds rolled in just as soon as we began the day. Our group came to the conclusion that they were low-fliers and we could easily climb above them in the first few miles. But like the beginning of any great disaster story, there must be a certain amount of misguided hopefulness. Summit fever hits hard and it hits fast.
The snowpack was hard, but by no means unbearable. Kris and I were sporting regular hiking boots as our technical gear. Michael is always prepared and had thought ahead to rent some spiffy snowshoes. These worked great for the flatter areas, but as soon as the grade increased, he was back to boots. For every step up, our boots sunk down two to three inches. Sometimes, the ice got so thin that we would find ourselves up to our hips without warning.
Now, we did clear the clouds about a thousand feet from the rim, but the weather didn’t last long.
Standing just shy of the cornice, we had about three minutes of clear weather, and then the clouds blew in and enveloped us.
I did my push-ups, and turned back, spending less than ten minutes on top of the world. It is worth mentioning that Mike slowed down and never summited. Instead, Kris and I had gone ahead without him. But now, in a whiteout that was getting progressively worse, Kris and I worried we wouldn’t be able to find him on our way down. Visibility got down to about 30ft and windchill was so harsh that ice started forming on my legs. (Yes, I wore shorts. I’m a Pacific Northwestern for goodness sake!)
My cousin and I combed the mountain searching for Michael and I now understand how climbers get lost or thrown off course in whiteout conditions. I thought I saw Michael at least five times. For sure it was him at least twice before we actually found him. Shapes materialize and your eyes play tricks on you. But we did find him and we all headed back down the mountain. Is there where I am supposed to say “I shouldn’t be alive?”
Stay safe out there, hikers!