Climbing Mt. St. Helens
Like many of the large Cascade peaks, Mt. Saint Helens is an active volcano. Its most recent eruptive cycle started May 25th 1980, and culminated with a final belch on October 21st 1986. The mountain is a popular tourist attraction and it is estimated that over 14,000 people scale it each year, as opposed to 11,000 on Mount. Rainier, 10,000 Mount Hood or 7000 on Mt. Adams.
On October 1996, I was serving as First Sergeant E Company, 1st of the 413th, 104 Division. It was my last weekend. The 104th Division was downsizing and in a few months time, my unit would be no more. The 413th Commander was saddened by the demise of his battalion, but he was determined to make their last drill memorable. It took a great deal of creativity on his part, but he managed to get high command approval for an activity allowing some of his people to climb Mt. St. Helens. Not all could climb, Forest Service Rules have a limit of no more than 12 people to a group. Everyone climbing must have a permit, and the permit numbers are reduced to 100 per day and cost $15 from April 1st through to the end of October (There is no charge and no limit during the rest of the year).
The 413th Battalion was a unit of Drill Instructors. A Drill Instructor's job is not one for the faint of heart. The job requires a person to be in top shape both physically and mentally, Army Basic consists of 8 weeks of intensive training. Each Unit in the 1st Brigade would journey to a regular Army post and take over a two week segment of the 8 week training cycle. These Drill Instructors had to hit the ground running, and it was essential that they be better than just proficient in their jobs. They were required to do everything that their trainees did, only do it better. My drill instructors were faster, stronger, smarter, than anyone else, and I was very proud to serve as their First Sergeant.
I also had no intention of climbing the mountain. It made good sense to have their ancient 56 year old First Sergeant stay back and keep the base camp fires going. Let the young troops climb. I had mental pictures of making coffee and serving sandwiches to the tired, triumphant, and hungry young troops when they returned from the Mt. St. Helens summit.
"Oh no. First Sergeant. You need to make this climb. It's your last drill, and it will give you something to remember us by?
I guess it was a big honor being able to climb the mountain; however, If I could have seen into the future, I believe that I would have put more effort into trying to weasel out of this proposed volcano assault.
It was dark and sometime before Four A.M., when our group met at Vancouver Barracks. Considerable advance preparations were made. Those that would climb all brought rucksacks, gloves, food, and water. In addition all brought extra clothing, including their military gortex parkas. The group filed into two military vans and drove I-5 to Washington State route 503, then 23 miles to Jack's Store and Restaurant. All climbers are required to sign in at Jacks before and after their climb. The Climbers Register is located just outside of the store.
We took the Monitor Ridge climbing route, and drove our vans to the end of Forest Road 830, just south of the Volcano. Our group disembarked from their vehicles and began their assent on the Ptarmigan trail #216-A. The trail climbed 1,100 feet in 2 ?miles to timberline at the 4,800 foot level. Above timberline , the route generally followed Monitor Ridge, climbing steeply through huge lava blocks. From timberline the route was marked with large wooden posts to about 7000 feet. It wass late October, so very little glacier remained. The last 1,300 feet of the route was unmarked and covered with loose pumice and ash.