Mt. St. Helens: Volcano of DOOM

By George Bell (
June 1995

In contrast to Colorado, the Pacific Northwest experienced unprecedented good weather at the end of May. In fact, Seattle broke a record for the most clear days in a row in May (14, the previous record was 6), and it would have gone on longer had May not ended! My fiance Esther and I flew to Portland to ski as many Volcanoes as possible in 9 days. We had already skiied the Middle Sister (10,000') near Bend, Oregon, and the more obscure Diamond Peak (8,750') near Eugene. The sun and corn snow were relentless, and I was hoping to finish the trip off with the only three major Cascade Volcanoes I had not yet climbed (St. Helens, Adams, and Hood).

St. Helens is the easiest of the three, as it isn't very high any more after the 1980 eruption. On Thursday, June 1 we rose at 5:30 for the ascent. This peak is quite a popular climb, and a permit is now needed (limited to 80 people per day). Being a weekday, however, we had easily obtained one the day before. The trailhead was crowded with peak baggers, some of whom started as early as 4AM!

We started up around 6:30. It was another beautiful clear day and the peak was in prime condition for skiing. Although the peak is a measly 8,300' high, you start quite low at 3,600'. Surprisingly, due to heavy winter storms we were walking on snow from the start. It was a noisy, crowded scene, with other climbers on all stages of the ascent. Nobody else we saw had skis, however. A pair of high school age students passed us while we slathered on sun screen, and asked me where the route went. Since there was a blue diamond staring me in the face, beside a line of tracks, this seemed a stupid question, but I told them I thought it just went up this gully. Esther noticed that these two carried light packs, with shorts and no ice axes. The man had sneakers on and the woman low top leather shoes! We shook our heads as they continued, not realizing how they would figure in our fate.

At timberline I noticed that the hiker's route didn't look like the best ski route. It ascends the west side of Monitor Ridge, while the east side of this ridge looked like it held more snow down low. By skiing over to the east side of the ridge we lost the mobs and had the mountain to ourselves.

We gained altitude slowly but steadily. Last night had been cold enough to produce a good freeze up here, which was a good thing except that it was a little hard for skinning up. Esther was having some trouble sliding back, so I suggested she take her skis off and walk up with her ice axe. She was much happier doing this, so we proceeded with me skiing carrying her skis and she walking. As all the days had been, it was clear but a bit hazy. We could see Adams off to the east, and Hood and Jefferson south but nothing beyond them. It was a fantastic day!

We reached the crater rim around noon. Finally we could look directly at the steaming guts of the peak and see how it had blown out to the north. It looked like there was quite a cornice on the rim, and I edged gingerly out to some wands, about 10' from the edge. Yikes! I wouldn't want to fall in that crater! I then sat down to eat some lunch and wait for Esther to catch up. Two guys in sneakers approached and immediately walked right to the edge of the cornice without concern. My god, I thought, it's amazing they don't have more accidents up here with people like that!

After a leisurely lunch and detour to the actual summit, we slapped on the skis for the 4,000' descent. The top 1,000' were quite bumpy for some reason and Esther didn't like this part. But eventually we reached the smooth perfect corn snow on the lower part of the peak. We went down our ascent route, so lost the crowds once again. From above, we picked out what looked like a more skiable direct route to the car. The gully dropping off the east side of Monitor Ridge appeared fairly gentle and filled with snow. All we had to do was ski down it and at some point cut right to the parking lot. We had a xeroxed topo map from the forest service which made this look like a reasonable route as well. The only tricky part would be figuring out when to cut right.

At first this plan worked perfectly. We entered the trees and skiied for quite a ways down the gentle, fun gully. Suddenly, we heard cries of "HELP!!" from the trees to our left. We responded and asked what was wrong. We couldn't discipher the response. Eventually two high school age kids emerged from the woods, in fact just the two we had seen earlier in the day. They said they were lost and trying to find the trailhead. We eventually discovered they were out of water, food, and had no map. They had not bothered with sun screen and the girl had spent the whole day without dark glasses! Evidently the boy had climbed the peak before in late summer and he didn't realize the peak was snow covered in spring. Anyway, they were exhausted, disoriented and it was clear they could not get out by themselves.

We learned their names were Aaron and Amy, and Esther gave them some food and Amy her pole for balance. We elected to continue skiing down the gully with Amy and Aaron following us on foot. Soon we ran into a 30' waterfall in the gully. Doing a bit of scouting, I found it could be bypassed on the left via some ugly bushwhacking. All was well but we were rapidly losing faith in our easy way out, and helping Aaron and Amy down was taking a lot of time. I was beginning to get angry because all this delay would probably make it impossible for me to climb Mt. Adams by myself the next day. I had hoped to get out by 3 and it was already after 3.

After the waterfall the gully was again easy and full of snow so we continued, Esther and I on skis. This was clearly the easy portion of the gully we had seen from above. But when to cut right? We didn't have an altimeter, but I reasoned that the cars were right at snowline, so we didn't want to go below snowline. Hmm ... Scouting on ahead of the slow crew while Esther helped the other two down, I eventually came to another small series of waterfalls. I took off my skis and looked into getting around it to the right. I had a suspicion we might be too low, because it looked like the snow was ending. It was now just after 4PM.

Leaving my skis I climbed out on this 45 degree slope of basalt, but quickly realized it was too featureless to get across. I started going back towards my skis, seeing above me an easier ledge system (which we eventually ended up taking). Then I saw that by simply going straight up, I could gain it immediately. Without thinking I reached up and grabbed a huge block about the size of a large suitcase lying flat against the face. Big mistake.

As soon as I touched it the block began to slide towards me, like a torpedo launched from it's tube. In an instant I realized I was in big trouble, this thing was a death flake booby trap and I was the booby. It probably weighed in at 300-400 lbs. My number one priority was to get as far away from this thing as possible. I jumped left to keep the thing from crushing my right foot, but in doing so lost my balance and started sliding beside the flake. I knew I was in for a sliding fall of 10-30 feet onto who knows what, but it was clear that avoiding the flake and not flipping upside down were my main priorities in life.

I remained amazingly calm as I gained speed down the ramp, doing anything possible to shuffle farther left away from my nemesis, finally doing the last few feet airborne before the inevitable landing. I collapsed in a heap, my head snapping forward into the cliff face, smashing my dark glasses.

I never went unconscious, and my first thought was that I had succeeded in avoiding getting tangled with the flake's impact. But my head was bleeding and my left wrist bent back badly. I sat down for some minutes while I went into shock. I used some snow within reach to stop the blood flow from above my right eye, then got out my first aid kit and popped 2 aspirin. I also got out my compass which had a mirror. In this I saw a deep gash right along my right eyebrow, probably all the way to the bone. Fortunately I didn't feel like I had a concussion.

About this time Esther showed up above the waterfall, having followed my tracks. She asked if I was OK. I responded that I wasn't and that I had fallen and cut my head badly and probably broken my wrist. I managed to stand up and walk back up to the top of the waterfall on the opposite side. [Why hadn't I gone down this way? Well, I guess because I knew we had to traverse right eventually and was thinking of going up and right to get a better view of where we were.]

Esther closed up my eyebrow cut as well as she could, and soon Aaron and Amy showed up. Aaron looked at our first aid kit and said "This may be a bad time, but do you have anything in there for Amy's headache?". Angrily, Esther threw him the bottle of Aspirin. Then he informed me that he was supposed to be back at work by 1PM and could not afford any more wrong turns. At this point I was too dazed to even respond to this. This was rapidly turning into an epic. At least we had some good characters.

From here we decided to move up and right out of the gully. I was still feeling well enough to lead the way, and I figured I had the best chance of getting us out. But I was greatly humbled by the fact that my anger over the slowness of our party had resulted in a serious accident of my own doing. I think if I had been in a less rushed and angry frame of mind, I don't think I would have hastily grabbed that block.

After some nasty bushwhacking up the steep sides of the gully, we hit a clear cut. This was a relief, as I remembered that the parking lot was also on the edge of a clear cut. It looked like we were too low, but if we followed the edge of the clear cut up I was fairly certain we would soon find the cars. This turned out to be correct, and it was a battered and weary crew that finally reached the cars just before 5PM.

A quick drive to the emergency room in Vancouver, Washington followed where my wrist was X-rayed and eyebrow sewn up. I underwent surgery that night to realign the many small bones in my left wrist, and 2 pins were inserted to keep them from moving around. Surprisingly there were no major breakages although I tore many of the ligaments in my wrist which is probably even worse. But I was probably lucky to have survived the fall without worse injuries.

Postscript: My left wrist was partially fused in a second operation on August 1, 1995. I eventually regained nearly full strength in my left hand although I have lost about half my wrist mobility. The sport I notice the most problem with this is, surprisingly, skiing. I have trouble flicking my left pole out in front of me. Certain rock climbing moves like mantles and chimneys have also become more difficult.

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