Climbing Mt. St. Helens – Before It Blew

May 18, 2020

Forty-years ago, May 18 1980, Mt. St. Helens in Washington State woke up after over 123 years of quiet slumber. 57 people were killed in the blast, some many miles away from the volcano. An estimated 2.7 billion dollars in damage occurred. The Pacific Northwest was coated with inches of volcanic dust, harmful to the lungs and car engines. It was a disaster movie that became real.

But before the volcanic explosion, St. Helens was one of the most serene, deep wilderness areas I had seen in my youth. Driving up to the mountain, the old growth timber was so thick you could only see a few feet into the dark woods from the road. The gentle cone shape made this old volcano one of the most photographed mountain in the world.

In the 1970’s my young obsession was with wilderness experience and mountain climbing. I had gone to rock climbing school (where I was nearly killed). I had joined the Portland, Oregon climbing organization “The Mazamas” and began to attend classes that taught the techniques and methods of climbing glaciated peaks. I was clearly the youngest person in the program.

Then, on my 14th birthday in June, I climbed Mount St. Helens for the first of two ascents before it blew.

Typically, the climb group camps out near timberline and wakens around Four in the morning to begin the climb by flashlight. That puts you on or near the glaciers by daylight, and it can be beautiful. The sun comes up and the rich darkness is gradually replaced with an intense bright reflective environment everywhere you turn. Dark climbing goggles are donned, the ice ax bites into the glacier.
Everywhere the ice is parted there is a “Crystal Blue Persuasion” of deep crevasses and towering blocks of tumbled ice. It is stunning.

I was 14, ambitious and in great shape but I probably should have directed my energy into specific endurance training. Here I was, linked to a rope that included an old European man and his wife, both at least sixty years-old, that were outpacing me.
I kept up.

The summit of St. Helens was easily as big as a football field, complete with a rim that could be stadium seats. On most of the Cascade peaks, there is a metal climb registry box that you can sign. In our case that day, the box was still buried under snow and ice – no signatures that day.

In some ways, the trip down the mountain can be more dangerous than the climb up. Climbers follow their footprints back down, and where it is safe we could sit down and “Glisade” (as it was called). This involved sitting and shoving off the steep slope, using your ice axe to steer like a rudder. If it gets too risky, there is a method to roll the correct direction and dig the blade of the ax deep into the snow to stop you. Then, reset and begin again, or if it is too dangerous, return to walking down.

The view shifts from an expansive 9,000 ft. panorama of timber and far-off cities, to the cinder and ash that meets climbers at timberline. The climb has ended, and we approach camp exhausted.

The first climb went up “The Dog’s Head Route”, which skirted a forgiving lump that stood out above the glaciers. The next route I climbed with the club was called “Lizard Route”.

As I remember, the Lizard Route climb was also in June, the following year.
Climbers get to know each other, prepare dinner and wind down for some sleep. Again, I was the youngest person on the climb.

Rising again well before daylight, we approached the mountain from a different angle, this route seemed more interesting, if not more dangerous. There were way more crevasses – deep and seemingly bottomless tears in the glacier that can be extremely dangerous. Halfway up Lizard Route there was a feature that had a name something like “The Dragon’s Teeth”. It was some kind of pile-up of huge stratified ice that resembled a castle fortress. It was a significant landmark that indicated some kind of regular activity on the glacier.

Climbers are taught to use “ the rest step”. That is, you pause briefly between each step, allowing for a micro-rest as well as checking balance, rope tension, and other safety procedures. As I remember, our rope teams had five climbers on a hundred-foot rope. Lots of attention is placed on maintaining proper rope use so nobody got tripped up, the rope is literally a lifeline.

Somewhere below the summit, I couldn’t wait anymore as “nature called”. Climbers are very discreet with regard to bowel movements on the mountain. Urinating is not much trouble, everybody stops, turns away and waits. Taking a dump is a little more complicated. In this case, I dug through my pack to find I had not packed any toilet paper. Great.
What I did have however, was an old pack of playing cards. Don’t ask me why. So between a few jokers and a bunch of snow, I cleaned myself and we moved on.
It was a beautiful day on the summit, and we turned to make the more dangerous trip back down to camp.

On May 18th, 1980 Mt. St. Helens blew in a spectacular event that affected much of the Northwestern United States. In Portland, we watched the huge columns of smoke and steam, followed by a dystopic rain of ash that clogged everything. News reports said the glass-silica ash could cut your lungs, kill car engines and fill gutters.

We knew a young woman who lost her mother and father in the blast. They, like dozens of other observers, were trying to get photos at the moment of the explosion. They were miles away, on a separate ridge, but the blast reached out and got them. There is no way to know how many wild animals were mowed down, and the ash can still be seen heaped in large recovery piles near rivers that drained the mountain. Timber laid flat like spilled matchsticks.

It was a real “wake up call” for those of us who live in volcano-land. A true Yin to Yang fluctuation, a graphic example of life-death-rebirth. The mountain wildlife now recovers – only to be challenged again sometime in the future.

John Titus

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