Ascent to Mount Saint Helens-Base of Swift Glacier on 2013-02-09

Climber: Chad Straub

Others in Party:Al-Rashid
Date:Saturday, February 9, 2013
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Point Reached:Mount Saint Helens - Base of Swift Glacier
    Elevation:7113 ft / 2168 m
    Remaining Elevation:1220 ft / 371 m (22% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

I've been watching the weather and avalanche forecasts like a hawk for the last few weeks, hoping for a decent window for an attempt at the summit of Mount Saint Helens. This would be my first volcano and the highest mountain I have climbed to date. Saint Helens makes for a great place to gain experience on an ultra prominent peak without the need for technical climbing or glacier travel experience, and the extra gear that comes with both.

The mostly sunny forecast for Saturday turned mostly cloudy by Friday night, but at least the avy danger decreased to moderate above 3000' and considerable above 7000'. Not daunted by the potential lack of views, Joel and I left Renton at 3:00am for the 3 hour drive. 12 people in 5 separate groups had signed in before us at the register at the Lone Fir Resort. Snow appeared on the road about 3 miles from Marble Mountain Snow Park.

We hit the trail under dense fog at 6:45 and made good time to Chocolate Falls where the trench split in two. After consulting with a few other groups we all decided to follow the path over Swift Creek, as the map shows the winter route crossing the creek at about that elevation(3800'). We passed several groups who had stopped to put on snowshoes and skis, trying to make the most out of the broken trail ahead of us.

Sunshine and patches of blue sky began to appear around 4500', as well as what looked like the silhouette of the summit through the clouds. A few hundred feet further up we emerged from the clouds to see the mountain above us engulfed in a blanket of clouds and flying powder. This was a bizarre sight, which I could only relate to the "halo" of clouds that sometimes adorns the top of Tahoma. Is this what that looks like up close?

We continued up into the most extreme weather either of us had experienced on a climb. Heavy wind from the North blasted down on us, often carrying with it loose powder and ice from the slopes above. We took full advantage of any breaks in the wind to cover as much ground as we could before having to duck our heads and hug the mountain when the wind returned with full force. We exchanged the occasional "can you believe this?" look, but continued slow and steady towards the summit.

At about 6200' we met a group of two on their descent, who informed us of white-out conditions above us. The two explained that they had waited around above 7000' for about a half hour before deciding to head back, and that one person on skis was still ascending in front of us. We thanked them for the help and discussed our options, choosing to continue.

About 20 minutes later the weather had only gotten worse and we stopped again to re-assess the situation. Joel had nothing to shield his face from flying snow, and my baklava wasn't helping much anyway. We Decided to check our location, and that we would continue only if we had less than one thousand feet to go. The GPS app for my phone showed that we were at 7100', almost exactly 1000' below the summit, so on we went. We had taken only a few steps though before what little terrain we could see, either side of the ridge we were on, completely disappeared into the white.
I have been in blizzard-like conditions several times which I would have in the past called a "white-out", but I am now confident that this was my first time in a true white-out. At this point the only safe move was to call it a day. Without a reliable GPS, we would essentially be on our own to navigate the route to the summit rim and back between 3 glaciers. Summit fever can be a dangerous thing and I'm glad we both were able to use our better judgement to suppress the urge to continue. We relayed our experience to several groups as they climbed past on our descent, most of whom seemed as disappointed as we were to tell them. A few though, seemed determined to reach the top regardless of the conditions. I hope someone made it to the top, and that everyone gets down safely!

We stopped for a brief snack before dropping back under the clouds, and would have hung out for a few hours here if the weather weren't so dismal. Mount Hood poked above to the south and at one point Mount Adams appeared, but not long enough for a photo. I will not lie, I am disappointed to have failed to reach the top, but still very glad for the experience. We will be back the moment our schedules and the weather allows.

Route map and video @
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4609 ft / 1404 m
    Total Elevation Loss:4609 ft / 1404 m
    Round-Trip Distance:9.7 mi / 15.6 km
    Grade/Class:Class 3
    Quality:6 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles, Snowshoes
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Extremely Windy, White-out
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:4449 ft / 1356 m
    Distance:4.7 mi / 7.6 km
    Route:Winter Route/ Worm Flows
    Start Trailhead:Marble Mountain Snow Park  2664 ft / 811 m
    Time:4 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:4609 ft / 1404 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 4449 ft / 1357 m; Extra: 160 ft / 48m
    Gain on way out:160 ft / 48 m
    Distance:5 mi / 8.1 km
    Route:Winter Route/ Worm Flows
    End Trailhead:Marble Mountain Snow Park  2664 ft / 811 m
    Time:2 Hours 20 Minutes

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