Friday, February 5, 2016

Mount St. Helens- Worm Flows Route

The crater of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, Spirit Lake, and Mount Rainier
11 miles round trip, 5600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, due to extensive snow travel, extreme elevation gain, copious rock scrambling, and avalanche and cornice danger
Access: Paved road to trailhead; Northwest Forest Pass required in summer, Washington State Sno-Park Pass required Dec. 1 through April 30, Mt. St. Helens Institute climbing permit ($22/person) required April 1 through Oct. 31.

On the morning of May 18, 1980, the nearly symmetrical cone of Washington State's Mount St. Helens collapsed off the north flank of the mountain as the stratovolcano released the largest volcanic eruption in the contiguous United States during the 20th century. The collapse of the north side of St. Helens at the start of the eruption was the largest recorded landslide in history and left a gaping crater where the once conical summit had stood, chopping nearly 1300 feet off the height of the mountain. There are few sights that better convey the awesome power of the Earth's geological processes than the view from the rim of the crater of St. Helens and the smoldering lava dome that lies within.

Fit day hikers will be glad to know that these views can be accessed on a strenuous but nontechnical day hike. Most climbers come in the summer or spring and slog up the accumulated ash from the eruption to the summit; my friends and I chose to do this hike on a cold but beautiful Thanksgiving Day to gain some mountaineering experience. I would advise most hikers to do not as we did and instead come during the summer: climbing St. Helens in the winter presented a number of risk variables that are probably absent during the summer and required the use of crampons and an ice axe.

There are two routes for summiting Mount St. Helens. The summer route starts from Climbers Bivouac and ascends via Monitor Ridge; the winter route starts from the Marble Mountain Sno-Park and follows the Worm Flows, a set of ridges formed by lava flows, until meeting up with Monitor Ridge a few hundred vertical feet below the summit. The summer route is shorter and cuts about 1100 feet of elevation gain; however, the trailhead for the summer route is usually snow-covered and inaccessible by car from November to April or so. The Worm Flows Route, while longer, is accessible year-round. By the time of our hike, Monitor Ridge was inaccessible for the season, so we took the Worm Flows Route.

Aerial view of St. Helens and Mt. Adams
Although we completed the hike itself in a day, my two friends and I left Seattle a day early due to the length of the hike and the short winter daylight hours in the Northwest. Just after sunset on the day before Thanksgiving, we left the University of Washington campus, stopping by REI to pick up gear, eating dinner in the International District, and picking up groceries at QFC in Mount Baker before finally starting on the two-hour drive south along I-5 to Woodland. We checked in to a rather dingy room in the Motel 6 in Woodland and slept for five nervous hours.

The days before the hike had been spent worrying over the conditions which we'd find: November climbs seemed rare, or at least scarcely documented. Would there be avalanches? We read about hikers who had died when cornices at the summit had collapsed- news that was not at all reassuring. Still, it was hard to pass up on the climb idea that we had been tossing around for a while when we saw a cold but otherwise perfect forecast on Thanksgiving Day.

When our alarms started going off at 4:45 AM, we were all more than a little grouchy and still plenty tired. We climbed out of bed and began dressing for the day: two layers of pants, with the outer layer waterproof; plenty of upper body layers; waterproof gloves, waterproof boots; gaiters. Our packs were filled with hiking essentials as well as microspikes, crampons, and an ice axe. After a quick breakfast and defrosting the car, we were on the road by just after 5:30. From Woodland, we followed Highway 503 east through patches of fog and ice past Yale and Cougar to Forest Road 83, which led towards the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. We followed Forest Road 83 north past spur roads on the left that led to Ape Cave and Climbers' Bivouac; although paved, the road soon became quite difficult to drive due to the two inches of fresh snow covering all surfaces. About an hour after we left Woodland, we came to the trailhead at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park.

We filled out self-issue climbing permits at the trailhead before heading out. If you're planning on hiking from April through October, be aware that you'll need to obtain permits from the Mount St. Helens Institute prior to your hike. Self-issue permits in winter are free, but spring and summer climbing permits are $22/person; there is a limit of 500 permits per day issued in the spring and 100 permits per day during the summer, so be sure to plan well in advance.

We put on our microspikes before leaving the trailhead and followed the Swift Ski Trail north from parking lot through the snow. The first two miles of the hike had a fairly gentle incline, staying mainly on the Swift Ski Trail. About half a mile in, we passed a clearing on the right of the trail with a bit of a view of Mt. Adams. The trail was generally wide and well-marked and was covered with between two and five inches of snow.

Snow on the Swift Ski Trail
The first two miles of the hike stayed in the trees with no views. After steadily climbing for a while, the Swift Ski Trail all of a sudden broke out into a more sparsely forested area, where we caught our first view of Mount St. Helens. From this angle, the mountain looked quite large but also quite formless.

First view of St. Helens
Wooden posts marked the way through the snow-covered landscape. The footprints we followed were often not terribly accurate; at times we found ourselves clearly off the path and had to follow footprints through deep snow to bushwhack back to the actual trail. The route crossed Swift Creek just uphill of Chocolate Falls. The correct route was difficult to find here, so we ended up just dropping down into the gully and climbing out whatever way we could. There was no flow in Chocolate Falls: below freezing temperatures had not allowed for any meltwater that day.

After crossing Chocolate Falls, we began the steady ascent up the Worm Flows. It was easy to tell how the Flows had received their name: the a pair of thin ridges snaked down the side of mountain. We took the left worm. After a short period of steady but not-too-steep incline, the angle of the slope suddenly jumped up. We had to scramble during the next section up varying areas of rock and snow along the flow, with decent amounts of exposure at some points. After the wooden posts marking the way ended, there was no true trail: just the a bootpath through the snow along the ridge. After a substantial push up the steepening slope and through a small chute, we came to our first break spot, a seismograph perched atop a small flattened point in the ridge. From here, we gazed out at the already-incredible views: Mount Adams to the east, Mount Hood to the south, the Coast Mountains to the west.

Ever upwards
We couldn't stop for too long though- by that point, it was nearly 10 in the morning and the summit was still thousands of feet above us. We turned around and once again started tackling the huge snow slope ahead of us, taking the long slog a step at a time. A few hundred feet of elevation above the seismograph, we realized that the slopes were getting icy, so we stopped and switched out our microspikes for crampons and replaced our hiking poles with ice axes.

From here on, the mountain was a steady 25 degree or so uphill climb. We stuck mainly to the windward side of the ridge, where there was harder snow that was faster to hike on: softer and deeper snow had been deposited on the leeward side, which would have made our ascent substantially slower. However, as we ascended further, we found the windward slopes covered with recrystallized hard, clear ice. While our crampons handled the clear ice without too much issue, the terrifyingly slippery look of the slope kept our nerves unsettled. At times, the ice formations along the climb were incredible. Wind had sculpted hard ice into a bumpy, abnormally shaped surface.

After a good part of an hour's climbing from the seismograph, we reached a flat-ish basin area from which we could see the remainder of our climb: we still had a substantial push to complete along the ridgeline leading up from the Worm Flows before we could join up with Monitor Ridge and follow it to the summit. After a brief break, we pushed ever upwards along the slippery slope.

The climb was constant and neverending and was made worse by the absence of any flat spots along the trail at which we could rest. Whenever my legs could no longer give, I would dig the pick of my ice axe into the hard snow and lie down on the 25-degree angle of the slope.

Mount Adams and the incredible ice on the upper slopes of St. Helens
Noon came and went. We decided on a turnaround time of 1:30: the sun would set soon after 4 and we wanted to have enough time to return to Chocolate Falls by dusk. Our spirits received a boost when we ran into a party coming down from the summit, who assured us that we had less than a thousand feet of elevation gain left to the summit. Their unlikely hiking companion on the icy slopes was a husky, which, lacking traction, made its way up and down the ice with unbelievable ease.

They were right: soon after passing them, the ridge that we had followed all day finally met up with Monitor Ridge. From here, the crater rim was already visible a few hundred feet above us. We made a final break at the only flat spot in more than 2000 feet of climbing that was perhaps a few hundred feet of elevation shy of the crater before making the final push.

Mounts Hood and Jefferson and the Washington South Cascades
The top came very unexpectedly. We followed the slope uphill and uphill until all of a sudden, the mountain dropped off in front of us. Before us, the mountain opened into a gaping maw that spewed volcanic gases and steam out from a lava dome at its heart. This was the crater formed by the 1980 eruption: a cliff-lined hole that once held the innards of a mountain. Across the crater, we saw the intense blue of Spirit Lake set at the foot of the mountains whose slopes are even today still devestated from the catastrophic blast of hot air in 1980. Farther behind still rose the massif of Mount Rainier. Even farther to the north, almost entirely obscured by the light haze in the distance, we could see Mount Baker, just a few miles short of the Canadian border.

The crater
The Goat Rocks and Mount Adams were to the east. To the south, the gentler Cascades of Oregon were punctuated by the Jefferson and Hood, two great stratovolcanoes. Our eyes could just barely make out the sibling peaks of the Three Sisters, halfway down the state of Oregon. From this perch atop the most active of Cascade volcanoes, we could see six other Cascade stratovolcanoes.

The dome inside the crater was actually a fairly recent development: the most recent eruption of St. Helens' eruptions was in 2008, when the lava dome in the center of the crater grew in size. When we were at the summit, the steam rising from vents in the dome were clearly visible.

Steam rising from the lava dome
The very edge of the crater rim was formed by cornices, making it extremely unsafe. Although it was tempting to walk to the very edge of the rim and look down, we chose to stay a safe distance away, knowing that the edge was probably a snow overhang with no rock support underneath that could collapse at any time. Prior to starting our hike, we read about two cases in recent years in which persons at the rim had fallen into the crater when the cornices they were standing on collapsed.

The point where we stopped was a false summit rather than the true high point of St. Helens; that spot was about half a mile west along the rim from where we stood. However, since the day was getting late, the wind was howling at gale force, and we figured the views couldn't get any better, we decided to turn around at this point.

False summit of St. Helens
The descent was much quicker than coming up. Our crampons provided excellent traction while descending on the the slippery ice on the upper slopes. After following Monitor Ridge down for about six hundred vertical feet or so, we remembered to take the ridge leading left to head back towards the Worm Flows. Halfway down the Worm Flows, we finally found the surface soft enough for safe glissading. I switched my crampons for microspikes and began sliding on my butt down the mountain. This made for a quicker albeit riskier descent; I often hit patches of surface ice that caused me to speed up too much, which gave me many good opportunities for practicing self-arrest with my ice axe.

Although we tried to make quick time, we were ultimately only able to make it a little past the seismograph by sunset. However, by the time dusk had fully set in, we were past the rock scramble section of the Worm Flows, leaving the crossing at Chocolate Falls as the main nighttime challenge we had to face. That crossing ended up going more smoothly than expected so we soon found ourselves back on the Swift Ski Trail, making our way downhill at a decent clip. Almost twelve hours after we set out to tackle the mountain, we arrived back at the car utterly exhausted. Three hours of driving brought us back to Seattle, where we ate our Thanksgiving dinner at an open-late diner in Belltown.


  1. Wow, you really hike all the year round! Your photos look great, thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for visiting! With the right gear, it's possible to hike through the winters in the PNW- the snow can actually be a lot of fun!