Although it isn’t a new concept, I have been thinking a long time about starting the Ring of Fire tour. This is the term affectionately given to climbing all of the major Cascade volcanos. From Shasta in California to Garibaldi in British Columbia, Canada. I would however, add that I intend on summiting and skiing and/or speedflying all of them. This narrows my season and my snow and atmospheric conditions. I love living in the Pacific Northwest and this would be one of the ways that I would get out and see more of the region that I love.
I was keeping an eye on the weather to see if the skies, snow conditions and winds would cooperate. As luck would have it, all of the forecast sites were showing the same thing regarding the skies and snow conditions. However, they were all pretty conflicted in their reports for the winds aloft. I decided to bring my speedwing anyway. Things have been pretty crazy here in the Pacific Northwest. An extremely long, dry, hot summer, followed be a wild and wet winter. We have certainly been getting snow. However, it has been followed by warm temps, rain and sun. With all of this in mind, I figured that I would give Mt. St. Helens a go and get my Ring of Fire tour kicked off for 2015.
A couple friends backed out last minute and although I am no fan of going in the mountains alone, I decided to drive down and give ‘er anyway. The drive is around 2.5 hours and I was greeted by a gate that had the road heading up to the climbers bivouac closed. The alternate was the snow park just down the road, but the signs on the way up were posted that it was closed as well. I decided to go from here. Unfortunately, this would add 7 miles each way to my climb up the Monitor Ridge route. With speedwing, skis and boots on my back, I made the long arduous hike up to the start of the route. Once to the ridge, I ditched my hiking shoes and slipped on my ski boots. In hindsight, I should have left the hiking shoes on for a while longer. I had the choice of post-holing the soft, thin snow or hiking on the large rocks that made up the ridge line. The snow was too sporadic to start skinning, and I hate post-holing. Ski boots would have to do for now. Climbing on and over these big rocks is not only exhausting, it’s no fun. Live and learn.
Finally I get to some better snow and clicked in to my skis and started the skin up. Once I got to about 6500’, I found out which online forecast was correct. The 40+ mph winds nearly knocked me off of my skis and down the ridge. Looks like no flying for me today. The higher I went, the windier it got and the harder/icier the snow. I’m was beginning to think I may lose a couple fillings on the ski down.
Continuing the trudge up the ridgeline, I dropped my pack a couple hundred feet short of the rim and removed my skis. I didn’t want to be the least bit unsteady at the summit/rim with the wind conditions the way they were. The ledge into the crater is a large cornice that drops off around 1000’. The crater, by the way, was unimaginably immense. I’ve seen numerous pictures and videos and have spent a couple days in the vicinity of the Johnston’s Ridge Observatory and viewed the mountain from afar. None of these other options do this mountain any justice like being on the rim. I won’t even try to describe how small and insignificant I felt and how amazing it was. Completely indescribable. Seeing first hand the results of the power of Mother Nature is unbelievably humbling. I spent a few minutes, took in the view of St Helens and the surrounding Cascade volcanoes within eye shot and began my trek down to my gear.
With the wind still ripping from skiers right to left, I stepped in to my skis and pointed my tips downhill and into a slightly protected snowfield. The first few hundred feet of vertical were nice, chalky, packed-powder. After that, the next 3000’ were some of the best corn that I’ve ever skied. And it’s January!
I followed the lava tube down until i was tired of dodging rocks. I stepped out of my skis, strapped them to my pack and began hiking up and over three ridge lines until I reached the trailhead down to the climbers bivouac. From there, I uncovered my hiking boots from where I had stashed them, switched out my footwear and began the long hike back to my car. The hike was quiet and I could feel how tired I was in almost every inch of my body. I enjoyed the brief company of a small herd of elk just before making it to the car. Their stare went from me, to each other, back to me, back to each other, then off into the woods they went. Finally at the car, I offloaded my gear from my back to the back of the car, drank a liter of water in almost one gulp, cranked up the car and began making my way back to cellular range to let my wife know all was good. Completely physically and emotionally exhausted, I reflected on the last 12 hours and how entirely content I was. Thank you for the amazing day St. Helens. I’ll be back to see you again, Living the High Life.