Climbing Mount. St. Helens on a Friday the 13th

A long overdue hello! It’s been over 2 years since my last blog post and over 4 months since my trip to Washington, but at least I’m getting this in before the end of the year! And that’s what she said.

Back in August, I took two weeks off work to do two of my favorite things: visit friends and travel to places I’ve never been to before. First I went to Louisville, KY to visit J-Dalt, Brian, and their corgidors Pepper and Moose, and then I flew out to Seattle to visit Megan and her family and to do some hiking and camping!

On any other Friday the 13th, you’d find me watching horror movies and chilling with my black cat, but this August Megan and I hiked Mount St. Helens. Climbing up a stratovolcano 41 years after it erupted was an awesome alternative to watching a campy horror movie on Netflix anyway.

We left Seattle really late and drove south, first stopping in Cougar, the last town with minimal civilization before the trailhead. It was almost midnight and we pulled into the only “open” gas station that looked like it hadn’t been used since 1970. Of course we couldn’t get the pump to work. We still had more than half a tank of gas, but it was worth a shot to fill up again and not end up like horror movie victims and run out of gas in the middle of the wilderness. We got back in the car and drove down dark and winding roads while listening to The Beatles White Album. We were singing along to the songs but I kept wondering if Ted Bundy used to drive these same roads. There was no cell service so we used both a physical map and MapQuest directions to navigate. A vintage gas station, an actual map, and thoughts of Ted Bundy…maybe we were back in the seventies.

We reached the trailhead after midnight, pulled back our front seats, and managed to sleep in the car before heading out at 3 am. With our headlamps aglow and new packs from REI securely tightened to our backs, we walked in the dark, swatting cobwebs, dodging branches, and singing Disney songs to calm our nerves. Ted Bundy wasn’t the one to watch out for because there were probably mountain lions watching us in the darkness. (And Ted Bundy’s been dead for over 30 years.) I think one of the scariest sentences you can say to someone hiking out west is, “Even if you haven’t seen a mountain lion they’ve definitely seen you.”

We made it out of the woods with our headlamps still shining brightly and started our scramble up steep sheets of rock. We figured other people would be hiking in the wee hours of the morning to see the sunrise from the summit, but only two women passed us. It was hard to find the wooden markers along the rocks, so we used our instincts to make sure we were climbing in the right direction. A lot of “I think it’s this way,” “Are you sure?” “No. Let’s go that way.” Half the fun of scrambling up rocks is figuring out where to put your hands and feet next and it was exceptionally challenging in the dark!

Which way would you go?

Our original plan was to hike at midnight, so starting three hours later meant we were way behind schedule. The sun rose at 6:06 am and we were no where near the top. It was too hazy to see much of a sunrise so it didn’t matter. Chasing the sun up Mount St. Helens was still cool. We stopped and rested to watch the sunlight wash over the giant rock mounds we’d surpassed. Only one other hiker had the same idea as us and crouched on another rock to take pictures of the sunrise. The two women we saw on our way up were long gone by now. We had a chipmunk friend with us, but friend is a strong word. He was a bit of bully and kept trying to steal my trail mix and climb into my backpack! I don’t know why I preach like I’m Snow White and can befriend all small woodland creatures but still scream when a chipmunk gets too close to my stuff.

At this point, we weren’t even halfway there. It’s only four miles to the summit but with each mile you gain 1,000 ft in elevation. I’m not affected by the change in altitude anway–it’s the steep terrain that gets me every time.

Here comes the sun, doo doo doo oo, here comes the sun

There was still more scrambling to do but at least we could see the peak now–or so we thought. I learned the term “false summit,” a peak in the distance that looks like the top but once you make it there you still have more to go. In our hearts (and our quads) though we knew it was our final destination and not a fakey summit. Once we made it up and over all the rocks, the ground turned into ash and debris. I got out my hiking poles because we weren’t climbing anymore- we were trudging to the top (at least I was. Megan was cruising right along as if she’d done this before.) In hindsight, it was humbling to be at odds with the volcano. While it was happening, I was exhausted and felt like I’d never make it. On our way up, a group of four guys were walking–no–sliding back down. One of them said to me, “you’re almost there! “Seriously?” “Nope. Not even close.” Thanks for the honest encouragement, I guess? Later in the day, I passed a hiker saying it was like taking “two steps forward one step back.” For me it felt like I was taking only one step forward and two steps back. I was in the midst of one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever done, especially since the last major hike I did was back in 2019. But with Megan to motivate me I finally made it all the way up! The only people up there were the women we first saw in the early morning and they were just finishing up lunch. I think we made it up somewhere between 10:30 and 11 am. I’m glad we didn’t make it up in time with the other sunrise hikers or end up going later in the day because it would have been too crowded up top and even hotter.

We really lucked out being the only ones at the top since we couldn’t get that close to the rim or else we’d tumble down with all the rocks and ash into the crater-y abyss. We saw a raven circling around the top too! Fitting for a Friday the 13th. Despite the wind, we didn’t need our rain jackets or long sleeves we packed. We also had 4 liters of water, plenty of extra snacks (none for chipmunks though), peanut butter sandwiches, and sunscreen. I think Megan and I get the award for most prepared hikers that day. As we finished up lunch we saw a guy hiking up in jean shorts and sneakers. I didn’t know guys still wore jean shorts let alone to climb up a volcano.

The upside of Megan hiking faster than me is I got to be in a bunch of her pictures!

Our steep ascent to the top
The top of Mount St. Helens from my point of view
Megan’s point of view with our new packs chilling on the left
Those tiny dots to the left are people

My mom asked me before we left if we would be the only ones hiking in the middle of the night and I was like “ugh, MOM. Of course there will be plenty of people doing the sunrise hike! Stop worrying!” Moms are always right though. We counted seven other people hiking up for the sunrise. They only give out 110 permits a day, so everyone else came up later in the morning. I’m glad we started when we did though because it was blistering hot coming down! The sun beat down on us unforgivingly since we were high above the tree line. We encouraged other hikers on their way up, and I even offered advice to a couple who told us this was their fourth time climbing Mount St. Helens. It took us many hours to get down because we kept having to stop so I could shake the tiny rocks that ended up in my boots on the way down. My Meryls have been with me since my first big hike in 2014, and they have traveled all over the world with me to places like the top of Mount Fuji, Half Dome in Yosemite , Mount Katahdin in Maine, and along the Kalalau Trail on Kau’i. I think it’s time to invest in a new pair!

We made it back to the car at exactly 3 pm, 12 hours after we started. It took us 4 hours longer to walk down than we anticipated. Jean shorts even made it down before us! We couldn’t wait to get back in the car and drive to our campsite, set up our tent, and then pass out. We stopped for gas and water in Randle on our way back; another tiny town that was less creepy, had working gas pumps, and cell service. I Googled restaurants near us and we ended up at The Bistro for a real meal. It was such a hot day that their kitchen was closed and we could only order food from their cold menu. The menu was limited and one of our choices was watermelon gazpacho. Not a dish we wanted after a long day hiking. We settled on homemade hummus and bread sprinkled with anise and Iranian spices. It tasted delicious and was exactly what we needed after a long day hiking. The staff was friendly and welcoming and I highly recommend The Bistro if you’re passing through Randle! I also ordered a Blue Moon on draft but only finished half. Am I growing out of the post-hike beer or was I just tired? Hoping it’s the former.

Nice to see some greenery after hours of seeing only rocks, ash, and the blistering sun.

We both texted our parents to let them know we finished our hike. Megan gave specifics to her mom and dad and I sent one text saying “I’m alive” with a failed picture. In my defense, I’m like Aaron Burr–succinct and persuasive.

With our bellies and gas tank full, we drove about 30 minutes to our next destination: Blue Lake Creek Campground (I think it should just be called Blue Lake Campground or Blue Creek Campground. Once a Grammar Nerd always a Grammar Nerd.) We unpacked what we needed for the night, pitched our tent, brushed our teeth, and then retired to our comfy sleeping pads for the night. (We used the Exped MegaMat–on a scale of 10, I would rate it a 20.) I think Megan passed out immediately and I lay awake until 1 am listening to a crying baby in the campsite next to us. I really should invest in good ear plugs.

A huge thank you to Megan for planning this trip for the two of us. It was exactly the safe escape I needed from the pandemic and the adventure away from my dead-end part time job at the time. And this was only our first hike! You’ll probably have to wait another 4 months for my next blog post though.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is d6daba41-5a97-4b07-9ffd-fe55d56e4875_1_105_c.jpeg
Megan’s picture–I can’t take credit for this
No caption needed expect for this
Boots, you had my feet on the way up but not the way down!

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