Monday, April 26, 2010

Mount Saint Helens - 04.25.10

5600' elevation gain
12 miles RT
Left car: 6:45 am
Summit: ~12 pm
Left summit: 12:45 pm
Back at car: 1:45 pm
7 hours car to car

Josh and I originally planned a ski trip for Shuksan. But with the warmer weather and closing weather window, we scaled back our objective to Mount Saint Helens. We figured with the southern exposure, the route would have a more springlike snow pack.

So we drove down Saturday night after dinner to sleep at the trail head. We arrived too late to pick up permits, so went along with our now rogue plan. At the parking lot we threw down our bivys in the grass and got to sleep with the alarm set for 6am. It was cold overnight and we awoke to frost on our bivys and black ice in the parking lot. It took us a bit to get prepped, and we were finally hitting the trail at 6:45am.

We were booting it from the start as there was not continuous snow on the trail in the woods. The snow that was there, was plenty firm, so we stayed with boots while still in the trees. After about an hour, we were above treeline, and saw that some other skiers were skinning. They claimed the skinning wasn't bad, and so Josh and I gave it a try. We skinned for a while until we encountered a steeper section that was icy. It slowed us down and we were definitely not having fun on it, so we resorted to booting again. I once again got concerned about the quality of the ski down. It was overcast, but the temps did not appear to warming enough to soften the snow.

We noticed out of the woods that there appeared to be a fresh light coat of new snow. As we got higher up there was more fresh snow. Mostly blown into pockets or foot prints and definitely not offering full coverage. Other hikers were using crampons, but we found them unnecessary. Josh was struggling due to his boots, which he guessed may be a bit too small for him.

About halfway up, there seemed to be enough fresh snow coverage to try skinning again. It was a flatter section and there was an obvious skin track from a guy ahead of us. So we transitioned again. This went well for a bit, but there were plenty of icy patches where the wind had blown the new snow away and I had to resort to some dicey edging to keep going. I foolishly opted to continue skinning through a particularly steep section that actually had good steps in it. This really slowed me down and had me making some kick turns in icy patches. Josh abandoned the skinning earlier as he was more sketched than me about the ice. Unfortunately for him, the skinning was easier on his feet and he was back marching up the hill turning his feet into hamburger.

At a flatter section less than 1000' from the summit, I stopped to wait for Josh. The sun was out now, and it was fairly wind protected there, so I took that time to remove the skins from my skis so I wouldn't have to mess with that process on the crater rim where it would surely be more windy. Josh arrived, and explained his woes to me. He said he was going to make it to the top, but it would not be comfortable. He told me to go at my own pace and he would see me there.

The last bit to the summit was a struggle. The route took a fairly straight up the slope angle, and there was lots of toes into the slope climbing which was proving quite tiring after already completing 5000' of elevation gain. The final stretch actually did go straight up to the summit, but I wasn't too interested and cut a rising traverse to the east where a flat area on the crater rim provided a good lunching/resting spot. There was already a crowd there, and that is where I headed.

Surprisingly there were some technically difficult moments on the traverse as my boots were not kicking into the slope as much as I would have liked. I arrived at my intended location and found a spot for myself among the dozen people already there. I put some warm jackets on and waited for Josh while readying my gear for descent. I looked into the crater, took a few pictures, and then ate lunch once Josh arrived. We chatted a bit, while watching other skiers take off down the hill. It looked like the snow had finally turned skiable. I told Josh we should get moving as the snow lower on the mountain will be worse the longer we wait.

We took off down the hill. The first turns from the crater were great. Fast on supportive corn. We regrouped periodically to choose the line of our descent. The middle section of the mountain had the worst snow of the trip due to deposits of fresh snow that were really sticky and deeper than the corn around it. Transitioning from the faster corn to the sticky snow would throw you forward and almost "go over the bars." In one particular instance for me, I was trying to recover from one such scenario and a woman skinning up started yelling "hands forward" to me. Josh and I mused that she wasn't aware of why that wouldn't be good hitting the sticky snow.

Closer to the bottom there were less sticky patches and now it was a matter of picking appropriate lines to get us back onto the trail into the woods. The skiing was good, but then transitioned into the typical "luge run" where all skiers follow the same line creating a well polished path that is really fast. Stepping out of the run into deeper snow can often result in a crash, so one has to be careful. Josh and I negotiated the final bits above treeline, and then it was back into the woods for the low angle luge run. (Which was still pretty fast.) I took my skis off a few times to carry over bare spots, but still made it to the parking lot an hour after leaving the crater rim.

This trip was great! I think I had a lot more fun than last year. The snow was consistently better for skiing than last May. And I finally got to look into the crater and see the dome. Josh was good company and we had a good time. Prior to this trip, I was mildly concerned about my cardio fitness. While not up to my usual level, I felt pretty good on this trip. My experience from this trip makes me want to put this on the calendar every year.

My pics are here.

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