This past Friday (October 10) was the day I had been planning for several weeks to climb Mt. St. Helens with some friends. Having done the climb in 2001, and remembering how grueling it was, I was a little nervous about doing it again, especially in view of the light use of my hiking boots over the summer.

To make matters more complicated, I came down with a cold on Wednesday. By Thursday I was feeling fairly close to miserable, and considering pulling out of the hike. However, I just couldn’t bring myself to cancel. The weather was expected to be beautiful and I already had the time off work. So to the mountain was my decision.

Armed with tissue and cough drops, as well as the standard water, Gatorade and plenty of snacks, I hit the road at 7 a.m. with my friends Jamie, Larry, and Carmen. Though I was determined to climb, I questioned the wisdom of it, as did a few others. 🙂

The chatter in the car came to a halt as we entered Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and were greeted in full view by the sight of the majestic 8363′ snow covered peak glistening in the morning sun. We were all taken aback by its beauty and a little nervous about the fact that we were going to begin our ascent in mere minutes. Larry broke the silence by saying appropriately, “I kinda got butterflies in my stomach looking at it.” We all chuckled because we could identify.

9:07 a.m.

Loaded up with our packs, jackets and hats (it was clear and sunny, but a little chilly considering the starting point is at almost 3800 feet), we hit the trail head. The first two miles of gentle switchbacks through the trees were a pleasant warmup. I was pulling up the rear of our group of four, being both the only ill climber and the one who had spent the least amount of time at the gym in preparation. 🙂 I was feeling somewhat nervous about the climb, yet optimistic and determined. My sore throat and runny nose seemed a bit of a damper, but I still had a slight spring in my step.

After arriving at the timberline two miles in, the route takes a steep upward turn through some loose lava rock up to the beginning of Monitor Ridge, where the bulk of the climb takes place. The trail continues sharply upward through loose rock for about a mile. It was at this point that I began to feel a little fatigued with my cold working against me. Two things that constantly helped were the kindness and patience of my friends, who would stop every so often and wait for me to catch up, as well as the stunning view. Already a mile above the tree line, lush forests for miles was the background down below, with the view above snow covered glaciers on either side of the ridge, and jagged snowy boulders filling the expanse of the mountain face.

The next section of the climb involved a ridge of boulders approximately a mile long that require deft scrambling from one to the next amid sharp elevation gain. It’s a fun adventure going up, but very taxing as it requires use of your arms and legs to navigate and maintain balance. By this time my leg muscles were stinging and I was fairly tired and noting the extra effort required by my lungs at that elevation (about 7000′), coupled with my sore throat. Yet my increasing pain was balanced by the scenic reward of being above the clouds and seeing even more of the forest carpet below. Frequent water and snack breaks with the gang were necessary to keep energy levels maintained.  One step at a time toward the summit.

Once over the boulder section, the final approximately 3/4 mile consists of an steep ash slope between the glaciers, gaining about 1300 feet to the summit. At that elevation, and with my energy seemingly almost gone, I began to entertain the thought of throwing in the towel. Catching up with my friends, I collapsed and sprawled out on the slope, too tired to even sit up. I could see the summit, but it was so far away and so high up.

Larry and Jamie started climbing again while I finished blowing my nose, hydrating, and fighting crushing self-pity and fatigue. With a sigh of resolution, I put on my pack and began taking one tiny step at a time. The cold wind gushed across the face of the mountain, making my fingers and legs cold and adding to my misery. Larry and Jamie were already tiny dots at least 200 yards above me (they seemed tiny anyway, with so much elevation between us). I looked at the distance between them and me, and the distance further still to the summit. It was too much for my exhausted body to take. Tears stung my eyes as I concluded that I just couldn’t do it. I stood still, sobbing, not wanting to quit but feeling no will to continue. I waited for the wind to die down to shout up the mountain to my friends that I was quitting. The words were difficult to utter. “Larry!! I….” Wind gust. “Larry! I can’t do it!!! I’m done! I’ll meet you guys at the….(wind gust).”

Larry, in response, threw his hands up in the air as if to say, “Are you coming or what?” My inner struggle became more profound as I wrestled with my decision. “Can you make it to here?” shouted Larry. “Uh…I’m not sure, but I don’t want to” I said with a tearful whimper that I regretted upon hearing it come out of my mouth. “I’ll try.” And with that nudge of a challenge, I decided the least I could do was keep trying. Step after agonizing step I made my way, if only to keep Larry from having to wait for me any longer.

When I caught up, I still wasn’t convinced about going the last 1000 feet, which in the summer time is very difficult, as the steep sandy slope often has you sliding back a foot for every two feet forward. This day, however it was covered in snow. Jamie was halfway up and Carmen was at the top waiting for us. “We’re going to drop our packs here to make it easier for the last part,” said Larry, slyly making his assertion plural, meaning I was going. Not quite convinced, I weighed my physical and emotional exhaustion against the reality of having to tell people that I made it within 1000 feet of the summit and quit. “Ok, I’ll do it,” I said weakly.

Without the weight of my backpack and with the added benefit of snow to dig my toes into, I began climbing with more resolve than I’d felt since the first hour. Larry started out pushing me up the slope, which I appreciated, but was a little embarrassed about. After a few moments I dismissed his kind service and we began trudging up side by side. Jamie and Carmen were cheering us on from the top. I don’t know how long it took. The strained breath and concentrated effort of moving one foot then the other were all consuming.

The moment I set foot on the summit was surreal. Carmen gave me a high five, I peered over the edge of the crater for a second, then collapsed in the snow. As I sat there and caught my breath, I once again started sobbing. This time with sheer relief and victory. After collecting myself I turned again to gaze into the gaping crater created by the historical eruption 28 years ago. Its beauty was breathtaking.

Seeing the majesty of the mountaintop view and feeling the thrill of standing on the summit for that moment erased the pain and agony it took to get me there. I was giddy and in awe of God’s majestic creation and indescribable creativity in crafting such a scene. And when the fog cleared, uncovering the entirety of the crater and the clear blue lake beyond, the girls and I squealed with delight. Larry admired in silence, the appropriate man response. 😉

3:15 p.m.

It had taken us six hours to get to the summit, and now it was time to start the descent. The smooth sandy final section that had nearly sucked my will was the easiest part, as I could glide down through the snow and sand. The mountaintop experience was still keeping my spirits afloat as we reached the boulder section. The part that was “fun” on the way up, though taxing, became nightmarish. Having to climb down and navigate between boulders at a steep angle with muscles and joints that had already given too much for the day was a laborious endeavor, slow and painful. My negative attitude was compounded by still persistent cold symptoms and overall exhaustion.

Yet, my self-pity was rightfully subdued when I looked up from the trail to see the beautiful expanse of snow-covered mountain to my right and left and miles upon miles of forest, thousands of feet below. Though my body was wracked with pain, my eyes were full of the indescribably beautiful scenery and my heart was full of praise for my Creator King. The gracious and kind God who gave His kids a majestic creation to enjoy, through which to also show us a hint of His beauty. Not only that, but instilled in us the drive and desire to climb such heights to meet Him and take in His handiwork from a divine vantage point seen by only a select few. With those thoughts in mind I trudged on, letting my gratefulness for the experience lead the way.

We got back down to the car at about 6:45 p.m., making the total climb time a shade under 10 hours. At the end of the day I was pleased with my decision to climb in spite of being sick, thankful to my friends who were patient with me and encouraging all throughout the day, and thrilled to have made it to the top.

I won’t be doing that hike again anytime soon though.