“I want to climb Mount Adams. Craig is in.”
“Yeah,” I said with a chuckle. “Ok.”
The curious smile stayed on my face. I couldn’t tell if my uncle was being completely serious or screwing with me.
“I’m serious,” he said with confidence.
My uncle and his buddy Craig had worked a construction job in the area about 12 years ago and had agreed they should climb Adams someday. At the time, I don’t think either one of them was the least bit serious about it though. When my uncle found out I was getting involved in mountaineering, it suddenly became more possible to follow through on the nonsensical commitment they had made to each other.
I’d been involved with this mountaineering thing for only a few months and now I was about to make plans to take two old guys up the second tallest peak in Washington, which happens to be located in a place I hadn’t even camped remotely close to. I loved the idea of it to death, but the limits of my own abilities always speak up from the back of my mind.
“Ok. Let’s do it. When works for you?” I asked, only partially expecting to have to follow through on the plans. At least I have sound decision making abilities. My tolerance for risk is already low. I’d just lower it a bit more for this trip and if we had to turn around, we had to turn around. If nothing else it would be a fun weekend.
The initial planning happened around May. It wasn’t until the end of July that we set a date. The third weekend of August was the one; the 19th-21st.
By that time I had already been through the AAI course on Mount Baker and I was feeling better about the trip. Trip reports and route descriptions gave me confidence that the snow line would be high and it wasn’t likely to be too chilly in the middle of August. We would be able to leave some clothes behind and not worry about freezing to death.
Our pre-trip planning consisted of a few phone calls and a trip to REI. We were good at procrastinating and I didn’t meet my uncle for the REI run until the day before we planned on hiking to Lunch Counter. We fitted some CAMP crampons to his leather hiking boots, picked out a sturdy ice axe, a comfortable pair of soft shell pants, a good map of the area and, of course, some wag bags. We weren’t taking all the latest and greatest gear. The guys had newer climbing equipment because they had to buy it, but most everything else looked like it was bought in the 70s and stored in the garage ever since. I was really digging it. And so were they. We were going to make it work.
I drove south on Friday and camped just outside Randle. Joe and Craig drove down Saturday morning and met me at the ranger station in Randle at 8am to buy our climbing permits. The drive from Randle to the trailhead was less than straightforward. Highway 23 is washed out this season so the drive takes about an hour longer and the majority of it is on gravel forest service roads. The awesome part is that you can see the south ridge of Adams from various points along the drive. I shook my head and smiled at the optimistic exclamations of “Oh c’mon, we can do that!!” from my climbing buddies. After my experience on Baker, I knew it was going to be tougher than it looked from that distance.
After a few hours of driving and navigating forest service roads we arrived at Cold Springs Campground to load up our packs and hit the trail. This was the first volcano I had been on since Baker and not having to carry all the extra climbing gear for a roped climb was so nice. The 90° weather was a nice change of pace as well. We packed up, drank a little bit more water, and started down the trail at around noon with Adams looming right in front of us.
One of my favorite parts about Adams is that everything is laid out right in front of you. You can see the climbing route the entire time you’re on the trail. Granted, we had perfectly clear conditions. But it was nice to not have to worry about navigation.
After 3ish miles there is a creek crossing and after hiking that far in the hot weather it was a beautiful and welcome sight. That was delicious water.
It gets a bit steeper after the creek for what I would guess is about 500 feet of gain.The whole approach was extremely slow going for us. If we were going 1 mile per hour, we were lucky. We probably spent more time on breaks than we did actually hiking. It didn’t bother me one bit, but by the time we got just below the ridge and were looking up at the next 1000 feet of gain, I was about ready to stop. There was a perfect set of campsites by the creek we had been following for the last 500 feet. We wouldn’t have to melt snow, we’d be protected from wind, and we wouldn’t have to haul all our overnight gear up the horrible looking ridge. It was obvious to me that we weren’t going to make it to Lunch Counter. It would be pointless and we would be absolutely exhausted which would not be good for morale.
I offered up my thoughts as an option but it was quickly dismissed. We were marching on. I liked the spirit.
And I was glad we did. We made it to the snow line about an hour before sunset. It was about 1000 feet below lunch counter which gave us a solid 4000 foot gain climb in the morning. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it was definitely manageable. “It’s just like Mailbox Peak,” I kept telling myself.
The sunset that night was unlike any I’d ever experienced. We sat on the rocks that protected our tents from the non-existent wind and just watched nature. It was stunning. Directly behind us was by far the biggest mountain I’d ever been on. To the south was Mount Hood sticking up all pointy on the horizon. And to the west was Mount Saint Helens, a mountain I had stood on just three months before. Being in a place like that campsite is something that cannot be explained with words nor experienced through pictures. It is always incredible.
“I better set a compass bearing,” I told the guys. “It’ll be pitch dark when we wake up and I want to have an idea of where we’re going until it starts getting light.” I aimed my compass at Pikers Peak. It was due north. Easy.
We set alarms and passed out.
2am came very, very quickly. I was having none of it, and I didn’t hear any stirring from the neighboring tent, either. Snooze.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. Snooze.
BEEP BEEP BEEP. Snooze.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP. “Dammittttt.”
I rolled over around 3:00am. “Hey, let’s go!” I yelled. I heard rustling and everyone slowly started to get ready.
Waking up in the morning is my absolute least favorite part of mountaineering. The wind is usually whipping, it’s dark, it’s cold. I just do not like it. But it has to be done and I can’t say it has ever not been worth it. So, we got up, packed up, and started up.
The compass bearing I had taken the night before turned out to be completely useless. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky at 3:30am when we set out and the moon was reflecting off the snow like a perfect night light for us. We could see exactly where we needed to go. We probably didn’t even need headlamps, though we used them until the sun started throwing some light our way.
I had given the guys a lesson on crampon use the night before. And by a lesson I mean I showed them how to walk like a gunslinger to avoid sticking themselves and that was about it. I think they were having a good time with them though. There’s something almost romantic about the crunching of crampons on snow. It’s like the entire environment can be in slippery chaos and you just continue to ascend, sticking to the mountain with these incredible spikes on your boots. The rhythm is nice too. It reminds me of when my mom used to play the piano. She’d set the metronome and it would tock back and forth. Ascending a mountain is much the same; put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over and over. Stay consistent, and you’ll get there.
We stopped for a brief break after gaining a few hundred feet. “These crampons are the best purchase I’ve made so far,” Joe said, admiring his new tools. He was loving it. So was Craig.
Each of us had our moments throughout the day. We stopped for Craig to get his groove back at some point early in the morning. Shortly after we started up again I started feeling nauseous. It got worse as we climbed. I felt weak and dizzy. It didn’t feel like what I would imagine altitude sickness to feel like. More like I was straining myself too much. Which must have been what it was, because after a short break, some food, and some water I was ready to rock and roll again.
We climbed the south ridge step after step, hour after hour. It was great. The sunrise was gorgeous. The people were friendly as always. It’s a very fun climb. As soon as we hit the top of Pikers Peak and crested over the false summit, the wind hit. Thank goodness it was a hot day because it was blowing really hard. Climbers sat huddled behind the exposed rock at the top trying to shelter themselves from the wind. We made our way quickly across the plateau between Pikers Peak and the final push to the summit. We had less than 1000 feet to go and we were starting to slow up a little. We took our time and made it to 200 feet below the summit. It flattened out and we took a short break.
I wanted to see Rainier so bad I felt like I could run up the last 200 feet. We took off again and after a few short minutes, the mountain above us starting turning into sky. My heart was racing. The smile wouldn’t leave my face. And then there it was. The summit of Mount Adams. We were on top. Yes.
Hood still loomed to the south and Saint Helens was becoming a familiar sight out west. Rainier was visible to our north now. In every other direction it was just mountains or plateau sprawled out for miles and miles. Incredible.
As we started down I was blown away at the tenacity and hard work of the two guys I was with. Months ago I had been worried about taking two old guys up a 12,000 foot mountain. Well, I didn’t have to take two old guys up the mountain. Old guys don’t summit 12,000 foot volcanoes. I took two young guys with young spirits in old guys bodies up that mountain. I was incredibly proud of them.
And I had to give myself some credit as well. I had knocked off my third volcano. Two more in the state of Washington to go. Hood is certainly on my list after that trip and seeing it for hours on the trail.
My uncle is already asking me what the next one is going to be. He caught the sickness. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.