Climbing Mt. St. Helens

July 17, 2019

What. A. Day.

I was hiking up Mt. St. Helens by 5:20am. The forecast was partly cloudy in the morning with heavy rain in the afternoon, so the plan was to bag the summit early and head down before the weather turned. The forest echoed with bird sound. It felt so peaceful being here.

Near the tree line, fog spilled down the trail. Hmmm, not ideal, but visibility was still okay. I kept hiking and boulder hopping till I reached Monitor Ridge. Visibility was decreasing, and I decided to keep going a bit and feel out conditions. The ridge curved and I was suddenly blasted by wind and rain. The clouds weren’t letting up. It was pretty clear that this weather was only going to get worse higher up.

I sat behind a boulder for shelter and thought about the go/no-go matrix for decision making in the mountains: increasing winds, cold, poor visibility, being alone, temps dropping, and worse weather moving in. All bad signs. I didn’t want to bail a mile from the crater on what was supposed to be an easy mountain, but it was clear that I was in no-go conditions, so I began descending. I was a bit ashamed of bailing because people were still going up, several of them in shorts, but I remained headstrong in the thought that they definitely had less mountain experience and were pushing into a potentially bad situation. It was hard making the call on my own, but in the end I don’t regret missing out on the summit.

I walked back to camp and curled up in my sleeping bag for a nap. The rain only got worse, and I was happy to be off the mountain. In the back of my head, I was somewhat concerned about the rain and the state of the dirt road out of camp. I chatted with some folks and learned that the dirt road was being resurfaced that day, which meant it was going to be some bad riding. I thought about spending another night up here to wait out the road and the weather, but I was running low on fuel and water. I decided that while I could get away with roughing it for another night, I could also hitch a ride down the muddy dirt road and sleep at Northwoods where I could buy food, water, and fuel. I found a ride with a dad and his hilarious teenage kids, and they dropped me off after the dirt road.

It was a lot warmer down lower and only on-and-off drizzling. I started up a hill and noticed shifting into my lowest gear felt off. “I’ll deal with it in Northwoods”. I hit the top of the hill, shifted into my hardest gears, and started bombing down the hill. There was a truck behind me and I gained enough speed that I felt comfortable taking the lane. I kept pedaling through the weirdness of my drivetrain, thinking the derailleur would just figure itself out. Then my pedals locked up. I couldn’t spin them at all, they were jammed up. The truck was still behind me and I coasted down the hill, no shoulders in sight. Not great. I spotted a tiny shoulder on the other side of the road and pulled over. I took my panniers off and flipped the bike upside down to investigate the drivetrain. The back derailleur was bent and the chain was folded over itself in the front derailleur. I’d never seen a chain look so messed up.

Broken down on the side of the road, I was trying every trick I knew to get the chain freed. I was running out of ideas when a passing car slowed down and someone yelled “Maria?!”.

It was a group of four college gals I’d met the day before in Northwoods. What are the chances?

Their car was packed, but I took my bike apart, tried one more time to unjam the chain, and shoved the mess into their trunk. I ended up joining their families at the Ape Caves, and then these ladies drove me an hour out of their way to Vancouver Cyclery in Washington, the nearest bike shop. I was blown away that they were so keen to help a soggy, stinky traveler. I bought them all Mexican food and we jammed out to Lizzo in the car.

I walked into Vancouver Cyclery and Ska music was blasting through the speakers. The mechanics fixed my bike up and handed me a beer. Michael the mechanic offered me a ride past the crappy parts of Vancouver over to downtown, and Nick the mechanic tagged along. Michael dropped us off near the Columbia River and Nick gave me a bike tour of the scenic parts of the area and we rode across the bridge into Oregon.


We made a quick stop at Nick’s house, picked up his girlfriend, and they showed me around more of Portland. They left me downtown and I made my way to a cidery for some libations and pizza. After a few ciders, I made my way to my friend Young’s apartment, and we caught up late into the night.

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