Winter Ascent Of Mount St. Helens

Columnist Jeff Kish, aka “The Rubber Tramp,” writes a weekly article on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline van in which he lives.

I arrived in Cougar, Wash., after dusk, picked up my free climbing permit from the dimly-lit porch of the shuttered Lone Fir Cafe, and purchased an annual sno-park permit from the store up the street.

Just a few hours prior, I had been feeling restless in the busy city and made a spontaneous decision to drive to Mount Saint Helens for a winter climb the next morning.

With my permits in order, I drove north out of Cougar toward Marble Mountain Sno-Park, joined a few vehicles clustered around the Swift Creek trailhead, and settled in for the night.

I made a simple dinner and stuffed my pack with gear that I pulled from hooks on the walls of the van under the cool light of a glow stick while my headlamp charged in the cigarette lighter, and a film played on my laptop.

I have called my van “home” for more than six months now, but lately it’s been feeling like a place where I only sleep instead of one where I actually live; so it was nice to spend a waking evening inside my “cozy roller.”

After the credits rolled and I was packed for the climb, I set an alarm on my phone and pulled my mummy bag up over my head for the night.

I woke well before sunrise and spent the next hour getting dressed and preparing coffee and breakfast on my stove. The rest of the lot was still, but the orange glow of another climber’s campfire shone through the firs, and I knew I wouldn’t be alone on my ascent.

I booted up past treeline by headlamp, climbed onto the open lower slopes by the light of a full moon, and then watched the early morning alpenglow illuminate the major peaks to the south — Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, and the Sisters.

I began to posthole as the night ice gave way to sun-softened morning snow, so I shifted to scrambling up a ridge of loose volcanic rock, where I caught up to a group of three climbers who I’d end up leapfrogging several times on the remaining ascent.

The icy snow near the summit was like dense Styrofoam and my crampon points penetrated easily with each step. Before long, Mt. Rainier led the march of northern peaks climbing into view as I crested the summit rim.

Inside the crater, several fumaroles spewed gas and steam into the air and the heat of the volcano kept a lake of snow-melt from freezing over in the bottom of the basin. The atmosphere was especially clear to the north and the glacier-clad peaks of the North Cascades were visible on the Canadian border, more than 150 miles away.

I remained on top long enough to take a few photos and then descended toward Monitor Ridge, following the summer route for a distance. I could see the climbers I met earlier, making good time glissading down the distant winter route, and then I traversed back around the mountain to join their tracks and returned to the sno-park the way I had come.

As I approached the trailhead, the cracking sounds of burning logs and beer can tops signaled the arrival of the weekend crowd. I changed and unpacked my things, popped the top off my own beer with the opener that’s mounted to my back door, and massaged my sore thighs while taking in the scene.

—Columnist “The Rubber Tramp,” aka Jeff Kish, writes a weekly article on a laptop aboard the customized Ford Econoline in which he lives. You can catch up on Kish’s past stories: Dangerous Beauty: The Glacial Caves Of The Cascades, The Rubber Tramp Diary, Entry One, and his back story about shuttling through-hikers on the PCT.