I've started this post several times, each time failing to convey how it made me feel and the journey it took me on in a short 8 or so hours. This hike changed me, affected me deeply, and still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it. It was difficult, beautiful, incredible, challenging, long, steep, astounding and life altering.
This January a friend and I decided to embark on a climb up to the crater rim of Mount Saint Helens. The forecast called for sun, so I decided it was a wonderful opportunity to try something a bit challenging that promised incredible views of our surrounding landscape. I had climbed Helens in September on a hot and sunny day with another friend, but I knew that a climb in the snow would be an entirely different experience.
That Saturday, we hopped in the car and drove down to Helens, planning to camp for the night near the trailhead and get an early start. Unfortunately, all of the established campgrounds nearby were closed for the season, and we did not really feel like camping in a parking lot by the trailhead. So, we drove around the tiny town of Cougar, WA trying to find a place to stay. After some trial and error (and very odd directions by a gas station employee), we settled on a renting a cabin at the Lone Fir Resort for the evening.
The next morning, we woke up early, packed the car, and drove to the trailhead to start hiking around 7:30am. It was quickly time to put on our snowshoes. The winter trail to the crater rim is 12 miles round trip and 5699 feet in elevation gain. Since the first couple miles are relatively flat, the rest is VERY steep, getting ever steeper as you continue up the mountain. As we continued to climb, I started feeling increasingly anxious, and, at times, was not really enjoying myself at all. Yes, the views were incredible. Yes, the weather was fantastic. Yes, I could physically handle the demands of the climb. Could there be an avalanche? Maybe. Had the avalanche forecast improved to near minimal risk? Yes! But, avalanches are scary. Avalanches are deadly. I do NOT want to die by avalanche!
At one point, we were fairly high up on the mountain, unable to see the actual summit, but we had reached a small flatish section, so took a moment to pause. The section above us, that we could see, looked incredibly steep, steeper than anything I had ever climbed before, and the "advice" given to us by a group that was on their way back down did not make me feel any better.
Up we went. Up. Up. Up. Up. Up. Up. Steeper and Steeper.
I had to stop every few minutes and take a few deep breaths to calm myself down. I was on the verge of hysterically crying. From fear? From anxiety? From the sheer beauty and astounding nature of it all? No idea. Mostly anxiety I think.
At one point, I had stopped, my friend caught up to me and I said, "I really don't like this at all." His (perfect) response was, "ok. Do you want to turn around?" I did. I really really (really) did.
So, I took a deep breath or two (maybe 3) and said, "No, let's keep going." So, up we went.
Up. Up. Up. Up. Up. Up. Steeper and Steeper.
FINALLY. We reached the (false) summit, and could actually see the real summit above us. Ever steeper. We continued to climb. We mostly had the trail to ourselves by this point. We were still wearing our snowshoes, while blasting past all of the folks wearing only crampons. I felt good. I felt alive. I also felt terrified.
As we got ever closer to the top, I could feel the emotions welling up, the tears preparing to burst out of me and thought, "I really need a hug right now."
All of a sudden we were at the crater rim and I was on the verge of a complete meltdown. These meltdowns are nothing new to me; I often break down at the sheer beauty around us, but this was a whole new level. My friend, being incredibly good at reading people, came over, told me he was going to give me a hug, and hugged me. It was exactly what I needed at that moment.
I. lost. it. Lost it in the best way possible. This entire experience had pushed me way beyond my previous limits, firmly establishing that I could do more, climb higher, and work harder than I had ever imagined. The rewards are endless and the beauty is out there for us to find. Sometimes you just have to push yourself a little bit further; a bit beyond what you think you can actually handle. Just writing this post has brought the tears back to my eyes. I still fear that my writings have not truly conveyed what this trip meant to me, but I hope you get a bit of a glimpse.
Keep it coming, mountains, because I'll be back for more.