Welcome, class, to How to Climb Mount Saint Helens 101 for dummies. The active volcano, which is located in Skamania County, Washington, is a popular hiking hotspot on the West Coast that attracts 175,000 visitors a year. The volcano hasn’t erupted in 12 years, but of course, it’s most famous for the 1980 eruption that killed 57 people. As a child, the volcano put fear in me.
I remember vividly seeing the volcano for the first time. I was ten years old, wearing Kobe Bryant sneakers, and had just seen the undersung Sean Penn masterwork, The Pledge, which I learned the hard way was not a kids movie. Even in Seattle, the sight of the volcano from a faraway distance terrified me. Almost 20 years later, I wanted to hike what once scared me. It was worth the pain, it was worth the feeling of accomplishment, and it was worth laughing about an irrational childhood fear. However, as a somewhat inexperienced hiker and experienced idiot, I made my share of mistakes I want to prevent my fellow fools from making.
Us morons gotta stick together, you know?
Mount Saint Helens is a five-mile hike that’s 4,500 feet in distance. And, once you reach the crater rim, you’re 8,365 feet in the air. Five miles doesn’t sound treacherous, but it is when you’re sliding back on ash towards the top. The final stretch is the most grueling part. Save your energy for it. You’re slipping and sliding. The final stage of the hike is like the boss level out of a video game you wish you never started playing in the first place.
Before your journey, do your research. “Oh, so now you do your research,” my much smarter hiking buddy quipped as I wrote these words. Again, “moron” is in the title for a reason. To begin the journey, start before the sun rises. On average, the hike takes people around seven to twelve hours. Of course, it can last longer than that depending on speed, weather, and most of all, physical condition. For a variety of reasons, I was on the volcano for 18 hours. The day wasn’t without curveballs, hijinks, and pitfalls. Be prepared for those. White poles let hikers know how far they’ve gone or have left, but in actuality, they just add insult to injury.
The journey begins with a peaceful stroll through the woods and a fairly casual hike for the first mile or two. “Piece of cake, baby,” this dummy thought. It’s a lovely walk through the woods, especially if you’re packing an arsenal of bug spray. Once you start having to climb and maneuver around rocks, that’s when the trickiness arrives to push you around a little. This is when you’ll start kicking yourself for not upping your cardio game before, you know, hiking a freaking volcano with hot lava flowing beneath the surface. The rocks are brutal. Check to make sure they are sturdy, don’t let them deter you from reaching the top, and watch for sharp edges. Only the glorious sight of forests, rivers, and mountains will soften the pain.
Equal to the visual splendor on the journey — the people. On top of regrets and soreness for days, climbing Mount Saint Helens offers a profound sense of peace and solitude, but the few interactions with strangers along the way are just as special, no matter how brief. You will meet people climbing the volcano for personal reasons, you will see tears, and witness intense joy and pain from people you don’t know. There are also characters to provide much-needed laughs and levity, which at times, you’ll cherish more than a cold drink of water. Remember to laugh, especially at yourself, not just to breathe.
Another tip: share the experience with people you love and trust. Less experienced hikers should have close friends nearby. You’ll need the laughs, encouragement, and guidance. When you’re not the brightest bulb such as moi, you’ll need a little help from your friends. You’ll have unforgettable moments with them, good or bad. Reaching the top is beautiful, alone or with company, but sharing the experience with friends was the ice cream of my experience, not the cherry on the top.
Make sure to pack enough for yourself and everyone else. Double the amount of water you think you should bring. Then triple it. I thought I had more than enough water for the journey. I was wrong, which was a recurring theme throughout my journey. If you run out of water too soon, you’ll want to drink the entire ocean once you reach the bottom. Bring jugs of water and a coat for the descent.
For my fellow inexperienced hikers, try to beat the sun on the way down. The shining stars and low-flying bats are out of a dream, but the slipping and falling, the isolation and uncertainty, and exhaustion, that’s a nightmare. However, one man’s nightmare is another man’s or woman’s dream. The darkness isn’t without its sense of wonder, so try to enjoy it as much as possible, even if you lose your mind as I did.
If you do get caught in the dark, especially with friends, stop when needed. Don’t fear saying you’re deep down afraid. Sit and meditate. Get yourself together, man. I know I wish I did instead of ringing alarm bells as if the British were coming. If you plan on hiking at night, bring a helmet with a light. Have both hands available. Cell service is nearly impossible, too, so keep your location services on and download apps that make your location known.
Now, the most pivotal piece of advice of all: Bring a beer. When you reach the top and watch someone sipping an ice-cold beer to one of the most stunning sights your tired eyes will ever see, you’ll want one. Drink a beer on top of a damn volcano. Do not pass up the opportunity. You’ll have earned it. If you don’t drink, bring a treat to celebrate your accomplishment. Lay down, enjoy the silence, and reflect.
In the end, Mount Saint Helens reminded me of my own physical and mental shortcomings — which is a positive realization, too — but it also taught me that laying on top of a volcano with close friends feels pretty, pretty, pretty good.