Mount St. Helens Winter/Spring Climbing Tips
1) Interpreting weather forecasts
- The weather on the summit is very different from that of nearby towns and cities. Two good sources for forecasts are Mountain-forecast.com and the National Weather Service forecast for 6,000’.
- Be aware that winter forecasts will often change dramatically even just 24 hours before your climb.
- If forecasts call for rain or snow, dense fog and white out conditions are a sure thing on the upper half of the mountain.
- Forecast winds of up to 25 mph are doable for most people, but above that the majority of climbers will find conditions very unpleasant. Very few climbers reach the summit on days when wind speeds are 35 mph or more.
- Wind chills are also very important. A 25°F day that is calm and sunny is quite comfortable. A 25°F day with 25 mph winds is bitterly cold. Keep in mind that there is no protection from the wind anywhere on the winter route above 5600’.
- Always be prepared for the weather to be worse than the 24 hour forecasts indicate.
- Your best chance of success is a day where the forecasts predict sunshine, winds of 15 mph or less, and temps above 25°F.
- If forecasts predict precipitation, winds above 25 mph, or wind chills below 15°F, very few climbers will make it to the summit.
2) Gear for traveling on snow and ice
- Snowshoes or skis with skins are needed for climbing in new snow, and on some warm spring days.
- True crampons are for icy conditions. These are common in the winter, especially on the top half of the mountain.
- It is very difficult to know if snowshoes/skis are needed on any specific day. Conditions are hard to predict and change fast.
- To be safe and effective, crampons must be properly strapped to stiff boots.
- Traction devices built for city streets (rubber devices with cables, springs, or studs) are not suitable for climbing mountains.
- Name brand microspikes (rubber devices that stretch chains and ½” steel spikes across boot soles) are sufficient on some spring and fall days, but they have no toe or heel spikes and are dangerous on steep icy slopes. Beware of inexpensive knock off brands, the chains break very easily.
- Your best chance of success is to be prepared both for ice and soft snow.
- Post-holing ski trails through the woods is very anti-social. "Post-holing" means that climbers, without snowshoes or skis, will plung deep into the snow with every step, making travel very difficult. Take your skis or snowshoes!
3) Avalanche Considerations
- Mount St Helens has big avalanches any time from October through May.
- The highest risk is right after big storms, when wind has been moving snow, during rain on snow events, and on unseasonably warm and sunny days.
- Winter climbers should carry an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe and know how to use them
- Always check the NWAC avalanche forecast for the west south zone before climbing in November through May.
- If the avalanche danger is yellow, travel along the ridge crests (most of the climbing route) is fairly low risk, but skiers in valleys and on steep slopes are at greater risk and should be conservative, have avalanche gear, and travel in groups.
- If risk is orange, only climbers with avalanche safety gear and avalanche safety training should climb. It is important to evaluate snow conditions at different altitudes and aspects and make conservative choices, especially when on or below slopes of 30 degrees or more
- If risk is red. Stay home.
4) Navigation and Traveling by GPS
- The winter route is complex and navigation above the tree line, and especially above 5600’, can be challenging.
- Clouds can blow in unexpectedly and visibility can go from good to less than 10’ in a matter of minutes.
- In winter fog and snow, you can be surrounded by white, like being inside a ping pong ball. It is extremely disorienting.
- If there is new snow, blowing snow, or very flat light, footprints in the snow can disappear in just a few minutes. You cannot count on following your footprints home if fog moves in.
- GPS, especially stand alone units, is a great safety and navigation tool, but only if you have a good trace of the route and experience navigating by your GPS unit.
- Cell phone GPS is okay, but can you use it in a rain or snow storm? Is your battery life sufficient? Do you have experience navigating with it in bad weather?
- Getting lost in winter weather is no joke. Hypothermia happens fast, especially when it is windy and lost climbers slow down. Hypothermis is the #1 killer of outdoor enthusiasts. Learn more about hypothermia prevention and signs.
5) Marble Mountain roads and parking in the winter
- The road and parking are plowed by Washington State December through March, but big snowstorms can bury the road in October, November & April.
- After big winter storms, it may take a day or more for plows to clear the road.
- Even when it is plowed, the road will be steep and icy and chains and/or traction tires are necessary.
- The main and overflow lots fill up early on nice winter weekends, especially during snowmobile season. Get there early.
- Look for the signs that show how to park at Marble Mountain Sno-Park. Parking is on the diagonal in the center of the lots. Parking around the edges blocks traffic, snow removal. Blocking traffic and snow removal is a safety hazard and it makes visitors grumpy!
- Overnight camping at Marble Mtn Sno-Park is common, but please no fires on the asphalt and don’t put your tent where you are likely to be run over.
- Some winter climbers hike in a few miles to camp. That’s fun, but keep in mind that camping above the tree line is prohibited.
It is legal to climb with your dog and long as it is leashed and well behaved. To summit successfully…
- Dogs must be very fit and accustomed to alpine terrain
- They must be equipped with all of the food and water that they will need
- They must be able to tolerate the weather - many breeds will need coats and other weather protection
- Some breeds may need eye protection especially in the spring when the sun is high and there is still snow
- It is very common for paws to be cut by ice and rocks. Unless your dog has very tough paws, they must be equipped with boots and trained to wear them. Bloody paw prints are very common, winter and summer.
- Climbers with dogs are much less likely to summit because most dogs are not fit enough or adequately equipped for the climb.
- Strong, athletic, experienced, weather adapted dogs with plenty of water and food are great climbing companions, but in many cases owner and pet would both be better off if the dog stayed safely at home.
7) Food and water
- Except for late afternoon trickles of snow melt in the early summer, there is no liquid water available on the climbing route.
- When snow melt is available, it must be filtered or treated before drinking
- In summer, most climbers will need to bring along at least 3-4 quarts of water, in winter more like 1-2 quarts. It depends on the weather, your clothing decisions, and how long you are on the mountain.
- Make sure that you are well-hydrated when you start up. Drink a quart or more before you leave the car. Don’t let the absence of restroom facilities and private spots on the mountain tempt you to climb dehydrated!
- A round trip to the summit takes several thousand calories.
- Snacks with lots of carbohydrates and sugar are the best for quick energy
- Dehydration and insufficient fuel will make you miserable, greatly decrease your chance of success, lead to painful cramps, and threaten your health.
8) Is the Climb Risky?
- Except for some winter conditions, Mt St. Helens does not require advanced technical mountaineering skills, but injuries are common and deaths do occur.
- Summer and winter routes both include the crests of steep rocky ridges where falls can be serious and life threatening.
- The crater edge is a cliff more than 1,000’ high above Crater Glacier. In summer, the edge is soft and crumbly and large pieces often fall into the crater below. Stay back!
- In winter, the location of the crater edge is covered by winter snow that forms a “cornice” ( shelf of snow that extends out into the crater). The cornice may extend 20-30 feet into the crater and may include as many as 10 feet that have nothing beneath but 1,200’ of air.
- Crater views are obscured by the cornice, but walking out onto the cornice is very dangerous and cornice collapses have killed unwary climbers.
- Hypothermia is a serious risk in some seasons. Ill-prepared climbers caught by changes in the weather (especially cold rain and wind) can get into trouble very quickly. Disorientation, lethargy, and death can occur.
- In the winter, steep icy slopes (especially the east aspect of Monitor Ridge) may lead to serious falls were climbers slide down hundreds of feet over rough ice and may impact rocks or drop off short cliffs. These conditions require mountaineering skills and equipment (ice ax, real crampons).
- In the spring and early summer, skiing and glissading (sliding down on your back side) are the most common cause of injuries.
- Safe glissading requires an ice ax, crampons removed, and a lesson or two on proper technique. Never glissade unless the snow is soft enough that you can dig in your heels.
- Beware of melting glissade trails that may travel over rocks or holes or end in boulders.
- When glissading, keep navigation in mind. There will often be prominent glissade trails that will take you to places far from the route and your way home. People get lost - a lot.
- Yes, Mt St Helens has avalanches. Big and dangerous avalanches. Check the Northwest Avalanche Center forecast and heed their advice. Don’t climb when risk is elevated unless you have the necessary training and gear.
- Avalanche Report: https://nwac.us/
- Mount St Helens Twitter: https://twitter.com/MtStHelensNVM
- Mount St. Helens Institute Conditions Report: https://www.mshinstitute.org/explore/climbing-permits/current-conditions.html
- Washington Mountain Weather Forecast: www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Mount-Saint-Helens/forecasts/2549
- NOAA interactive snow depth map: https://bit.ly/3qqvu4y
- Groomer/Plowing Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Backcountryplowingandgrooming/
- Winter driving tips from Washington State Department of Transportation: https://wsdot.com/travel/real-time/mountainpasses/winterdrivingtips
- Gifford Pinchot National Forest site conditions: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/giffordpinchot/recreation#conditions
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