Waking, Sleeping, Waking, Sleeping. Last night I went to bed late. And today I “woke” at 3:30AM to toss my gear in Chuck’s car and stumble to the back seat with my pillow to pass out again. In the “airplane foreward-tuck” position I’m able to put in a couple more hours of shuteye, with intermittent interruption, before we pull into the cool and breezy parking lot at Marble Mountain. During the summer hikers have the trailhead to themselves, but in the winter we Subaru-driving, nature-loving, granola hippies have to share the parking lot with exhaust-spewing, nature-dominating “Sled-necks”, or as I call them “Snow-BRO-bilers”. This morning is no different. The bottom half of the parking lot is filled with lifted trucks, trailers, and cigarette butts. We pull into the far superior upper parking lot filled with AWD hatchbacks, Priuses, and “Feel the Bern” bumperstickers. Ok ok, in truth, I’m a gun-owning, conservative, who isn’t convinced global warming is our fault. I have respect for snowmobilers…especially when they gladly accept a few shots from my flask in exchange for a quick tow up the trail. I no longer bring whiskey for myself. I bring it for the tow…and myself. Today though, the snowmobilers head in the opposite direction. Because today we are climbing a National Monument: Mount St. Helens.
This is my second big mountain ski tour that borders the line of Ski Mountaineering. We have 5,600 feet of elevation and 6 miles to the top of the crater rim. The forecast calls for “slight-wind” and a bluebird sunny day. From the parking lot we are initiated to the less than “slight” winds as fingers and toes freeze. We don our skis, and get moving in the shady glens of the lower wormflow climbing route. In my experience climbing volcanos of the Pacific Northwest I find that in the tree-covered lower slopes where one begins, there typically isn’t much wind even if it’s howling above tree line. Today we have a breeze at the parking lot. One that suggest gale-force winds higher on the mountain. Just that thought numbs our spirits. As we skin through the forest on a thin snow cover I remind myself that it’s sunny. Soon we’ll be filled with warmth from the sun’s rays; and I’d gladly take the wind over the wet slushy rain experienced a day ago on Kendall Ridge. As trees thin, the sun increases, and so does the wind. We stop for a break to take in the view of the young volcano before us; and to wrap ourselves in our shell jackets for the ascent. Our route climbs a small ridge line that snakes…or worms its way up to the summit headwall. The wind is blasting and Ice sprays our faces as we push quickly up. It’s now that I finally remember what it’s like. Climbing tall, exposed peaks. Throughout the winter I’ve waited for favorable weather and stayed low in the valleys. Even on Hood two weeks before the air was calm all day long. I’m now reminded that the mountains can throw some nasty weather at you with no regard for your comfort. We come to a steep, icy part of the ridge where our skis stubbornly refuse to grip. I strap them to my pack and continue up kicking steps. The skis, which have been so helpful until now become a burden. It’s not their weight that’s problematic…it’s their fantastic ability to become sails with every gust of wind. I stumble drunkenly upward as the wind knocks me to and fro.
Finally, past the ice, I’m able to put the skis back on and continue the trudge. At the same time we receive some wind shelter from an adjacent ridge. We’ve entered the summit bowl and have our last 2000 feet to go. The renewed excitement of our progress and calmed winds are tempered by the exhaustion that the previous 3000 feet and pounding wind has bestowed upon us. My pace slows as I take frequent breaks. The rim looks so close, yet progress seems so subtle. The endless hill doesn’t relent. Step after step, breath after breath. It feels like we haven’t moved. I begin to wish for the wind again to distract me from the burning quads and thumping heartbeat. But I know I’m close and must keep going. The slope seems endless…until it ends. It seems like I have another mile to go and then I don’t see any more hill. I see the corniced rim, right in front of me. Just a few switchbacks up a somewhat icy, powdery mess to get to a level point at the edge of the crater.
I had been expecting the wind to come rushing back as soon as we hit the rim, but it didn’t. There were occasional gusts, but nothing compared to earlier in the day. I’m grateful for the calming weather. It makes for quite a pleasant time as we reward ourselves with rest and food. We snap a few photos of the 360 degree views, and do a much needed stretching session before spending the next hour ripping down the mountain…while pushing our muscles to the limit. We snap our skis into downhill mode and click in. Since I’m the least experienced we’ve decided that I should go first. I take a few conservative turns testing out the snow. It’s smooth and buttery having been softened by the sun all morning. Chuck joins me on his split board cruising past, creating new tracks as he goes. I can’t help but to jump down and join the fun. I find my own line, becoming more and more confident with every turn. Skiing after having climbed 5,600 feet is challenging. You wear your muscles to the point of exhaustion going up. Then you expect them to jump into action performing, making precise turns, and rolling with bumpy, variable snow. Having destroyed my muscles on a similar mountain less than two weeks prior has given me the strength and endurance to really enjoy laying down these fresh tracks.
The snow is great for the first several thousand feet. Then the sun ducks behind the clouds. This causes the smooth butter to crust up. It’s also at this point where my muscles are starting to jello up. Now we’re skiing a breakable crust that has it’s own ideas of where it wants my skis to go. This is a fairly new kind of snow to me. Chuck tells me to be aggressive with my turns to maintain control. The next 20 minutes are spent with some success, and much failure. Descending to the lower elevations we find relief from the crust as the snow turns into wet mashed potatoes. And along with that my muscles have downgraded once more to mashed potatoes. I get in a decent groove skiing through a natural half-pipe until I turn into a shadow, where the snow is still crusty. I quickly lose control and go head over heals for a fabulous grand finale. Soon we reach the tree line where we follow the slick trail a final two miles to the parking lot. A fabulous dinner awaits us at the Centralia McMinnamins. Sleep once again finds me on the drive home. I dream of the wonderful time on the flanks of St. Helens; and of our next adventure.