"Is there an easier way to get down?" Two women packed into puffy coats vocalized the question we were all thinking. It was nearing 3 p.m. and the two female climbers were still far from reaching the crater rim of Mount St. Helens. Getting up should have been their first thought.
I was well into my first descent from the summit alongside my hiking cohorts when the women stopped to question our guides. We were busy dragging our tired, shaky limbs downhill, focusing on the freshly etched glissade paths as the silver lining to the long hike toward the tree line. The two women were poised against a couple large boulders, attempting to gauge whether they should keep going or begin their descent.
It was a sunny June day, and the skies were mostly clear, offering a breathtaking panorama of the Three Sisters, Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson mingling among white wispy clouds. Much of the landscape was still draped in snow, with the Monitor Ridge rocks protruding in long lines, giving climbers the choice of trekking on the packed snow or climbing among the loose rocks.
My thoughts were very much in the same vein as the female hikers. Early in the hike, I naively inquired how close we were to the summit within the first couple hours of the climb. Not close, I was told.
"Everyone is looking for an easier way up and an easier way down -- of which there is neither," offered Sharon Steriti, a climbing ranger for the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument. Her wisdom -- garnered from her more than 17 years working as a ranger -- rang true during those last 1,000 feet, during which I dug my already fatigued feet into piles of ash, marching upward.
During the climb toward the summit, we took our first break on Monitor Ridge, the main rocky trail that extends up part of the mountain. I watched hikers as I gulped water and rested my legs. It was our first break since leaving the tree line, and it left our group somewhat refreshed, still optimistic about climbing this "big hill."
Our final break before the final push to the top, however, was not so welcome. The momentary rest gave my muscles time to tighten, making it difficult to journey on.
I started the climb at a steady pace, but the last stretch took on the rhythm of a quick dash followed by a too-long rest. It was then that Steriti reminded the group of the rest step.
Steriti advised early in the climb to avoid short sprints followed by long rests. Instead, she suggested following each step forward with a quick rest. This technique alone got me through the final push, which was made more difficult by the fact that, as a first-timer, I couldn't properly gauge how close I was to the summit.
Mount St. Helens is a non-technical climb, meaning beginner climbers lacking fancy equipment can make the ascent. While true, that doesn't make it an easy climb. I came prepared with a waterproof jacket, gaiters to keep snow from dampening my socks, layers, and enough water and snacks for the roundtrip climb. What I wish I had: trekking poles, which would have provided more balance while ascending.
Thighs on fire, we eventually reached the summit after six hours of climbing. We took in views of Mount Rainier in the distance and Spirit Lake in the foreground.
After taking some time to enjoy the summit, we finally began our descent, which Steriti noted can sometimes be more difficult than the climb, especially if glissading isn't an option. Luckily for us, it was an option.
The first few steps of the descent were on icy terrain. The guides instructed us to dig the front of our boots in the ice with each step to maintain our grip on the slick snow.
When we left the icier part of the descent, we took full advantage of the many glissade paths that were already carved in the snow from previous hikers, making sure to avoid those too near the rocks.
With the tree line finally in sight, I thought about the question those women asked midway through our descent.
"Is there an easier way to get down?"
No. No, there isn't.