Skunked in the Pacific Northwest
It was cold, windy, and visibility was decreasing by the moment on the ridge leading to the summit of Washington’s Mount St. Helens. It was our fourth and final day of a trip to the Pacific Northwest in which we had intended to climb and ski Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. So far we hadn’t made it any farther than the top of the ski lift at Mount Hood, more than 2,500 feet short of the summit. Excluding the first few hours we spent in the Mount Hood parking lot, the weather had alternated between bad and terrible. Rain, snow, and graupel, in combination with high winds and zero visibility, had plagued us every day.
We were trying to make the best of a bad situation. With the inclement weather, the ski resort at the base of Mount Hood was closed, allowing us to skin some laps at the resort and ski fresh snow (a rarity for east coasters this year). While the skiing was good, the limited visibility, high winds, and the potential for a long summit day looming in the future would send us back to the car early, where we would hide in our sleeping bags, try to dry out what we could, and attempt to sleep. Ski, climb into sleeping bags, look at the radar, have the should we go for the summit discussion, read a book, check Facebook, sleep, repeat was the pattern we followed for two days until we couldn’t take it anymore.
We gave up on Mount Hood and decided to try our luck on Mount St. Helens. After all, we had permits there for Monday, and hanging around the Timberline parking lot was getting depressing. Driving to Mount St. Helens, it looked like our fortune might change as the sun poked out and the road began to dry. Getting out at the Marble Mountain parking lot, we casually started to pack for a hike to treeline where we were planning on camping for the night. No sooner than we managed to pull all of our gear out of the car did it begin to pour, sending us scampering once again for the protection of the rental car.
No longer able to stomach the idea of being stuck in the car, we gathered our stuff and began the hike up to treeline, is spite of the rain. Heavy packs, wet weather, and a fair amount of elevation gain made for a less-than-ideal hike, but that was only the beginning of the trouble. Arriving at camp, we realized that we’d forgotten to bring a lighter. Earlier in town, we had stopped to buy food and gas for the stove; however, we neglected to get something to light the stove, rendering it useless. While missing dinner would suck, we had packed a healthy stash of bars and gels that would see us through. Sadly, we were also counting on the stove to melt snow for drinking water, and without that ability, we were cutting it close, and guaranteeing to up the ante on suffering the following day.
It rained throughout the night, and at times the wind howled, but upon waking up, the rain had seemingly slowed to a drizzle and the wind had died down. Waking up somewhere between three and four in the morning, we began the ascent of the upper part of the mountain in the dark. Wearing ski boots and carrying our skis added another layer of misery, as we alternated between hiking atop a crumbly ridgeline and kicking steps in an adjacent snowfield, in an attempt to find the easiest way up. For a moment I became hopeful, the sun pushed away the clouds, the wind stopped, and, for the first time, the idea of summiting became a reality.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived. With a thousand feet of vertical left to ascend and a little less than a mile away from the summit, we once again found ourselves in a whiteout, with winds gusting strong enough to knock me over, and decided to turn around. Always a difficult decision, turning around meant admitting defeat and coming home empty handed. While I didn’t want to, I had to concede it was the smart decision. The weather was getting worse, and I wasn’t getting any stronger, in fact, I had been following my partner’s hard-earned steps kicked into the snow for the majority of the morning.
While not being able to summit was disappointing, the quality and location of the skiing were truly incredible. Mount St. Helens provided big open bowls in an amazing alpine environment. On the descent, disappointment quickly gave way to jubilation as we lost our hard-earned elevation quickly and made turns in excellent, forgiving spring snow. Being skunked by the weather was incredibly discouraging, but the turns on Mount St. Helens made up for the days spent in the car waiting for the weather to break. While I may be 0-for-2 on summitting Mount Hood, I feel like I left this trip a little wiser, a little more resilient, and a little more psyched to get back out to the Pacific Northwest to pursue some ski objectives.