Trisha Steidl does not get along with Mount St. Helens.
On a mission in July to reach the mountain’s summit before total nightfall — and nearing her second peak as part of a larger quest to conquer Washington’s five volcanic mountains, on foot, in five days — the Seattle running coach and endurance athlete went before her climbing partner and arrived at the crater rim alone, darkness fast approaching. A frigid wind ripped through the air; the ground had turned to a sheet of ice. In the distance, she saw lightning.
Steidl’s “Five Volcanoes” attempt officially began Monday, July 11, at 9:02 p.m., and stretched 84.5 miles with 43,000 feet of elevation gain. Before last month’s feat, the accomplished ultrarunner, mountaineer and longtime Seattle University cross-country and track coach had summited each of the five peaks but had never run more than 50 miles or completed that much elevation gain in a single, extended effort.
Then, on St. Helens, her second of five consecutive volcanoes (along with Rainier, Adams, Baker and Glacier), Steidl found herself in a sticky situation within striking distance of the mountaintop.
Seeking the summit, Steidl saw snow cornices, rocks and a sharp drop-off. She put on microspikes and took out her ice ax to navigate the icy route. Steidl spotted a trail leading toward the summit, but taking it would mean backtracking across the ice. Turning back, she slipped, breaking her fall with a small rock — but then slid farther, self-arresting by hammering into the side of the mountain. Her beaten knuckles left a line of blood dripping down the mountain.
Trying to get a secure grip with her microspikes, Steidl started to spiral. She still had to get down this short section of the mountain, but she was alone in the dark, in pain and scared. The storm raged in the distance. She gathered herself and found what she thought was a path, but it was a dead end. Just 250 meters from the summit, without proper ice tools, she couldn’t go farther.
“I can’t do this,” Steidl said to herself. Not wanting to injure herself or endanger her support crew, she decided they could not safely continue. They could wait for the sun to melt the ice, but that extra day would leave Steidl’s permit expired. Steidl ultimately decided to head back down.
“I wasn’t OK not having a permit,” Steidl told The Seattle Times, explaining why integrity matters in the mountaineering community. “I could have broken the rules and no one would have known, but that’s not within the spirit of the rules, and I wasn’t comfortable with that.”
But that didn’t mean Steidl was done with the five volcanoes.
Charting out the challenge
When Steidl read about Trevor Kostanich and Scott Rinckenberger, who in June 2021 summited all five Washington volcanoes in five days on foot and ski, she thought, “I can do that faster on foot.”
Steidl, who briefly held the women’s unsupported fastest known time for Glacier Peak last summer, didn’t mean to be cocky; she just believed she could do it. If Steidl completed the challenge, she would become the first person to climb all five volcanoes solely on foot in five days and the first woman to get up and down the volcanoes in that period by any means.
“I’m 45, and I’ve done all of my mountaineering with my husband,” Steidl said. “Going by myself, especially for Glacier, which is so long and remote, was really empowering. It just solidified my knowledge and faith and confidence in myself.”
Steidl started getting serious about the challenge early in 2022. She was still getting back in shape after an injury treatment recovery kept her inactive for three months late last year.
“I didn’t even come anywhere close to being able to follow the plan,” she said. “I felt wildly unprepared from a fitness standpoint.”
But in the lead-up to the attempt, everything seemed to fall into place. She felt strong during training runs and hikes — often at Rainier or Baker, or on steep trails like Mount Si, Lookout Mountain or Eldorado — in the weeks leading up to the challenge.
Then, less than two weeks before her attempt, Steidl caught COVID-19. She had to fight through a persistent, lingering cough.
Arranging climbing partners for each mountain to provide support didn’t always go to plan, either.
Her climbing partner for Rainier, her first summit, backed out a few days before she was set to take off, leaving her scrambling to find a replacement. (It doesn’t hurt that she had summitted Rainier more than a dozen times before.) “I reached out to so many people, including strangers,” Steidl said, to no avail.
But she found a Rainier partner less than 24 hours before her departure the night of July 11 and steeled herself to climb five volcanoes in a row.
Scaling the volcanoes
Despite a few delays and some climber traffic on Rainier, Steidl completed the climb the next morning in just over 14 hours, just two minutes over her scheduled time.
Next up was St. Helens. Steidl was not looking forward to climbing that mountain.
“I don’t like all the boulders. I find it annoying,” she said. “I hate that there’s no trail. I like things that are more defined; climbing Helens is not that well-defined.”
Dick Kresser, a friend who knows the mountain well and was supposed to join Steidl, also came down with COVID, leaving Steidl in search of a new partner yet again. The friend who volunteered to help had never climbed the mountain, unbeknown to Steidl until midway through the climb.
Kresser feels terrible that he wasn’t there to help Steidl through the slippery summit dilemma.
“I know that mountain like the back of my hand, and I feel responsible that I wasn’t able to help her through that crux,” he said.
Kresser completed RASH in 2015, which requires a summit and circumnavigation of Rainier, St. Helens, Adams and Mount Hood. He did so without a permit for St. Helens. Back then, the permitting system was a lottery starting March 1; he had no idea which day he’d need to climb St. Helens that early in the year.
“I accepted that part, and if I got caught, I’d pay the fine and count that as my permit,” he said. “The rules are not set up to support any type of situation like what I’m doing in mind.”
He also acknowledges that his effort may not be recognized in some circles in 2022.
“The culture of what is accepted changes,” he said. “It’s really hard to say what is acceptable and what is not. You just have to be upfront and honest about how you did your adventure and then people can make their own assessment of what they think about it.”
Knowing she couldn’t officially claim St. Helens, Steidl was left pondering whether it was worth continuing this pursuit. Her friends persuaded her to keep going, so she continued on to Mount Adams.
Accompanied by her husband, Uli Steidl, Adams was a relatively easy effort. Completing the route in just under eight hours, Steidl was right on track for her next peak: Glacier.
Just after midnight Thursday, though, the team experienced car trouble. The van lights wouldn’t turn on.
Unable to continue driving in the dark without headlights, the team made the decision to wait for daylight, grabbing Steidl’s car in Seattle to continue the attempt. It would mean a significant delay, but as long as she finished by 9 p.m. that Saturday, July 16, she could still make the most of the five volcanoes.
Checking the weather forecast before leaving Seattle, Steidl flipped Baker and Glacier. At 33 miles round-trip, Glacier was the longest route of the series. Steidl wasn’t thrilled it would be her final summit.
They set off for Mount Baker at 5 a.m., allowing 12 hours for the effort. Feeling strong, Steidl finished in just over nine hours.
Sleeping for three hours before driving to Glacier Peak, Steidl hit the trail at 1 a.m. As with Baker, Steidl felt confident and relaxed, completing the route before schedule in 17 hours.
At 6:04 p.m. that Saturday, less than five days after she started, Steidl arrived back at the trailhead, having just missed, on a St. Helens technicality, setting history by conquering the five volcanoes on foot.
Permitting systems do not allow for errors or delays. Five days of good weather in a row at the tallest peaks in the state, with safe climbing conditions and no wildfires? That’s a gift from Mother Nature.
Kresser said he would have counted Steidl’s attempt if she had gone for St. Helens without the permit.
“I hate so much to be in that mindset that it wasn’t a full official finish because she had so many challenges and obstacles that she had to overcome and got 99.8% of the way there,” he said. “To focus on what she didn’t accomplish isn’t fair, but with alpinism you’ve got to make it black or white.”
Steidl is also fixating on Mount St. Helens.
“That little asterisk bothers me,” she said. “I literally would go do this next week if I could make it work.”
Despite the 250 meters that separate Steidl from claiming a true conquer, no other woman has completed this circuit in this amount of time, and she hopes her effort will inspire other women to get outdoors.
The mountaineer emphasized that her story is about more than one 45-year-old woman who climbed five volcanoes in five days.
“I’m tired of not seeing other women in the mountains,” she said. “I want women to see other women doing stuff like this. The more you see that happening, the more it will happen.”