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Author Topic: March 17, 2004, Mt St Helens (8,300')  (Read 2593 times)

Posts: 519

March 17, 2004, Mt St Helens (8,300')
« on: 03/23/04, 11:50 AM »

St Patrick's Day Corn Fest 3.17.04
Skiing almost 6,000 VF of winter corn on the Swift Glacier, Mt St Helens

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Total Vertical Skied: 5,700' (Summit 8,300' to Marble Mountain Sno-Park 2,600')
Total distance climbed/skied: 8 miles
Total hours without sleep: 38 (6 am Tuesday 3-16-04 to 8 pm Wednesday 3-17-04)

5 pm Tuesday 3-16-04, Issaquah

I'm on the phone with Ron.  

Plans are for me to pick Ron up at his house in the city, say 10 pm, and then scram south on the 4 hour drive to Mt St Helens.  The weather forecast for Wednesday looks good with sunshine expected after morning fog, (read: spring corn pattern) and a March snow pack to the parking lot hints at a full ski of Mt St Helen's huge 5,700' south facing Worm Flows route.  It was going to be a beautiful day.  It had to be.  After all, it was going to be my birthday and I was going to be on skis.  Memories of my first ski of Mt Washington (a 4,200' VF ski!) on 3-17-96 with Rob Jones bring a cheery mood to the festivities.

The Worm Flows route, which ironically follows an unnamed, non-descript rib just to the west of the actual geographical feature, climbs near the Swift River to the base of the Swift Glacier.  Delightful morning skiing could be had on the white sheets of the glacier which majestically faces SE like a huge sail catching early morning light.  Temps were scheduled to hit 60 degrees F down in the lowlands so the slope would only be in good conditions early in the day.  The strong March sun would fully defrost the winter snow pack by 9 am, and create hazardous conditions on the South and East faces later in the morning as sloughing becomes an issue.

An alpine start at the trailhead is necessary - but first we had to get there. We'd just left the city and are fighting our way downstream through Tacoma and Olympia in the never ceasing traffic of I-5.  It's an easy swim and soon enough we're doing 75 MPH on the straightaway to Portland.  We stop near midnight at a gas station and fuel up - the Ford, and our meals for the next day.  The clerk behind the counter was tall, talkative and talk show material.  

One look at the pile of cokes, potato chips, snickers bars, beef jerky, and other high class and healthy carbo bombs on his counter prompted, "And where are you guys going?  Mt St. Helens?  I couldn't make it up two feet!" he says and laughs.  We can't argue with him.  

Ron didn't know what he was getting himself into when he offered to pay, and was shocked to be staring down a $40 bill - without gas.  A sucker is born every minute, I said under my breath and scoop up my candy and jerky.

Stopping at Jack's Restaurant for our permits a couple miles outside of Cougar, we were pleasantly surprised to find summit permits, usually $15/per person, were now on sale for the low low price of FREE.99 - on sale until March 31st.   What a bargain.  We'd take two, please.  Not only would we be able to use our Sno Park permit, required for another ski tour during the winter, but our stroll around the mountain would also be free.  Yippee!

On our way up the winding mountain road to the sno park, we caught up to a van.  Oddly, he pulled over and waved us down.  What's this?  We pulled up next to him and Ron cautiously rolled the window down a sliver.  "Hey", he says, "is this the way to Marble Mountain Sno Park?  We're at 9 miles on my odometer and no signs".  

Hmmm, by golly, he was right.  Somewhere we had missed a turn and who knows how long it was going to be until we decided we'd erred.  Maybe 15 miles?  This van came out of no where and flagged us down in the dead of night to deter us from a half hour (at least) delay.  At 2 am, mind you, not High Tea.

"I'm heading up there to meet some friends" he says, and we stumble around a conversation.  We depart and wish him well, but truth is we never see him again and we never do find out if he found his friends.  

Once on the Right Path again, we find the Sno Park easily.  The parking lot was empty, save for one huge customized greyhound bus which took up the whole east side.  We parked near the visitor's center and the bathrooms and turned on the canopy lights so we could pack our belongings for the climb.  We had some gear decisions to make.  We knew three things about the climb: it hadn't snowed significantly in days; it was a circus this past weekend so a trail will have been trampled; and it was also in the 30's at 2,600' so a good freeze/thaw probably would occur overnight.  A forecast of freezing level to 9,000' when the sun rose certainly would take care of the thaw part of the equation.  Now all we had to worry about was the freeze part down low and in the forest.  How would this help/hinder the trip?  And what could I leave/need to bring?

Crampons?  Bring, of course.  No snow shoes?  Hmmm, a gamble.    Decisions, decisions.  Many an adventure had ground to a halt even before leaving the parking lot, and good planning mostly comes into play for a successful adventure.   With the three hours planning both Ron and I had been afforded, it was amazing to discover we had all the materials available to us, but as usual we find uncertainty and craftmanship even in the packing stage of the trip.

In the end, the snowshoes we left in the truck so we could enjoy easy uphill walking and to also save a little weight on the descent, one of the benefits of leaving before the frost leaves the snow.  And speed, of course, was just one of the benefits of corn season.  As I scramble around my pack shoving things in and pulling things out, my headlamp dies.  It's the batteries.  I put in a new pack from my spares, and the light bulb burns out.  Rats.  I'd never been a boy scout (who wants to be in an organization that models itself after the army?), but "be prepared" - good motto.  I opened my pack up and found my spare flashlight and set to work getting the pack onto my body.  It felt good.  I scan the truck and area for my debris and ask Ron if he's ready.

It was dark.  

Not kind-a dark, or pretty dark, but pitch black.  There was not a star in the sky because of the low fog enveloping everything like a thick soup.  We felt very far away from the sun, on the dark side of the globe and all around - silence.  The beams from our headlights cast a white glowing tunnel of light in the fog and the dense water vapor caused the beams to dissipate at disappointing distances - usually at the edge of some looming rock formation or ancient tree.  The fishbowl effect was startling and creepy, and as we left timberline, rock formations and land features would float out of the mist in dark threatening forms.  I kept my beam of light cast at the few feet in front of me, seeking each of Ron's foot holes to save energy and mental fatigue.  We followed the trail from many days of travel fairly easily and were thankful we could make out the path in the poor visibility.

We keep a loose, light banter of chatter alive in the chilly air and this helped move us along in the dismal undersea voyage in which we were embarked.  We had been following a prominent snowshoe down-trail from the day before which made for a very obvious ski run past a confusing series of intersections.  Our decision for no snow shoes proves a good one and we move quickly to higher altitude before the sun comes up.  As we crunch through the molasses-like corn snow we can tell that we want to be on our snowboards in this low elevation slop later that morning!  

Somehow, we are able to find our way out of the fog onto the flanks of Mt St Helens.  Shapes began to appear out of the misty space all around us, and we are surprised to see we had been looking at the next ridge across a huge chasm.  We were on the swirling, windy break between cloudless night and starless fog.  Wispy clouds raced by our ridge and obscured the glow of starlight.  We moved up the ridge and the edge of the cloud sea receded.  At the horizon to the east a deep red glow illuminated the clouds all around, and as if on cue the Moon began to rise.  It rose out of the clouds between Adams and Hood, a shiny, slim crescent, adding to the dim light.  We no longer needed headlamps after a time, and the creepy fishbowl effect disappeared, replaced by gleeful awe.

We hid behind a group of rocks on the ridge to escape the wind, and to enjoy the sights now afforded us.  We could finally see the progress we had been sweating for the last three hours and the grand swoop of the Volcano fell away below us, to the waiting maw of the cloud sea.  The mountain was split in two with us in the middle - above, sunshine and warmth; below, darkness and gloom. Somewhere near 6,000' we passed a weather station sensor, like a lone Christmas tree leftover from the Christmas rush.  We can see the detail of the station in the colorful morning light and this adds another layer to the unfolding route.  Dawn was quickly and irreversibly replaced by sunrise and the beginning of a new day.  The specter of night receded quickly along with the gloom, and bright sunshine drove our moods higher.  We took a break on the white open slopes of the glacier and watched the sun finally break its way from behind clouds very near Mt Adams.  We both lauded the good weather compared to what climbers on Adams would have been experiencing.

We endured a couple hundred feet of violent sea spray, the cast off from high winds on the other side of the mountain and germinating from cloud currently draped over the summit ridge.  Amazingly, as we entered the sheltered lee side of the glacier, we enjoyed a brief break in the clouds.  The sun filtered through the mist and it became very warm, very fast.  The track we were following from the day before became a beautiful half boot deep stair, filled with loose spindrift and 2" of fine corn.  Excellent traveling snow.

A little further on, the clouds covering the summit lifted for good.  The wind was still present, but merely an afterthought for mountain scenery.  But not before a gust ripped my Washington State cap right off my head - Goodbye, Dear Hat!

Arriving at the summit, we were treated to clear skies and little wind.  To our north the clouds obscured all sights, while down below us, the cauldron of doom gaped.  A ring of white circled the mound in the center of the crater, the last remnant of the 1980 explosion now enjoying the company of a new glacier.

Ron and I took the obligatory summit photos and enjoyed the fine views, then got going while the getting was good.  The lenticular clouds on Mt Adams where now overtaking the mountain in two great bands.  It would be a grim day on Adams.  High winds, low visibility, low sunlight - uggh what a contrast!  Here we were on the rim of destruction and joy, and decidedly enjoying far more Joy than destruction.  We drank up, ate up and packed up in warm sunshine.  

The ski descent was just about perfect.  

On the warm sunlit slopes of the Swift Glacier, Ron and I found 2-4" of sweet velvety corn.  And because the slope faced east it was somewhat wind protected for billiard table smoothness.  Our descent, needless to say, was well timed.  We carved out onto the clean southeast faces of the glacier and skied the mountain "Aspen Mountain stylee" where a series of traverses and turns makes good use of double fall line terrain.  As we leave the summit face, we pass two skiers on their way up to enjoy the solitude of the mountain.  Luckily, no snowmobiles had decided to climb the mountain (their tracks were plainly evident off the summit ridge) and we were like two ships passing in the night.  I waved a "fare thee well" and one of the skiers waved back - they obviously could see how great conditions were going to be!  

We made our way over to a white sharks fin knoll that intrigued us on the up climb, and from above it looked far less menacing.  Ron stood below while I carved turns down the steep open face of the knoll, kicking off lose corn in a swift, loose river. The terrain of St Helens lends itself to cruising and exploring and we play on the terrain features the whole of the descent.  Wild waves, faces, cornices, swells and gullies add to the thrill, and there is no doubt left in your mind that you're on a volcano.  Hundreds of vertical flow by like cascading scenes from your favorite ski area, and all are untracked and inviting.  Even down low we enjoy good corn snow, now the trees act as shade providers and we easily cruise the ski trail in hectic abandon.  As we reentered the fog still lingering in the trees, we glimpse and hear a group of skiers heading up, destination unknown.  They are too far away again to have conversation, so we dash off into the fog without a whisper.  We see no one else on the trail and this proves a wonderful thing as we can really unwind it on the bobsled run of the up trail with no fear of scattering hikers in our wake.  

Somewhere down low in the logging roads we find ourselves shooting past a quarry, and this is bewildering.  Even in the dark we should have seen that.  Further on we pop out onto the road, which is now being used as a snowmobile trail.  An easy stroll down the flat road brings us back to the Marble Mountain Sno Park.  Amazingly, what took 7 hours to climb falls in little more than an hour on snowboards.  

There is still but one other car in the parking lot when we return.  Well, bus really.  And what a bus it is.  A trailer hook up tows a squadron of snowmobiles and the remnants of a tailgate party liter the home away from home.  A hose from the exhaust runs like a dryer vent from the underside of the bus and blackens the pavement a few feet away.  Across the back window in colorful script an elegant mountain scene is painted along with the caption "Dreams Can Come True".  Indeed.  Our side of the parking lot remains empty.  We quickly shed wet clothing, pat ourselves on the back, and peel off down the road toward the highway.  Our adrenaline is running high and I want to use as much as I can on the drive home.  I keep 1 liter of soda near, a load CD on deck and the vent on cold.  

It takes Ron about 15 minutes to begin the long fight not to nod off.  He loses the first round and I'm left alone to my music and caffeine.  I drop Ron in the alleyway behind his house.  Partly to ease a disorderly toss of gear into the yard instead of a sprint up the front steps, and partly to ensure we didn't encounter anyone in our hideous "madmen" condition.  It works, we see no one, and I'm back on the road.  It's a race with the clock.  Never am I more nervous of my lack of sleep than in the car on the drive home from Ron's to my own house.  I blew Ron away with loud music, drank way too much caffeine and substituted amphetamines for a constant need to go to the bathroom.  But alone, I would have no one to annoy, and only my thoughts to drift off on.  In a dream, I somehow found my way home.

I settle into bed, full stomach and a new DVD in the player.  Emerald and Alyson are laughing away.  I hardly make it through the opening credits and I'm asleep.
« Last Edit: 10/25/04, 06:37 PM by admin » Logged

Posts: 403

Re: March 17th, 2004, Mt St Helens (8,300')
« Reply #1 on: 03/23/04, 02:04 PM »

Nice work.

I'm confused, were you boarding or skiing?

St. Helens is definitely in this month.  I just did my third trip in a month there last Sunday! (unemployed Grin)

The fees start April 1st, right?

I don't want to hijack your thread with my own TR, so here is just a photo that may look familiar:


« Last Edit: 03/23/04, 02:17 PM by username » Logged

Posts: 519

Re: March 17th, 2004, Mt St Helens (8,300')
« Reply #2 on: 03/23/04, 02:09 PM »

Charles usually doesn't mind if the photos are terrain related...I hope...

yup, the Sharksfin:

I came down the right side of the scoop.  Very fun!

And this time I was snowboarding.

Posts: 3

Re: March 17th, 2004, Mt St Helens (8,300')
« Reply #3 on: 03/24/04, 02:16 AM »

I just skied Helens the other day and fwiw my gps read the distance from the top to the Marble Mountain parking lot as 4.98  miles. Am I a geek or what?! Wink

Posts: 361

Re: March 17th, 2004, Mt St Helens (8,300')
« Reply #4 on: 03/24/04, 06:15 AM »

Great TR Michael.  You made the day come alive.
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