Climbing Mount Saint Helens, Washington via Worm Flows Route

Although we had been eyeing a climb on Mount Saint Helens all winter, a good weather window didn’t present itself. Just in time for summer, we got a much-needed break in the weather this week. We were able to find two permits to climb on Sunday. Mount Saint Helens (50 miles NE of Portland, Oregon), an active stratovolcano, is most famous for its eruption on May 18, 1980. Now only 8,364 feet tall, the mountain previously stood at 9,677 feet tall.

Mount Saint Helens Worm Flows Route Elevation Profile

Due to an above-average snowpack, the normal summer route from the Climbers Bivouac was closed, so we opted for the Worm Flows (winter) climbing route. This approximately 10 mile round-trip route begins at 2,600 feet elevation and climbs roughly 5,700 feet to the summit at 8,365 feet. We left our house in Portland around 4:30 AM in order to pick up our permits at the Lone Fir Resort (Cougar, WA) when they opened at 6 AM. From the resort, it is a 30 minute drive to the Marble Mountain SnoPark where the Worm Flows route begins. The SnoPark used to feature a nice warming shelter, but it burned down in April, 2011. Luckily there are plans to rebuild it soon.

Start of the Worm Flows Route on Mount St. Helens     Trail Marker Near Marble Mountain SnoPark

We began our day under mostly sunny skies and a temperature around 40 ° F. There were approximately twenty other vehicles at the SnoPark when we arrived, including two small buses from Catlin Gable School. The trail had a few spots of bare ground, but it was soon apparent that the season’s above-average snowpack still has not broken up. We passed multiple climbing groups, including one containing mostly middle- and high school students. As the tree cover began to break up, we got our first glimpse of the summit. Against the backdrop of the clear blue sky, the mountain looked a bit ominous. Upon emerging from the tree line, the temperature was noticeably warmer due to the morning sun. The snow was firm but not icy, making us glad to have left our snow shoes in the car.

First Glimpse of Mt. St. Helens     South Side of Mount Saint Helens

As we moved closer to the summit, low clouds began to move into the area. Mt. Hood was soon invisible behind the clouds and the temperature began to drop. Luckily, we remained quite warm due to exertion from our climb.

Mount Hood from Mount St. Helens     Katie Looking Down the South Side of Mount St. Helens

After crossing by snow-covered Chocolate Falls, the terrain began to steepen. Along the way we noticed large wooden pegs rising from the snow, marking the climbing route. We continued our steady pace up the mountain, trying our best not to stop too much (in order to keep our muscles warm). Approximately 3.5 miles into our ascent, our elevation gains became larger with each step – topping out at over 1000 ft. per mile. As we rose above a large ridgeline, the wind began to pick up and the snow became icy in spots. This required some careful kick-stepping in order to keep our footing, but ultimately did not warrant crampons. We were quickly rewarded, though, as Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams came into view.

Looking Up Towards the Summit of Mount St. Helens     USGS Monitoring Equipment
Jason with Mount Hood in the Distance     Katie with Glissade Chute in the Background

After 4 hours and 40 minutes, we reached the summit rim of Mount Saint Helens. We appeared to be the first people to reach the summit Sunday morning. By the time we arrived, the temperature had dropped below 40 ° F. The wind had picked up as well, creating a bone-chilling combination. We were able to clearly see Spirit Lake, the actively fuming cinder cone in the Mount St. Helens crater, and Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, and Mt Adams in the distance. Spirit Lake is still partially filled with logs from the volcano’s original eruption in 1980.

Summit Rim of Mount St. Helens Looking North     Smoking Cinder Cone in Crater
Mount St. Helens Rim to Climbers Right     Mount St. Helens Rim to Climbers Left with True Summit Visible
Spirit Lake     Mount Rainier
Mount Adams     Katie and Jason on Summit Rim of Mount St. Helens with Mount Adams in the Background

As I took in the view, Jason worked his way over to the summit proper 0.38 miles to climber’s left (West) along the crater rim. Not many people venture along the rim due to the dangerous cornices along the edge.

True Summit (second smaller cornice right of large cornice)     Jason Headed to the True Summit

After Jason returned from his side-trek to the true summit, we quickly packed our belongings and donned our glissade diaper sleds in preparation for our descent. We glissaded partway down Monitor ridge before crossing the moraine to the worm flows route. Glissading is very popular on Mount Saint Helens and provides a fun and efficient way to descend the mountain. Many of the glissade chutes are well-worn, sometimes up to five feet deep. Our glissading fun lasted for nearly 4,000 vertical feet and three linear miles. After losing our elevation, we traded our sleds for trekking poles and hiked the rest of the distance back to the SnoPark. At this point, the snow had softened considerably and the boot track was deeply worn into the snow.

Jason Glissading Down Mount St. Helens     Katie Glissading Down Mount St. Helens

We arrived back at the SnoPark at 3:30PM, approximately 8.5 hours after setting out. By the time we returned, light rain was falling, but the temperature was around 50° F. Though weary and hungry, we felt a great sense of accomplishment for having summited the mountain together.


water, Sun, 06/12/2011 - 22:28

so the weather stayed decent and you got an amazing glissade for helens! I'm impressed. buying permits on the fly a week before sounds like the way to do it in the spring.

now ya'll are jonesing for adams, righto? :)

Carl Hanson, Wed, 06/22/2011 - 13:10

Hopefully it will be clear 6/30/11 for our trip. Thanks for the post good information.
But is a glissade diaper made of???or whats in it after a ride?

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