If you read last week’s blog, you know that I committed to climb a mountain as a physical challenge for my 60th birthday. This past Sunday was “the day”.  As I learned though, Mount St. Helens is not technically a climb, but it’s so demanding that it’s referred to by many as a climber’s hike.

Preparing to Climb

Of the 100 permits allowed daily to summit Mount St. Helens(8,366 ft), 11 went to our group of 8 hikers and 3 guides, all from our local parks and rec department.  Stephanie, my hiking buddy, and I were among the smiling faces at the 7AM start.

The first 1,000 feet of the climb is forested for 2.4 miles.  A piece of cake.

Not so fast — another 3,500 feet to go we were informed, which would probably take  4 more hours or so.

It didn’t completely register until we hit the boulder fields, big and massive, boulders upon boulders that were created from the mountain’s volcano blasts.  Everyone found his/her own path up. It could have been scary, so I just treated it like a jungle gym game in elementary school.  At 5’3”, I was just barely tall enough to pull myself up from one rock to the next. Thank goodness for the person online who posted to wear heavy duty gardening gloves.  As you may surmise, many of the boulders are very rough to navigate.

Approaching the Summit

The day was lovely, not too warm.  At about 7,000 feet we came across the final boulders, leaving all vegetation behind. 

There we were, peering up at the final ascent of ash and small stones.  Think walking on a beach – vertically, as in straight up. I got out my son’s trekking poles and simply heard everyone cheering me on in my head –  you can do this — as well as our group and the many 20-30-somethings who were on the mountain that day.  I wasn’t out of breath, ever, and my heart rate stayed calm.  In fact, I practiced Lamaze breathing during the entire trip – who knew I would need it again after three decades!  The tediousness of planting the poles and moving 2-3 steps, then planting the poles and starting all over, again and again, simply took time and more patience than I knew I possessed.

 The View from the Top


At the top it got very windy and the temperature dropped.  The fingers had a hard time moving. One more layer on, and a change of hats.  The views were just amazing.  In this picture, standing just 3 feet from the crater’s edge, I could see plumes of smoke coming up from the interior; over my shoulder to the south is Mt. Adams surrounded by glorious blue skies; further into Oregon Mt. Hood was in full view, and even north  Mt. Rainier was making an appearance through the mist.  If it hadn’t been so cold and windy, I would have stayed to take more photos and hike around the perimeter some, maybe even have a bite to eat.   It felt surreal.

There was the victory photo of the 4 hikers and 2 guides who made it all the way to the top, and that is certainly great.  But there is much more to my journey than this.

At Peace

With the help of John, a fellow hiker, I was able to leave the last of our daughter’s ashes in a place where I know she would have joined me and would have loved.

That goes for my dear son Will as well.  The 5th anniversary of his passing is this summer and the mountains were home to him.  Using his poles and wearing his baseball hat were touchstones for me, as were all the beautiful gestures of kindness that family, friends and strangers gave me as I inched my way toward the top.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Leaving this chronicle here would be easy, almost too lovely in its poetry.  However, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the journey back down proved even more treacherous than going up.  My thighs ached.  My lower back – not so steady.  Those deteriorating discs started to make themselves felt.  I was never so glad for all the months of core and balance exercises that I’ve been doing.  They really do work, as did the smooth coaching of two companions.

As we started to descend, John encouraged me to use my feet like a snow board, gliding on top of the ash and fine rocks, so getting to the boulders went pretty fast.  However, by this time my thighs were so tired that my knees were locking up. Stiffness reigned. There was a fall, complete with one cement burn on the leg, and many stops for chocolate and water.  I’m so glad that I packed the extra H20.

To take my mind off my body’s weariness, John asked me to name  the few flowers that we passed.  With boundless energy, he talked about his favorite songs.  I couldn’t remember the names to any of mine (note to self: ask Diana Nyad for her playlist while swimming).  I switched the subject to food.  Now there’s a topic that never leaves me, so I shared with him the rack of lamb dinner menu that my husband would prepare for the next night’s celebratory dinner.

At one point, I commented that I didn’t know which was more physically arduous, giving birth or climbing this mountain.  I leave it to you to guess my answer.

And down we came, ever so slowly.

Aim for the Forest

I decided not to consult my watch until someone asked the time once we hit the woods…7PM.  One hour later we’re in the parking lot, safely back — 13 hours after beginning at the trail head sign.

At our first rest stop, I saw myself in the mirror — covered thoroughly from head to toe in ash, including a deep gray mustache. All clothes have been stripped and washed, as has my body.

The massage will come soon.

Summit Up

I’ve been asked to evaluate the hike by our leaders.  I was appreciative of the positive attitudes of my fellow hikers and guides. For me the journey was totally worth it.  I committed mentally and felt prepared physically.  I’m glad that I didn’t know exactly how arduous it would be, because I may have wimped out before ever starting.  I was also reminded once again that we’re all capable of so much more than we think we can do.  But the lesson that resonates most is what my son used to say, “Nature really is the best teacher.”


Remember, if I can do it, you can, too!

Susan Levy
Publisher, Well-Fed Heart

This week’s featured recipe:

Chunky Tomato Basil Sauce