At some point, almost every Seattleite goes from admiring the view of one of our state’s five volcanoes to wondering what it would be like to actually climb one. Here’s what you need to know before taking on one of the most quintessential Pacific Northwest challenges.
Choose your route carefully. Not all of the Cascade volcanoes are created equal. Some are accessible only by crossing glaciers and navigating crevasses; others are more akin to a really steep and really long hike — with the added challenges of altitude, off-trail navigation and rugged terrain. Most Northwest climbers go with St. Helens, Adams or South Sister as their first volcano, but local guiding companies regularly lead beginners up Baker, Hood, Shasta and even Rainier. Wherever you go, be sure to research permits, weather, road access and current conditions.
Get in shape. Around these parts, most of us live at or near sea level, which means that even a climb up to the 8,000-foot level can cause shortness of breath, headaches and nausea in some people. Stack the odds in your favor by ticking off at least a few hikes with significant elevation gain before your volcano attempt and drinking plenty of water before and during the climb. Know the signs of acute mountain sickness and be ready to turn around if you or someone in your party experiences worsening symptoms.
Bring the right gear and know how to use it. Along with the Ten Essentials, most volcano climbs require at least a helmet, crampons and an ice axe. If you’ve never used these tools before, get some practice before summit day — the side of a mountain in the groggy wee-morning hours is not a great place to take your first steps in crampons. Don’t forget that you’ll spend an entire day exposed to the elements above the treeline; a hat, sunscreen, polarized sunglasses, rain protection and heavy insulation layer are all musts.
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Prepare to be (figuratively) blown away. There’s nothing quite like taking those last few steps to a crater rim and standing on top of the world. Revel in your accomplishment, take some photos, and hold your ice axe high. But remember that getting to the top is only half the journey — don’t let your guard down on the descent.