Each year, hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts descend on Mount St. Helens.... in dresses! Learn the history of this awesome tradition and add it to your calendar for next year.
The Mother’s Day tradition on St. Helens dates to 1987 and a woman named Kathy Phibbs. A climbing guide often described as a firecracker, Kathy lived a life of passion and perseverance. She made numerous first female ascents in Peru and Bolivia, and she led 33 women to the top of Mount Rainier to commemorate the centennial of its first ascent by a woman — Tacoma teacher, Fay Fuller.
Before she worked as a guide and opened the northwest office of Woodswoman, Kathy made a living as a window washer, messenger, and chimney sweep. She founded Women Climbers Northwest (WCN) in 1983, a small, close-knit organization created to encourage women to be more active in the mountains and share adventures together. At the time, climbing was a male-dominated sport. Kathy wanted more women to get outside and take on leadership roles. With passion an generosity, Kathy created a community where women were welcomed with open arms… and a tutu.
“Kathy was a big fan of wearing tutus on climbs because they didn't get in the way of much,” said Colleen Hinton, a friend and long-time WCN member. “She also started a tradition of planting pink flamingos on summits and taking [them] on camping outings. So we would all carry pink flamingos on the backs of our packs.”
Her spirit of adventure took Kathy to Mount St. Helens in the spring of 1987. After a seven-year restriction following the 1980 eruption, climbing permits were being issued for the first time. Kathy felt a celebration was in order, and she wore a red chiffon dress to mark the occasion. Her companions? Five girlfriends… dressed as can-can dancers.
At the summit, a reporter from the Seattle Times happened upon the gaggle of girls and was taken by their joie de vivre. The reporter ran a photo of the ladies on the front page on June 5, 1987, with an article highlighting Kathy’s story. “After climbing for 4 1/2 rugged hours to the top of the nation's most famous volcano, no one expected a party. But there, at 8,300 feet on the treacherous rim of Mount St. Helens, were a woman in a red chiffon dress and five can-can dancers….[They] did a can-can dance in their thick-soled boots for the benefit of photographers….For [Kathy], the climb was a nostalgic return to the mountain. In 1975 on her first climb, she was in high school and the mountain was a perfect, unerupted cone. She said it's now an easier climb and a better place to ski.”
Kathy died tragically in a winter climbing accident on Dragontail Peak in 1991, but the tradition of climbing Mount St. Helens on Mother’s Day lives on. People embraced the spirit as soon as the Seattle Times story ran in print. Kathy Phibbs and her vision to bring a change to the PNW climbing community have left a long lasting legacy for all to enjoy.
Nearly everyone who climbs Mount St. Helens on Mother's Day is in a dress. Men, women, children, dogs (leashed, of course) - outdoor enthusiasts definitely embrace the spirit. The tradition is celebrating its 30th birthday this year, and locals know the drill: The 500 folks who secured climbing permits make their annual pilgrimage to Goodwill to find the perfect ensemble. Dresses are just the start. Hats, scarves, long gloves, boas, and yes - tutus - are all part of the fun.
In preparation for the trip, climbers will pack their costumes with the same love and care as their climbing packs. On Saturday afternoon of the celebratory weekend, they’ll drive to the mountain, pull into Marble Mountain Sno-Park, and set up camp for the night. Then, by headlight at the wee-hours of the alpine-start morning, everyone will don their Sunday best and start up the mountain. As the sun rises they’ll see sparkles off sequined dresses all the way to the summit. Once there, the celebration really begins.
The climb itself covers 5,500 vertical feet in 6 miles (one way). The average mountaineer can cover the distance to the summit in 4 to 6 hours. Anyone climbing above 4,800 feet is required to have a permit. One of the reasons Mount St. Helens became so popular on Mother’s Day Weekend is that, prior to 2015, it was the last weekend during the April through May climbing season during which permits were uncapped. Starting on the third Monday in May every year, climbing use is restricted to 100 permits per day. But before that fateful Monday, all you had to do was show up with $22 and a permit was yours. Due to the popularity of the tradition and the need to manage human impact, Gifford Pinchot National Forest issued a permit cap of 500 climbers in 2015. Prior to the cap, it’s estimated well over 1,000 people submitted in a single day.
Permits can be purchased in advance online and went on sale this year, February 1. In researching this article, we talked to the folks at Mount St. Helens Institute and learned the permits for Mother’s Day sold out in 8 hours. Their staff recommended looking at purmit.com, a “second-hand” website for permits. Be a responsible recreationist. Climb with a permit.
Kristina Ciari is a runner, skier, climber, blogger, and LIFE enthusiast. Her passion for the outdoors is evident to all who meet her, and you will most likely find her somewhere far in the mountains, wearing tutus and adventuring with friends. She is also a self-proclaimed Weekend Warrior and works full-time for The Mountaineers in Seattle as their Director of Membership and Communications.
The Mountaineers was founded in 1906 and is a nonprofit outdoor community working hard to encourage exploration, learning, and conservation. They've been getting people of all ages outside safely and responsibly for over 100 years and host hundreds of monthly courses and activities - all led by an amazing coalition of volunteers - to offer ways to get outside and connect with people passionate about the outdoors. Get outside in the Pacific Northwest with some help from this great organization and hike, climb, kayak, ski, and snowshoe your way through the the wonderful outdoors that we all love!