With the family motorhomes packed up and headed back from the RCHN Fun Fly in Dayton Jessie and I had the opportunity to swing in and bag Mt. Saint. Helens on the way home. I had gotten my permit earlier in the year when permit season opened, and little did I know that I could not have been any closer to picking the end of season.
The goal was simple, head up the Monitor Ridge route and be at the crater rim to watch the sunrise. What was a bit troublesome was guessing the correct time to leave. Monitor Ridge isn't a technical climb by any means, but at 5mi in length to the rim and with the last couple miles dealing with a talus field and "the beach"(more on that in a minute) we weren't sure how long it would take us.
General consensus was average round trip was about 8hrs. The board at the trailhead said 8-10hrs. With sunrise at 6:45am we decided to target a 1:30am departure time. We figured we'd be a bit slower since we'd be doing the majority of the trail in the dark, and that would give us a bit of time to watch blue hour, and really enjoy the experience without being rushed.
Now one added twist to the climb was that over the last 3 days (keep in mind I had actually left home for the first part of our trip on Thursday and it was now Sunday) the weather had been starting to get interesting, and it became very apparent that we were going to be climbing on the THE day that it was changing. Now when I say changing I mean that from Sunday to Monday the freezing point was going to be dropping 4,500ft in a single day! Add that to high winds, and we were looking at a projected 35* on the summit with wind chill well into the 20's. Not quite what I had packed for, but I had enough clothing with me to make it work.
We hit the trail at 1:30am and started our journey. The hike through the trees went very fast leaving us feeling really good and strong at the tree-line. Navigation up the first portion of the talus field was really easy because there are wooden poles that were put up with reflective markers on them. Perfect to catch your eye with your headlamp on hi. With the first mile and a half of the talus field down we stowed our poles and began the class 2 scramble section up the remainder of the talus. The rock is fun, and I'm a big sucker for a good scramble so we both really enjoyed this portion of it.
Soon after we hit what we assume is some sort of seismic sensor tower the talus slowly went away, and the terrain opened up to what is known as "the beach" for the last mile. Side note... if you want a kick in the pants turn your headlamps off up here. It's freaking dark! We're talking like ZERO light pollution. It was a bummer the sky was smokey, because I can only image what the stars would look like. The beach is an interesting section consisting of very fine sand and volcanic ash. It's just like trying to walk up a 40* sand hill. Every step you take you lose about 40% of that distance with your foot sliding back. Looking back I'm kind-of glad we did this in the dark because I didn't have to feel so defeated by seeing the distance to the top, lol.
We reached the summit in 3hrs and 15min. This was waaaay ahead of schedule and posed a bit of a challenge. Heading to our left we made sure and did the nice little scramble along the west side of the rim over to the true summit so we could actually claim it (marked by the cairn in the pictures). This is actually kinda creepy in the pitch black night by the way. You've got a completely black abyss off your right shoulder, and no obvious route straight ahead. With the summit tagged we headed back and found a nice little spot to get out of the wind. So yeah... speaking of that wind... we were now sitting in a whopping 33* with about a 15-20mph wind. This would put wind chill well into the low 20's. Lets just say it was cold!!! We hunkered down with our feet resting on the crater rim, layered all our clothes on, I got out my bivy, and we actually took a nice little snoozer out of the wind for about an hour.
As the sunlight started lighting the sky two big bummer things became very apparent. One, it was VERY smokey. We'd felt it in our lungs and chest on the ascent, but didn't really know how bad it was until we could actually see it. Two, because of the smoke we weren't going to get a decent sunrise. We hung out for a couple minutes, listened to a very powerful rock avalanche on the west side of the rim (scared the crap out of us for the record), and made the decision to head down as we were freezing and needed to get our body temps back up.
Remember that nasty mile long beach? Well, who would have though it would be one of the funnest sections I've done. We literally boot skied with our boots and poles down it. The ash was so soft you could two foot jump back and forth just like skiing all the way down. What took us an hour to get up took us about 10min to get down. By the time we got back to the talus field we were laughing, much warmer, and it really didn't matter we didn't get the sunrise we wanted because we were still having fun.
The rest of the climb down went very quickly. We held a really nice pace, and made quick work of the scramble and the trail reaching the trail head at 9:30am. Not counting the one hour nap at the top we did it in 6hrs. Awesome!! In the end we missed out on some of the spectacular views that this climb normally has to offer, but I still loved the experience. Climbing in the pitch black dark, blasting down trails, scrambling on rocks, and enjoying it with a friend always makes for a good time no matter good views or not. With one volcano off the list, and winter knocking at the door, this was a great one to knock snag right before the weather turns!