Mount Adams, day one
I wake up very early in the morning to stumble through my to-do list and gather everything together. My place is a mess but it’s been a mess for a week, so what else is new? I shower and wolf down some breakfast and manage to have a little down time to pet my cats before Sara and Sam pick me up at six.
We get to the ranger station in Trout Lake a little early and wait around for it to open at eight, but it turns out everything we need is outside on the little porch. We fill out a climbing register and pick up our “scat bags” and chat with the ranger—the same one who gave J and me some recommendations for Indian Heaven last weekend—for a few minutes and then head on our way.
The pavement ends soon and the quality of the dirt road steadily worsens as we (well, Sara; I should give her credit for driving) wind our way up towards the mountain. The last fifteen miles take us an hour. When we arrive at Cold Springs “Campground,” there are cars parked in every conceivable spot and tents set up next to them. Eventually we squeeze ourselves in next to a pickup truck, pull out our packs, unpack and repack them several times, and finally hit the trail at around 9:45.
It’s warm! We hike in t-shirts and get mighty sweaty. The trail starts out as switchbacks through forest thinned by fire and blowdown, but once we reach the snow level, we abandon what we can see of the trail and follow bootprints more or less straight up the slope towards the mountain looming ahead of us. Every few minutes we stop for breath and to turn around and admire the views of Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens and the blue hills of the Columbia Gorge and beyond. The higher we get, the more frequent such breaks become, because the views get better and the climb gets harder.
We are all pretty ridiculously happy to be on the mountain in the sun. None of us have been here before and it’s Sara’s first glaciated peak. It feels so good to be breathing hard, gasping a little between sentences as we tell each other about what we did last weekend (we all camped in different places) and joke about pika calls. Every once in awhile we pause to consider which boot tracks to follow. Every once in awhile we meet climbers on the way down and ask about their summit and the conditions up there. During a break in a small saddle, two runners with just sneakers and race vests pass by on the way back from what I can only assume was an early morning summit. Fast and light! Another pair on their way back down left their tents at the Lunch Counter at 4am and hiked to the summit under the stars and the yellow moon.
We’ve had a few snack breaks, but we decide to push to the Lunch Counter before breaking for lunch. It’s starting to feel pretty tough when we finally reach a family group breaking camp in anticipation of heading down. They’re three generations, they tell us, including a nine-month old daughter and granddaughter! The baby is very cheerful, looking around and exchanging exclamations with her granddad. He stayed with her while her parents pushed for the summit this morning.
We ask them if we’re at the Lunch Counter and they laugh. “This is more like the breakfast counter,” they tell us, “what you can see up there”—pointing—”is maybe brunch.” We trudge onward.
The snow is soft and we’re postholing a bit and slipping from time to time. In other places the snow is crumbly ice crystals on top of much firmer ice that catches the sunlight and glows blue under our footsteps. We take turns leading, which sometimes means finding good tracks to follow and other times means kicking steps across suncups.
We start to see a few more tents set up in flat spots amidst piles of lava rock, some of which have been piled up to make windbreaks. Folks keep pointing us upward—there’s tons of places up there, they say. We have a great view of the long, steep climb up to the false summit, Piker’s Peak, and can see a line of ant-people moving slowly up it, as well as several unbelievably long glissade tracks leading down. We’re almost to the top of what looks like the last crest before that ascent.
Finally around three or four we find two guys who are just finishing packing up their camp spot. We stake a claim, but Sam scouts a little further and thinks he’s found a spot where both his two-person and my one-person tent will fit. The spot he has in mind for my tent is too tiny, but I find a somewhat-protected flat spot in the snow on the other side of a pile of rocks from his tent spot, and I was figuring I’d be snow camping anyway—I’d even borrowed J’s snow stakes.
It’s a bit of a struggle to get the stakes into the icy snow, but I eventually manage it, more or less, and pile rocks on top of them to keep them in place. Now that we’ve stopped, it’s pretty chilly, and I’m bundled in my puffy and hat. We’d talked about trying for the summit this afternoon, but we’re pretty beat, and everyone we’ve talked to has encouraged us to wait for firmer snow in the morning. So I set up my tent and my sleeping stuff—pad, bag, and awesome new stuffsack pillow from Goosefeet Gear—and then hunker down out of the wind near Sam and Sara’s tent.
We melt some snow, boil water, I make some dinner. Sam busies himself by filtering water and refilling all our bottles. The wind starts to pick up, but behind the rocks, in the sun, with a puffy on, it still feels quite pleasant. My face feels warm—probably burnt despite three or four applications of sunscreen.
A little later it’s a little cooler, so I add wool leggings underneath my bright spandex and put on thicker socks, then meet Sam and Sara in their tent to play Farkle, a dice game that Sam and Tracey taught Daren and me at Mount Saint Helens. Two rounds later I head back to my tent to curl up in my sleeping bag. It’s only eight or so, but laying down sounds pretty good. We’re hoping to get an early start tomorrow morning. I step out of my tent around nine to pee and stare for a moment at the sunset, then snuggle in and cinch up my bag around my ears.
It’s windy and cold all night. I swear I can feel the wind blowing through my tent on my face. Every time I wake I’m confused by the brightness of the moon; I can still read the logo on the side of my tent at 1am, 2am, 3am. At 3:30 I finally convince myself to sit up out of my sleeping bag long enough to pull on my rain shell and pull up the hood, then burrow in again. Finally I’m warm enough, and next thing I know it’s light outside, and Sam is outside my tent calling my name. “Ready to get going?” In a minute I’m up, out of my sleeping bag, sorting through the things I need to take to the summit. In another minute I am all the way out of my tent and waving to Sam and Sara, “I’m gonna go use this scat bag over there! Don’t go exploring!”
I stomp over to the other side of a nearby rock outcropping and poop on an actual paper target with what is hands-down the best poop view of my life.
The weather reports we read before we left yesterday morning included a chance of less-than-awesome (thundery) weather after 11 today, so we’re a little apprehensive as we look at the sky. The false summit—we can’t see the real one from here—is clouded over, but nothing looks too thick or mean. The wind is blowing east, and we can’t see bad weather coming in from the west. We decide to go for it. “We’ll turn around immediately if we need to,” we agree.
I have no appetite, but I force down some fig newtons. By 5:45am we’ve packed up our summit bags and tossed everything else in our tents, and we’re heading towards the enormous steep slope to the false summit. It looms above us, striped with glissade tracks. We stop to take off a layer and strap on our crampons as soon as we hit the incline. It’s chilly and windy and the snow is firm and icy. It’s around here that we spot the dark, round cloud lurking just east of the mountain. We make worried noises at each other and another woman on her way up says, “that? That’s nothing!” Which makes us feel better, which is exactly the kind of human factor our BCEP leaders warned us about, of course. But it’s downwind and below the summit. We’ll keep an eye on it. We keep climbing.
We experiment on the ascent, zig-zagging across the slope, duck-walking straight up, stepping carefully in yesterday’s boot tracks, and so on. Sometimes a boot track will be perfect stairs for a few dozen feet and then inexplicably peter out. I like using the “hybrid” crampon technique, with one foot aimed straight up and the other perpendicular to it, but after a while my knees and achilles tendons start to complain a bit, so I switch it up, and later switch back. I’ve got my ice ax in one hand and one trekking pole in the other to help me up the mountain.
We break partway up and I manage to eat an energy bar. The rest of the climb to the false summit is more of the same. Finally, we gain the crest and see the whole of the approach to the real summit, a long moderate descent and then another steep ascent to the top. I’m the first of our small team to the false summit, and I pull out my sit pad and sit amidst the other climbers collected there to have a drink of water while I’m waiting for Sam and Sara. When they arrive, Sara notices that Sam has an earbud in, and a brief discussion ensues about the best music for this climb. I suggest Van Halen, and Sara joins me in belting out the chorus to “Livin’ on a Prayer”—which I realize later is by Bon Jovi, not Van Halen; I’m gonna blame that one on the altitude. Anyway, it’s more perfectly appropriate than I realize when I start:
Oh, we’re halfway there,
Oh-oh, livin’ on a prayer!
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear,
Oh-oh, livin’ on a prayer!
“Okay, let’s keep climbing,” says Sam, and we keep climbing. The gentle downhill after the false summit is a nice respite from the hard effort of climbing, but soon enough we’re headed up again. For the twentieth time today, I get excited and push hard for a moment, then find myself panting and short of breath. Oh yeah: altitude.
We’ve spread out as we approach the summit. When I’m getting close, the group that summited ahead of me heads along the ridge to my right, and Sam is several minutes behind me, so when I summit, I summit alone. One more step, and suddenly Mount Rainier is there, incredibly, before me. “Oh my god!” I say to no one, breathing hard. I go to my knees, and then put my forehead on the snow, crying and hyperventilating. I think about praying and figure I’m already doing it, pretty much. I feel overwhelmed and happy and exhausted. I stare and stare and stare at Mount Rainier.
After a few minutes I focus on slowing my breathing, and I get to my feet. There’s a little rise, essentially a big pile of snow, to my left, and I run up it to peek down at the slope. Sam’s coming up, and soon Sara arrives too, with a woman she’s climbed the last bit with, named Amy. It’s around 10am. We do the requisite photo-taking, and move right along the ridge towards what my topo map (I’m using the Gaia GPS app for the first time—it’s pretty awesome) labels as the summit. From up here we can see Rainier and the Tatoosh range to the north, Mount Saint Helens to the west, Hood, Jefferson, and, incredibly, South Sister to the south.
It’s cold and windy up here, though, so soon enough we head back down. The snow is softening, but it’s still pretty icy, so we keep our crampons on for the initial descent and the gentle slope back up to the false summit.
At the false summit, we take off our crampons, put on our rain pants, and pack away more securely all the stuff that’s been hanging off various straps on our packs. Sam and I make leg-holes in garbage bags and pull them up around our waists. The slope we’re about to descend is steep enough that it looks like a drop-off; we inch towards it and find the top of a glissade chute. I’m eyeing it a little nervously, but Sam’s ready to go—and he’s off. We follow one by one.
I press hard on my ice ax’s spike to control my speed, though part of me wishes I had the guts to let go. I can see the whole chute and the run-out is beautiful and safe… it’s just so, so far below us, almost to where we camped at the lunch counter. Seems like we’ve all made the decision to break the glissade into more comprehensible chunks, and soon I see Sam standing to the side with his phone up to take pictures as we slide towards him. I roll over into self-arrest and join him to watch Sara come down, then roll back into the chute. And so on.
At the bottom, I pull up our GPS track on my phone and lead us back to our tents. The weather, so foreboding earlier, has completely turned. It’s glorious and sunny and here at the Lunch Counter it’s almost warm. We slowly pack up our tents and packs, then sit in the cleared spot where Sam and Sara’s tent was and eat something resembling lunch.
It’s at least one by the time we head out. We try to follow boot tracks, but end up way off course following a ski track, and when I look at Gaia GPS it has us skirting the edge of a glacier. Whoops. Nice reminder of how easy it is to get disoriented on a mountain. We traverse back over without too much fuss—just a bit of postholing and a bit more effort than we were really hoping for at this point in the day—and find a few other climbers and a whole mess of boot tracks streaming down the mountain to the south.
The snow is very soft now, and walking down the slope is less walking and more sliding, skating, skiing. I slide onto my butt twice and prevent several more falls with ridiculous slow-motion trekking pole acrobatics. In short order we’re all very eager to be off of the snow and onto the dirt trail that will lead us to the car, beer, chips and salsa, a change of shoes. We start complaining, mostly good-naturedly, about various aches and pains. Mine: my face hurts. Despite many layers of sunscreen, I am sunburnt and probably windburnt as well. There is no way to hide from the sun reflecting off the snow, and I find myself wishing that the cloud layer hadn’t burnt off.
Eventually I discover, by mimicking another climber’s example, that running down the sloppy soft snow is easier than trying to walk down it. Eventually we step off the snow onto little sections of dirt, and those sections get bigger and bigger until we leave the snow behind entirely. Eventually the long, long dirt trail finally ends, and we take a selfie at the trailhead and then stumble to the car, where I groan in delight as I pull my feet out of my rented boots. We strip off layers, roast in the sun, and then drive home.
a few more photos (from Sam)
Summit panorama here. Hood, Saint Helens, Rainier & the Tatoosh range in the background!