Snowboarding down Mt. Saint Helens

Snowboarding down Mt. Saint Helens

Sunday, July 2, 2000

My first view of the mountain was a shock because most of the snow had melted. 90% of the mountain was covered with snow last week compared to 40% this week. A few hot days last week had melted away a good portion of the snow. With my binoculars I could still see one snowfield that stretched from the summit to base along the west side. That was my destination.

One way to reach the top of Mt. Saint Helens is to climb up Monitor Ridge along the south side. There are many ridges, but this is probably the biggest one. These ridges consist of boulders that extend up the mountain. They are the first to appear as the snow melts, allowing climbers a way to scramble to the top without snow climbing equipment. Between these ridges are fields of snow. For a quick way down, most people slide on their butts.

My snowboard was strapped to my backpack with bunji-cords. It was nearly impossible to prevent it from scraping on the rocks occasionally. The route you take makes all of the difference: rocky, sandy, snowy there were many decisions to be made along the way and I found that I didn’t always make the right one. Even though I wasn’t wearing crampons, I found that sometimes I could walk up the steep snowfields stepping in someone else’s footsteps. I found that to be far more efficient than scrambling over boulders. I made the right route choice that time saving a lot of time and energy.

I saw some people walking down thru a field of sand and it looked like a good route. When I finally made it down there I realized it was a good route if you were going down! Imagine trying to climb a hill of sand. Every step you take, you slide a half-step back. I had a made a big mistake in my route choice. It cost me a lot of time and energy.

I made it ¾ of the way to the top but it started getting cold. The cloud level lowered and surrounded me in fog. It also started to snow and the winds picked up. I started to get cold since I was only wearing shorts, a t-shirt and a wind-breaker. I dug into my pack to get my sweater, sweat-pants, gloves and hat but discovered they were soaking wet! My water bottle had leaked and drenched everything in Gatorade. Climbers coming down advised me not to continue because it only got worse up above. I faced my failure and quit my ascent.

I figured I could still get a good snowboarding run if I could work my way west to the bigger and better snowfields. I could see some really great snowfields in the distant but they were too far away. I’d have to cross a few ridges and snowfields to get there and I didn’t feel it was safe to cross these snowfields since the hills were steep and I wasn’t wearing crampons.

So I snowboarded down the first snowfield I came across. At first I was scared since I had never snowboarded the backcountry before. The conditions were not the greatest. Imagine spring skiing conditions but worse. The snow was soft, wet and granular and covered with a thin layer of ash. Previous skiers had made their mark when the snow was soft and powdery, but now their tracks were bumps to deal with. I had plenty of room to maneuver, maybe 100 feet, between the surrounding boulder ridges, but the boulders still made me nervous. A mistake could send me crashing into them.

There was also the occasional rock in the middle of the snowfield to deal with, a few of which were put there by me. As I was scrambling down the rocks toward the snow, I sometimes caused a bunch of rocks to break free and go rolling down the snowfield. I’m just glad there was nobody down below because some of these rocks were pretty big and got going really fast. It occurred to me that rocks can break free at any time and that I could get struck by such a rock.

I clipped in to my snowboard and took off. After a few turns, my confidence picked up. I started getting used to the conditions. Another snowboarder had done this run before me so I followed their tracks. After a few minutes, the snowfield came to an end. I headed west and walked over the boulder ridge to the next snowfield and picked up the trail of the snowboarder again. This run was the best because I was finally used to the conditions and this snowfield was wider, maybe 200 feet across. I noticed that I was coming up to a long flat section. Snowboarders hate flat snow because they have no poles so they get stuck if they don’t have enough speed, so I aimed my board straight down the hill and picked up more speed than I should have, and flew across this flat area.

The flat area wasn’t so flat after all. There were a few dips and bumps along the way, so I bent down and let my legs drop into the dips or absorb the bumps. It crossed my mind that a wipe-out now would probably hurt a lot. The snowfield made a right turn and got steeper. There were some interesting snow drifts that could have provided some fun, but I was too chicken to ride them. After a few more minutes, the snowfield ended and I had to hike across another boulder field to get to the third snowfield. As I dropped in altitude, the snow turned to drizzle.

This would be my last snowfield. I never did make it to that perfect snowfield on the west side. I didn’t realize it, but I was getting really far from Monitor Ridge. This snowfield hit the timberline. Little by little I had more and more trees to deal with. Soon, I was snowboarding in a forest. It was getting a bit technical and I was worried about hitting a tree, so I dismounted and walked for a while. Eventually I realized that my snowboarding trip was over and it was time to hike back to the trail to my car.

Luckily the woods were wide open and were easy to hike through. The surface was mainly hard-packed ash. Now that I had dropped a few thousand feet in altitude, the temperature was warmer. After an hour of hiking the sun came out. I came across a clearing and decided to take a break. Me, my clothes and equipment were all soaked from sweat, rain or Gatorade or all of the above, so I stripped down and hung everything up on tree branches so it could dry.

After another hour of hiking, the wide-open forest started to get a bit thick. I was definitely bushwhacking in the boondocks. I put on my newly dried sweatpants to prevent my legs from getting ripped to shreds. It was another hour before I reached the trail and another hour before I reached my car.

I had left my car at 9 am and returned 8 pm. It was a good 11 hour hike! Although I didn’t accomplish my goal to snowboard non-stop from the summit to the base, it was a great adventure.

It’s trips like this that remind me that I’m not as fit as I’d like to be. I’ll be paying the price for a few days, but it was worth it. Too bad I had to do it alone.

Date Created July 5, 2002
Last Updated April 12, 2006