The winter season offers a perfect opportunity to experience Mount St. Helens. Although the winter route is longer than the summer route, the mountain's dusty, rocky flanks are covered with snow. And since the climb is longer and more challenging, there are typically fewer people on the mountain. Between November 1 and March 31, climbing permits are free and unlimited in number. Permits are self-service, and they can be obtained at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park.
The Worm Flows route is popular with experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders, but it is very accessible to hikers and snowshoers, too. Depending on snow conditions, climbers may use a combination of bare boots, snowshoes, crampons, and other traction devices to aid in the climb. On the way down, an ice ax is essential gear to control your long glissades down the snowy slopes. It's slower than skiing, but it sure beats walking down.
On the way up the mountain, follow the well-marked climbing route to tree line. Pay close attention to spot the 90-degree left turn that crosses above Chocolate Falls. From there, the route roughly follows the sinuous, rocky ridges to the upper snowfields below the crater. Look back frequently to memorize the route, since the occasional pole markers are very hard to see from a distance or in bad weather. It's advisable to bring a map, a compass, and a GPS to ensure a safe return.
At the summit, carefully approach the crater rim. Huge snow cornices form during the winter, and some of these cornices lean out over the rocky cliffs. Stay back from the edge. Accidents are rare, but some climbers have underestimated the size of the cornices and subsequently fallen into the crater. Looking down, you can see the dramatic evidence of the 1980 eruption and the lava dome growth that has occurred since then. In the distance, views from Spirit Lake north to Mount Rainier and beyond provide ample rewards for the strenuous trek up the mountain.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.