Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hiking Mt. St. Helens

Climbing Mt. St. Helens was kind of like running my marathon. Or what I imagine having a baby is like. If you remembered how difficult it was or remembered the pain, you would never do it again.

But, with over three months having passed since we climbed, the pain is a fuzzy part of the overall happy memory.

I already wrote about the surprise that waited for me at the top of the mountain, but I wanted to talk about the climb a little bit, just in case someone else has been talked into climbing and wants to know what they’ve gotten themselves into.

I’m here for you, friend.

So, here’s the climbing part of the story.

Originally, Pat and I had wanted to climb in the summer when there would be less, if any, snow, but due to his summer school schedule, we climbed May 22.

If all this is too long -- if you just want a summary -- it’s this: if you’re a super experienced hiker, you can do this hike without too much difficulty. If not, it will be very challenging. My two biggest tips are wear sunscreen and wear sunglasses. Me and Pat learned the hard way.


To hike Mt. St. Helens, you have to buy a permit. They sell out pretty quickly for weekends and holidays, but we didn’t have any issue with buying them for a random Thursday. Still, we purchased our tickets in February to hike in May.

I didn’t hike regularly in preparation -- hard to hike in Kansas -- but it was only a couple weeks after my marathon, so I knew that my legs were in great shape. It was the altitude that would get me.

Pat was the reverse. Since he had been living in Denver and hiking regularly in the previous months, the altitude didn’t bother him as much, but he wasn’t in marathon shape. So we had different challenges.

I googled info about the hike every now and then, but usually, it freaked me out more than anything, so I stopped and just trusted that Pat knew what he was doing. He had read that it would take 10 hours, but I knew we were pretty inexperienced and I’m pretty slow and it might take us longer. We planned to sleep at the base of the trail the night before and start early in the morning.

We bought hiking boots and socks and broke them in over the weekend that I visited Pat in Denver. The rest of our gear -- tent, sleeping bags, backpack, waterproof pants, etc. -- we bought the week of in Oregon.

We each carried about three normal water bottles, a camelbak type water bottle, a powerade or gatorade (I forget which), three sandwiches between us, trail mix, and a couple mini granola bars.

We both also had trekking poles, which were lifesavers. Seriously. We saw some people with skis or snowshoes, too.

We started out with too many layers. I had shorts, yoga pants, and swishy water proof pants, a tech shirt from my marathon, a running and a waterproof jacket. I stripped out of both jackets and the yoga pants before we even made it to the mountain. Ha. During the hike, there were times I put the waterproof jacket back on, but that was it -- the yoga pants and running jacket stayed in my bag.

The Hike

We camped at Marble Mountain and hiked up whatever trail we found from there. The first section is through forest and is fairly easy. The trail is clear and easy to follow.

After the forest section, there’s a lot of rocky path. It starts out pretty easy to see and follow the trail, but the difficulty does get more and more difficult as you go on. We lost the trail more than once in this section as it isn’t very clearly marked. There are neon flags every once in a while, but we mostly tried to find our own way and followed others we could see ahead of us.

(BTW, I was right -- I am really slow. We got passed by every person on the mountain. No exaggeration.)

There was one point I almost fell off a cliff-ish part. No joke. I was bouldering and the rocks under my feet slid. I ended up pretty much flat on my stomach and unable to find a way out for a few minutes. I also kicked a basketball sized boulder down the mountain. It was pretty scary.

The lesson here was that if it got too difficult to see the path, we probably should look for a different path -- usually there was a good way through the boulders and a not-so-good way. After that, we were more careful to try to follow the actual path.
You can see the boulders behind Pat!
In addition to the big boulders, there’s also a nice mix of rocks and ash in places. I would imagine that’s what’s under the snow, if you ever did a summer hike. It’s slippery.
Eventually, we started hitting more and more snow. At first, it was alongside the path through the boulders and we could choose between rocks or snow. But, as the rocks got steeper and the path became less clear, we switched exclusively to snow and only used the boulders for resting breaks. The boulders became increasingly few and far between as we continued until finally, there was about an hour at the top when there weren’t any -- just snow.
Still some boulders here! (Obvi)
This was the really, really difficult part of the hike -- the snow.

It was difficult physically. It’s slippery. We tried to follow in other people’s steps, which worked really well, but when there weren’t any, we had to kick in a new hole for each step.

But it was difficult mentally, too. It’s very difficult to judge distance when all you see is snow. We kept thinking we were almost there and then it would be a false summit (where it looks like it’s the top, but it’s just a ridge) or would find out that what looked like a short distance was not short at all.

We definitely used the boulders for breaks, but also as mini goals -- we can stop to rest when we get to that boulder. When there weren’t boulders (or when we couldn’t make it to one) we would take standing breaks -- just standing still for a minute until we caught our breath, then moving on.

I was right that my legs were strong, but the altitude really got to me. I had a headache and got dizzy a couple times. And Pat started getting sore legs earlier than he would have liked. So I was resting a lot to catch my breath and he was resting a lot to help his tired legs.

We finally reached a point where there were no more boulders -- only snow. It didn’t seem like we had far to go, and we saw some people on their way down already. (Including a family with several teens and pre-teens, which is why I’d say it’s probably not the hardest hike in the world if you’re hiking regularly.)

One man, on his way up and standing near us, asked a man on his way down how much farther we had still. He said about an hour. It’s a good thing I didn’t hear him because I might have given up. Pat heard, though. But Pat had some extra motivation to get us to the top.

We did finally make it to the top. It was very challenging. I kept wondering -- and still wonder -- if it was harder than my marathon. I think, alone, it might have been. But since Pat was with me and I ran the marathon alone, I think the marathon might have been harder? I don’t know. I think there were points we each thought we couldn’t do it and were ready to give up -- but it was never at the same time. So we didn’t give up and we made it to the top.

Now, for the way down…

A lot of people do what’s called “glissading” to get down -- basically, sledding on your butt. I was scared about this from the beginning -- HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE NOT ABOUT TO SLED OFF A CLIFF???? and also I read that glissading was how most people were injured (which is why I stopped reading things and decided to just trust Pat).
We glissaded a little bit, but I was still scared and Pat’s pants weren’t really slick enough, so we didn’t do much. Which, I think, is part of the reason our hike was so much longer than other hikers’ -- if you glissade down, you’re a lot faster. What we had to do was sliiiiide one foot forward for a little until we were either doing the splits or until we could stop ourselves. It was a pain in the butt and we both fell a lot and it wasn’t easy on our ankles or knees, but we made it down.

We got a little lost between the boulders and the forest and tried three paths before we found the right one. With how tired we were, the forest seemed endless, but we made it out.

So that’s it! That was our Mt. St. Helens hike. I would imagine a summer hike or a hike on a different path would be verrry different, but I did want to put this out there in case someone who is thinking of doing the hike finds it.

What’s the most challenging physical activity you’ve ever completed? Is the pain fuzzy now in your memory?


Kate said...

Those pictures are all just so cool! Plus, obviously, I love the story at the top. :D

Last weekend, I went on a 14ish mile hike, and there was only one time where we weren't sure if we were still on the trail, and I thought I was going to panic! We eventually found the trail, but I could only think about bears eating us if we got lost. (Because, obviously, bears don't eat people who AREN'T lost.)

Also, I'd never heard of glissaging before! That's super interesting. With my luck, I WOULD have fallen off a cliff. :P
I'm pretty sure if I ever get a wild hair to hike Mt. St. Helens, I'm going to shoot for the summer. ;)

Anonymous said...

Wow you guys are hardcore and awesome! My hardest physical challenge was a Kilimanjaro trek. I really didn't prepare myself so it was harder than it needed to be. But definitely one of the most rewarding challenges I've ever done.

Shauna said...

1. "glissading" (I've never heard this term before) is SO much fun! I've done it too much because Tim and I are always surprised by how much snow we encounter hiking in the mountains in the summer! But it's sooo much fun!!!
2. Whew!! What an awesome hike! So glad you guys got to do this, even if you burned your eyes :)!!
3. I hike in the mountains all the time up here and I still get elevation sickness pretty often. Hard to avoid it!

Cassy said...

This is an amazing recap. I'm not sure how I would do on such a long/high hike. Probably a lot worse than you did! I bet the trip down was more tolerable because of what happened at the top :)

Like you said, when doing something extremely taxing, only a few comparable events come to mind - running a marathon, climbing Mt. St. Helens, having a baby. I've only done one of those, and nearly three years later, all I can say is that I remember how badly it must've hurt (because I remember how loudly I was screaming, even though I was surrounded by strangers and that's so not like me), but I cannot actually recall the physical pain. Weird, right?!


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