Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens is an alpine launch site accessible only after a 4500 ft. climb with your gear. It affords a long paragliding descent. Typical flights here don't involve soaring. It lies within a national monument. Flying is allowed on south side of the mountain, and is specifically disallowed on the north side and in any of the restricted areas like the crater and the blast zone. Thus launches are possible in light upper level winds from about SW through S to SE. Landing zones are located at Butte Camp, on the SW side, at timberline on Monitor Ridge (standard climbing route), and at the Lahar Viewpoint on the SE side. If accessible, this latter is probably the easiest to use, although it is several miles from the start of the hike so bring two cars and do a car shuttle when planning to land at Lahar.
Mount St. Helens can be climbed year round but access is harder midwinter because of snow. There are wide seasonal variations in snow depth and times when roads are clear but Lahar viewpoint is probably usually accessible by May 1 and Climbers Bivouac by May 15.
Climbing Mount St. Helens is by permit only. From October 31 through March 31, permits are issued free and in unlimited numbers. From April 1-May 15, permits cost $15 but are still in unlimited numbers. From May 15-October 31, permits are limited to 100 climbers per day. Permits for 60 climbers per day are reserved ahead of time, and the others given out the evening before at Jack's Restaurant and Store in Yale, WA, on a first come, first served basis starting at 6 PM. You need to be present to get a permit. If any permits are left over they are distributed first thing the following morning at Jack's. The climb is very popular later in the summer and it may be difficult to get permits without reservations, which makes planning paragliding problematic in the summer. Given the visibility of our sport it is imperative that all glider pilots conform to the permit system and also avoid the restricted area (crater and blast zone.)
Note that the combination of access issues and permit issues makes autumn the most opportune time to fly the mountain. The crowds of summer have thinned so it's easier to get a permit, and snow hasn't come yet. Winter means walking farther, but not too much farther and remains a very viable and very beautiful option. My first summit flight was on February 27. For information on climbing the mountain and the permit system, as well as downloadable maps including landmarks such as Lahar Viewpoint, see:
The climb is steep but not technical. In winter ice ax and crampons are very useful. For a very fit individual climbing to the summit from Climbers Bivouac with gear can take less than 4 hours, but for someone less used to this degree of energy output at least 6-7 hours should be allowed. Timing is not too critical, but one should be ready to fly by mid afternoon. The views from the cone and the summit are fascinating. The flight will take roughly 20 minutes. Other climbers will gawk and make envious comments.
It is best not to plan a "flyke" from Mount St. Helens too far in advance. Favorable conditions will only happen on occasional days. Weather information is available at NOAA (winds aloft) and at the Pacific Northwest MM5. This latter provides sounding forecasts for nearby cities, and also a map depicting winds at 850 mb (5000 ft) and 700 mb (10,000ft) Look for forecast winds of 12mph or less at those altitudes.
NOAA winds aloft: http://adds.aviationweather.gov/winds/
Pacific Northwest MM5: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/mm5rt/
Note from Steve Roti: Permission to fly the south side of Mount St. Helens was first obtained by Jon Goldberg-Hiller, founder of the Cascade Paragliding Club, in the early 1990's. During the summer of 2003 there was an incident where a ranger stopped two paraglider pilots from flying off the south side, so I contacted Hans Castren, chief climbing and backcountry ranger at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. He confirmed that paragliding is allowed on the south side of the mountain as long as we abide by all of the rules and regulations associated with climbing the mountain. This means that paraglider pilots will need to follow the same procedures and pay the same fees as climbers in order to obtain climbing permits. He also suggested that we should be on our "best behavior" when flying in the monument because it's a high visibility area and the rangers and other climbers will be watching us.
Submitted by: Pete Reagan
Last Revision Date: 8/5/2003