Mileage: 10 miles RT (via Worm Flows Climbing Route)
Elevation Gain/Highest: 5564/8264ft
Map: Green Trails Mount St. Helens NW No. 364s, my GAIA
Favorite Eats After Hike: Pack A Cooler
*This hike requires a permit. You can find out more information HERE.
An invite to hike Mt. St. Helens last week had me ditching work (no surprise) on the warmest day so far this year. We drove up to the Marble Mountain parking lot and camped out for an early start. There were a few other cars in the lot and several other tents (complete with campfires) for company. It was so warm, you would have thought it was August. We signed in at the register for tomorrow’s hike and settled in around 10:30pm after getting our packs ready. Cars continued to pull in during the night but I put my ear plugs in and tried to get at least a few hours of sleep.
We woke up, locked our things in the car and headed up the trail at 3:15am. Yes, 3:15. With the promised warm weather, we wanted the snow to be as firm as it could be before the day’s sun hit the slopes. Special spring avy warnings were in effect and we wanted to mitigate as much risk as possible. Plus, snow is no good for glissading when it is too soft. And we wanted to do a lot of glissading. Surprisingly, there were no fresh tracks in the snow. Hmmm, sleepy heads I guess.
With headlamps on we made our way up trail #244A to #244 which was patchy with snow and exposed road for the first 1/2 mile and then snow until where it hits the Loowit Trail (#216) and Chocolate Falls, following the signs for Worm Flow Route. The snow was compact but not hard and icy as it didn’t get cold enough last night and gave just enough purchase to prolong traction devices. Even the early morning breeze was warm as we hiked along the east side of Swift Creek. The trail is somewhat of a maze here with multiple intersections but there is a distinct trench down the track towards the summit so it would be hard to get off track. The trail is forested here but wide so we could see up at the stars still visible in the night sky.
After a little under 1000ft gain, we crossed over Chocolate Falls and Swift Creek at 3700ft about 4:22am and opted to put on crampons (my friends) and microspikes (me) as the trail.
It was still dark but I could make out flagging and posts indicating we were on the right track at about 2.5 miles into our trip. You could just begin to make out the shape of the mountain in front of us and distinguish the dark lava ridges that have melted out from winter’s blanket as we continued up.
Our climb at this point kept a fairly direct line towards the summit. Getting up at the ungodly hour of 3am was worth it to see the sun begin to taint the sky with sherbet colors.
There were a few sparse trees left after leaving the forest but those didn’t last long and we were soon along a ridge that had a climber’s boot path on it at 5:15am.
My friends took their crampons off but I kept my spikes on and stayed on durable sources (off the vegetation, which you can see takes a beating from traffic). As we would see later in the day, this exposed ridge of rock is a popular place for hikers to stop and must be the reason there was an abundance of trash left on it, including a set of skis and a down vest. We’d already collected quite a few dropped water bottles and banana peels by this point.
This ridge ran out below the weather station and it was kick stepping in the previous day’s path to make it the rest of the way to the small level area and a good place to stop for a brief break to eat and drink about 6am and 3.25 miles in.
The sun was lighting up the landscape, losing the early dawn pink and orange hues and I could see Mt. Adams to the east and the Oregon line up of Hood, Jefferson and North Sister to the south. Brought back memories of my PCT hikes and I joked about how I will always remember what Adams looks like because it seemed to take FOREVER to lose it as I hiked north from Oregon. It was also possible to make out Yale Lake and the Swift Reservoir below us. It was going to be a beautiful day.
And on we went. Our climb was a mix of fresh kick stepping and using old boot prints and cupped snow to make basically a straight line up towards the false summit that sits about 800ft below the rim. I really hate false summits, just sayin’.
We stayed pretty true to the climber’s route and avoided the gullies and cornices, paying attention to see if rollerballs developed or snow began to slough. The snow continued to remain soft but we didn’t posthole much, making it possible for even I to help with kick stepping in my trail runners (which I had anticipated based on the conditions). Anything to leave those mountaineering boots at home.
We made it over the false summit hump about 8:30am and the rim was in sight. From here it was just a straight shot up to the summit at a few minutes past 9am.
And when I say summit, I mean just to where the route levels out slightly at the rim as there is a nice cornice here and it isn’t safe to go all the way to the edge of the snow or too far out in either direction. If you have seen the diagram on NWAC or saw the news about those 5 hikers killed in Canada a week or so ago, you have a healthy appreciation for how much snow can cleave off when a cornice fails. I held the camera up over my head to quickly get this shot.
We donned our insulation and rain pants and after a summit selfie, moved back down about 30 ft to sit for lunch and watch the rest of the hikers as they slogged up the hill below us. It was another 30 minutes or so before we had company and then it was time to glissade back down the mountain about 9:40am. Our poles went on our packs and ice axes came out as we began our descent.
Let me just say that was the most fun I have had in a long time, we were able to glissade down (with a few course redirections) until almost Chocolate falls, passing the other 97 people who must have permits today. You could tell the snow was just becoming a bit too soft and it wouldn’t be long before it would not be possible to make it as far as we did. I also noticed several places where the snow is beginning to cleave and melt out, we ran by a few deep holes that would be pretty bad to fall into when descending. I would recommend having an ice ax and knowing how to use it to direct your slide and self arrest if needed.
The sun was out in full force and we were able to now see the trail and landscape we had come up in the dark.
Chocolate Falls was aptly named and at this point we took off our outer layers, applied more sunscreen and finished our hike back out to the car, arriving a few minutes after noon. Although this section is forested, the trail is wide and sits mostly in sun. The snow we had walked up in the dark was much sloppier but manageable without traction devices and I was glad to have poles. My GAIA came in at just 10 miles, although online stats say the climb is 12 miles. A little less than 6 hours up and just under 3 hours down. Not bad.
Directions: Take the Woodland exit signed for SR 503 off I-5 and drive east toward the town of Cougar. Continue as the road becomes the Lewis River Road, which then turns into Forest Road 90 after you go over a dike. Continue on FR 90 until the intersection with Forest Road 83 (signed for Ape Canyon). Turn left on FR 83 and continue approximately 6 miles to the Marble Mountain Sno-Park. During the winter and early spring, FR 83 is gated at the sno-park and a sno-park pass is needed Nov-Mar. 31st. Bathrooms at the TH.