Climbing Mt. Adams
Posted 10 Aug 2020
Mt. Adams is the third tallest mountain in the Pacific Northwest at 12,280 feet. Since it requires no technical gear or methods and can be day hiked, although many people opt to do it in two days, Mt. Adams calls to the hiker begging the question, can you?
My answer...depends on when you ask me. Before I started, I thought to myself, "This will be hard, and it will hurt!"
After we climbed from the trail head at 5,555 feet to the Lunch Counter at 9,400 feet in 3.7 miles, (that is over 1,000 feet a mile), I would have said, "This will really hurt!"
I have climbed Mount Saint Helens (given she is only half a mountain), three times. Anyone else who has climbed her knows that the last quarter of a mile on Mount Saint Helen's is a killer with its deep sand and steep gain. I would rather do that a half a hundred times than climb Piker's Peak again.
On the second day out, we started the ascent, attempting to climb 2,400 feet in a mile through the deep snow. Each step was like climbing perpetual stairs in a house designed by H. H. Holmes: steep, airless, endless, and despite the snow, hot. Imagine stacking 17.6 football fields together vertically, covering them with a thick snowpack from the winter and throw a couple feet of new snow on top, then decrease the usable oxygen from 20% to 13.2%.
As I struggled to climb, heart pounding, gasping for air after just twenty steps, I told Kirk "I cannot do this!"
It didn't matter to me that everyone else seemed to be experiencing the same struggle, except maybe one guy, lean, tattooed, and bare-chested, he powered up the mountain as if he were stair-stepping in a gym. He had a big smile for everyone as he passed one climber after the other. We all stared at him with envy and admiration.
We had left the trailhead at 10:54 a.m. the previous morning, not wanting to arrive at the Lunch Counter too early since we planned to camp there. The South Climb route winds up through burned trees from the Cascade Creek Fire of 2012 that destroyed over 20,000 acres and subsequent fires that have only added to the devastation.
We ate sandwiches at Morrison Creek before we really started to climb. As we rested on a rock, we saw a guy flailing down the mountain toward us. He wore a full body suit of shiny electric blue fabric which covered him from his shoes to the top of his head. He wore goggles over his eyes and we could see white teeth in a wide curve of a smile as he raised a hand to greet us.
“I am kind of lost,” he shouted. “I have just come off Mt. Adams. What trail is this?”
Kirk and I glanced at each other and around at the mountain, Mt. Adams, of course. What other mountain could he have just come off?
“This is the South Climb,” I told him.
He lifted a fist in triumph and waddled down the mountain.
“Scuba Steve,” said Kirk as he watched him go.
“Indeed,” I said.
He even walked as if he were wearing flippers.
After Morrison Creek, just two miles in, the route is mostly open, dusty, and steep. We toiled up the narrow, indistinct, lava-strewn trail from cairn to cairn under the heavy weight of our packs that were filled with various thicknesses of snow clothes. I had been so worried about the potential cold (20° nights and icy winds at the summit), that I had packed layers of warmth and no shorts. I rolled my Capri leggings up over my knees and sweated my way up to the Lunch Counter.
The snow began well below the Lunch Counter and dominated the last of our climb. Despite the intense glare, we found it easier to ascend in the snow rather than the iffy path of loose scree that wound through boulders that threatened us with rolled ankles on lava chunks with each step. But even in the barren, volcano-scape some brave plants had pushed through and seemed to thrive until far above the timberline.
The Lunch Counter is a broad, snowy shelf at the bottom of Piker’s Peak, in the crook of the Suksdorf Ridge’s arm. It is dotted with black lava flows where hikers have built rock walls to serve as windbreaks for tents. As we prepared for our trip, it was our understanding that this area was small and that it could be challenging to find a spot to sleep. I still don’t know the dimensions, but the Lunch Counter seemed vast and windbreaks numerous.
“I pictured a small ledge with the mountain on one side and a cliff on the other,” Kirk said. “I didn’t realize that it was going to be as big as West Linn.”
As we found out later, the trouble would be locating our tent site on the way down, among the many black flows that looked the same on each side of the sweeping snow field.
We found a spot at the base of a steep snowbank, just above an icy stream. Finding water was said to be another challenge, but with heat melting the snow all around us, we didn’t have to melt it in our stove. By the time we set up our tent and filtered water from the stream, the wind had picked up. We tied all four corners of the tent with parachute chord, to keep it stable wrapping the chord around large rocks in our windbreak. But we left a corner of the fly up to combat the heat. Through this we had a gorgeous view to the south, to Mt. Hood, always our landmark whether we are hiking the PCT for 455 miles, day hiking in the gorge, or climbing another mountain; Mt. Hood is our symbol of home.
We used our Jetboil cooking system to make Ramen for dinner, shielding the stove’s little flame from the wind between the tent and our backpacks. After dinner, we had little to do having forgotten to pack a deck of cards. The wind continued to pick up until it beat our tent with savage gusts.
We have a large tent in hiker’s terms because I am claustrophobic and most backpacking tents have me diving out of them in panic several times a night. We finally settled on the Tungsten 3P ultralight which has 41.5 square feet of floor space, stands 46 inches at the peak, has two doors and weighs 4lbs. 1.3 oz. It withstood all the hardships of our trek through Oregon with minimal damage. It has one tiny hole, perhaps from a Beagle dew claw, repaired with duct tape to keep mosquitoes out. It also has a broken zipper on one of the doors, another casualty of mosquito warfare. We had plunged into the tent almost every night for three week and yanked hard on the zipper to escape the angry, screaming hoards that pursued us through Southern and Central Oregon. We had forgot about the broken zipper until we set up camp on the Lunch Counter.
Now on Mt. Adams , the sunset illuminated Mt. Hood in a pink glow, reflecting off the wide, white bank of snow across the creek from us. The sky deepened to orange and belied the strengthening wind that had begun to fling and snap the fly in and out of the broken door. When I turned my back to the gaping doorway, it sounded as if someone was trying to get in; it was just the wind.
Eventually, usually sooner than later when we are hiking, Kirk falls asleep and I am left alone with my thoughts and whatever surrounds us in the darkness. Sometimes this makes me nervous as I imagine all the harm that could befall us in the pseudo protection of our tent’s flimsy material. This night, confident that the barren landscape and shrieking wind would keep predators at bay, I relaxed into the giant bulk of the mountain. Slowly, I began to feel a vibration through my thin sleeping pad that grew to a low thrum of power from deep within the earth.
The only other time that I have felt this so clearly, my brother and I were driving in the desert outside of Casa Grande in Arizona. We got out and climbed a hill into a saguaro forest and found a vein of milky quartz. We had been at the hospital visiting my stepmom and my body was filled with the energy of the sick and dying. I lay down gingerly, the quartz digging into my stomach and ribs. I let it absorb all the negativity I had taken in. As I focused on letting go, I began to feel that low thrum coming up from the earth, almost like an electrical current, but clean.
I felt something like this now, as if I were stretched out on a giant generator. But instead of comforting me, as the desert had done, all the power that I could feel humming through my body reminded me that Mt. Adams is the second largest active volcano in the Cascades beaten out only by Mt. Shasta at 14,180, almost 2,000 feet higher. I have never presumed to climb something this large, this magnificent, this hostile. With the earth humming under me and the wind battering our tent, I suddenly wondered if I would maybe fail to summit. Then I knew without a doubt that if I succeeded it would be because the mountain allowed me to.
- - -
At about 11:10 p.m. I poked my head out into the wind. I gasped at the stars overhead. I hadn’t seen stars like that for years, or maybe never as I hadn’t slept at 9,400 feet before.
Immediately, I heard my grandfather, Newt’s voice in my head. I heard exactly what I’d often heard him say when confronted by a jeweled sky.
“The heavens declare the glory of God…”
I felt him near in all those stars and then I remembered to look for the comet. I thrust my whole body up and out of the broken door of the tent, holding onto the unstable frame as if it could keep the angry wind from blowing me away. There over the western shoulder of the perfectly silhouetted Mt. Adams, I saw NEOWISE, fainter than the stars, but clear, head pointed down as if it wanted to crash into the mountain, tail fanned like a white peacock on the grey velvet of that star-studded sky.
Oh, how Newt would have loved this, I thought as I remembered him waking me to speed through the predawn in hopes of catching a glimpse of Halley’s Comet back in 1986.
I stared at the comet fixing the image in my mind. Knowing that my iPhone couldn’t capture any of this night in a photo, I didn’t even try. After a few moments, I felt a prickle of selfishness, so I woke Kirk and hopped out of the tent so that he could access our single door and share in the moment.
We got up at 7:00 a.m. The wind had stopped almost completely by the time we dressed in our layers, shared a breakfast bar and a Carnation protein shake, and put all the extra stuff in the tent to retrieve later. We had ultralight backpacks to haul extra clothes and water to the summit. We fixed our ice axes to our packs and set out over the rocks toward the snow field on the other side. When we reached the snow, we made three decisions.
First, we couldn’t decide what to do with our trekking poles for the descent when we would be glissading, so I took our trekking poles back to our tent, probably a big mistake. Second, the snow had hardened in the night temperatures, so we donned our crampons. Great idea! Third, we stripped off all the unnecessary layers and climbed in short sleeves. It was hot.
The Lunch Counter isn’t at all flat, so we ascended from the second we hit the snow. But as we started up Piker’s Peak, (toward the false summit), we discovered what climbing meant. At first, we were doing 50-60 steps. I know because I was counting. Soon we slowed to 20 steps and then, heart pounding, lungs screaming for air, we would stop to lean on our ice axes for twenty to thirty seconds of rest. I was okay for maybe halfway up and then…
“I can’t do this!” I said over and over.
“You can,” said Kirk trying to cheerlead even as frustration crept into his voice.
“Fine!” I snapped. “I don’t WANT to do this!”
“Fine! Turn around!”
But I didn’t exactly want to turn around yet either. I thought I should at least make the false summit and then I would evaluate. Kirk didn’t see the point of that. But we kept going. After two and a half hours of taking twenty slow steps and stopping to rest, Kirk stepped over the lip of the false summit. I had about 60 steps to get to him. That was it. The problem was that I still didn’t want to!
It is impossible to take a photo that can in any way accurately convey elevation gain. Well, it is impossible for me to get that photo when I am the one struggling to climb. I have tried. Our pictures only partially reveal what the climb is like, so steep that when we stopped to rest, we had to burn energy leaning forward so that we wouldn’t slide back down or fall. I am not sure how to describe breathing at 12,000 feet. Air goes in, but doesn’t go all the way down, it doesn’t satisfy. Your body is constantly begging for oxygen to support the grueling work but is isn’t there.
I reached down deep and hoisted myself up and up those last few steps knowing that surely, I could push through to Kirk. I couldn’t. I had to stop at 22, gasping for breath. I made myself go again after just a few seconds of rest and heaved myself up and over the rim of the false summit anticipating that rush of adrenaline that would hit me with the accomplishment.
We had climbed one mile in 2.5 hours instead of our usual 2.5 miles in one hour. As I stepped over the lip of the false summit, my heart dropped like an anvil in my chest. I had known that this was the false summit. I had prepared myself to climb again. I had read and heard that if I made it to the top of Piker’s Peak (which we had), that we had would have done the hard part and everything else from here was “easy”.
No! It did not look easy.
First, we would cross a saddle, losing elevation. Then we would climb back up from that, traverse more lava and then climb steeply again. We could see tiny dots of people ahead of us.
We had been leap-frogging with two guys, one of whom had brought a five-year-old Huskie named Loki and a twelve-year- old pit, maybe huskie mix, named Lillie. I felt for the dogs, especially Lillie who looked almost as tired as I felt as she dragged her old body up and up, but it sounded like the dogs did this sort of thing a lot.
We met Loki on the Lunch Counter when he rushed up to me and covered my face with panting kisses. He walked with us part of the time, a big smile on his furry face. Then he would disappear into the black lava rock and we would occasionally spot him sliding in and out of the boulders. His head would pop up, ears pricked, snout raised, his one blue eye and one yellow eye blazing and when I saw him my breath caught. As we left the lava flows behind, Loki climbed up above us to find large sun cups in the snow where he could curl up to rest and wait for his person.
As we started down to cross the saddle, a wall of cloud broiled up to the northeast. Oh no! We had come all this way, worked so hard only to lose our view to a cloudbank? I prayed, I begged, I pleaded with the mountain. I sighed, I groaned, I plodded on.
I wouldn’t say that the last leg of the journey was easier, just shorter. But at this point we kept going; there was no question of stopping now. A couple of skiers came at us and we had to leap out of the way of their awkward snowplowing. The cloud from the northeast had joined forces with a front from the south and we were surrounded by a wet gloom. It kept moving and shifting around us as we climbed higher.
After all the struggle to climb the false summit, finally Kirk and I figured it out. He would climb twenty (well, more like thirty), steps and wait. I would climb to him. I would tell myself not to think about the whole mountain, but just climb to Kirk. That was all I had to do. Get to Kirk, the perfect metaphor of our life together for the last six years. We were two people who found each other in mist and fog and I found my way by following him.
With this system in mind, we continued our slow crawl up and up through ever softening snow, sometimes falling up to our hips in it.
At last, we stepped over the lip and then we could see guys father up (more climbing), and the dogs resting on a snowy knoll that had formed around the old fire lookout. This buried building had a very interesting history of trying. It was conceived in 1917 and finally abandoned in 1925. It is mostly buried in snow now with part of the side and just a few roof boards visible.
We heard rumor of a climbing log in which to record our success, but we saw no sign of it, just a pole wrapped in brightly colored bandanas sticking out of the glittering, white snow.
We staggered to that and the guys told us that we had arrived. I think, there is still a higher point, but everyone considered this summit. (Either way, we aren’t going back. LOL.) When we stepped onto the final ridge made by a little house long buried in snow, we finally had a view to the northwest, bright and clear, Mt. Rainier and beyond that Mt. Olympus and the Olympic Range. -The clouds kept shifting so that we could sometimes see Mt. Saint Helens to the southwest. My uncle lives near there and I waved to him during a cloud break as I had promised.
I carry a small bottle of Larry’s ashes with me whenever I hike. During our trek along the Oregon PCT, I left ashes in places that I deemed worthy, such as Crater Lake, Devil’s Peak and Jefferson Park. Larry’s bucket list had included hiking the PCT in sections and climbing Mt. Adams. So, I walked to the highest point that I saw to leave some of him there. I always feel the intense unfairness of it all. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Larry sharing with me his love of hiking. It is always hard for me to leave many of his ashes behind, but I left a lot, I think.
After that, we took victory pictures, ice axes hoisted, fists pumping the air. We took a couple selfies and gazed at our partial view. We lay in the snow and I tried to analyze how I felt.
“How do you feel?” I asked Kirk.
“Great!” he said. “We did it! And half dragged your sorry butt up here too.”
He smiled at me.
“True,” I said and closed my eyes.
“No one can take this away from us,” he added.
I really didn’t know what I was feeling. Contentment? Maybe?
- - -
Glissading is overrated. Kirk and I both thought so.
Glissading from the summit to the saddle is nothing, easy-peasy. We used that time to get the hang of starting and stopping.
Sliding on your ass in a snow chute down the steep and scary Piker’s Peak is exhilarating and terrifying. Save it for the 20 something year-olds. We probably ruined it for those directly behind us, gripping our ice axes with all our might, digging the spike into the bank, and dragging our feet on the sides to push snow in in front of us to slow us to a stop every fifty feet or so. I experimented with various positions, sitting up, leaning back, something in between. I wanted to let go and see how fast I could shoot down the mountain. I wanted to not be scared, but everything looked so straight down, like I could get started and spin out of control into the rocks at the bottom, a broken, bloody mess. It is telling when the desire for safety is greater than the desire for fun. A few times, I did spin out of control and jumped the chute, rolling and twisting to stop, to stand, and flail my way back.
I had decided at the last minute to leave my snow pants behind. Now I was wearing a base layer and some convertible, stretch, water-resistant hiking pants. My butt burned from the cold. I wondered if I could damage it. Like could my butt get frostbite or something? Sometimes this fear made me stop and stand up, to unthaw for a minute.
After a couple hours, we hit the bottom of Piker’s Peak. As nerve-wracking as it was, glissading saved us so much time. It took us a little over 5 hours to summit from the Lunch Counter and 2 hours to descend back to our tent. Then we couldn’t find our tent. We had tried to catalogue the various rock formations in our head when we left to climb. I had even taken a couple photos. Still when we descended, we were two formations west of our tent and our gear.
The rest of the story is typical. We hurried down as fast as we could, slipping and sliding through the soft afternoon snow and then slipping and sliding down the burnt, sandy lava strewn trail to Morrison Creek. We met other hikers headed up who had packed too many layers and voiced hopes that the climb wouldn’t get much harder. We had to let them down, but we tried to do it gently.
After Morrison Creek, it is a two-mile hike to the parking area along an abandoned roadway through beautiful, purple lupine, augmented with an occasional dash of bright, red Indian Paintbrush against the white snags of the fire. We hauled on this easy two miles and it still seemed like it took an eternity. We had a hotel room and plans for delivered pizzas waiting for us in Hood River.
- - -
By the time we got in the truck and it started (Kirk worried that he might have left the lights on), we realized how badly we were sunburned. At about 3 a.m. the next morning, I woke up and realized that my lips were swollen to twice their normal size and blistered. All that time walking on snow with the hot sun beating down did a number on us. Other than that, we were a little sore, but not destroyed as we had feared.
After all that, I agree whole-heartedly with the quote that is attributed to Edmund Hillary, "It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves."
Kirk swears he will never climb over 9,000 feet again, BUT the Forester Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail is 13,153 ft, so I don’t believe him. Check back in a year or two and we will have a report on our Sierra section of the PCT. I almost promise.