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Riding the Wind: Snowkiting to New Heights on Mount St. Helens
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The Other Side of the Mountain

 

Over the next few years, I snowkited a few more missions from the Plains of Abraham. Once again, I concluded I was on the wrong side of the of the mountain for a summit attempt. I needed wind to blow straight up the mountain!

 

Most of the weather systems in the Northwest move in from the Pacific Ocean toward the mountains, with the wind flowing west to east. For an optimal summit bid, I would have to access the west side of Mount St. Helens, where the wind would blow more or less directly up the face, making it safe and fast.

 

After extensive research on snowmobiling forums and mountaineering websites, I didn’t find anyone who had ever been to the western side of the mountain in the winter. Google Earth showed some promising routes for snowmobiling through the woods to the west face, where I could get above the tree line. But until I could actually see the trails in person, I had no idea if I was going to encounter a cleared road or an impassible hiking trail. There was only one way to find out.

 

 

Safety Net

 

In an effort to document this adventure, I needed a photographer. Plus, I would have to have some safety support in case anything went wrong.

 

So I called up Kirk Zach, the owner of a snowmobile outerwear company called HMK, based in Hood River. He also has a team of accomplished snowmobilers who have competed in X Games. 

 

In a matter of a day, my team of two grew to 10 and included some of the best snowmobilers on the planet. Many of them had been known to ride their sleds to the summit, which is exactly what I needed in case of a rescue. 

 

Avalanche danger is very real on this mountain. Even though I wear an avalanche beacon, unless anyone is up there with me, the beacon might as well be a body recovery device rather than a way to locate me for a speedy rescue.

 

The team met at a local snow park 5 miles from the mountain in March 2013. One of the HMK team riders had years of experience exploring the entire mountain and was a Mount St. Helens snowmobile legend who also knew of a “secret trail” to the west side. 

 

We fired up the sleds and rode up through a creek bed and steep canyon walls with terrain that pushed my snowmobiling skills to the max. By the time we reached the west face of the mountain, I already had exceeded my monthly limit of adrenaline and pucker factor.

 

 

First Winter Encounter

 

I finally got my first glimpse of the route that I knew so well from Google Earth™ maps. I soon realized the magnitude of the 3,000-foot face and the intricate route it would take to reach the top. The cliffs were bigger, the gullies were deeper, and the summit seemed higher than I had ever imagined. 

 

Everything seemed to be in place with the exception of wind. I waited all day for it as I watched the HMK team put on a freestyle exhibition as they jumped 20-foot cornices and turned wind lips into big-air ramps.

 

When I was finally ready to call it a day, my kite (which had been lying on the snow all day) began to drift away. It was only two hours before sunset, and as the temperature began to cool off, it created the wind flow I was looking for.

 

 

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