Climbing Mt Adams

My first climb on Adams is a bust. I spend all night in Portland checking the weather, hoping the skies will clear by sunrise. Then I sleep through my alarm, drive for two hours, and don't get started up the mountain until 9am which is ridiculous. On top of that, there is a nasty weather system socking in the top 2000 feet of the mountain, which I can see from miles away. I know before I even get out of my car that making summit is not even an option. Instead, I just climb up to timberline and break in my new gear on Crescent Glacier. Everyone I see is coming down from Lunch Counter at 8500 feet, a flat spot where most climbers bivouac. No one is attempting summit. They all say it's too cold, windy and socked in. At noon, I see clouds creeping in below me. This is when I planned to turn around anyway. I head down, but decide to come back in a week fully prepared for a summit bid, weather permitting.

Eager for some company on this climb, I invite my friend, "Danger" Dave. I spent a week with Dave at Whistler/Blackcomb in BC in January, snowboarding some steep and gnarly glaciers, and we've also surfed White Sands. Dave climbed Mt Adams a few years ago with his girlfriend, and he expressed interest in going up again, so it seemed like a good fit. We agree to do the entire 7000 foot vertical climb in one day instead of camping at Lunch Counter like most climbers. This is a tall order. Adams tops out a thousand feet higher than Mt Hood. My biggest concern is altitude related sickness associated with gaining that much elevation without acclimating, as I seemed to struggle with altitude problems quite a bit on my Hood climb.

Dave picks me up at 5:30am and we drive east through the Columbia River Gorge at sunrise, which is absolutely spectacular, causing our conversation to trail off several times, while absorbed in the beauty unfolding before us. I view this as a good sign. By 7:30 we have our permits, reach the climbers trailhead, and begin our ascent.

We make good time getting to Crescent Glacier where I'd practiced with my new boots and crampons the previous week. We decide to skirt this glacier to the left up a rock ridge, rather than climb snow. Once on the ridge, the climb goes quickly. Before long we've reached the top of the Glacier, and arrive at Lunch Counter. Several climbing parties have established basecamps here. We break here and gear up for snow climbing. We watch other groups glissading down the snow chutes as we prepare to climb. It's shaping up to be a beautiful day, and everyone on the mountain seems to be having a good time. It's supposed to reach 100 degrees in the valley, and even though we are climbing snow, we climb in shorts. We are trying to get as high as possible before the heat of the day kicks in.

Dave sets a strong pace. I'm impressed with his climbing strength. He enjoys longer breaks. I tend to climb a little slower, but prefer to keep moving. The longer I stay in one spot, the more stiff and cold I get. But we find a good balance between his speed and my desire to keep moving. We storm up the mountain making excellent time, but it's still a massive effort. Hours roll by as we continue to climb. We kick step a switchback trail through a glacial finger on the far right that no one else is climbing. It requires a traversal, but this snow finger extends higher than the rest, which means less rock scrambling above it. This entire section of the climb is swarming with Monarch Butterflies. There is no vegetation up here, only snow and rock. I assume they are migrating, and maybe this giant monolith is some sort of layover or watering hole for them. The site is amazing. It doesn't photograph well at all, but I'll never forget climbing up a snowfield at 10,000 feet surrounded by the Monarchs.

Hundreds of feet below Piker's Peak, the false summit, we run out of snow and must resort to scrambling up steep piles of loose rock and scree. This part of the climb is by far the most grueling. We take it a step at a time, trying to not trigger rockfall on climbing parties below us. After serious effort we reach Piker's Peak and can finally see the true summit, still about a thousand feet above us. The route is free of snow but very steep. Between Piker's Peak and the true summit at about 11,000 feet is a vast, relatively flat ice field. Walking across this ice field is probably my favorite part of the entire day. We're so high up, and it's so quiet. All I can hear is the crunching sound of my own footsteps on the ice. Because I keep stopping to take photos, Dave is a ways ahead of me and looks microscopic against the gigantic ice walls behind him. When I get to the middle of the vast plain, I stop and take in the epic view. The ice is melting beneath my feet, creating millions of miniature streams of water rolling just beneath its surface. Some of this ice is a deep penetrating blue, a color variant I've not seen in nature before.

The final climb to the true summit is steep but manageable. I am starting to feel the altitude, but it's not nearly as crippling as it was on Hood even though I'm a thousand feet higher. I feel like I'm breathing and climbing more efficiently this time. We finally reach the summit around 2:30 pm, which is actually pretty late, since we still have a 7000 foot return. But we will be glissading down, making for a speedy descent. The summit plateau is huge (210 acres) which surprises me. An old sulfur mining operation stands in ruins on the plateau. It's insane to think that someone actually thought putting a mine on top of a 12,277 foot volcano was a good idea. We stay for a bit, take readings with Dave's gps device, snap some photos, and begin the long descent.

Down we go, plunge stepping down the summit, crunching across the ice field, blowing past Piker's Peak where a large group of climbers are resting, and carefully treading down the loose rock all the way down to the snow. From here, we glissade down huge portions of the glaciers on our butts. I've finally got the hang of glissading, and it's like riding a snow slide for a thousand of feet. With ice axe in hand, I dig the handle into the snow to brake and maintain complete control over my speed. Many climbers have met with disaster by losing control while glissading. It's a balancing act of having fun, but not too much fun. By 6:30 we're back at the car, eleven hours after starting the climb. Exhausted and hungry, we stop in at the local diner in Trout Lake at the base of the mountain and celebrate with burgers and fries.

The Mt Adams climb went perfectly. It was long day of climbing. Seven hours up, four hours down. I got many hours of valuable experience on all types of terrain, communed with the Monarchs, traversed an ice field which was an almost otherworldly sensation, and had a blast glissading down the mountain with Dave, all while escaping the infernal triple digit heat of valley below. If there is such a thing as a text book climb, Adams was definitely it for me.

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