Climbing Mt St Helens (Winter Route)

Mt St Helens is a good mountain for beginners to gain experience in alpine environments. It's not without dangers, there are risks of falls, avalanches, and sudden storms, but the risks are manageable. Make sure to plan for unexpected emergencies. Expect a climb time of anywhere from 4-8 hours depending on your fitness level.

This page describes the Winter Climbing Route, aka the Worm Flows Route, which starts the Marble Mountain Sno-Park. The summer route follows Monitor Ridge and starts at Climbers Bivouac. This picture shows the differences between the summer (in red) and winter (blue) routes. As you can see, the winter route is longer and includes additional elevation, but you don't have to do the rock-hopping in the winter so getting down is much faster.

 Driving directions: There are two ways to get to the start of the climb, on the south side of the mountain. The first is to head south from Seattle on I-5 to 503, which is exit 21. From there it roughly 25-30 miles to the town of Cougar (and the Lone Fir Resort) and the beginning of the National Forest. From there, follow the road (Lewis River, Hwy 90) to the junction with Forest Road 83. From here, there should be plenty of signs to the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, about 6 miles in on 83. 

As a more scenic alternative, you can take the 'back way': from Seattle, take 161 to 7, as if you were heading to Mt Rainier via the Longmire entrance. At Elbe, head south on 7 till you come to the town of Morton and Highwy 12. Head east to Randle and then turn onto Forest Road 25 (may also be called 131). From there it's about 40 miles to Hwy 90 along the west side of the mountain. About halfway is the junction with the road to Windy Ridge. 

This road can remain closed into July, it's best for the summer and should seasons. Be sure to check the conditions in advance! This page has all the conditions for all the key forest roads and trails

Once you get to 90, head west to 83 and follow the signs to Marble Mountain Sno-Park as above.

Finally, you can also go beyond the junction with Forest Rd 25 in Randle and take the dirt Forest Rd 23 around the very long way to 90, but if 25 is closed, chances are 23 will be too. Again, check the conditions page to be sure.

Overall, allow about 4 hours to get to the trailhead from Seattle.
 Camping: Mt St Helens is National Forest Land, you can camp anywhere; it's easy to find campsites. If you want developed camp sites, those will be tougher in peak season, and will cost money. This page has a list of developed campgrounds in the area.
 Climbing route: As of June 2011, the winter route was well-marked and easy to follow. From the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, take the main trail, the Swift Ski Trail in the middle of the lot. There is a map board and the route should be clearly indicated. Starting elevation is about 2,650 ft, and you'll top out around 8,300 ft. Depending on conditions, the first portion of the trail may be under snow or dry as it was here:

Eventually, the trail becomes snow-covered:

And you break out above the treeline to get your first really good look at the mountain:

From here, the route is flagged and the tracks/trail are easy to follow. As you climb higher on the mountain, you will have the option of snow or rock, as you can see in these pictures:


As you get higher up the mountain, there will be less opportunities:

Of course conditions will dictate, but once beyond the trails through the rock around 4000-4700 ft, I preferred the snow to boulder hopping. The ranger we talked with said essentially the same thing. Choose whatever route you are most comfortable on. Once you reach a certain elevation, it's all gonna look like this:

The route climbs NNW to Monitor Ridge where it joins the summer route about 1000 ft below the top. From there it's a slog to the top; when you get there be sure not to get too close to the edge. The cornice is unstable and people have fallen in. Stay behind the stakes, you can still get great photos:

After that, the fun part, getting down. Most people glissade, but if you bring your snowboard or skis, you'll have a fast ride to the bottom!

 Permits: Permits are required to climb above 4,800ft from April 1st through October 31st. From May 15th to October 31st, the peak climbing seasons, there is a limit of 100 permits a day.

 April 1 - May 15thPermit Required  Limited to 500 permits per day
 May 15 - October 31Permit Required      Limited to 100 permits per day, permits sell out within hours for weekends and holidays.
 November 1 - March 31No Permit Required 

Permits can be purchased online through the Mt St Helens Institute. Advance sales start in February and rapidly sell out for weekends and holidays. Permits are $22 as of 2016.
 Conditions and weather: The best place to check for current conditions and the recommended route is the Mt St Helens Climbing Report; a summary of the reports can be found in the News section of this website.
 Maps and References:      Green Trails No 364S