The Tortoise and The Hare

Two weekends ago was Memorial Day weekend and we found ourselves with a weekend off from Boealps and planned trips.  So what did we do?  Planned a trip to climb Mt Adams, of course.  And who did we plan it with?  Almost our entire team, that’s who!  Almost every student on our team decided to join, but all of our instructors had other plans for the weekend.  We found ourselves planning our first climb without instructors, without more knowledgeable people to look too for advice and answers.  We started with the basics, the stats on Mt Adams.  Mt Adams is the second highest peak in Washington state at 12,281ft.  The most common route up to the summit is the South Spur and is a non-technical snow climb, starting from South Climb Trail #183.  Although the route is non-technical it is steep and crampons and ice axes are a must.  This route is 5.7 miles one way and gains 6,676ft of elevation during the climb, not counting the elevation lost and regained after reaching Pikers Peak (Adams’ false summit).  Many people camp half way at Lunch Counter to split the elevation gain between two days.  On the way back down there is a 2,000ft glissade.  This was our plan:

  • Arrive at Mt Adams on May 23rd around 7:00 or 8:00 pm
  • Sleep until 2:30am
  • Begin climb at 3:00am (an alpine start!)
  • Summit at 11:00am, 2:00pm at the latest (We budgeted for 8hrs on the way up and six on the way down, but 2:00 was our hard turn around time because it still gave us six hours to descend before dark.  There was also potential weather rolling in around 11:00am, making it an ideal time to summit and get down)
  • Descend, get back to the cars, and celebrate!

Kyle and I drove over to Mt Adams on the 23rd via Forest Service Road 23.  We could have gone down through Portland and back up, which was actually faster, but FSR 23 looked more direct and promised better views.  The phone, despite having warned us about the tolls present on the Portland route, failed to warn us about the rough roads present on the FSR 23 route.  Not too rough for the Subaru, but thank god we weren’t driving something with lower clearance… So future Mt Adams climbers beware, FSR 23 isn’t for every car. FSR 23 was beautiful though, winding us through a part of the state neither Kyle or I had spent much time in.  And right as we crossed the Pacific Crest Trail and ventured into the more eastern side of the state the sun broke through the clouds and changed the forest from greens and grays to gold.  By the time we had reached the Mt Adams Wilderness Area the skies were blue and white clouds were flirting with the summit, obscuring it from view.  We stopped in the middle of huge burned swaths of forest, taking advantage of the decreased canopy cover to take stunning pictures of the massive mountain.

We reached the Cold Creek Campground around 6:00pm and continued up to the South Climb Trail #183 trailhead parking lot where we planned to sleep in our car.  The rest of our crew rolled in around 7:00pm and we set our start time and turn around times for the next day.  We also discussed our plans for someone getting altitude sickness, bad weather, and other emergencies.  Then we all crawled into our cars or tents and attempted to go to sleep despite the sun still being squarely in the sky.  It was a restless night of sleep, not knowing what the next day would bring, but every time I got out to pee I was greeted by the most incredible stars.

At 2:30am our alarms all went off simultaneously and by 3:11am we were standing at the trailhead, a few people filling out wilderness permits (at that point you still didn’t need a Cascade Volcano Pass, just a wilderness permit which can be found at all trailheads and ranger stations), and the rest of us looking at maps and other information at the trailhead kiosk.  Kyle had wandered about fifteen feet away from the rest of the group to check out another sign.  Two girls we didn’t know, but who were also attempting an early start to their day, came up behind him to read the sign as well, not realizing they were putting themselves in a dangerous position.  Seconds later Kyle released a giant, resonating fart, directly onto them, sending our group into hysterics and the two of them scampering down the trail.  Kyle looked around, realizing for the first time that the two girls had not been Sarah and I, as he had recklessly assumed, but two complete strangers.  He laughed with abandon and we all started down the trail, grinning at the stars.

The trail started as dirt and slowly transitioned to snow.  We followed the boot pack and crunched along until the incline began to get steeper and the footing became slippery.  At that point we stopped to put on our crampons and wield our ice axes.  Shortly after that we were able to turn off our headlamps.  We had planned to head up the west side of the Crescent Glacier and then cross it, hopping over to Lunch Counter, but the boot pack lead us up the east side of the glacier instead and right onto the ridge.  During our ascent up the ridge to Lunch Counter a couple of different strategies began to surface amongst our team members.  Because it was a wide snow field, many of us were hiking next to each other, so we were not employing the technique of kicking steps, stepping out, and getting back in at the end of the line.  As a result a lot of the group, who is no doubt in much better shape than I am, was going way to fast for my body to handle.  I realized this very quickly and backed off, figuring they would just have to wait for me at Lunch Counter if I fell behind.  I began to employ the rest step, a technique we had been taught in class where, with every step you take, you pause for a second on your straightened back leg before transferring weight over onto your bent front leg and stepping up.  In this sense you take a tiny break every step and damn, it felt amazing!  I would watch the group get ahead of me, with Kyle sprinting up the mountain, but then everyone would stop to take a break and I would slowly gain on them and then pass them.  When they started up again they would overtake me, but I never stopped moving.

Upon cresting the ridge and getting to the flatter area that is the Lunch Counter, a popular place for people to camp, Kyle dropped back to me and admitted that he was feeling like shit.  He was super super nauseous.  We all took a break at the bottom of the incredibly long and steep climb up to Pikers Peak and I made him eat an Emergency but I could tell he was feeling pretty rough.  I had been too when I had been going fast.  So, in a purely selfish act so I could make it to the top, I asked the group if they would mind slowing down for the next part of the climb, maybe we could climb in a line like the class suggested and find some kicked steps to utilize so we weren’t all having to kick our own.  They agreed and David suggested I lead us to begin with.   We started up and I went slow.  Like really really slow.  I went as slow as I needed to go to make it to the top and at first I could feel some buzzing energy behind me.  I could feel the push to go faster.  But after about ten minutes either I had just been imagining it or it stopped, because suddenly I could tell the group had settled into the pace.  Kyle yelled up to me that I didn’t have to worry, he was feeling better!  We plodded along, in someone else’s perfect step staircase, gaining elevation all the time.

Up towards the top though we ran out of steps.  I don’t know where the person we had been following went but suddenly they were gone.  We all got our first taste for trying to walk on an icy slope in crampons.  It was uncomfortable.  I tried all the different techniques, side stepping and duck footing up the mountain but no matter what I tried it was just hard on the heels.  It was also getting hot at this point.  Really hot.  Needless to say getting to Pikers Peak provided us with a much-needed break but also showed us, for the first time, just how much ground we still had to cover.  False summits can really suck, and Pikers Peak might be one of the worst ones I have ever seen.  You reach the top of it and suddenly you have to go back down (torture) and then you have another thousand feet of elevation gain stretching above you.  After the break we all wandered across the saddle between Pikers and the summit and ascended to the top.  As we neared the top we could see clouds forming to the east, making me nervous (of course) but the views were incredible.  We summited at 10:00am and were greeted by a panorama of mountains, with Rainer and Goat Rocks to the north, Helens to the west, and Hood and Jefferson to the south.  Everything to the west of us was blanketed in a low-lying layer of clouds with just the gaping top of Helens visible.  What an incredible place we live in.

Then began the descent, which sometimes can be as painful as the ascent but not on Adams because on Adams you have glissade after glissade after glissade.  You hardly have to walk down at all.  Glissading is like being a kid again, but instead of going down a slide at a jungle gym or a water park you are sliding down a mountain.  What could be more satisfying than that?  A mountain that took us seven hours to climb took us three to descend.  When we were standing at Lunch Counter after the glissade, whooping and hollering from exhilaration and holding our butts cause they were numb and tingly from the snow, I wondered, would I do it again just to glissade back down?

Mt Adams was a perfect day.  The scenery was beautiful, the group was amazing, I learned why the rest step is so important, and although the forming clouds at the top of the mountain made me nervous, I hardly felt scared at all.  The goods outweighed the bads 10:1.  Not to mention Kyle and I had made a goal to climb the five biggest volcanos in Washington this summer (Rainier, Adams, Baker, Helens, and Glacier) and we were able to check our first volcano off that list.   I truly felt blissful after this climb and I will remember that forever.

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As Edward Abbey said, "An indoor life is the next best thing to a premature burial."

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