A gust of cold wind pulls me from a deep sleep. I fumble for my wool hat & tug it over my ears, securing my sleeping bag more snugly around my neck. My bivy bag is partly protected by a 12 inch high wall of pumice that a previous tenant has thoughtfully constructed and I discover if I lie on my back I can avoid the strongest gusts of wind. From this vantage point I gaze up at the Milky Way splashed across a night sky thick with stars, a night-time gift in any wilderness area far from the lights of city living. I figure it must be around 2 am, far too early to be awake. In the absence of sheep perhaps I can try counting stars!
We are camped out on the side of Mt Adams, Washington State’s second largest peak at 12, 276 feet. Earlier in the day we had picked up the required climbing permit from the Mt Adams Ranger Station in Trout Lake, the ranger cautioning us to take the winter route on the South Climb to avoid some large cornices and to take it slow on the drive up the forest road to the trailhead. We learn there are 89 climbers on the mountain. How hard can this be? If 89 other climbers have made it there ahead of us then perhaps there’s hope for me!
Climbing Adams has long been on my wish list but I confess to some trepidation at the ranger station faced with the reality, not to mention the enormity of this undertaking. Adams is one of the Cascade Volcanoes, an arc of volcanoes that stretch from southwestern British Columbia through Washington State, Oregon and into Northern California. The Cascade Arc includes nearly 20 major volcanoes, with twelve of them above 10,000 feet. Years ago, shortly after we had moved to the Pacific Northwest, I remember being transfixed by a relief map of the Cascade Mountain Range. I traced my fingers down the backbone of the Cascades, reading by braille the seismic shifting of plates that had crumpled, melted and uplifted rocks over millions of years to form this series of mountains and volcanoes. From north to south I followed the line of volcanoes in Washington State: Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams.
I learned that the Cascade volcanoes are considered some of the most dangerous because of their potential for future eruptions, the most famous in recent years being the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980 when the mountain lost 1,300 feet off the top. To summit Mount St Helens today is to stand 8,365 feet above sea level, modest in height compared to the giant of them all, Mount Rainier at 14,411 feet. Over the years I have climbed Mount St. Helens, Lassen Peak, and Bachelor. This weekend I am hoping to view the world from the summit of Adams!
There are four of us in the group: my husband and son who have climbed Adams before, and my son’s girlfriend and myself for whom this is a first. Both of us also happen to have June birthdays so there is a sense of celebration around the climb. As the ranger predicted, the drive to the trailhead is an adventure in itself and it takes us a while to negotiate the last three miles of potholes, gullies and wash outs, courtesy of winter weather and summer snowmelt.
We park the car, make final adjustments to our backpacks and take this last chance to use a real bathroom – yes! at moments like this pit toilets seem the height of luxury. We are taking the South Climb Trail, considered a non technical route up the mountain since the only skills required are the ability to “stair step” 6,000 vertical feet, equipped with crampons and an ice ax, over snow and patches of volcanic rock.
On September 8, 2012 a lightening strike ignited a fire that blazed for over a month burning a 20,000 acre swathe of forest on the south side of Mount Adams. The first mile and a half of trail passes through this burn area.
Four years later, grasses, huckleberry bushes and wildflowers are a splash of color among the blackened trees, dead crowns silvered with age, and testament to the regenerative power of plant life.
We continue along the trail, crossing over the Round the Mountain Trail and begin to climb more steeply on the snowfield until we eventually reach our destination for the night, a rocky plateau known as Lunch Counter at roughly 9,000 feet.
Ben scouts out a perfect place for us to set up camp, perched on a rocky ridge with a sweeping view of Mount Hood, Jefferson and the Three Sisters to the south, while Mount St. Helens floats on a cloud sea to the west.
Two climbers, reduced to the size of ants by the vastness of the mountain, make their way up the snowfield. To be in the mountains is to be humbled. It is to realize that just as my life is everything, it is also nothing against the immensity of this backdrop. There is nothing maudlin in this dawning recognition, merely an acceptance of perspective and scale.
And so, back to the cold wind, the wooly hat, the Milky Way and counting stars which proved to be very effective since the next thing I know it is 5:30 and time to rise, eat some breakfast bars, drink some water, don crampons and climb.
There is already a line of ant sized people climbing up the slope but I’m glad for our late start. We leave most of our gear at Lunch Counter and despite carrying a lighter pack, this section of the trail, stretching 2,700 feet up to Piker’s Peak, is steeper, longer and harder than it looks and I’m glad for the softer snow. If the slope was icy it would be more of an adrenalin rush even with crampons!
Breathing, climbing and admiring the view are beyond the scope of my multi tasking skills the higher I go – I can manage two out of three so I opt for the breathing and climbing until I reach the top of Piker’s Peak or False Summit as it is discouragingly referred to. It feels and looks like it should be a summit but with 600 feet to go its not, hence the falseness of it. However, the mountain levels off at this point before the final pitch, so now is the perfect time to breathe and gaze at the Cascade of mountains stretching out on all sides.
The true summit is tantalizingly close as we trudge across the snowfield to the last short, steep ascent. By this time I’ve taken slow to a whole new level. Plant ice ax, step, breath, repeat. Any slower and I’m in danger of going backwards but somehow the planting, stepping, breathing strategy works and I’m finally at the top.
Enough snow has melted to reveal the roof line of a wooden hut on the summit. Built as a fire look out in 1918 it was deserted after only two seasons – I’m sure inaccessibility and harshness of conditions may have been contributing factors. A few years later it was used as a summer base for a sulfur mining camp which was eventually abandoned in the 1950’s.
And then for the fun part for what goes up must come down! The descent is a 3,000 foot glissade down to Lunch Counter – basically bob sledding without a bob sled. Just snow pants and an ice ax as a rudder and brake! What took hours to accomplish on the way up is over in a fraction of the time on the way down.
Pausing long enough at Lunch Counter to gather up the rest of our gear, we continue the rest of the descent on foot – such a labor intensive mode of travel compared to the ease of sit and slide!
It’s rumored that Mt St. Helens, pre-eruption, and Mt. Adams were ranked 1st and 2nd respectively, as the best mountains to glissade in the Cascades. The eruption swiftly bumped Mt. Adams into 1st place. I’ll let you judge for yourself!