An hour before sunrise, the engines start to turn over in the Lone Fir Resort parking lot. Headlamps slowly pop on as the cars creep out onto the misty road one by one.
I had pulled into the lot at dusk the night before. Lone Fir is a popular layover for hikers on their way to climb Mount St. Helens, in Skamania County, Washington, and, not being much of a planner — and having no desire to sleep in my car — I ponied up for the last room at the chipper little lodge. The atmosphere was part college campus, with 20-somethings putting up tents and playing Frisbee, and part family destination, with kids and dogs chasing each other through the grounds.
At Lone Fir, climbers can pick up their permits and log into the climbing book prior to their ascents. Permits are required year-round, but between May 15 and October 31st, only 100 climbers per day are allowed up the steep slopes, which makes them a hot commodity.
The permits are released the first week of February. Because the best summer climbing is usually from July to mid-September, those permit dates are snapped up first.
But if you're like me, your travel plans aren't in place five months in advance. That's why purmit.com, a website that allows climbers to buy, sell and trade Mount St. Helens climbing permits, was created. (The site is an offshoot of cascadeclimbers.com, a clearinghouse of information about climbing in the Pacific Northwest.) I went through the buying and selling process a couple of times. About three weeks prior to my climb date, I bought a permit for July 3. Emails exchanged, $22 sent via Paypal and voila! Permit in hand.
But, of course, my travel plans changed.
I sold the July 3 permit in no time to a thrilled climber from Seattle. And within 48 hours, I had a new climbing permit in hand for the next day.
Lucky for me, the climbing community is too congenial to condone permit-scalping — just in case, the website's rules stipulate that permits be sold for the purchase price.
The dense, misty atmosphere in the early morning made the 15-mile drive from Lone Fir Resort to the Climbers Bivouac a slow one. Anxious to get on Monitor Ridge trail, the point of entry for the mountain's summer climbing path, I negotiated every turn with care. A rocky dirt road that the rental car wasn't really equipped to handle led me to a parking lot pocked with tents, cars and a few recreational vehicles. As dawn crept over the horizon, the campground began to stir, with climbers eating breakfast, filling water bottles, donning gear and working out the kinks they'd acquired from sleeping in the cold.
The first couple of miles on the Ptarmigan Trail — the only summit trail that survived the volcano's 1980 eruption — wind through dim forests that muffle your footsteps. A quiteness overtakes the hike as dawn slowly improves visibility and burns off the mist that's settled on the forest.
The Loowit Trail Junction, at 4,800 feet, marks the point at which climbing permits are required, and the crowd thins accordingly.
As you continue up the trail, the tree line falls away and boulder fields emerge in front of and above you. Negotiating the field's rough, ashy surfaces requires alpine scrambling — wedging your feet, hands and knees into crevices for leverage and using brute strength to pull yourself over large boulders and rocks. Although that means you won't need a rope, harness, headgear or climbing shoes to navigate the slopes, rocks and scree that you'll encounter, scrambling can be a bit challenging for a new climber.
The second half of the trail is about 2,500 feet long and marked with white wooden poles about 50 feet apart. By aiming for the next pole, climbers can slowly make their way up the field. There is a rough path, but most people opt to leave it for better handholds or more interesting routes.
Scrambling is a bit like doing a puzzle — but it can be physically and intellectually challenging. One boulder may be easier to climb but will take you to a spot where the next four boulders and rocks are harder. The need to negotiate each step while thinking ahead makes scrambling more difficult than hiking a groomed trail.
On the upside, the view during the boulder-field climb is spectacular. On a good day you can see see Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson and even Mount Hood. It's beautiful to watch as the sun lifts the clouds and clears the horizon. After a rest, the last 1,000 feet to the rim are just ahead.
Climbers who reach the summit get an unobstructed view of the eruption's aftermath, a pit more than a thousand feet deep. It looks like giant fingernails scraped the side of the mountain. Standing carefully near the lip of the summit, it's possible to see puffs of smoke and pumice emerge from the volcano as it continues to bubble, slowly rebuilding the interior of the mountain.