April 26, 2016
Mount St. Helens Mother’s Day Climb Spans 3 Decades
Story and Photos by Aaron Theisen
Photo at right: A dress-clad climber enjoys the spring sunshine during the Mother’s Day Climb.
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In the pre-dawn darkness of Mount St. Helens’ Marble Mountain Sno-Park, climbers begin slinking out of the parking lot and onto the Swift Creek Ski Trail, like teenaged partiers sneaking out after curfew.
But as the sun comes up on the bare rock gullies, it reveals groups of twos and threes dressed to the nines in flowing dresses, frilly tutus and leggings. And the women are dressed no less impressively.
Last year over 130 million Americans honored their moms on Mother’s Day with a Hallmark greeting card and, if the recipient was lucky, some grocery-store flowers.
Nearly a thousand people had a better idea: don dresses and wigs, summit southwest Washington’s Mount St. Helens and ski or glissade untracked spring corn.
For nearly 30 years the annual Mother’s Day Climb of Mount St. Helens has been one of Washington’s most beloved outdoor recreation traditions.
Thousands of skiers, snowshoers and mountaineers have taken advantage of Mother’s Day weekend — the last weekend before the mountain’s summer permit quotas take effect — to make a Mardi Gras-like party out of the non-technical ascent of North America’s most famous volcano.
The event traces its origins to Kathy Phibbs, a Northwest mountaineer who co-founded the all-volunteer nonprofit Women Climber’s Northwest in 1983 and started the tradition in 1987.
That year Phibbs, sporting a red chiffon dress and a pillbox hat and accompanied by four similarly clad climbing friends, ascended Mount St. Helens, which had only recently reopened to the public after its 1980 eruption. When a Seattle Times reporter captured the can-can dancing summit celebration, a tradition was born.
Since then, some 10,000 men and women have climbed the volcano in tutus, cocktail dresses and slinky nightclub numbers; many wearing pink flamingoes on their backs, another tradition that Phibbs had started on Women Climber’s Northwest outings.
The annual climb is a memorial of sorts to Phibbs, who died in a 1991 climbing accident at only 33 years old.
The non-technical nature of the Climb makes Mount St. Helens perfect for first-time climbers and an annual tradition for seasoned mountaineers. Rope and harness need not clash with one’s cocktail dress, the selection of which is, for many, arguably more difficult than the climb itself.
Although technical mountaineering gear and know-how are not required, climbers should bring an ice ax — and know how to use it — in addition to snowshoes, crampons or other traction devices.
The winter route of Mount St. Helens is, in many ways, easier than its summer counterpart. It’s a lot easier to bootpack up the snow than it is to slog through fine pumice in the warmer months. Snow masks the massive piles of pumice and gone is the fine dust that can coat throats and eyes.
However, be aware that fickle winter-weather conditions can quickly overwhelm even well-seasoned climbers, particularly a low fog deck that can obscure the route. If the forecast calls for storms, prepare to save bagging the Climb for another day.
Expect to take four to six hours to reach the false summit at 8,287 feet. Hardy hikers will want to curve around the crescent-shaped summit cornice to the true summit at 8,365 but most climbers will be content with calling the false summit the top.
This is where the party is anyway; admire the summit sartorial choices and join in with one of the spontaneous chants of “Happy Mother’s Day!”
Take care to stay well away from the edge of the summit cornice: a peek into the crater at the still-growing Crater Glacier will have to wait for summer.
But the views in all directions should be ample reward: Mount St. Helens’ volcanic siblings — Mounts Rainier, Adams and Hood — sit upon their own cloudbeds, and Spirit Lake sparkles below. On a clear day, even Oregon’s Mt. Jefferson in the central Cascades shimmers in the distance.
Whether it’s your first ascent or 50th, the view from the summit will rival that of any in the Cascades. After your descent, just be sure to make it home in time to call mom.
If you go
From Interstate 5, just north of Woodland, Washington, take exit 22 heading east. Go across the highway and turn south onto Old Pacific Highway. In less than a mile, take a slight left onto East Scott Avenue. Soon after, turn left onto Lewis River Road. Near mile 30.8, the name changes to Road 90.
Follow this for 2.6 miles then take a slight left onto National Forest Road NF-83. Follow this road past the turnoff to Ape Caves and stay left following NF-83 after passing NF-8312. Marble Mountain Sno-Park will be on the left.
Editor’s Note: All climbers going over 4,800 feet must register and obtain a climbing permit (advance purchase of at least 24 hours required) and display it while climbing. Maximum party size is 12. Stay back from the crater rim and note that the summit rim east of the climbing route is closed to visitation.
After several years in which nearly a thousand climbers ascended Mount St. Helens on Mother’s Day, the Forest Service has instituted a 500-permit cap to ensure climber safety and limit trash. If you snag one of the coveted permits this year, heed mom’s advice and pick up after yourself.
Climbing Permit: www.mshinstitute.org/index.php/climbing
Green Trails Map: 364S
Washington Trails Association: www.wta.org/signpost/the-mount-st.-helens-mothers-day-climb
Aaron Theisen is an outdoors writer based in Spokane, Washington. He is the co-author, with Craig Romano, of Day Hiking Mount St. Helens (Mountaineers Books) and is currently working on the book Day Hiking Glacier National Park and Western Montana.