Mt. St. Helens--pre 1980 eruptive era

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Trip Report
Washington, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Aug 31, 1977
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Mt. St. Helens--pre 1980 eruptive era
Created On: Sep 9, 2012
Last Edited On: Sep 11, 2012

About to climb my first volcano!

Boy, was I excited. I felt entirely ready and capable for this long awaited trip of a lifetime to the summit of an actual volcano. For me, in fact, the summit was a foregone conclusion, I would have no problem. I remember hoping to see two things at the top: First of all, the remnants of the old fire lookout, the lumber of which was hauled as far as the top of the Dogs Head by spud donkeys. And secondly, could I discern any sort of a crater rim, anything to suggest the phenomenal forces that gave rise to such a magnificent mountain? Selected chapters from Fred Beckey's Cascade Alpine Guide and Steven Harris' excellent book Fire and Ice accounted for a lot of my inspiration and inquisitiveness. I thought the combination of mountaineering and vulcanology had a nice ring to it. For now it was time to elevate years of Boy Scout adventures to the next level, to a sort of personal highpoint (literal and figurative) in my life to that point.
Mt. St. HelensThe clouds lift and we finally see the north face of St. Helens

My brother and I were invited along with a group led by my Botany instructor at Bellevue Community College. All of us had some experience with glacier travel but most of us admittedly were relieved that our route would not meander through the crevasses, ice falls and seracs of the very impressive Forsyth Glacier right before us. Instead, we were to go around to east and scramble up the broad back of the prominent Dogs Head, kind of a cleaver dividing the Forsyth and the Nelson Glaciers
Mt. St. Helens: Looking up the Forsythe Glacier, August 1977The spectacular icefall of the Forsyth Glacier

Dogs Head to the summit

The wind whipped us on the lower slopes. I recall some of our team crab walking and preambulating up the easier slopes, their backs taking the brunt of the furious wind.
Mt. St. HelensWith our backs to the gusty wind we side- stepped and preambulated up the relentless volcanic scree
A little while later it dawned on us that the combination of wind and sun were shapping our lips and burning our faces. ...Time for the banana cream and zinc oxide!
Mt. St. HelensTaking care of our faces and time for a water break

We stopped one more time, at the top of the Dogs Head--this time to switch from scrambling mode to glacier travel. Fortunately the wind had abated and we leisurely donned our crampons and climbing harnesses and ropes.
Mt. St. HelensRoping up on top of the Dogs Head, the Nelson Glacier behind us

From that point the route steepened as we traversed the upper Nelson and uneventfully crested the Forsyth as well. No issues to speak of, route wise, only some minor displeasure voiced by a brushed guy on a rope ahead of me, something about "lack of trail etiquette" referring to a ropemate of his. I don't know what it was all about--possibly tugging on the rope or some other minor aggravation. Luckily his complaining did not go on and on and neither did the 45ยบ slope. It eased considerably and soon we shuffled past a false summit and over to the true summit of Mt. St. Helens, 9,677', higher than most of us had ever been before.
Mt. St. HelensLooking north from the summit of St. Helens

I don't remember being tired at all, maybe a little disappointed though. The summit area was somewhat flat, extensive and entirely snowcovered. No visible trace of a crater rim, or any rock to be seen, no smell of sulphur, no wooden remnants of anything----just snow and ice. But the views were exceptional and I sure enjoyed them.
Mt. St. HelensTo the south from the summit, Mt. Hood in neighboring Oregon is visible amidst the wafting clouds

The Descent

Two exciting views awaited us on the way down
Descending north side of  ancestral  St. Helens Looking down the Forsyth Glacier to the base of the Dogs Head and Timberline far below

And then, taking the final steps off the upper Forsyth traverse and approaching the Nelson the full western face of neighboring Mt. Adams came into view 40 miles to the east.
Looking at Mt. Adams from high on St. Helens  before eruptions of 1980Mt. Adams viewed from high on Mt. St. Helens

Once on the Dogs Head, having shed our crampons and ropes the pace quickened to almost a run and within a couple of hours we were back at the Timberline parking lot, not at all worse for wear. At least at that point, anyway. I soon learned that I had quite a sunburn! Should have been more liberal with the banana cream and zinc oxide, but all that mattered to me was having stood on top of that mountain...

Mt. St. HelensDown from our climb of St. Helens, ready to put more oil in the '70 (my pickup) and go home


Little did I know, looking back on it now that I was fortunate to be able to stand on real estate that no longer exists. And these old slides help to document it. Fortunate in a way, sure, but I would much prefer to have the mountain back as we once knew it. I find myself waiting somewhat impatiently for it to rebuild in my lifetime. I guess that is not too realistic and I better harmonize my biological clock with the snail pace of geology. What a great memory this trip is for me!


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Jake Robinson

Jake Robinson - Sep 10, 2012 11:14 pm - Voted 10/10


I have a copy of the Beckey guide from the 1970's that describes pre-eruption climbing on St. Helens which has always intrigued me, but this report provides much more insight into what it was like. My mom got to climb it in 1979, the year before it blew, and she always says it creeps her out to think that the mountain completely destroyed itself so soon after she was there.


JoelSkok - Jan 1, 2017 7:10 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Fascinating!

Thanks Jake. Does not creep me out at all. I would have been brazen (and foolish) to infiltrate the red zone had I been around then. Or maybe not...


Harryk - Sep 12, 2012 12:11 am - Voted 10/10

Love it!

Thanks for putting this together. How lucky you were. I remember the first year I started mountaineering in 1982 I saw it on my way down to California. The eruption was such a monumentous event at the time.
I also stood on a mountain before it lost it's top. Mt. Cook in New Zealand had it's top fall off in 1991 in a catastrophic event.


JoelSkok - Jan 1, 2017 7:06 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Love it!

How many feet did Mt. Cook lose?


SonOfAJeffer - Nov 4, 2018 3:28 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Love it!

About 30m


HungrySteve - Sep 19, 2012 11:16 am - Voted 10/10


These pictures are quite something. Thanks for posting - it's a perspective that I've never seen before.


JoelSkok - Mar 20, 2013 5:19 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great report

Thanks Catamount, while I imagine thousands managed to scale the ancestral St. Helens it is nice to see my report in a prominent place like our respected SP. The pictures are scans of my slides, and yes, they came out pretty well!

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Mt. St. Helens--pre 1980 eruptive era

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