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a guide to summiting a volcano


July 2015

Written by
Lauren Hunsberger


Depending on where you are, if it is a clear day in Washington, there’s a good chance one of five craggy, snow-covered peaks is dominating your view. These peaks are the state’s five major volcanoes, and if you spend enough time looking at them, it is almost inevitable you will at least consider summiting one. If you are ready to take the step from contemplation to creating a plan of action, consider the following information.

Mt. St. HelensMount St. Helens
Summit: 8,365 feet
When to summit: May–September
Length of summit: One day, 10 miles
Difficulty: Beginner

Even before it erupted, Mount St. Helens was the smallest of Washington’s five volcanoes. This also means it is the most accessible climb for novice climbers and can be comfortably summited in one day. Most climbers choose to camp the night before in the Climbers’ Bivouac and then follow Monitor Ridge straight to the top. In the summer, the climb can be relatively snow- and ice-free; in the winter, crampons and an ice axe are highly recommended.


Glacier Peak
Summit: 10,541 feet
When to summit: May–October
Length of summit: Two to three days
Difficulty: Intermediate
Guide recommended

The lesser known and summited of Washington’s five major volcanoes, Glacier Peak is appropriate for beginner to intermediate climbers due to considerably less glacier coverage than the other major peaks. The Cool Glacier route is the standard route and is located on the south side. The climb is nontechnical, but familiarity with crampons, ice axes and crevasse rescue techniques are vital to a successful and safe summit. 


Mt. Baker
Mount Baker
Summit: 10,778 feet
When to summit: May–August
Length of summit: Two days
Difficulty: Intermediate
Guide recommended

Mount Baker is the third-highest summit in Washington, the iciest mountain in the Cascade Range, and holds a world record for snowfall in one season. But despite its impressive levels of snow and ice, Mount Baker is accessible to relatively new climbers, although it offers routes for all levels. The Coleman Deming route is the most popular, and climbers following this route often stop at 7,242 feet to camp for a night. Technically, this climb is a walk-up, but there is significant glacier travel and proper gear is required.


Mount Adams
Summit: 12,276 feet
When to summit: May–October
Length of summit: Two days
Difficulty: Intermediate
Guide recommended

There are numerous routes toward the summit of the second-highest peak in Washington, the third highest in the Cascade Range, but climbers new to the mountain should plan for the South Spur route. It is a nontechnical climb (the volcano offers many technical routes as well) and can be done with crampons and an ice axe during the right time of year. Many adventurers choose to climb to about 9,250 feet and camp overnight at the Lunch Counter, to adjust to the elevation before pushing to the final summit the next morning.


Mt. RanierMount Rainier
Summit: 14,411 feet
When to summit: May–August
Length of summit: Two to four days
Difficulty: Advanced
Guide recommended

There are a seemingly infinite number of routes to the top of the most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous United States, all of which are technical climbs. Over 10,000 adventurous souls attempt to summit the mountain each year, usually by way of Disappointment Cleaver and Emmons Glacier routes. But no matter what route you choose, finding a proper guide is key to a comfortable trip. 

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