Climbers Honor Mother's Day on Slopes of Mount St. Helens
Each year on Mother's Day, at 6 a.m., sleepy mountaineers begin making their way up the normally imposing, often snow-covered volcano for the annual Mount St. Helens Mother's Day Climb in honor of moms everywhere.
NOTE: Current conditions at Mount St. Helens indicate high avalanche danger. If the conditions don't improve throughout the week, bookmark this fun event for next year!
by Cassandra Overby
Each year on Mother's Day, something magical happens at Mount St. Helens. At almost 6 a.m. on the dot, sleepy mountaineers begin making their way up the normally imposing, often snow-covered volcano in herds.
They chatter relentlessly between themselves, for once excited about sharing the trail with hundreds of other climbers. Strangers don't exist—only potential friends. Laughter echoes from the stony parking lot to the snowy summit. As the sun comes up, it illuminates a scene unlike any other—a backcountry costume ball of sorts. Gone are the Gore-Tex jackets and windproof mountaineering pants. In their place are elegant ball gowns, glittery tutus and suggestive fishnet stockings. And that's not even the half of it. The women are also dressed to kill.
If it sounds like Mardi Gras on the mountain, you've guessed correctly. It's also one of the most beloved traditions in Washington mountaineering. For nearly 30 years now, climbers of all ages, genders and abilities have attempted to summit Mount St. Helens on Mother's Day weekend—and ski, snowboard or sled down—in honor of moms everywhere.
The festive event owes it's shine to Kathy Phibbs, a Northwest mountaineer who cofounded the all-volunteer nonprofit Women Climber's Northwest in 1983 and started the tradition in 1987. (Read more about the origins of the climb in the May+June 2014 issue of Washington Trails magazine.)
Distance: 12 miles, round trip
Elevation gain: 6,500 feet
Highest point: 8,364 feet
Starting point: Marble Mountain Sno-Park
Map: Green Trails #364S
Permit: Mount St. Helens Climbing Permit, $22
Whether you're planning to tackle the climb this Mother's Day (May 11) or looking for a new tradition for next year, you've come to the right place. This is your guide to climbing the mountain in style.
Flocking the mountain: a how-to guide
Although the winter climbing route via Worm Flows is nontechnical, it's not for the faint of heart. The route boasts 12 miles of trail and 5,500 feet of elevation gain. Think trekking up to Camp Muir, only with a longer approach. Overall, expect a 7 to 12 hour round trip (10 hours is the average), depending on how you get down the mountain. Skiing down offers a significant time advantage but can be more dicey than simply trekking down with snowshoes. Because the route involves scaling an active—albeit resting—volcano, as well as open snowfields, you need to give special consideration to several factors that are summarized below. For more information, see the May+June 2014 issue of Washington Trails magazine.
- Footing: You'll need sturdy hiking boots and either snowshoes, crampons or other traction devices depending on the conditions.
- Air quality: Counteract the effects of abrasive volcanic ash with a dust mask (N95 type) and wraparound glasses or goggles.
- Elevation: Common effects of altitude are dehydration, headache, nausea and dizziness. Pace yourself accordingly and avoid overexertion.
- Navigation: There are several ridges on the Mount St. Helens route, and navigation can be tricky—especially if low clouds blanket the mountain. Bring your own map and compass, or GPS, and know how to use them.
- Weather: Some people choose to do the climb on Saturday rather than Sunday if the conditions are expected to be better. Be prepared for unpredictable and quickly changing weather.
- Avalanche safety: Visit the Mount St. Helens Institute's website for avalanche conditions updates, or visit the Northwest Avalanche Center website for warnings. Before setting out, review the basics of avalanche safety, and pack the appropriate equipment.
- Volcanic activity: Remember, Mount St. Helens is an active volcano. Know the eruption warning signs and monitor the proper channels for alerts of volcanic activity.
Buying your outfit—and a permit
Once you know what to expect on your Mother’s Day climb, it’s time to start your preparations. Similar to any hiking outing, you should dress accordingly and carry your Ten Essentials. In the spirit of the tradition, here are some additional considerations, as well as a checklist of what to do and when.
The Perfect Outfit: One of the best parts of preparing for the Mount St. Helens Mother’s Day climb is choosing the perfect outfit. It’s common to wear traditional outdoor clothing underneath your fun attire. After all, you’ll be climbing in the snow and you still need to stay warm. But get creative with your top-layer dress and accessories. Most people go shopping with their hiking buddies for these; it’s part of the tradition. Get into it! Try on the most ludicrous clothing you can find and accessorize, accessorize, accessorize. But go early, because thrift stores often sell out of women’s large and extra-large clothing as the hike approaches. On the morning of the hike, continue with tradition and have an “outfit unveiling” with your group. And don’t forget to compliment other people—friends and strangers alike—on their outfits. It’s one of the best ways to build rapport with other people on the trail.
Permits: Once you’ve gotten the perfect outfit, it’s time to purchase your permit for the climb. Permits are always required to go above 4,500 feet on Mount St. Helens, but Mother’s Day weekend is the last weekend that the number of climbers is not restricted to 100 per day. All permits ($22) must be purchased at least 24 hours in advance and can be ordered online through the Mount St. Helens Institute. You can pick up your permit the day before or the morning of your climb at Lone Fir Resort in Cougar. The resort is located approximately 13 miles from the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, where most people camp the night before the hike. The permit office is open from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. daily, April 1 through October 31. Bring your receipt (not just your confirmation number) and your ID to pick up your permit. If you switch the date of your climb, you’ll need to buy a new permit.
Logistics of planning for the climb
- The Ten Essentials
- Sturdy hiking boots
- Snowshoes or traction devices
- Goggles or sunglasses
- Gaiters (to keep snow out)
- Something to slide down on: skis, sled disc, garbage bag
- Mandatory: "Hi Mom" or "I Love You Mom" sign
- Recommended: Bandana or dust mask (N95 type)
- Optional: Climbing helmet
- Watch to see if the mountains are getting a lot of snow
- Pick up your permit
- View a video tour of the climbing route
- Visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory
- Optional: Call climbing ranger Heather Latham (360-449-7839) for last-minute questions on conditions
- Check NWAC for avalanche warnings
- Check the Forest Service for Mount St. Helens climbing updates
- Talk to a ranger at the trailhead to verify conditions
There's one more thing that's an absolute requirement for enjoying the Mount St. Helens Mother’s Day climb. It’s not something tangible. You can’t put it in your pack or wear it on your body. But you can sport it proudly: joie de vivre. In layman’s terms: silliness, playfulness and a great big smile.
At the end of the day, this climb isn’t about bagging another summit. It’s not about challenging yourself on an open snowfield or attempting to backcountry ski. It’s not even about bragging rights—although you may feel like you have some after posting all of your amazing (and ridiculous) photos to Facebook. This climb is about fun. Over-the-top, laugh-out-loud, flamboyant fun. Treat it as such.
Wear your outfit proudly. Compliment others loudly and often. Make one new friend—or ten. It’s not often that you get an opportunity to share a volcano with hundreds of cross-dressing mountaineers. And whatever you do, don’t forget to call your mom on Mother’s Day.
For more inspiration and personal stories from the Mount St. Helens Mother's Day climb, check out the May+June 2014 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Join WTA to get your one-year subscription.