Tales from the Sunny Northwest: Splitboarding Mt St Helens

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Winter weather had, for most of December, forgotten about the Cascades. Dave Gahn, Shawn Fryer, Justin ‘red’ Kious and myself had had enough of snowcat-manicured surfaces. With adventure on our minds, we jumped in Dave’s new (to him) 1991 Toyota Previa Thursday, December 15, with a Mt St Helens summit on the radar.

Mt St Helens sits just an hour and a half northeast of Portland, Oregon. In early 1980, Mt St Helens sat at 9,667 feet above sea level. Following a massive eruption on May 18 of the same year that spread ash as far east as Minnesota, she was reduced to 8,363 feet. Dave, being the most experienced of the bunch, enlightened us that any volcano summit done during the winter months was a exceptional feat. So we went.

Exiting I-5 towards Cougar, WA, we aimed towards the big white mountain. The access was pretty straight-forward: volcanic fingers pointed the most direct route to the summit. The trail was in ideal skinning conditions, allowing for 90% of the approach to be completed with skins on, with the rest of the ascent involving boot packing around rocky ridge features. It took just six hours to gain 5,500 vertical feet to the crater at the summit.

The views from St Helens are my personal favorite amongst Cascade volcanoes and the clear skies afforded great views: the crater is alive, the lava dome is growing and you can see sulfur plums creeping from the rock below. To the northeast sits Spirit Lake, thousands of scorched trees still occupying 30% of the lake’s visible surface. We skinned up under sun and summited under a lenticular cloud, only to have it blow out for a sunny descent.

The surface snow had been sitting for a while, so it had some water content–edgeable but shallow, with a healthy crust and hidden rocks. It wasn’t blower powder by any means and required light feet and open eyes ready for textural transitions. Still, the descent was a blast through the steep sections and rolling gullies down low let us remain strapped in all the way back to the van.
Beers in Cougar rounded out an exceptional day atop Mt St Helens–one of the most aesthetic volcanos in the Pacific Northwest.

Main Image: Dave Ghan (left) and Shawn Freyer (right) discuss 2012 strategy atop the summit crater. Photo: Byron Bagwell.


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