As much as the Pacific Northwest is known for its dreary winter weather, a natural consequence of that weather is the blanketing of our local mountains in glorious snow. While Mount St. Helens is a popular hike in the summer and early autumn, the snows transform it into a far more delightful and awe-inspiring mountain in winter. For those willing to brave the weather, you will find few better places to spend a day in the wilderness.
I have climbed St. Helens in winter where it was an eight hour struggle through two and a half feet of fresh powder, while two weekends prior it had been encased in nearly solid ice requiring meticulous crampon usage. You can snowshoe or cross country ski to the tree line and then boot up to the summit, or if you are a backcountry skier you can skin up to the top and enjoy nearly 4000' of uninterrupted descent. The weather can be somber grey with fat snowflakes falling and brutally cold wind hunting for the barest bit of exposed skin, or so intensely sunny that you strip down to your long underwear to keep from both boiling and burning.
There are days when the mountain air is crystal clear and shafts of early morning light penetrate the clouds to bring every rock and hill into sharp relief. You travel lightly on fresh snow and discover that you are alone on the mountain with only a light wind to break the silence. And the view is so far-reaching and so peaceful you believe yourself a solitary soul in a far off wilderness. Those are the days when the efforts of mountaineering pays in spades.
Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams from the Crater Rim
- Mount St. Helens Summit — National Forest Service
- Worm Flows, Winter Climbing Route — National Forest Service
- 364S - Mt St Helens Climbing — Green Trail Maps
- Mount St. Helens — CalTopo.com
- Marble Mountain Ski Trails map
Between November 1 and March 31st permits are self issue and free of charge. Permits can be found at the climbing register at Marble Mountain Sno-Park.
The rest of the year, climbing permits are required and must be purchased in advance online. As there are quotas between April and October, you should purchase your permits early. Permit fee is $22 per person.
For Marble Mountain, a Washington Sno-Park permit is required from November to April. If you park at the Climber's Bivouac, a Northwest Forest Pass is required. Climber's Bivouac is rarely open in the winter months because of snow, but there have definitely been years when it is accessible late into the year.
Year-round. Once the snow starts falling in October, St. Helens becomes significantly less popular and the crowds thin to the point where you may have the mountain all to yourself on weekdays. However, there is usually not enough snow on the mountain until early January to make backcountry skiing an option unless you want to boot up half the mountain.
Starting in May and extending until November, St. Helens is more or less a hike, but remember that as a mountain it can have serious weather any month of the year.
Recommended: January to April for best skiing conditions
Drive to Cougar, Washington (map). The town has a gas station and a public rest area, so it is a nice place to take a break if you are driving from Portland or Seattle. From Cougar, continue driving east on Lewis River Road, which will turn into Forest Road 90. About 6.5 miles from Cougar, you will reach the intersection with Forest Road 83. Take a left onto Forest Road 83 and continue approximately 6 miles to the Marble Mountain Sno-Park. Park in the Sno-Park. In winter, snow tires or chains are highly recommended.
A view of Mt. Adams during the ski down.
Starting at Marble Mountain Sno-Park (map), you follow the Swift Ski Trail #244 to the beginning of the Worm Flows Winter Climbing Route. The Swift Ski Trail splits a few times but it always rejoins itself, all the while heading north. Most years there will be obvious tracks to follow, but if you are new to St. Helens this ski trails map is helpful.
Around 2 miles in, where the trees thin and you approach timberline, the trail will traverse north-northwest across the mountain until you cross the drainage for Swift Creek and head up a steep, but short, switchback to a broad ridge. On this ridge you should see the wooden posts that mark the route upwards toward the summit. Head upwards toward the summit along this ridge. The first 250 meters or so are fairly gradual but once the last of the trees disappear, your climb really begins.
Relatedly, these trees provide a convenient place to camp or stash gear. On more than one occasion I have cross-country skied to this point, booted up the mountain, and then enjoyed cruising the last 2.5 miles back to the parking lot on my skis.
From this point on, you should follow the ridge line upwards with the wooden posts guiding you towards the summit. Choose the best route you can find, depending on your gear and the snow conditions.
There is significantly more snow on the mountain in winter so stay away from snow loaded slopes and the cornices that form along their edges. These small cornices have a tendency to collapse and tumble into the gullies. While the climb is fairly strenuous, the angle is rarely so steep that you cannot easily take a break when you need one, which is handy because the surrounding views are spectacular.
As you approach the summit ridge, proceed with extreme caution as there is often a significant cornice (30+ feet) that will form on its edge. Stay a healthy distance back from the edge as the only thing between you and the crater floor a thousand feet below is packed snow and empty air.
After enjoying the summit, return the way you came. Climbers in boots have the option to glissade or boot-ski significant portions of the way back. Just remember to take off your crampons first. Skiers have nearly 4000' of uninterrupted descent ahead of them with a broad slope off the summit and then multiple gullies to carefully explore on the lower half. Depending on snow, sun, and elevation you may have everything from powder to Cascade concrete and ice on the way down. Also, you must be wary of unexpected cornices and wet slides that may start on warm, sunny days. Take a few breaks on the way down to carefully choose your route.
Once back at tree line, continue on the Swift Ski Trail #244 and head back to Marble Mountain. If you are on skis (or a snowboard), the trip out is an intermediate ski through the trees and is a relaxing way to end your climb.
The climb is 5500' of elevation gain and the snow conditions can be extremely variable. There is one short, steep, and rocky section that I almost always pop off my skis and quickly bootpack up. Suffice to say, St. Helens can be a great place to practice your edging and kickturns.
When the snow is good, the ski down is an approachable black. When the snow is lousy (icy, chunky) or visibility is low (near whiteouts on the summit are common), the skiing can wander into double black territory. Thankfully the upper slopes are wide and not too steep, so you have space for wide turns and numerous points for breaks. After a few hours of climbing I definitely find those helpful on the way down.
The 2 miles from tree line to the parking lot is an amazingly fun ski. However, you are skiing among trees and conditions can be very fast. Maybe it is my old age and a couple close calls with people heading up, but I have started bringing a helmet specifically for this part.