Mt. St. Helens via Monitor Ridge
July 12, 1998

My brother Byron had proposed a climb of Mt. St. Helens for the boy scout troop he helps out with. One of the other scout leaders (Rick) was coming along too, but Byron wanted another experienced climber along to help look after things. They took care of getting all the permits, so I was happy to drive down to join them at the climber's bivy site Saturday night, and help "herd" the scout troop up to the crater rim!

After dinner, Byron and Rick talked with the boys about what to expect the next day, and making sure they all had the appropriate amount and kind of gear, we set a wakeup time of 5:30, and told the boys we wanted to be on the trail by 6:00 - I had my doubts that a group of mostly 14 year old boys could get ready in 30 minutes in the morning, but with my brother teaching them the minimalist approach to camping and climbing, and the "go light, go fast" ethic, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt!

5:30 rolled around too early, as usual, but I was surprised to hear most of the boys up shortly after that. No stoves going, everyone had something for a cold breakfast, from apple fritters to doughnuts to pop tarts. Not the best of nutritional values, but quick and full of calories! Much to my surprise, they were all done eating, packed up and ready to hit the trail just a few minutes before 6:00!

The trail winds gently through a forest at first, emerging above the local timberline in about 2 miles - we had the boys take turns leading, trying to get them to stick to a pace the adults could keep up with! Shortly before arriving at tree line, the pumice slopes and ridges start coming into view through the trees, giving a hint of what's to come.

After leaving the trees, the trail starts heading up Monitor Ridge in earnest (the ridge was so named because it offered the shortest route to the crater edge for monitoring Mt. St. Helens while it was active. It's been classified as dormant since 1986, but just recently the seismic activity has started greatly increasing), with the path through the pumice and boulders marked by large wooden poles.

Starting up pumice slopes on Mt. St. Helens
Starting up pumice slopes on Mt. St. Helens

We had walked up into the clouds by this time, and the poles did help with seeing the way, although the clouds were thick enough that from time to time we weren't able to see the next pole without walking a short distance away from the current pole. For the most part the way was obvious, however, with boots beating an easy to follow path through the pumice dust. The only areas where you might get off route slightly were the boulder scrambles, but even then it would be difficult to unknowingly drop off of the ridge.

After a couple of hours, we started to be able to see the crater rim above us. The clouds were still hanging around us, and the rim was playing peek-a-boo. Some of the boys had started to get a bit disheartened with the climb, but once they could see the rim above them their interest reappeared, and they moved enthusiastically upwards. As we neared the crater rim the clouds started thinning, and we caught our first glimpses of Mt. Adams to the east. Its base and summit were cloud covered, but in between was clear air and blue sky, giving a nicely framed view.

Approaching the crater rim
Approaching the crater rim

Shortly after 10:00 we arrived at the crater rim - the lava dome was visible down below us, with a fair amount of steam being given off, somewhat clouding the view.

Lava dome of Mt. St. Helens
Lava dome of Mt. St. Helens

Many of the boys had just recently earned their ham radio licenses, and several of them had brought their radios along. Although we weren't on the true summit, the rim was close enough for them, and they proceeded to pull out their radios and start making as many contacts as they could while we were there. Not being a ham aficionado, and wanting to stand on the true summit I strolled along the crater rim towards the west and the obvious high point along the crater rim.

There's one notch to descend, then re-ascend that caused me a bit of work - the summit's only 8300 feet, but climbing on loose pumice, where it's a 3 foot step up, and a 2 foot slip back down with each step was a lot of work! Eventually I arrived on the summit, and ran into a couple of folks I know from the climbing gym - it's a small climbing world! Bryden had colored a picture for me to take to the summit of Mt. St. Helens, so I had Jack snap a picture of me holding Bryden's drawing.

Matt on the summit of Mt. St. Helens
Holding Bryden's drawing on the summit of Mt. St. Helens

The clouds had started to clear, and I was able to see the lava dome much more clearly from there, as well as Mt. Rainier to the north, Mt. Adams to the east, and Mt. Hood to the south. It had taken 20 minutes to work over to the true summit from where Monitor Ridge hits the crater rim, though, and I knew the rest of the group wouldn't want to hang out here forever. So, I headed back down into the notch, and up the other side, regaining difficult ground that I knew I would just be losing again in a little while when we headed down. Several of the boys were still making radio contacts when I rejoined them, so I sat back and lazed on the bright sun and enjoyed the views. Around 11:30 we pulled out packs back on and started back down the ridge.

As we descended, the clouds were burning off almost as fast as we dropped, and we didn't actually re-enter them until we were almost off the ridge. Along the way we managed to find a few safe glissade slopes to let the boys try out - without ice axes we had to make sure the slopes were gentle and had completely safe run outs. Although they complained about cold butts, they all seemed to enjoy themselves, and wanted to take every opportunity to glissade that they could.

By the time we got back to camp the clouds had almost entirely moved off of Mt. St. Helens, giving us a great view of where we had just been. We took a little time to grab snacks and change clothes, then I headed back north, while my brother and his Scouts headed back to the Tri-Cities.

Mt. St. Helens

Last updated: April 3, 2001