Autumn is good time to climb ‘mind-boggling’ Mount St. Helens

Crowds dwindle, permit competition eases, and if the upper mountain freezes climbing gets much easier.

There’s nothing quite like climbing a living mountain.

Now’s your chance. Fall brings some of the very best days of the year to summit Mount St. Helens, the most active volcano in the Cascades.

Its heart beats with earthy rumbles. Its steamy breath vents skyward from a lava dome that is taller than the Space Needle. St. Helens even speaks, with the sound of rocks and landslides tumbling down its steep crater walls.

To experience this force of nature, you’ll need a permit, which can be difficult to obtain during the busy summer climbing season. In fall, demand for permits — administered through the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute — is much lower, though permits for 2017 weekends are already sold out until late October. As of this writing, hundreds of permits remain for October weekday climbs.

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“There are some very nice days in October and it’s much less busy,” said Andy Goodwin, a volunteer mountain steward for Mount St. Helens Institute, who has climbed the mountain every month of the year.

Once you’re standing atop the crater rim at 8,363 feet, prepare for an astonishing sight. You’ll see the remnants of a mountain that blew up in 1980, then built a new lava dome with eruptions from 2004 to 2008, and continues to rumble with earthquakes.

Mind-boggling

“The scale of the volcano boggles the mind,” said Ray Yurkewycz, executive director of Mount St. Helens Institute. “It puts people in their place.”

“To give you an idea how big it is, most of what we know as downtown Portland would fit inside the crater,” said Peter Frenzen, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument scientist.

For Kristen Currie, of Seattle, and her sister, Kelley Reed, visiting from Tulsa, Oklahoma, the volcano was suitably impressive during their climb in late August. Steam vented from the lava dome as they sat on the crater rim, eating lunch.

“It has such an amazing payoff once you reach the top,” Currie said. “The view is pretty incomparable.”

A view of the rim and crater looking north at Mount St. Helens. (John Nelson / Special to The Seattle…

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