A barefoot climb of Mt. St. Helens


climbing Monitor Ridge barefoot

Barefoot hiking has never caused the kind of controversy and acrimony that barefoot running has. Perhaps it’s because hiking doesn’t come so overloaded with notions about proper form and “performance.” People generally go hiking for recreation and sightseeing — any exercise or positive health effects hikers get are side benefits. Most runners participate in races of some kind, but hiking is less competitive — unless you get two diehard “peak baggers” on the same trail. (Count me out, man, I’d rather stop and smell the flowers.)

So barefoot hiking should be a lot like barefoot trail running — not so much about performance as about the experience. I thought I’d give it a try when my friend Ron Krull invited me to climb Mt. St. Helens late in the summer. The photos are by him unless otherwise noted. And a special note: FWIW here barefoot means actually barefoot. There is nothing wrong with minimal shoes — or any shoes you want — but, dude, it’s not the same thing.

I’ve done Mt. St. Helens before, so I knew what I was getting into. First, an easy two-mile climb on a soft trail through the woods. Second, a nasty but nontechnical scramble up rocky Monitor Ridge, and finally, a slog up the cinder cone of pumice and assorted rocks. All in all the trip up is about 4.8 miles distance, and 4600 feet vertical gain. In early September, there would be little or no snow on the route, but I was prepared to cross a small snowfield or two in bare feet.

My preparations were pretty basic. To “train,” I did Crossfit barefoot (as I have for about 18 months). I did a bit of barefoot trail running, helping my son prepare for his first 5k race. And on a casual 4-day camping trip, I spent most of my time barefoot. On the day of the climb, I ate a big breakfast and crammed my Camelbak full of emergency survival gear and (as a fallback) some wool socks and Keen sandals.

The first two miles couldn’t have been easier on my feet. It was a springy forest trail winding up through silver firs:

silver firs in the mist

Next came the scramble up the ridge:

climbing Monitor Ridge barefoot

On this part signs of the mountains’ continued recovery from the volcanic blast were everywhere! I’ve never seen pearly everlasting that looked so pearly:

pearly everlasting in rock field

And the occasional sprouts of fireweed were never-flagging symbols of hope:

fireweed on mt. st. helens

The biggest danger here was not to the bottom of my feet (after all, I could step whereever I wanted, and choosing the less jagged bits was easy) but to the sides and the tops. In particular, I didn’t want any unstable rocks to roll on the top of my feet. I managed to prevent that by stepping carefully, but I did stub my toe once.

We rose out of the mist and got between two layers of cloud, a weird experience, a lot like being in an airplane.

rock on monitor ridge

By the time we got to the bottom of the climactic pumice cone it wasn’t my feet that were failing — it was my fitness. I was just tired.

Meanwhile Ron was fine:

ron on mt. st. helens

I slogged away one step at a time, raging when the soft pumice gave way and I slid back nearly to where my step had started. At the top I was thick-headed and uncommunicative and had to sit down to wolf down food and water.

me at summit

Sadly, the crater behind me was hidden in a cloud. Nonethless Ron was triumphant, surveying the rim and rocking one of thickest sweaters I have ever seen:

ron at summit

The climb up was satisfying, but my bare feet did slow us down. It took me 5.5 hours to get up. I think Ron could have done it about an hour faster but he was very gracious about it.

Then we spent 3.5 hours coming down. I wore the Keen sandals for this part, because we needed to go as fast as possible to get back to our car before sunset. This ended up being a significant mistake… in a place with billions of unstable pebbles, open shoes like the Keens were probably the worst thing to wear, because pebbles would get in the shoes, get under my soles, and then stay there (rather than falling away as they do when I am barefoot). But I didn’t want to be out on the mountain at night so I stuck with it.

One of the best things about going barefoot on the climb up revealed itself the next day. Because going barefoot necessitated avoiding violent athletic moves, in the aftermath of the climb I wasn’t particularly sore. I could actually move around and do things. The recovery from the big climb was something like a 12-hour process involving a warm bath, instead of a 72-hour one involving RICE.

I’m not sure I’m ever gonna recover, though, from Ron’s excitement over adding to this cairn:

Watch out Vanna White.

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