Summer Guide 2013: The Small Ax

Avoiding sunburnt eyeballs on the slopes of Mount St. Helens.

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Mount St. Helens

Every backpack I've had since a leather-bottomed JanSport has had a little nylon ice-ax loop on it, but I've never actually used one of these loops for its intended purpose. At the trailhead, I just slid the ax through the loop and started walking. Two hours later, the long, snowy stairway gets steeper, and the dangling handle starts banging my legs. I notice other climbers have carefully tied their axes to the side of their bags. This makes sense: If they slip and fall, the pointy end probably won't stab them in the leg.

I take a break, sucking thin air and tying the ax to my bag. I look back down at the tree-canopied approach trail and up at the footsteps above me. I'm happy to see distant people in both directions. I wonder again if this was a good idea.

St. Helens isn't much of a mountain, really. I've climbed longer, steeper trails from trailheads higher than its peak. It is, however, glaciated. The glaciers are small—in July, you can make it to the top without touching snow. But they're big enough to earn anyone who stands at the 8,365-foot ridge above the crater—left smoking where it's top used to be—membership in Portland's Mazamas mountaineering club. The Mazamas formed in 1894 and have a clubhouse on the side of Mount Hood. I probably won't pay $85 to join, but I want to know I can.

Summer climbing permits are tough to get for St. Helens—only 100 are issued per day and both July and August are already sold out. I learn this in early May when there are only two weeks left before the limits begin. So I decide to buy a permit Thursday, rent an ice ax Friday and climb Saturday.

Unfortunately, my mountaineering knowledge is limited to what I learned on the hilly part of the Trillium Lake snowshoe trail and what I gleaned from a few YouTube videos. A class would have been a good idea. But basic mountaineering classes run several weeks, cost at least $100, and end in the early spring. So I buy some Clif bars and set my alarm for 4:30 am. Two hours later, I arrive at the Lone Fir Cafe, the dingy little souvenir shop/pizzeria where climbers pick up their permits.

The crowd there is indistinguishable from a Northwest Portland yoga class. On a wall hangs the most poetic headline The Oregonian has ever printed, "Eruption decapitates St. Helens; at least 9 die; Spirit Lake gone." Below, random Route 66 paraphernalia, a pamphlet on huckleberry picking, and sunglasses for sale.

The sunglasses are key, says the woman handing out permits: "We had one guy who came down with bright red eyes. He'd used suntan lotion all over his face, but his eyes were uncovered and the sun had burnt his eyeballs."

That sounds awful, but less so than the dangers of Mount Hood and Mount Adams, two other mountains I'd considered for my first snowy summit.

"We've had two recent missions involving individuals with extensive backpacking and hiking experience, but no climbing instruction, who chose to climb Mount Hood solo and into a deteriorating weather forecast," Mark Morford of Portland Mountain Rescue tells me. "We've also rescued several climbers who had experience on hike-up mountains like Shasta and some Colorado 14ers, who believed they were prepared for Hood. Over and over, our missions involve climbers who simply underestimated the difficulty or risks."

Three hours in, I'm relatively certain I'm not such a person. A thick pack forms on the last half mile, and I start passing people. Half of us, like me, are in boots, the other half on Alpine touring skis. The snow gets mushier. Eventually, it's like walking in a giant Slush Puppie.

A few minutes after noon, I reach the top. As I enjoy a view of the smoking cinder cone and surrounding peaks, I watch as other hikers slide down the mountain on their butts. If snow is slightly harder to climb than rocks, sliding down like a sledder seems to make up for it.

As it turns out, I need that ice ax after all. While I didn't use it to hack my way up the mountain, the ax is the best way to steer or stop when glissading back down. I slide like this for an hour, walking only far enough to slide again, all the way back to the treeline.

I'm having so much fun that I barely notice my boots have filled with slush. Before today, the gaiter grommets on my pants seemed as useless as ice-ax loops, but now I know why people wear them. My feet feel blue, so I stop to wring out my socks and warm my feet on a sun-baked rock.

I relax a bit, though I don't dare take off my sunglasses. I tie the ice ax to my backpack—where it belongs.

Urban Climbs

Hiking a snow-covered mountain is a lot like climbing a long, slushy staircase. The best way to prepare within the city limits? Climb some of Portland's odd little stairways. This old, hilly city is riddled with sidewalk-sized staircases, relics of life here before the automobile made walking obsolete. Here are five of the best.

Southeast Ankeny Street to Laurelhurst Park

A grand staircase made entirely of red brick and lined with flowering rhododendrons, this stairway takes residents of Laurelhurst the neighborhood into Laurelhurst the park. The staircase is just east of the mansion at Southeast Ankeny Street and Floral Place, where it's easy to park even on sunny Saturdays, making it a shortcut to the park's less-populated west end.

Northeast Wisteria Drive and 42nd Avenue to Alameda Ridge

The steep hill known as Alameda Ridge is a gravel bar left over from an ancient flood. Several of the city's larger stairways still stand there, lined with bushes, ivy and metal handrails. Park at Northeast Wisteria Drive and 42nd Avenue, and loop down the staircase at Stanton Street. The hill has about 100 feet of vertical gain, so 45 round-trip climbs is good training for St. Helens.

Mount Tabor

With 282 stairs, the Mount Tabor staircase that begins at Southeast 69th Avenue and Salmon Way is the biggest climb in the city grid. And one of the prettiest, too.

Northwest Thurman Street and Aspen Avenue

Private staircases line the upper reaches of Northwest Thurman Street, allowing residents of big houses on steep lots to get their mail. Tucked discreetly among them is one of the prettiest public staircases in Portland, a bamboo-canopied flight beginning between mailboxes for 3418 and 3424 NW Thurman St. and ending on a mesa in the Willamette Heights neighborhood.

Southwest Broadway Drive and Hoffman Avenue

Start this long, steep wooden staircase in the Southwest hills at the top, where there's parking. The journey down travels through a damp primordial forest thick with ferns. 

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