Location: South Cascades
Length: ~12 miles RT
Elevation: 6700 feet
Summit: 12,276 feet
It wouldn’t be until I got home that I realized exactly one year before to the day I had summited Glacier Peak. What a fitting way to celebrate that anniversary than to knock another item off my bucket list?
Mt. Adams, or Pahto, is the second highest point in Washington, standing proudly at a lofty 12,276 feet. Tucked away in the southern part of the state, Adams is the second-most remote volcano and boasts many routes to the summit. The most popular route is the South Spur or South Climb and, due to it being non-technical (no glacier travel), I chose this route to make my solo ascent.
July 1, 2017: Day 1
Knowing just getting to the mountain was going to be a journey, I left Seattle (elevation 0) at 6:30am Saturday and began the long, boring slog down I-5 to Portland. The normal route to the mountain heads through Randle and then south along FR-23, but a series of washouts has blocked the way. Will the road ever be repaired? Doubtful (ok, the last time I said this about a forest service road, it was repaired that very next fall. Cross your fingers!). Now the only ways from Seattle to the Cold Springs trailhead and the start of the climb is to head I-5 to Portland, I-84 to Hood River, and then north to Trout Lake or in via the Yakima side. I briefly thought about going the DB Cooper route and hitch hiking aboard a 727 with a freefall into the wilderness, but I decided my skydiving skills were a bit too rusty for an accurate landing. The drive took me about 4.5 hours, and I arrived at the ranger station in Trout Lake just after 11 am to purchase a climber’s permit.
From the ranger station, the road to Cold Springs is about 15 miles. The pavement ends a few miles in and the real fun begins. Driving a Jeep, I’m never one to shy away from a little dirt forest service road but the first 500 miles of this one had some of the worst washboard I’ve driven. Nevertheless, I pushed on until I reached the Morrison Creek Campground where I paused to locate my teeth and retighten all the bolts on my Jeep.
Cold Springs trailhead is only a couple more miles from Morrison Creek, but due to rutting and erosion, the road displayed aspirations of becoming a 4WD trail – my kind of road! I pulled into the trailhead “lot” at around 11:40 to a sea of cars and trucks strewn across the landscape. Oh well, I knew going in this wasn’t a trip for solitude! I found a nice Jeep-sized spot on top of a stump between two fallen logs next to the trailhead and called it good. Elevation 5500 feet.
It was already warm when I departed at noon, drops of sweat peeking out of my pores as if to check to see they were needed yet. The beginning of the trail follows an old roadbed which looked to be recently used to fight the fires last year, and the only shade to be had was minimal due to the thinning of the forest.
I hit the first patches of snow at around 6000 feet and it was a slushy mess. It was around here that I noticed a hot spot developing on my left heel. Dammit. I was wearing my mountaineering boots since I knew there was going to be snow and upon inspection, I realized I had grabbed a pair of socks that was thinning on my achilles tendon. Oh well, I’ll just slap some leukotape on there and call it g… shit. In an idiot move, I remembered I’d pulled my leukotape from my pack in an effort to shave off a nano-gram of weight and it was sitting safely at home in my gear bin. Sure, I’ll throw a beer or two in my pack, but I draw the line at half an ounce of first aid gear! I slapped a band-aid on, re-tightened my boot, and hoped for the best.
By now, I had moved out of the treeline and was pushing up the ridgeline. The sun was relentless and no amount of sunscreen was deflecting the full barrage of rays from my arms and neck. I stopped in a patch of alpine trees to change up some gear. Out came my OR Echo tee (I’m going to do a full review on these since they’re one of my favorite shirts) with the long sleeves for arm protection. I then fashioned my other tee into a makeshift ghutrah which provided a much needed shield for my head and neck.
As I put my pack back together, I heard a slight hiss and, upon further inspection, discovered that one of my beers had sprung a leak. I was crestfallen. All hope was lost. What was the point of continuing? I no longer had a beer for dinner at camp! Luckily, I had the foresight to place my two cans of IPA in a ziplock so the bleeding tin was unable to soak the rest of my gear. I found that only about 1/4 of the can had leaked so I took the opportunity for a short break and finished the rest of it (and of course I drank what had leaked in the ziplock!). After my delicious, albeit early, refreshment, I took the remaining can and wrapped it gently in my polypros and placed it carefully at the top of my pack as if it were a precious Fabergé egg. I knew at the top of the mountain, I’d want that beer more.
The rest of the hike in went without incident as I slogged up the slushy slopes, passing troves of people on their way down. About half of the traffic were on skis and after an unsuccessful attempt on Baker with my splitboard weeks before, I really did not envy them in the least bit. Hauling that extra weight for the chance to ride marginal spring snow isn’t all that great. Perhaps on a second ascent.
I arrived at the Lunch Counter at about 3:30 pm and found a nice spot nestled within the lava field. The snow had melted out quite a bit and, even though I had planned on staking my tent on the snow, there were a multitude of sandy tent sites created amongst the lava rocks. I threw down my pack and made camp at 9200 feet.
The Lunch Counter gets its name from being the last fairly level area before the steep ascent of the south face of Adams begins. It’s a great place to have lunch and a better one to make camp. As I set up camp, scores of other parties trickled in to stake their claims. I had chosen a nice spot just big enough for my one-man REI Quarterdome that had a killer view of Mt. St. Helens to the west.
Since I had planned on a snow camp, I’d left my water filter at home and opted to boil snow instead. I made my way down to the snowfield by my tent site and dug out a hole in the sand at the terminus. This hole had a few purposes: it acted as a natural snow-melt – the dark sand captured the heat of the sun and used unlimited solar power instead of my stove fuel to melt the snow; it helped pre-filter the water – people pay handsomely for volcanic filtered H20 [note – this may or may not be true]; it kept me busy as I waited for bed time.
My hard work at creating a water station didn’t go unnoticed and a few other parties thanked me for my construction. Anything to help out the community!
With my water taken care of and dinner consumed (sans beer), I sat back to relax and just absorb my surroundings. I was sitting at the threshold of a great mountain and excited at the prospect of reaching the top in the morning. I caught snippets of conversations wafting along from other parties, mostly questions on how long they thought it would take to summit and how hard the climb would be. Consensus seemed to be 3 to 3 1/2 hours from the Lunch Counter to the summit via a why-the-hell-are-we-doing-this-again?! climber’s path. I took note and decided on an alpine start in the morning, leaving by 4am with a summit time of around 7am.
I watched the sun set behind Adams and then climbed into my tent as the air finally cooled around me. 9pm bedtime!
July 2, 2017: Summit Day!
I awoke at 10:38 pm after a … wait, why am I awake?! Let’s try this again. I awoke at 2:06 am … dammit. I awoke at 2:31 a… nope. I awoke at 3:05 am … screw it, I’m up! I think the impending adventure was too much to handle and my mind was raring to go. I poked my head outside the tent and the cool night air enveloped my face. It wasn’t the cold blast I was expecting and I knew I wouldn’t be needing my jacket on the way up. I turned my gaze up toward Adams and my eyes popped wide open at the sight of a billion twinkling stars dotting the blackness that outlined the mountain. Even at this early hour, a glow of light was slowly kindling on the horizon to the east.
I stepped out of my tent to ready my gear and saw the lights of Trout Lake in the valley far below and Portland’s city glow could be seen to the west. To the east, a strange network of flashing red lights covered a few square miles of ground and after searching, I still don’t know what they are.
Other climbers were already stirring and a few intrepid parties were working their way up toward Pikers Peak. I grabbed my pack and dashed off to join them.
From my camp, I had to cross a couple of swaths of boulders before getting to the main snowfield so I left my crampons off and turned on my headlamp. Ten minutes later, I left the rocks behind and the slope of the snow began to steepen. I took a few minutes to put on my crampons and then resumed my ascent.
The route basically shoots up the steep face under the false summit of Pikers Peak in a seemingly unending stair climb. The snow was reflecting the slowly growing light in the east and soon I was able to turn off my headlamp and just enjoy the twilight.
I got into a nice rhythm and began counting my steps as I usually do. Every 200 steps, I would stop to take a small break and pop an energy chew. That grew to every 300 steps and then to 400 as I really got going. 1 and-a 2 and-a 3 … 98, 99, 400… break time!
At each break, I marveled at my surroundings, felt the sky slowly warming up in the east, and watched the lights of other climbers bouncing on the cerulean dance floor below me. I would look up toward the top, but I tried not to focus too much on how much further it was; I’d get there when I got there.
Counting more steps with my head down, I was surprised when I finally crested the false summit of Pikers Peak. I turned around toward the Lunch Counter and raised my ice-axe and let out a whoop in triumph. Many reports I’ve read describe the disheartenment and disappointment people have when they crest the false summit and see the true summit away in the distance. I felt no such disdain.
The sun was rising by now, the day was breaking, and the hardest part of the ascent was behind me. I literally bounded across the snowfield saddle between Pikers Peak and Mt. Adams’ summit, happy to stretch my legs out on the small drop in elevation.
The saddle traverse behind me, I began the final ascent. The snow here was windswept rime and quite beautiful in the dawn light. In the west, Adams was casting a shadow on the valley floor and St. Helens was slowly brightening. I was happy to have my crampons, although a set of microspikes could probably have handled the job.
I made quick work of the last ascent and summited Mt. Adams, 12,276 feet, at about 5:50 am on July 2, 2017.
It was glorious. The only clouds were the morning cover in the landscape thousands of feet below me and the blue sky stretched to the horizon in every direction. I walked the flat top from the west end, where I stood atop the old fire lookout buried beneath the snow, to the east side, where I took my summit break. With the exception of one other party of 3, I had the summit to myself.
Carefully unwrapping my precious summit beer, I thought about what I had just accomplished and actually was surprised at myself and my performance. I had made it from the Lunch Counter to the summit in about 2 hours at a pace that didn’t feel uncomfortable nor too strenuous. I am by no means the fastest climber/hiker/alpinist, nor do I aspire to be, but all my recent running and cycling has definitely paid off and made my adventures even more satisfying. At 40, I can definitely say I’m in the best shape of my life, and that in itself is a huge win.
Anyway, enough of the back-patting, I have to get home!
I left the summit at about 7 am and began my descent. I knew the crowds were out now and on their way and when I got back to the saddle, I began to pass them, strain and exhaustion plastering many of their faces. Don’t worry folks, it’ll all be worth it!
I ran over to Pikers Peak to top out on that, being careful to avoid the titanic cornices looming over the snow shelf below.
When I reached the top of the false summit, a bunch of climbers were gathered getting some respite from their ascent. I took the opportunity to stow my crampons and then tested out the top glissade chute. Whoa. Not gonna happen. I poked my ice axe into the bob-sled run-like chute and, sadly, found it solid as … well, ice. Sitting in that would no doubt shoot me straight down the mountain with no brakes or control at speeds upwards of Mach 3. I envisioned myself hitting a bump and being launched out into space and decided I’d just boot it down instead.
About a third of the way down, I tested the chute again and found it was ripe. I planted my posterior firmly in the glissade path and off I went. Even though the snow was soft enough for my axe to brake in, it was still hard enough that each bit of rough frozen snow made it feel like I was sliding down a gravel hillside. I finally got the bright idea to take my ThermaRest Z-seat and shove it down my pants. Much better.
With the liberal use of gravity assisted boot packing and glissading, I made it back to camp in about 45 minutes. By now the mountain was covered in people dotting the southern face like a flea infestation. I brewed a cup of coffee and sat and watched the hoard for a bit. Pro-tip: if you want some semblance of solitude on the summit, get there really early!
I packed up camp and bade goodbye to the mountain at around 9 am. Heading down was fast, as the snow was much softer in the lower elevations and I could take long plunge steps. There were also a series of glissades which made for quick drops down the path.
An hour later, I reached the trailhead and my Jeep. It’s amazing how much faster one can travel when one has gravity helping out! Total tally for me: 3 hours from the trailhead to the Lunch Counter camp, 2 hours from camp to summit, 45 minutes from summit back to camp, and 1 hour from camp to the trailhead. Could this be done in a day? If you’re in the area, absolutely. With the long drive, I think the way I did it was optimal.
On the way home, instead of the I-5 slog, I took the infinitely more scenic Glenwood Highway east toward Goldendale, and then opted for the Canyon Road between Yakima and Ellensburg. I took the time just cruising in the Jeep with the top down, relishing in what I had just done and thinking about my next adventure. I’m definitely ready for Rainier, but I think I’ll make a pit stop at Baker first.
Unless you live in Portland, drive about a million miles south of Seattle until you get to Portland. Head east on I-84 until you get to Hood River and then head north across the Hood River Bridge –
THIS IS A TOLL BRIDGE and it’s a dollar so don’t be like me and make sure you have a buck on ya. Take a left after the bridge and then right onto Hwy 141 to Trout Lake. The ranger station is through town on the left. Get your climber’s permit here. They can point you the rest of the way.
Cascade Volcano Pass required