Shedding gear and backtracking on St Helens

Okay, so here’s some info that makes me a Bad Mazama. I left my 10 essentials behind. Okay, it was just for maybe an hour. Even so, don’t tell. I must say I felt naked. Here’s the story.

Today for my last conditioning climb before next week’s Mt Hood attempt, I climbed Mt St Helens and unfortunately had the privilege of reclimbing part of it. The weather was fabulous, except for the fact that the really warm sun was thawing the snow very quickly–I couldn’t believe how many people were still heading up as I was descending. Many were having a tough time in the heat and the soft snow.

My climb began when I started up the trail from the Marble Mountain Sno-Park (approx 2700 feet) at 6:49am and hiked through the iced-over snow in the forest. Once leaving the forest, there wasn’t much snow until maybe 5000 feet. By the time I got to it, the snow was soft and I was grateful there were lots of footprints to follow, including those of someone whose stride length matched mine and who did a fabulous job of kicking in.

I reached the summit (8364 feet) around 11:30 where I lunched and visited and sat for about 50 minutes. You know, that last stretch to the summit was no picnic. One of the traits I carry with me, for better or worse, is that if I see someone ahead of me, I start trying to reel them in–all those years of running and racing, I suppose. Of course, there were plenty of people ahead of me on the climb, which wasn’t a big a deal at lower altitudes, but I was noticing that my heart was just pounding as I was chasing the last, oh, 750 feet or so. As I passed a couple with skis on their packs, the woman said that she was making her boyfriend stop every 100 steps for a quick breather. Aha. A great strategy.

Sometimes I’d go for 100 steps. Sometimes 50. Occasionally 120. I checked my pulse now and again and was not surprised that it would push 180 and I had no trouble whatsoever exerting myself to be above 150 always. And I used to think 20-milers were good exercise.

At the summit, careful to stay away from the corniced edge, I looked around to see Mt Rainier, Mt Adams, and Mt Hood through the haze. The crater is incredibly interesting and alive as the mountain rebuilds itself; just before I reached the summit, apparently part of the lava dome in the crater collapsed, shooting up ash and steam. Even while I was there, the mountain let loose a small plume of ash and steam.

After lunch, the fun part started: the glissade. The snow wasn’t ideal for quick trips down the mountain, but I think that may have been okay, especially since at one point I found myself off the beaten track.

In fact, this particular situation had me a bit worried since I’d come to a stop after a particularly stellar glissade run early in my descent and as I stood up, both legs immediately sunk in the snow up to my crotch. I had no idea how much more snow there was underneath me and this was partway down a very steep section that upon further inspection was something I was definitely not comfortable with. Trying not to think about being trapped in this heavy snow and the A word, I extracted myself from the hole and started to traverse the slope to a less steep portion.

Then I slipped, fell on my side, and immediately started sliding down the slope, gaining speed. I’ve often said that of all the gear I’ve accumulated recently, one of my favorite possessions is my ice axe. I was ever so grateful that this purple-leashed tool was in my hands when I hit the snow. It took a moment to pull the pick in close enough to my body so I could put my weight on it, but this self-arrest move was so smoothly automatic it was a reflex. (Thank goodness for training sessions in the snow and 40F rain.) So I would glissade and self-arrest until I arrived at the bottom of this section and had a chance to slog over to the more-travelled route where I continued down at a more pedestrian pace.

And then the mountain ran out of glissade-able terrain. I had done the last several runs with someone who converged on my route down and as we finished, I asked him whether my snowshoes were still on my back.

What snowshoes? he asked. I dropped my pack faster than I think I’ve ever dropped it before. Oh F word. Except it was not the PG version you just read. And there were a few utterances of language you don’t often hear come from my mouth. Okay, well, those of you who have can just zip it right now.

So I parked my pack, including my 10 essentials, on some lava boulders while I trudged back up the mountain, trekking poles and ice axe in hand. Sigh. F word. Slog up the snow for awhile. Then up the scree and boulders. Then back to the snow. Gosh, I’m kind of thirsty. Gee, what happens if I fall on these sharp rocks and cut myself. I told myself No accidents allowed until I’m back at my pack.

After about 45 minutes of climbing, I reached the spot I was sure they’d be. But no. Until a couple of guys crested the snow ridge I was standing beneath. Hey, I called, have you seen any snowshoes? I was resigned to a “no” answer and at least another 45 minutes of slogging through tough snow conditions.

Turns out Bob, my saviour, had them strapped to his pack. He handed them over and then I repeated a few downhill runs on my butt to return to my pack in about 15 minutes, where I spent the next 15 minutes rearranging said pack and fashioning straps from a roll of velcro I’d decided to toss in at the last minute. There were a few times during my climb that people mentioned the amount of gear I was carrying. Yeah, I’d shrug, I’m training for other climbs. Not to mention to get lucky and be able to fix that which I should’ve taken care of the first time they fell off (I didn’t mention? funny…)

I’ve heard several times that reaching the summit is only the beginning of the climb; the descent, when you’re tired, when you’re just wanting to get back to the car or camp, is more important to pay attention to because this is when the mistakes are usually made. Amen.

The rest of the descent through the melting snow and the occasional patch of muddy lava dust, was pretty uneventful.

I was glad when the parking area appeared; it felt good to finally get to my car and shed my pack, boots, and soggy layers–and make a beeline for the bathroom, where it seemed a substantial portion of the 3 to 4 liters of fluid I consumed on the mountain were waiting to, oh, are we straying into TMI? Never mind then. It’s time to go to sleep and think about skipping tomorrow’s run…