09 March 2017

Climbing Mount St. Helens for Moms: A PNW Tradition


I love that my job and my personal life have so many opportunities to overlap. For our spring edition of Mountaineer magazine (designed and edited by my lovely and talented colleague Suzanne Gerber), I got to write about the storied Mt. St. Helens tradition of climbing in a dress on Mother's Day. I really enjoyed researching and writing this story, and was happy to be able to profile my friend and Mountaineer Greg Sheehan. Read his story and the entire blog on our digital version of the magazine here (on pages 32-36), and check out the spread and text below.

And in case you were on the fence about being friends with me, I want to point out that ending up in a magazine can totally be worth my insufferable-ness.


Nearly 33-years ago, on a balmy spring Saturday in Whitefish, Montana, my mom was 41-weeks pregnant and mowing the lawn. As I would be in life, I was stubborn in birth and had made myself quite cozy in her belly for an extra week. The doctor told my mother that being active would hurry me along and the lawn needed attention, so she was mowing when the contractions finally started on Saturday afternoon. I was born 16-hours later at 5:26 am on Sunday, May 13. It was Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day always falls on the second Sunday in May. Because I made my appearance into this world on that very day – officially making my mom a mom – it holds a special meaning for us. When I lived at home celebrating was easy, but it got harder after I moved away. I’d been living in Seattle for 10 years by the time I heard about the Mother’s Day tradition, and I knew immediately I had to go in honor of “Ma”. Lucky for me, I had just the crew to join me.

Every tradition needs a visionary

The Mother’s Day tradition on St. Helens dates to 1987 and a woman named Kathy Phibbs. A climbing guide often described as a ‘firecracker’, Kathy lived a life of passion and perseverance. She made numerous first female ascents in Peru and Bolivia, and she led 33 women to the top of Mount Rainier to commemorate the centennial of its first ascent by a woman — Tacoma teacher, Fay Fuller.

Before she worked as a guide and opened the northwest office of Woodswoman, Kathy made a living as a window-washer, messenger, and chimney sweep. She founded Women Climbers Northwest (WCN) in 1983, a small, close-knit organization created to encourage women to be more active in the mountains and share adventures together. At the time, climbing was a male-dominated sport. Kathy wanted more women to get outside and take on leadership roles. With passion an generosity, Kathy created a community where women were welcomed with open arms… and a tutu.

“Kathy was a big fan of wearing tutus on climbs because they didn't get in the way of much,” said Colleen Hinton, a friend and long-time WCN member. “She also started a tradition of planting pink flamingos on summits and taking [them] on camping outings. So we would all carry pink flamingos on the backs of our packs.”

Her spirit of adventure took Kathy to Mount St. Helens in the spring of 1987. After a 7-year restriction, climbing permits were being issued for the first time since the 1980 eruption. Kathy felt a celebration was in order and wore a red chiffon dress to mark the occasion. Her companions? Five girlfriends… dressed as can-can dancers.

At the summit, a reporter from the Seattle Times happened upon the gaggle of girls and was taken by their joie de vivre. The reporter ran a photo of the ladies on the front page on June 5, 1987, with an article highlighting Kathy’s story. “After climbing for 4 1/2 rugged hours to the top of the nation's most famous volcano, no one expected a party. But there, at 8,300 feet on the treacherous rim of Mount St. Helens, were a woman in a red chiffon dress and five can-can dancers….[They] did a can-can dance in their thick-soled boots for the benefit of photographers….For [Kathy], the climb was a nostalgic return to the mountain. In 1975 on her first climb, she was in high school and the mountain was a perfect, unerupted cone. She said it's now an easier climb and a better place to ski.”

Kathy died tragically in a winter climbing accident on Dragontail Peak in 1991, but the tradition of climbing St. Helens on Mother’s Day lives on. People embraced the spirit as soon as the Seattle Times story ran in print. Kathy Phibbs, and her vision to bring a change to the PNW climbing community, left a long lasting legacy for all to enjoy.

How to embrace the ridiculousness

Nearly everyone who climbs St. Helens on Mother's Day is in a dress. Men, women, children, dogs (leashed, of course) - outdoor enthusiasts definitely embrace the spirit. The tradition is celebrating its 30th birthday this year, and locals know the drill: in the coming weeks, the 500 folks who secured climbing permits will make their annual pilgrimage to Goodwill to find the perfect ensemble. Dresses are just the start. Hats, scarves, long gloves, boas, and yes - tutus - are all part of the fun.

In preparation for the trip, climbers will pack their costumes with the same love and care as their climbing packs. On Saturday afternoon of the celebratory weekend, they’ll drive to the mountain, pull into Marble Mountain Sno-Park, and set up camp for the night. Then, by headlight at the wee-hours of the alpine-start morning, everyone will don their Sunday Best and start up the mountain. As the sun rises, they’ll see sparkles off sequined dresses all the way to the summit. Once there, the celebration really begins.

The climb itself covers 5,500 vertical feet in 6 miles (one way). The average mountaineer can cover the distance to the summit in 4-6 hours. Anyone climbing above 4800’ is required to have a permit.
One of the reasons St. Helens became so popular on Mother’s Day Weekend is that, prior to 2015, it was the last weekend during the April-May climbing season during which permits were uncapped. Starting on the third Monday in May every year, climbing use is restricted to 100 permits per day. But before that fateful Monday, all you had to do was show up with $22 and a permit was yours. Due to the popularity of the tradition and the need to manage human impact, Gifford Pinchot National Forest issued a permit cap of 500 in 2015. Prior to the cap, it’s estimated well over 1,000 people submitted in a single day.

A Green Tutu And Pink Fur Leg Warmers

I remember the energy that fateful Sunday, May 11, 2014. It was my third trip. When I climbed the mountain for the first time in 2012, I spent days scouring the local racks before deciding to wear an old bridesmaid dress in honor of the occasion. By now I knew better. Just like Kathy Phibbs, I was wearing a tutu, as I had in all of my outdoor adventures since finding inspiration in the ridiculousness of St. Helens two years prior.

Since discovering and falling in love with this tradition, I have taken great pleasure in introducing other skiers and climbers to the joys of climbing in a dress, and more specifically a tutu. Out of all of the folks I’ve convinced to join me, my friend Greg Sheehan embraced the tradition the most.


Greg joined The Mountaineers January of 2014, after attending a film at our Seattle Program Center. He watched "Mile... Mile and a Half" about the John Muir Trail, and was inspired to join to share his passions. “The bookstore, resources, and films made me want to join the best outdoor community,” he said.

It was around this time that I first met Greg. I don’t recall where we met, but I remember learning that he loved the outdoors, medium-rare steak, and Seahawks football. After bonding over the aforementioned, and drooling at some of his outstanding adventure photos, we made plans to go skiing together. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and we had to take a rain check. The next time we could both make it to the mountains was Mother’s Day.

“I first heard about the Mother’s Day climb from my dad. He’s an avid outdoorsman and stumbled on a news article highlighting the event. He thought it would be a great time, but couldn’t join.” Said Greg. “Then I got an invite from my great friend Kristina for her Birthday Climb. I wanted to be part of “Team Tutu.” I knew what had to be done.”

Greg went online to find the proper attire and ended up with a lot more fur than he bargained for. “It all started when I was shopping for tutu on Amazon. I was perusing the different types until I found this green one that screamed ‘sexy mountaineer’ and ‘Go Hawks’. I added it to cart and was done....or so I thought,” he said, pausing for emphasis. “Amazon checkout is like the grocery store, taking every last chance to sell you more things. I remember it saying something along the lines of "Leg Avenue also recommends..." and I looked at the picture. Leg warmers. Pink. Fuzzy. Functional yet eye catching. These things I needed. I clicked ‘add to cart’ and was hopeful they could be Nikwaxed.”



I noticed the tutu and the lopsided a-frame of Greg’s splitboard on his pack before I saw the fur leg warmers. But once I saw those, there was no unseeing them. Especially when hiking next to them for close to 5 hours.

“The feeling when you get to the top during the Mother's day climb is amazing,” said Greg. “It’s unlike any other mountain or even St. Helens on any other day. You have worked hard all morning: catching glances of Adams over your right shoulder, feeling the burn in your thighs and seeing what looks like attendees of a rock festival. You dig deep for that last boost of energy near the top, then you hear people cheering. Suddenly, strangers in costumes and dresses are everywhere, giving you high fives as you push through to the summit. Glorious.”

This One’s For You, Mom

After taking in the views together at the top with 1,000 of our new best friends, Greg and I put on our planks and swished our way to the bottom of the snow. Or that’s how it would have gone had conditions been more favorable. Instead, we suffered through some of the stickiest snow I’ve ever experienced. It was bad. Even by Pacific Northwest standards.

Despite the terrible conditions, we had a great time. “I keep going back because you can't get this feeling anywhere else. I look forward to this like no other holiday,” said Greg. “Everyone climbs it for their own reason but is part of a collective nod to those who inspire us. I hope to get my mom up there someday to split a summit beer. Till then, I'll hike it for her.”

In writing this story, I realized May 13 just so happens to fall on Mother’s Day in 2018. I texted my mom to let her know, and enthusiastically suggested she plan a trip to Seattle for that weekend so we can climb St. Helens together. Immediately, and without hesitation, she replied “Absolutely! Xoxo.”
Moms really are the best.

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