Peak 10: Loowit (Mount St. Helens)

Elevation: 8364’

Total Mileage: ~12 mi

Total Elevation Gain: 5620’

May 11, 2019

Wanting to share in my peak challenge in some way, my Mom and Stepdad came out from Cincinnati to celebrate Mother’s Day and Peak 10. While they wouldn’t be able to join me and Seth for the climb, they would be able to check out the various visitor’s centers that showcase exhibits about, and great views of, the volcano. The quirky Kalama McMenamins served as our basecamp for two nights.

View of the Columbia River from the Kalama McMenamins.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

Seth and I arrived at the Climber’s Bivouac trailhead in the early morning and were on the trail shortly after 6:00 a.m. There’s a Mother’s Day tradition of people climbing in dresses, as a tribute to mountaineer Kathy Phibbs. (Here’s a nice write up about her and the birth of this tradition.) We saw many climbers who were in the spirit of things even on this Mother’s Day Eve. I think my favorite was the burly mountaineering type sporting a slinky leopard print nightie.

This was my second Mother’s Day weekend summit of Loowit. It’s perfect because the weather was gorgeous both years, the atmosphere was festive, and the snow is much easier to trek up than the loose scree of the summer route. After winding through the forest, you soon cross the Loowit trail, which circumnavigates the mountain (trip report on that adventure forthcoming!) At this point, you leave the forest and start up the ridge, the slope rising steeper and steeper. I was coming back from time off due to medical issues, so I wasn’t at my peak fitness. As such, it was somewhat slow going. (Amazingly, the year prior, I did this climb the day after racing a tough 50k, went 2 miles off route, and still managed to complete the climb faster than this year.)

Setting out. The summit doesn’t look that far away, does it?

As we made our way up and up, other volcanoes soon made an appearance. To the south, the distinctive form of Wy’east (Mt. Hood) rose above the fog. Klickitat (Mt. Adams) eyed us from the east. In two weeks, we would be looking back at Loowit from its summit. As we periodically paused, we also remarked on the vast Cascade range, noting ridges we’d like to traverse or valleys we’d like to disappear into and live as hermits, undisturbed in the woods.

Taking a break to take in the views. You can faintly see Wy’east (Mt. Hood) in the distance, toward the right side of the frame.
Up we go! You can see men in dresses above.

While it wasn’t necessary, I opted to wear crampons on the upper slope, just for the practice. Stopping at one point to look back, and down, behind me, I couldn’t help but laugh at how far I’d come in a year. Last year, I had to keep my head down and face forward, lest I faint. I was working through some serious fears of exposure and heights, and my heart pounded wildly for much of that ascent. Now, my heartbeat was elevated only by the exertion and my lack of fitness; the height and exposure didn’t faze me. That felt really good to know that with time and experience, I could overcome my fears.

Pshaw. This slope ain’t no thang. Klickitat (Mt. Adams) beckons in the distance.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

There was a party raging at the summit. Climbers in dresses were all smiles and laughter, the requisite joie de vivre in honor of Kathy Phibbs. Careful not to tempt the cornice, we edged up to the crater rim and peered into the heart of the volcano. Vaporous steam trailed up into the air. Beyond the rim, you take in views of the blast zone and Spirit Lake. It’s truly incredible to see the planet’s power to destroy and rebuild itself captured in this portrait from the summit. To the north, snowy Tahoma loomed large. I smiled at the thought that, before long, I would be looking back at Loowit from there as well.

Joie de vivre at the summit, in honor of Kathy Phibbs. Plus, Klickitat photobomb.
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

We found a nice spot a short distance away from the party to eat lunch and marvel at the views. How fortunate we are, to be munching sandwiches on the top of a volcano on a sunny day with views forever. Sometimes, I simply can’t believe this is my life. It was also fun to know that my Mom and Stepdad were down below, looking up at the summit and imagining us there. We sent them a wave from the top.

Summit view, looking down into the crater, with the blast zone beyond. Spirit Lake and Tahoma in the background.
My Mom took this photo from the visitor’s center while we were on the summit. Pretty neat!
Photo credit: Cindy Williams
Summit smooch
Photo credit: Seth Wolpin

The descent of Loowit is the absolute best part, because you have the option to ski or glissade, and drop 5000+ feet in no time. This would be Seth’s first volcano ski descent. My skiing skills are still shaky at best, so I opted to glissade. We would meet back at the car with stories to share. It was fun to watch Seth start off, enormous grin on his face. He disappeared over the edge of the slope onto the skier’s route, and I made my way to the first glissade chute.

“That looks like a good place to ski down.”

Last year, I was incredibly anxious sitting down for my first glissade. We had watched people sliding down wildly out of control and screaming; my friend Jen assured me they were just being idiots, but it freaked me out. Taking that first push off the summit was terrifying—for about 5 seconds—and then, it was pure bliss! So much so, that we glissaded two miles off route because we were so caught up in the fun. This year, I wasn’t nervous at all, and I also would be mindful of staying on route. [For the record, while Jen and I veered off route in 2018, we were entirely prepared for such a contingency. When I caught our mistake, we had the equipment necessary to determine our location; we had the 10 essentials; and we were prepared to be out after dark—or be out overnight—if things went south. Much to my embarrassment, we also had Seth tracking us via my inReach, and he sent a message asking if we knew we were off route. Yes. We navigated back to the route and had no problems.]

How to describe the joy of glissading? Imagine the fun of ripping down a tall slide as a child; your body moving quickly and easily, the wind through your hair and in your ears, the sensation of being slightly out of control but also being thrilled by that. Now imagine that you’re zipping down the side of a snowy stratovolcano instead. Many “yeehaws!” escaped my lips, almost involuntarily. I find that it’s most fun when you build up a lot of speed and start to have a faint sense of losing control. Most likely, you’re in a good chute that keeps you on course. There’s the occasional rock to worry about (something hit my tailbone and bruised me pretty badly), but you’re not going to fly off the mountain. I had my ice axe ready as a brake, but I really only used it to avoid other people, or to slow down to check for rocks.

Heading way off route in 2018, but having a blast.
Video credit: Jen Schneider

The drawback to glissading is that it’s over too quickly. You reach a point where there may be a chute or two, but the angle isn’t really steep enough to slide you down, and it becomes this pathetic attempt to scoot yourself along before you must finally admit that it’s time to hike. Fearing that Seth would have been waiting for me for an hour after his speedy ski descent, I kicked into a fast trot along the trail.

And then came the moment that completely derailed my experience. As I jogged past hikers, some of whom were not properly dressed or equipped to be attempting a volcano summit, and others clearly making their way up very late in the day, a backcountry ranger stopped me and started an interrogation. “Are you out here alone? Does anyone know where you are? Are you doing ok? Do you need anything?” I was livid. If you did a lineup of everyone that was there, I was, hands down, the one who, on the outside, looked the most prepared for the occasion. A simple scan of my gear would have told you that I wasn’t new to this sort of thing. I was also confidently, and strongly, jogging down the trail while carrying all this gear (including my satellite beacon prominently visible on my shoulder strap), while others were literally off trail and bumbling about looking for the route (all within eyesight of these rangers.) How can anyone actually be alone on a mountain with 500 other people on the same exact route? But that’s beside the point—so what if I was not with a companion?

Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself that I’m overreacting here, but this is a recurring problem that I—and many women—must deal with out in the natural world. The fact that I’m a woman, and alone, sends out a red flag to men that I might need help. You might be thinking that this guy was simply doing his job and politely checking in. Honestly, that perspective is insulting. There were plenty of hikers there whom he could have singled out because they seemed unprepared or off route. Other women were in groups, though, protected by their male companions. I was an easy target to question because I was a solo female out in the woods.

This is not the first time a man has questioned me being out in the wild alone (see my trip report for Peak 2, for example), and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, on last year’s summit of Loowit, a dude stopped me and Jen to tell us that we were starting too late and that we wouldn’t make the summit before dark. Jen just laughed it off. I said, “Not our first rodeo, dude” and kept walking, but I also fumed for the next hour about the situation. What was clear to us was that this guy wasn’t going to make it to the summit himself, so he had to ease his ego by mansplaining mountaineering to us, which he couched in genuine concern (this is essentially the same thing that happened at Grouse Mountain.) What gets presented as simple concern is, in fact, patronizing and sexist.

Let’s face it, if I had been a dude, there’s no way that ranger would have stopped me to interrogate my credentials for being there alone. This ranger was reinforcing a cultural bias, whether it’s unconscious or explicit, that women are incapable of solo endeavors in the wild.

“Yes alone, and I’m fine. Someone knows where I am.”

He smiled and sent me on my way. My blood was boiling.

Like Loowit, I was a volcano preparing to explode (writing that reminds me of Ursula Le Guin’s excellent essay, “A Very Warm Mountain,” in which she links the eruption of St. Helens with feminism.) I’m not good at confrontation, though, and I’m not good at finding the right words in the moment. As I ran down the trail, I gave the ranger a piece of my mind, working out the details of what I should have said. I vowed in that moment that the next time anyone questions me about being out alone, that I would let him have it. Of course, snapping at one person isn’t going to change a broader cultural issue. Seth and I spent a lot of time talking about this, and we concluded that it’s high time that I just write my damn book and integrate this topic into the narrative.

When I started typing this morning, I thought it would be a brief trek down memory lane of a fun climb. I must have repressed the ranger incident, because I actually didn’t think about it until I got to that juncture in the story. It’s so upsetting, and something that I have to deal with more than you’d think, that I must have buried this incident as a coping mechanism. The good news is that I’ll be working on a book about women and wilderness during my sabbatical. Here’s hoping that’s both a therapeutic way to work through these emotions as well as a productive way to engage an audience in a broader conversation about a very real issue.

After fuming down the trail for a couple of miles, I finally reached the car. Much to my surprise, Seth wasn’t there. I couldn’t believe it. It seemed impossible that I had descended faster than him. About 30 minutes later, he rolled in with tales of his own adventure. He’d had fun but perhaps found his way onto a more difficult route than others skied. Despite that, he had a blast and was excited to ski Klickitat next.

We returned to the lodge for naps and a celebratory dinner, exchanging stories with my parents. Exhausted, we were asleep before our heads hit the pillows, and I dreamed of white-capped volcanoes and of flying through glittering snow.