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Mt. Adams
posted by John : August 14-16, 2009

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Mt. Adams

Need more stress in your life? How about this for a quick exercise in raising your blood pressure? Pick something you really want to do. Look four months into the future and pick a weekend. (It doesn't really matter which one. That far out means you don't have any reasonable chance of controlling it.) Realize you have only that one shot at accomplishing your goal. Fast forward to the week before and watch the weather deteriorate. How's the heart? Feel it thumping?

That, in a nutshell, was planning for Mt. Adams. Way back when Scott and I decided that we were keen to give it a shot. For him it'd be his third attempt. He'd been blown off by storms twice before. For me it'd be the first time I'd camped above 9,000 feet and hiked above 10,000. As our departure grew near the weather, which had been nothing but blue skies just about all summer long, turned cold. TNAB had a pair of Autumn-esque outings (Red Mountain being one of them) and the forecast was calling for rain or snow around Mt. Adams.

However, at 4pm we left North Bend for the six hour drive to the trailhead. It's about the same distance whether you go east or west, but since it was a Friday afternoon we chose to go through Ellensburg and Yakima rather than risk traffic on I-5 through Portland. We sailed along the highway delayed only by slow checkers at Safeway and a terrible dinner at Dairy Queen in Yakima. At 10pm we rolled into the Cold Springs trailhead/unofficial climbers' camp.

Cars were parked anywhere you could get off the road. Fires burned and trail bums were enjoying the cool, but clear night. Scott and I set up my tent, threw our pads and bags down, and climbed in for the night.

It was before 6am when Scott was rattling around packing up. Early though it was I was excited for the climb and we had all our gear ready to go at 7am. We had stopped the night before in Trout Lake at the ranger station to get our climbing permits so all we had to do was remember to put the passes on the dash, put the keys where I couldn't possibly lose them, and walk to the trailhead a few feet away.

The plan for today was to have a leisurely walk to the Lunch Counter at about 9,400 feet. We were starting at 5,600 feet so with a little math you can see it was just shy of 4,000 feet of gain for the day. No problem. We had all day and the weather was looking great. Not a cloud in the sky.

We started up the trail at TINT speed. (TINT Is Not TNAB. Yeah, it's a recusive acronym. I'm a nerd. Suffer with me.) In other words, it wasn't a race to the top. The first mile or so is easy old road that gains very slowly. At the Timberline Camp/Around-the-mountain trail junction it got a little steeper, but the footing was good and the views began to open up. To the south we could see overly proud Mt. Hood and to the northwest was the low-lying Mt. St. Helens.

However, nothing impressed me more than the hulk of Mt. Adams dead ahead.

Our destination didn't look as tall or massive as Mt. Rainier, because it wasn't. It wasn't a towering pinnacle either. Instead, it was just a monsterous jumble of brown rock and a bit of snow against a perfectly blue sky. And it still seemed like it was miles and miles away.

But those miles melted under our steady steps. The trail became loose rocks as we crossed the empty morraine of the Crescent Glacier, which is barely clinging to the mountain. On a ridge we wound through rocks and stunted trees and started seeing tent spots with rock walls built to shelter from the wind. Some of the walls were little more than a few high, but some looked like half-complete igloos made of the vocanic rock that was scattered everywhere.

Atop the ridge we donned crampons and stepped onto the hard snow. The sun had yet to work its magic so we didn't sink in much. The slope was only moderate so we were able to stroll up to the high end where we had to take off our crampons. (We'd get good at this as the trip wore on.) We started to see more and more people who were coming down from camps after a morning summit. They all raved about the weather and told us we'd hit it perfectly.

From about 8,800 feet to 9,400 feet there were camp sites scattered all around. It's called the Lunch Counter presumably because people get there around lunch time. It was only 10am for us, though. I guess that makes it a sort of "Brunch Counter" or something. We found a shelter near the base of the snow and set up Scott's tent. Looking at our watches and the good weather we both came to the same conclusion. We had to keep going.

Why would we stop? Because it was planned that we'd spend the day at the Lunch Counter and summit the next morning? Not a good enough reason. Someone once said there was no better time to climb a mountain than when she invites you up. (Or something like that.) Feeling good with almost the entire day before us seemed like a heck of an invitation.

(And there was a little implied threat, too. Some clouds were building to the south. Nothing to worry about at the moment, but enough to worry me that they'd arrive and complicate a morning climb.)

We dumped our non-summit geat in the tent, wolfed down a lunch, and made our way to the snow. Crampons made a return, but our axes stayed on our packs. I plugged in my iPod and we took our first tentative steps toward the summit.

There was a hard layer of snow that let the crampons bite in for a good hold, but in places there was a crystaline structure on top that would shatter when touched. The surface was cupped in places two feet across so climbing meant finding a route that avoided the miniature basins in favor of the ridges between them. In places it was easy to see a line that allowed us to climb. On others there was no discerning a good approach so we'd turn straight up.

Although we were decidedly not hurrying we made excellent time. We passed several others on the way up and commented repeatedly that we had TNAB to thank. Getting out, even just once a week (though we were often out more frequently), meant our legs had more in them even as the air got noticably thinner.

Above us we could see Pikers Peak, the false summit of Adams, looming at the top of a final patch of snow. We couldn't connect to it from where we were so we shed our crampons at about 10,800 feet and got back on the rock. Unlike below, though, this was loose beyond belief. The rocks were sized from softball to beach ball, but they were held on the mountain by sand. In fact, as we were taking off our crampons a group coming down kicked a rock loose that found its way into a glissade chute. (More on these later.) The rock bounded down the chute for at least 1,000 feet before it disappeared.

The rocky climb toward Pikers was the worst of the trip. With the loose footing and the elevation really starting to affect me it was slow going. I practiced my rest step and I could hear Scott compression breathing beside me, but it didn't help much. Fatigue, a little headache, and a little dizziness combined to really slow me down. At a saddle between Pikers and some rocks to its west we paused and looked on the true summit. We were still 600 feet below, but it seemed a tall order was set before us.

We took the low route below Pikers and wound along the edge of a snow field before crossing the ice at the saddle between Pikers and the summit. The Mazama Glacier was just on the other side of the ridge and we could see crevasses and nasty looking ice as is dropped off the side of the mountain.

With the thrill of a climb almost complete (and the stench of sulfer in the air (it's still active, you know)) we marched up the last slope (back on loose, sandy rock). I must have looked terrible because people coming down told us how close we were and how well we were doing. One woman was clearly out of it and her companion shook his head silently behind her as they continued down.

Each rock bigger than a football had a rime ice shadow behind it. At the edge of the diminuitive crater we saw chunks of ice trapped in the basin, but paid them little attention as the old lookout was just ahead. The wind was blowing, but the sun was out. We wandered along the crater rim to the official summit for a few pictures and then back to the leeward side of the derelict building to rest. It had taken us another three hours to get to the summit from the Lunch Counter.

Out of the wind it was really quite pleasant on the summit. Scott's thermometer read 52F and other climbers lounged about in the sun. Clouds that had worried us at the Lunch Counter blew through, but mostly below us. Our total gain was a little more than 6,600 feet over about seven miles. Nothing unusual except the final elevation of 12,281 feet.

We thought we'd be the last climbers of the day, having started relatively late, but more kept arriving. The lookout was caked in ice that occasionally crashed to the ground giving us all a start. We stayed on top for about 30 minutes, signed the register, and headed down.

The loose footing was no better on the way down, but we were able to lean back and plunge-step down much of the way to the base of the final climb. Then it was a short climb to Pikers Peak (you didn't think we'd skip tagging that peak, too, did you?) and then the nasty loose rock section above the snow. As on the way up we were faster than many others on the way down. Especially when we got to the snow.

Mt. Adams is known for its glissades. Even though it was late in the year and there were spots where rocks were starting to show through the tobbagan-like chutes were too much to resist. We'd climbed in t-shirts and shorts (well, I did anyway), but at the summit I'd put on a fleece and shell pants and jacket. For the first time we took out our axes and I took off down the mountain while others less prepared could only watch. It wasn't perfect, but we cut an hour off our descent to the Lunch Counter putting us back at the tent at around 4:30.

We talked with an older couple camped near us and talked about conditions. He had crampons, but no axe. She had nothing but boots. She decided to hang out and play near camp while he made a try for the peak. They were from Atlanta, but had spent time climbing 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado and were on Adams after visiting their kids in Seattle and Portland.

It was around then we realized we could have done the trip in a day. I was so in awe of others who had climbed in a day that I didn't even consider it feasible for me. Well, now we knew better. We briefly (VERY briefly) considered packing up and heading the rest of the way down, but decided to spend the night up high. It was too early for dinner so we wandered around camp, explored a bit of ice to the east, climbed another pile of rocks to the south, and finally had dinner at about 7:30.

The afternoon's clouds had cleared so we could see just about forever. We'd lose the sun over the shoulder of the mountain where we were, but by moving a bit to the south west we were able to watch the sun dip into the sea of low clouds just to the north of Mt. St. Helens. We got back to camp and settled in for the night. (Most everyone else was already zipped up tight trying to get sleep before their morning's climb.) I heard a few rattlings in the night, but for the most part slept straight through, truly unusual for me on a camping trip.

We woke at about 7am and started preparations for the hike out. There were two groups near us. One was a family from Alberta (yeah, that Alberta) who had driven and flown down to climb Adams. It looked like both parents, two girls and a boy (all teenagers), and perhaps a grandfather. I looked at them and hoped I saw my own future. (Not being Canadian, but being on a mountain together.)

We started down around 9am as the first of the dayhikers were arriving for their climb. There were two main waves of climbers. The first were on the snow field just below the Lunch Counter and the second were just above the Crescent Glacier morraine. Some looked well prepared, but others were travelling frighteningly light. A few didn't even have crampons and a few were wearing jeans . (To be fair, there appeared to be all-rock routes up the mountain, but the snow and even the solid ice (everything had frozen overnight) seemed the best approaches.)

We cruised down the trail even though the last mile from the Wilderness boundary to the parking lot seemed to go on forever. At the car we changed into dry clothes, marvelled again at our speed (just two hours to hike out), and ripped open the bags of chips we'd bought in Yakima on the drive down.

Aside from a lousy meal in Hood River and gnarly traffic heading north on I-5 we had no issues. We rolled into North Bend about 5pm. Josie was leaving as I dropped Scott off, but my house was full of welcome-home signs, fresh baked cookies, and dinner just about to come out of the oven. I can only hope the bouquet of flowers and a girls' weekend in a few weeks make up for my absence.

And now the stats:

Total distance: 14 miles
Total gain: 7,200 feet
Total time in the car: 12 hours, 30 minutes
Total Washington peaks taller than where we were: one (and it's on the list for next year)

(Want more background? How about the Wikipedia article? Need more pics? Check out Scott's collection at Flickr.)

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