Descending from an active volcano which last erupted in 1980 and watching people emerging from the sea of clouds with pointy Mt Hood in the backdrop was a surreal experience.
I expected a blue bird day on the mountain but what I experienced was completely different. I had been long waiting to climb Mt St Helens and the recent snow and forecast tempted me to sign up for the hike. Mt St Helens last erupted in 1980 and it’s considered as the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in recorded U.S. history. Very interesting part is the caldera which is on the side of the mountain because the volcano erupted sideways instead of the usual top. I had never gotten close to the mountain before and I was excited. Since the trailhead is 4 hours away from Seattle, we chose to camp and then hike early in the morning. So I started from Seattle with 2 other hikers at 3 PM and reached the trailhead around 7 PM. We were at Marble Mountain Snow Park before dark and other hikers had already put up camp fire in the parking lot. We decided to just lay our tents on the parking spots and start the hike by 4 AM. I broke a tiny part of my tent while pitching but managed to set it up for the night. It was not too cold and we had nice time in front of fire having our dinner. I slept ok for the night and this was the first night away from my wife since marriage.
I got ready promptly by 4 AM. With micro-spikes and headlights, we started our hike in the dark at 4:30 AM. We took the Warm flows route which starts from the southern side of the mountain. The first 2.8 miles was quite gradual with most of it in the forest and then the real ascent started. It was interesting to see multiple headlights ahead of us on the mountain and the daylight breaking out slowly. It was very steep from then on and the last 2 miles gained 4000 feet. I started counting steps and kept patience during the slog. It got quite windy at some places and the cold caught on with my toes. I kept hiking without much worry since I had a vague idea of my threshold. Looking at the cloud cover all over, my hopes of seeing the caldera dwindled and I just wanted to reach the rim for the sake of completion. I had counted around 6800 steps in the last 2 miles and it was an arduous ascent with few false summits. Juggling around with my layers, filling my stomach occasionally I reached the rim after 5 hours. Fortunately, it started getting warm and the clouds were getting cleared. I saw the majestic rim initially and could see almost the entire caldera before leaving. We spent at-least an hour on the summit eating, exploring and enjoying the time. I had carried GoPro, but unfortunately it gave up on me and I had to rely on my phone for all captures. I kept scanning the caldera in the North and the escaping fumes were visible which was interesting to watch. In the south, the pointy Mt Hood was visible over the sea of clouds and it was a view to behold.
We started the descent and we saw many hikers making their way up, in-fact too many actually. There were lot of skiers and snowboarders too. I stuck to micro-spikes for the entire hike and it was adventurous descending on steep slopes with ice axe on one hand. There was a thick cloud layer below us and the view of people coming out of it looked quite surreal. We went into the whiteout soon and glissaded few times to help with our descent. The last part of steep section was particularly frustrating since the snow had turned into slush and I kept dancing all around. The final stretch in the forest was ok and it was around 2 PM by the time we had reached trailhead. It took a slight toll on me since it was a long hard hike after a big break but I loved it nonetheless. I was happy that I could finally see the caldera from close and maybe hike during summer, the next time.
Road conditions: Good, no snow on road.
Trailhead: Marble Mountain Snow park. Snow permit required for Winter.
Trail: Well marked in the forest and quite straightforward on the mountain.
Gear: I carried crampons but made the entire hike with just the micro-spikes.