"The Climb Leader Apprentices do Fathers' Day"

Trip Report for Mt. St. Helens
Brian Conley
14 June 1998

Location: Mt. St. Helens 8,365 feet MSL
(Southwest Washington State)
Route: Monitor Ridge
Leader: Glenn Widener

My Good Ole Climbing Buddy Glenn and I had talked for quite some time about getting our daughters to climb Mt. Saint Helens. About five years to be exact. He finally got serious this year after meeting several other dads with daughters about age 12. In all, there were ten of us; Glenn and his daughter Katie, Bill and his daughter Lori, Robert and his daughter Mallory, Clint and daughter Leslie, and finally my daughter Emma and myself. I had figured that I would not be able to get Emma up the mountain all by myself, but with the peer pressure of the girls it might be possible.

So, after spending three days on a business trip and returning late on Friday, I picked up Emma on Saturday morning, packed a few things and headed up the mountain.

The first stop was Clint's cabin, our staging point. Here the girls had lunch and got to play in the lake. While this was happening, the fathers were talking and joking amongst themselves. At about 3 PM we all loaded into the van for a tour of the Ape Caves. These are lava tubes on the flanks of the mountain. And to call them tubes does not relate the size or length of these caverns. If a jeep could get into these it could be easily driven most of the length of the cavern. We walked about a mile in these before reaching a constrictive impasse. We also ran out of time, because we needed to get to Jack's store to get the climbing permits.

Getting climbing permits was exciting and boring all at once. Boring because we had to put our names into the hat at 5PM then wait for the drawing an hour later. And the tension of the drawing was obvious as 52 people crowded into Jack's to get the fifty permits. Fortunately we got all of the permits we needed (ten) and paid for them (fifteen dollars each, American). Then we went back to the cabin for dinner and packing.

Dinner was potluck of spaghetti, green beans, salad, and desert. The girls wanted to play some more in the lake, so the fathers called to them when supper was ready, but started to eat when the girls ignored us and kept on playing. They soon figured out why it was so quiet.

Now, I am a part-time father of an only daughter. This was my first experience with a group of girls all on the threshold of puberty. To say that it was not a pleasant experience is gross understatement. Constant chatter, each trying to be heard above the noise while packed in the back seat of the van. This on top of my usual pre-climb anxiety almost drove me over the edge. I finally nearly broke after dinner, but I started to prepare my pack for the climb, and called Emma to do the same. I could not control the other girls, but at least Emma and I would be ready. The other fathers took my lead and soon the noise at least had a purpose. We continued packing until about 2100PDT and then tried to get everyone to bed. But four girls in a loft of a cabin ??

We awoke at about 0400PDT on Sunday, and began preparing breakfast and doing final packing. The girls were still acting like girls, so my stress level rose. We managed to get out of the cabin by 0700PDT and get to the trailhead by 0730PDT. Here we found that the conditions were cool and foggy. We got saddled up and started up the trail to the start of monitor ridge.

Almost immediately we were on snow, and remained so for the rest of the day. We stopped several times to adjust clothing and loads. After an hour we stopped for what I hoped was a short break for food and water. Unfortunately I forgot how a group of girls is and this break extended for almost 20 minutes. We were also not yet at the beginning of Monitor Ridge, so that we were moving slower than I would usually expect. This promised to be a long day.


We continued up the snow, following approximately where the trail should be. We finally came to the end of the trail and the open plain before the ridge. The fog was quite dense here; we could hear people, but could not see the ridge or even the end-of-trail, where the PERMIT REQUIRED BEYOND marker stood. I was beginning to wonder how much longer we would continue. Glenn went to scout ahead, while we waited and adjusted packs and had a little food and drink. Glenn came back and we had a short discussion, with the final verdict being to continue for another hour. We followed Glenn onto the open plain.

On one of my previous climbs of Mount Saint Helens on this route I had seen the unmistakable signs of a powerful avalanche. It had swept down the valley we were now crossing, ripping up trees and tossing the trunks down on the trail a half mile below. This had been a dreadful year for avalanches, with several fatalities so far. I realized that Glenn was not heading across the valley, but up it, closer to a steep and potentially unstable slope. After several minutes of this he turned more west and we started up the slope.

Now in most years I do this route in late June or July. This year we had much snowfall, even late into May. So what had been a steep but simple rock scramble turned into a steep snow climb. Since I had helped teach Basic Climbing School and Intermediate climbing school students on slopes this steep I was not concerned. At first. Then I remembered that these were not ICS students, but girls. My own daughter, who I began to coach up the slope, had neither an ice ax or climbing boots, she only had a ski pole and her hiking boots. My fear was more for her mental state than for her equipment, as long as she kept focused on the slope and walking in the steps that had been kicked she would reach the top of the ridge. If she panicked she would slide back down to the valley. That would not be particularly physically dangerous, but could devastate her confidence.

All this was still in the fog. We had no idea how high we needed to go or where the top of the ridge was. We finally regrouped when we got to some rock sticking through the snow. Robert and Mallory began to get into harnesses, with Robert explaining that it would be quick and easy to get onto a rope if we had our harnesses on before we needed them. All of the fathers agreed so we paused here below the top of the ridge to get the harnesses out of packs and onto bodies.

Then we continued up the slope.

We finally reached the top of Monitor Ridge in the fog. The fathers had a short conference here. Glenn looked grim, and suggested that we continue up the ridge for another hour and see if we broke out of the clouds. If not we would need to turn around and go back. So Emma and I continued our trudge up hill. With each step the clouds seemed to get slightly thinner. Finally Emma and I stopped for food and water and I took the time to slather our faces with sunscreen. At this point we saw the first mammal I had seen this high up on the mountain. While we were stopped here the clouds finally parted to bathe us in sunshine. But the clouds were still ominously thick below us.

Emma and I continued up the ridge in the sunshine. We soon came to the rest of the group stopped for a food and water break. We were near 6000 feet and well behind schedule. Still moral was high and everyone was ready to continue on. They soon were all ahead of Emma, Katie, Glenn and I.

The sun, which had lifted our spirits also, was melting the surface of the snow. This made each step slick. I noticed that Emma was on the verge of tears, tears of fear and frustration. She was afraid that she would slip and slide back down the mountain. So she and I angled over to the rock of the ridge and began to follow the path that was free of snow. She turned to me and said, "I see now why you prefer rock climbing to snow climbing, Dad." We picked our way over, through and around the boulders, while Katie and Glenn sped up the snow. We kept up at our own pace until we reached the upper monitor structure.

Emma looked tired, so I suggested we fill up water and get a little to eat. We could see people on the rim, but it was still 1100 feet above us. I filled Emma's bottle from the snowmelt, trying to strain out as much of the grit as I could. Then I went back to filling mine and drinking some. When I looked up Emma was 100 meters away. And she was heading up! I finished what I was doing with the water bottle and started up after her. At this point we could see people standing and walking on the rim, but they still seemed far away.

I watched as Emma bravely continued up the tracks in the snow. Often she would stop and rest her head back on the grip of her ski pole. But not for long. She picked up her head each time and was moving ahead. A slow rhythm of step, step, plant pole, step, step, plant pole. I finally got nearer to her, but always a ways behind. I heard one of the other fathers talking on the Ham radio. He was talking to someone on a ridge near Mount Rainier. I heard him say that he wasn?t sure if Emma and I would make it. But Emma kept going.

I finally caught up with Emma when we were still far from the summit. I gave her some lemon drops and part of an energy bar and got her bottle to her to drink. She seemed to be really exerting herself. But soon she was back slogging to the top. Step, step, plant. Step, Step, Plant. We could start to make out individuals on the summit. Her friends and the fathers were cheering her on, seemingly willing her up the mountain. As she got near the rim I stopped and took pictures of her final steps to the top. Then I hurried on myself. I finally reached the rim at 1430PDT.

At the rim we had food, drink, and a small celebration. I called Glenn's wife from my ham radio to tell her that we were still on the summit. Emma sat and another climber took a group summit picture of us. But soon it was time to get ready to glissade. Everyone else had been on the rim for almost two hours. I also got one last picture of Emma, the picture she would use to apply for Mazama membership.

Summit Picture, Four Dads and Four Daughters, 14 Jun 1998

Front Row: (left to right) Clint Lonergan, Lori Sanders, Katie Widener, Emma Kostin-Conley

Back Row: Leslie Lonergan, Bill Sanders (w/ skis), Glenn Widener, Brian Conley

Getting Emma to glissade was quite a challenge. She had an experience of loosing control while sledding down a hill and she feared the very idea of glissading or sliding down the mountain on one's bottom. As usual she was near tears. I finally said, "Look, we need to get down the mountain fast and this is the fastest way. Follow me."

So I sat down in the snow and proceeded to go nowhere. At this point the snow was slushy enough and the slope was not steep enough for me to go. So I grabbed my kneeling pad and sat on it and pushed myself down the hill. Emma saw how well I was sliding and quickly joined me. Sliding smack dab into the pack on my back. She laughed, I growled, pretending to be annoyed, and continued on. Even as the slope got steeper and I could pick up some speed, Emma kept coming. Down the mountain we went, sliding through the snow which had been such a chore to climb up. At one time I asked her to go ahead of me.

"But you butt's bigger, you make it so I can fit."

Wonderful child. Grrr.

So we continued down the mountain, finally going fast when the slope steepened. At one point I lost control and was sliding down headfirst on my back, feeling much like an inverted turtle struggling to get upright. I finally flipped over, then proceeded to lose my ice ax. It bumped along behind me at the end of its leash. I finally reeled the ice ax in and did a self-arrest, stopping before the slope ran out or I hit a rock. But this did not stop Emma from colliding with me.

We got ourselves reset and continued sliding down the mountain until we caught up with Glenn and Katie.

The main problem with glissading down from the rim of Mount Saint Helens is that it takes you way off route. About halfway down you have to traverse east over several ridges until you finally see Monitor Ridge. Then you can go back to sliding in the gully between this ridge and Monitor Ridge. Fortunately there was no one below us because we started many cobblestone-sized rocks to start rolling down the slope as we traversed. It was a little scary to Emma because the ridge was made of loose, sandy rock that slid down with each step. We finally got to western edge of the gully and began to glissade. I had been talking to the other amateur radio operator in the group. Here I had to stop and change the battery in the radio while Emma, Katie, and Glenn went ahead.

When I got my pack back on I stepped over to the edge of the ridge where they had gone down. The slide track seemed to drop straight down for ten feet, then curve to a more gentle slope. I looked in amazement to see Emma, Katie, and Glenn all sitting calmly on the rocks at the end of the track. Emma did this? I asked myself. Without being scared? Wow! I sat on the edge and got my ax in position. Then I leaned forward and started to slide.

Boy, was this fast! I gritted my teeth and pointed my toes to drag my heels into the snow. A rooster tail of snow shot up, gracefully curving over my head. Soon I was sitting at Glenn's feet while we watched Bill come skiing down. We collected our wits here while we waited for his daughter to join us. Then we started another traverse out on the snow to find another glissade track. We continued this pattern twice more down the gully until it was time to cross over Monitor Ridge for the last time and go down to the trail.

But even at the top of the ridge there was too much snow to see the trail in the rocks. But there was more than enough snow to glissade on! The last, usually tricky, part of the climb was quickly over. Now for the last bit, the hike out. We all regrouped at the tree line and got out of the climbing and glissading clothes and got our hiking gear back together. It was 1700PDT and the sun was still shining.

As we hiked out the other fathers and daughters soon left Glenn, Katie, Emma and I far behind. The chatter was gone, replaced by the quiet determination of two young ladies hiking through the woods after accomplishing a strenuous climb. We finally got to the cars at 1800PDT. Now for the drive back home, dinner, a shower and sleep.

The fathers and daughters:

Glenn Widener, Katie Widener

William Sanders, Lori Sanders

Clint Lonergan, Leslie Lonergan

Robert Joy, Mallory Joy

Brian Conley, Emma Kostin-Conley


In addition to climbing her first mountain this summer, Emma also had her Bat Mitzvah and did her first backpack.

What she does next summer I have not a clue.