Friday, May 1, 2009

Mt. St. Helens ski - 05.01.09

Solo. (OK, so there were also about 2 dozen others on the mountain as well but they weren't in my party.)

5500' elevation gain
12 miles RT
Left car: 8:15 am
Summit: 1 pm
Left summit: 1:45 pm
Back at car: 3:15 pm
7 hours car to car

So the weather was supposed to be fantastic on Friday. Dan had off from work and wanted to do something. I seemed to convince him that Mt. St. Helens was in the cards. However, he took ill mid-week and was going to be incapable of attempting the climb with me.

I decided that with the good weather forecast, and the popularity of skiing Mt. St. Helens, that I was going to go solo. There would be plenty of people about if there was some sort of trouble/accident. After all, it is probably a more mellow tour than skiing up to Camp Muir. (Although the Muir Snowfield sees more visitors.)

I couldn't bring myself to wake up before 4am, so I set the alarm for exactly four. I was out of the house and leaving Seattle around 4:30am. I arrived at climber's registration around 7:30am. I picked up my permit and signed in the climber's log and headed up to the Marble Mountain Sno Park. I parked in the non-trailer area, but I think this time of year it is acceptable to park closer to the trail head (as many others did) without a trailer. This would save you 1/4 mile walk on pavement to the trail head.

I geared up and was off on the trails around 8:15 am under an overcast sky. There is a fairly long (feeling) level trail ski before breaking out of the forest and getting a glimpse of the route. Fortunately, the trail has multiple maps and blue signs noting the direction of the climbing route in the woods. Out of the woods, there was some pink surveyor's tape and some wooden posts to mark the route. I presume this is more for the summer routes to preserve vegetation rather than marking the route in snow.

I broke out of the trees in about an hour where I was experiencing some hot spots from my boots. By the time I addressed them, it was too late. I already had a blister on each heel. I changed over to thicker dry socks, and put a bandage and tape over the blisters.* This worked to prevent them from getting worse, but pretty much canceled my plans to ski Silver Star on Saturday. Well, at least they were not going to prevent me from reaching the summit. At this time, I put a soft shell jacket on over my short sleeve shirt, as the wind was brisk without tree cover.

Once fully out of the trees, you could see virtually the whole route to the top. I could see other parties ahead of me, and mostly just followed the skin track that was present. I often broke out of it, because too many people chewed it up bare-booting in the skin track. The snow was icy and firm, and I kept telling myself that the cloud cover would burn off and the sun would start to shine through. It was quite cold with the constant winds, and strong gusts.

At 11 am I took shelter behind a large rock to have a lunch. (Payday bar.) I took this time to also put on a hard shell jacket as the wind was cutting right through my soft shell. I was getting a bit cold and also opted to put on a heaver (Windstopper) glove to keep warm. About the time I started moving again, the sun started winning the battle and things got a little brighter. The snow was softening up a bit, and this would mean I wouldn't have to ski 5000'+ of ice on the way down. However, the higher I climbed, the stronger the winds got. It was physically and mentally taxing. There were points where the wind almost knocked me over. At times when the wind would temporarily abate, I would almost fall over into the wind having leaned that way to prevent me from falling. Looking south, I could see lenticular clouds over Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson.

A few hundred feet from the top, I stopped to pee. (There are no large wind breaks of any sort on the upper mountain.) The wind just blew my pee into mist around my knee level. I think it may have landed in the Pacific Ocean. At that time, a couple waited for me to continue. (They were counting on me breaking trail I guess.) However, the wind got even more ridiculous shortly afterward, and I thought that might mean I was going to turn back. The couple continued on the old skin track, but I attempted to skin up straight on the leeward side of a small (3-4') feature to mitigate the wind somewhat. It worked, because when the small feature was gone, I felt the full force of the wind. At this point, the summit was close, and I followed behind the couple to reach it.

Due to the large cornices, we could not get near the lip to look into the crater. (Big bummer.) I exchanged cameras with the couple and we took pictures of each other. I decided to go further east along the crater rim to see if there was an opportunity to view in the crater. There was not. I then stayed about 50' lower than the summit to transition into downhill skiing. This proved difficult. I had to clip my poles to my pack so they would not blow away, then remove my skins without losing them. I also put on my down jacket at this time, and decided to leave it on for the decent.

After my transition, I followed the track of the couple down for a bit. (It would prove later that they and I descended too far west from the standard, but it was easy to pick up the other route. Not to mention, that traveling further west was more protected from the wind, which was coming from the east.) I skied about 500' vertical feet before stopping. I looked at my watch and it was only 3 minutes since I left the summit. Wow I thought, if this continues, I'll be back at the car in no time.

Unfortunately, I crashed when attempting to ski faster shortly afterward. The crash caused me to ski more cautious afterward. That and as one would expect from a backcountry ski decent of more than 4000', the snow conditions varied throughout the descent. I felt the top was the best conditions, and they were probably pretty good after I crashed, but I was a little more hesitant and couldn't enjoy the snow as much. Lower down, the snow was heavier and more wet. I let a few 4" deep wet slides go when I cut a few steeper slopes as well. Finally, I arrived back at the woods, where I had to double pole to keep moving and was feeling like I was getting lost as it seemed to take forever to get back to the parking lot.

So, I accomplished one of my goals for this year. (Ski Mt. St. Helens.) I got my third summit of the year as well. Being that it was May 1st, it also marks my 7th consecutive month of skiing. However, perhaps because I hyped it too much for myself, the whole event was somewhat anticlimactic. Perhaps it was the wind? Perhaps because I didn't have a partner to share it with? One thing I do know is that not getting to see inside the crater was a major let down for me, but that shouldn't have ruined the whole trip. Well, the trip wasn't ruined, I had a great time on a great mountain. The event just feels a bit empty to me. I'm happy I did it, and would do it again as well.

As for the skiing, it was pretty fun up top, and not unfun near the bottom. (I was happier to be in the slower slushier snow after my crash.) The route seems blue the whole way, although there were definitely some black diamond options if you wanted them. (I did see a guy jump off a cornice down low, but I think that may be a double black diamond move.) There really weren't any objective hazards (cliffs, crevasses) either. I did learn that I need to get more backcountry skiing in, to better ski the snow I encountered. The snow pack wasn't quite a Spring snow pack, but it will be there with a few more days like we just had. And the beauty of skiing is, I was back to the car in 1.5 hours from the summit, even with my cautious slow skiing style. That's why it is great to ski mountains like this.

My pics are here.

*This is the third time I've gotten blisters from my ski boots. The other two times were on the Muir Snowfield, and near Paradise. I have had no issues on any other trip. (Well, maybe the Ski Patrol Race, but that was 23 miles of skiing, and I taped up for it.) I was trying to think of a common factor between the three incidents of blisters. I know it wasn't the socks. (Different socks all three times.) Terrain? Hard to say. A common link I have found with the three was no "leash." The first time, I was with Sammy, and he let me go at my own crazy speed up the snowfield. The second time, I was separated from Dan and hustling to get back to Paradise. The third time was on St. Helens where I was alone and speeding up the trails in the woods. I am beginning to think the blisters are a result of my longer striding when not having someone else with me to regulate my speed. I'll try to test my hypothesis further.

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