Mt St Helens is an excellent introduction into the statovolcano family of the West Coast. Its crevasse free snowfields linger long into summer (especially this year-2011) and allows for those without technical mountaineering skills a chance to climb to the top of a volcano. I should say early on, however, that under many conditions ice axe and crampons can be handy and necessary, and these tools should only be used by folks who have had some pointers and practice as to their use. If you wait for the snow to melt, you’ll be walking up in ash… not so much fun in the wind.
Now onto the fun facts: there are two main climbing trail heads, Marble Mountain snowpark and Climber’s Bivouac map here. The latter cuts off a good chunk of elevation again, but requires that you wait until later in the year when it is opened (as of the writing of this article, it is not yet open for 2011). In my opinion it’s much better to climb when there is consistent snow- easier to kick steps and fun to glissade (or ski!) down. That usually means a departure from Marble Mountain snowpark. This lot requires a snowpark permit, but should be free of snow year round. From the snowpark there is an obvious trail leading you up to treeline where you cross Chocolate Falls which is also a great area for an alternate campsite to get away from the trailhead noise. This stream is usually dry and the crossing is straightforward. After this point you can take whatever route is most appealing- there are some markers that direct you up onto the Worms Flow ridge on climbers right, but climbing directly up some of the gulleys if they are covered in snow is a great way to get up as well. (Another safety consideration- if climbing in winter when avalanche conditions are a consideration climbing ridges is safer- best to have some avy knowledge when climbing snow slopes). For the purposes of stratovolcanoes, “winter” means October through July, and anytime there is a storm.
Planning for good weather is key- climbing into a whiteout is no fun, disorienting, and dangerous. NOAA’s pinpoint weather forecast can help pick a good weather window to hit. Hopefully you’ve picked a beautiful day to climb and the views will start to open up, with Mt Adams on climbers right, Mt Hood behind and if you’re lucky more Oregonian volcanoes further South. These are similar to Washington’s volcanoes but they wear skinny jeans, wouldn’t be caught dead in a Starbuck’s and can’t quit talking about how smug Washington’s volcanoes are. For much of the last third of the climb you will be able to see very close to the summit rim, so your goal is seemingly within grasp for a few hours as you slog up the snow. Beware of cornices as you reach the top- these can linger well into summer and can easily fool folks into thinking they have solid ground beneath their feet, when in fact they are cantilevered out by weak snow. Pictures from 15 feet back from the rim look surprisingly similar to those taken right at the rim, so be smart.
Red tape: All climbers must have a permit to go above 4800′. Permits can be obtained from the Mt St Helens Institute (http://www.mshinstitute.org/). They have a nifty little calendar that lets you see how many permits are available on any given day. Advanced planning is required for most weekends from Memorial Day through to the end of the summer. Weekday permits, of course, are somewhat easier to obtain. Another option is to purchase one from someone who can’t use their permit on Cascade Climbers (http://cascadeclimbers.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/forums/49/1/Permit_Exchange_Forum). There are other forums out there as well but this one is popular and widely used.
Good luck and have a great climb- enjoy this beautiful volcano before it decides to blow up again! Geologists predict you only have 600 years- plus or minus 12,000 years- so hurry up!