A Venture onto the Flanks of Violent Mt. St. Helens

By on August 1, 2014

By Carol Lovegren Miller−
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

She steams in anger; sometimes she even blows her top.  Deceptively serene, Mount St. Helens has captivated my imagination ever since she exploded in May of 1980.  For this reason I desired to examine the ever-changing crater for myself; to encounter the fiery, ash-strewn Mt. St. Helens up close and personal.

Accordingly, in 2012 I blithely invited a number of friends to climb St. Helens with me…or not.  I subsequently learned that hard-to-get permits, costing $22.00 each, are required to climb the mountain.

A year and a half  later, February 3rd, at 8:59 a.m. my fingers quivered tensely over my computer keyboard. My first attempt to get into the permit site was too early, I immediately tried again; too late — the weekend I wanted was booked! Only 100 permits are sold per day.  Should I take the earlier July 5th date?  In the brief time span it took to decide yes, there were only 8 permits left – I snatched them up!

Kyle Miller on Mt. St. Helens

Kyle Miller on the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens with the snow laden true summit behind him.

My husband Kyle and I like to introduce novices (a.k.a. innocent suckers) to outdoor adventures.  Our youngest member of the team, 15-year-old Grant Allemann, has been traversing extreme terrain with us for four years.  “So Grant,” I asked him, “Does your mother let you go on these perilous trips with us because she loves you and wants you to be happy? Or because she doesn’t care what happens to you?”

Our oldest climber, my 58-year-old sister Pamela Lovegren, decided that if she was ever going to cross “climbing a mountain” off her bucket list, now was the time to try it, even though she wasn’t sure that she was in good enough shape to do it.

We both assumed that I am in better shape than she is.  After all, for years I have gotten up to exercise in the early morning hours, while she mostly just works on her house and yard and dances the night away.  Imagine my chagrin when she slowly waltzed out of sight and beat me to the crater rim!  Worse yet, young Grant and Pamela’s 27-year-old son Chad Lovegren reached the top a full two hours before I dragged my fatigued body 4.5 miles up 4,600 feet in elevation gain to the 8,300 foot rim.

Chad

Chad Lovegren rolls out of bed at Climbers Bivouac campground ready to climb Mt. St. Helens at 5:30 a.m.

In the summer climbers take the Monitor Ridge route beginning at Climbers Bivouac; a campground equipped with only an

outhouse and fire pits at the trailhead where we spent the night.  Excited to begin the day I (and my long suffering husband) got up at the crack of dawn; nevertheless, I graciously let everyone else sleep in — until 5:30 a.m.

Our biggest concern was how much snow we would be encountering this early in the season.  Did we need the recommended ice axes and crampons?  The two mile portion of the trail through the timber, starting at 3700 feet, was snow free.  The next 1 ½ miles scrambling up volcanic boulders was similarly free of snow.  Even the final heartbreaking mile of scree and volcanic ash was mostly bare paralleled by glistening snow fields on both sides.  When we reached the top, we discovered the answer to the question, “Do we need crampons and ice axes?” was yes.

Although there was very little snow on the ridge up to the edge of the crater, the elusive true summit a mere half mile to the west, was loaded with deep snow and dangerous over-hanging snow cornices.  Without the recommended equipment I could only gaze longingly at the not so distant summit.

The crater rim was shockingly cold. Climbers garbed in shorts and t-shirts shivered, their teeth chattering during their brief stay at the top.  Always prepared, Boy Scout Kyle and I bundled up in warm clothes and hunkered down for a leisurely lunch as we gazed at startling the close Mt. Rainier swathed in a diaphanous gown of white clouds.  To the east, St. Helens closest friend, Mt. Adams, wore a cloud cap the entire day. To the south over the Oregon border, Mt. Hood bared her full glory with her sister Mt. Jefferson in the distance.

After lunch we edged gingerly out, just far enough onto the perilously unstable snow to peer down at the steaming crater floor.  Clump, clump, clump, I was startled to see a guy clomp by in downhill ski boots.  “It is late in the season for me to be up here,” The skier explained, “but a friend had an extra permit….”  Every person on the mountain paused to watch in awe as he slalomed down the precipitous slope in tight, controlled turns.

side of mountainHe wasn’t the only one sliding down the snow.  A group of beginner climbers, including some flatlanders from the Midwest, climbed with the services of a guide.  We watched with interest as one guide explained to his group the technique of using a hiking pole to control their descent while sliding on their behinds (glissading) down the snowfields.

Erring on the side of caution, my husband and I opted to pick our way cautiously down the rocks. That was an error.  We watched our fellow climbers whoop and holler and slither down the mountain while we worked ourselves into exhaustion. At last we tried glissading ourselves; how could we have missed out on so much fun!

It turned out that we were correct to worry about the young members of our group glissading ahead of us, but not for the reasons we imagined.  None of them lost control on the descent, although my sister did break a hiking pole, but one member of our party, a 19-year-old independent but inexperienced climber, became separated from her more experienced friend, our 25-year-old daughter, Sierra.

side of mountainThe novice plunged lower and lower on the wrong side of the mountain until nothing looked familiar.  She started cutting off pieces of her shirt and tying them to poles in hopes that we would see them and recognize that she was in distress.  Although only 3:22 p.m., she feared spending the night alone on the mountain, so as soon as she got cell service she called 911.  A search and rescue team was dispatched to find her. Within 10 minutes she found the trail herself and soon after ran into her rescuers.  Her foolish choices must be dismayingly common, since the search and rescue personnel were evidently already on the mountain.

Meanwhile back on the trail my highly motivated, hard-hiking sister was limping in with a bum knee and tears streaming down her cheeks.  When her son Chad noticed, he immediately repented of his joke of slipping heavy rocks into her backpack (and mine). He gallantly gave her a piggyback ride down the trail until the strain of hanging on grew worse than the pain in her knee. Even so, she still beat us back to camp!

During a second less than restful night in the bustling climbers’ camp, I had ample time to muse… only one too sick to even start the climb, one lost, one carried off the mountain and one barely able to walk out due to stomach cramps.  Only a 50 % casualty rate! The venture onto the flanks of violent Mt. St. Helens was clearly a success.

Carol Lovegren-Miller

About Carol Lovegren-Miller

Carol Lovegren Miller has been married to Kyle for 32 years and has three grown children. She bakes, cans, organizes church events, and substitute teaches in between her adventures and writing." Carol can be reached at [email protected]

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A Venture onto the Flanks of Violent Mt. St. Helens