After over a month of nearly daily precipitation, a weather window finally appeared on the horizon. Over 7 days of sunny blue skies! Right on cue, Damien instantaneously caught a nasty cold. I believe this is known as: Murphy’s Law. Despite constant rest and several days off from work, by Friday it appeared as though an overnight in the backcountry was not going to happen. The cold just wouldn’t budge. We talked about maybe trying for a day trip on Sunday. Luckily, when I returned home from bouldering in Gold Bar on Saturday evening Damien had improved and felt strong enough to take advantage of the clear skies. Since we only had one day in this magnificent weather window, we wanted to go for something big. This led us to beginning the drive to the Trailhead at 2am in the morning.

Our objective was Mt St Helens via the winter route: Worm Flows. Damien and I had summited the volcano twice, but somehow it never gets old. Plus, it is one of the best backcountry ski tours in the state. We arrived at Marble Mountain Sno-park at about 5:45am. There were a few other parties getting ready in the dark. Almost everyone was packing snowshoes. There was barely enough coverage of snow at the start of the Swift Ski Trail to warrant trying to skin, so we strapped our skis on our packs and journeyed off into the night. After about 1.5 miles the snow base was deep enough for us to click into our bindings and begin skiing. There was no skin track, but the snowshoe/boot track is wide, well flatten out and worked perfectly for skis.

After crossing Chocolate Falls we were greeted by our first view of Mt St. Helens in the golden morning Alpen glow. Worm Flows has a large amount of exposed rock from the recent warm temperatures and rain a few weeks ago. Skinning along the side of the ridge looked like it would be time consuming and unpleasant, especially without a preset skin track already broken in. As Damien and I skied through the final set of trees on the broad, snowy ridge it became apparent that we would make better time if we carried our skis to the summit. Its moments like this that make me thankful for investing in carbon skis.

At about 4600 feet, the start of the volcanic rock-strewn Worm Flows ridge, we removed our skis and began to haul them up the mountain. Damien and I were certainly not the only skiers who chose this method. Almost everyone using skis or splitboards was carrying their gear up the route. There were a few exceptions of course, but I think only 3-4 people chose to skin. The route is a great condition for foot ascents. There is an awesome boot pack with perfectly spaced steps all the way to the crater rim.  The radiation from the sun was perhaps the largest obstacle we faced during the climb. The heat was exhausting! I don’t think I’ve ever worn so few cloths on a December ascent.

Damien and I topped out at 2:15pm. We couldn’t gaze deep into the crater as the over-hanging cornice is especially massive in the winter. We needed to stay back from the edge. From the summit we still afforded excellent views of Rainier, Hood, Jefferson and Three Sisters. Furthermore, we were able to enjoy the expansive vistas of the surrounded cascade volcanoes without feeling like we’d be blown off the summit. Damien and I had never experienced Helens without strong wind!

We couldn’t linger. The sun would dip below the horizon in less than 2 hours and the fluffy snow would nearly instantaneously turn to ice. Damien and I stripped the skins off our skis and prepared for the 5600-foot descent, hoping we could make it to Chocolate Fall before darkness arrived. We chose to ski the large slope skier’s right to ensure we got funneled into the correct half pipe gully. The left slope looked like it had more corn snow, but with daylight hours dwindling we didn’t feel like we had much room for error.

The snow was in descent condition on the upper slopes. It wasn’t skied out so there were a fair number of bumps from the windblown mounds and some patches were crusty. I think skinny skis would work better on the mountain right now. My fat skis rattled extensively, especially when I hit ice patches in the shade. However, in the corn snow around 7,600 feet conditions were stellar! As we descended we did need to remove our skis to cross over a few rock ribs to get back into the correct gully. This didn’t cause much hassle though. The lower half pipe gully where the chute is very narrow (as you enter the tree line) has lots of exposed rock and care needs to be taken to avoid scratching up your skis. The sun dipped below the horizon as Damien and I skied through the open trees just before Chocolate Falls. The soft snow almost immediately developed a frozen crust making it easy to catch an edge.

Skiing was a bit sloppy up until we crossed the falls and entered the forest just before darkness fell. We were able to ski the trail by headlamp easily though. About a mile short of the parking lot we removed our skis since the snow coverage was thinning and bare spots increasing. The walk out went quickly though, and we arrived at the parking lot around 5:45pm. What an excellent tour and finally a day that lasted more than 8 hours! The 4-hour drive was totally worth it!

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