Yakima County Highpoint Trip Report

Mount Adams

Dates: June 15-16, 2004
Author: "Papa Bear"
Climbers: "Papa Bear" and daughter

an attempt

On Tuesday, June 15, we left Portland, Oregon, and headed east on I-84 to Hood River, crossed the Columbia River, and had a late lunch in White Salmon, Washington. Then it was an hour's drive up to Trout Lake to the ranger's station where we picked up the permits and finally onto the forest service road up to the trailhead. For the past several weeks I had been checking the Mount Adams web page for climbing conditions.

The forest service road to the Cold Spring trailhead had been blocked by snow first for 3 miles, then 2 and now the blockage was less than a mile. We drove up to the point where my daughter was getting nervous about driving through the snow "barricades" and picked a sharp hairpin turn about a half mile below the trailhead to park. The weather was sunny and warm, with blue, crystal-clear skies and the forecast was for the same for most of the week. This was in pleasant contrast to most of the previous weeks, where cold rain had canceled the plans of many climbers. The long-overdue good weather was sure to unleash many pent-up climbers onto the mountains. Our route was the standard or South Climb with the "winter route" option since the snow cover was complete practically down to the trailhead.

We had brought overnight packs plus day packs (for the summit climb) and snowshoes. Snowshoes are not normally needed for this climb but they were of great help to us in getting to our camping spot the first day since the snow in the lower part of the trail was rather soft - particularly on a warm sunny afternoon such as this one. So we packed up our stuff but I was faced with a dilemma. I had my big pack and my smaller day pack but I couldn't figure out how to get the little one inside the big one with all the stuff we had. We carried a fairly substantial winter tent (shared between us) which weighed 12 pounds (ulp!) plus winter clothes, snowshoes, crampons and ice axe, to say nothing of my winter plastic boots (rentals) which seems to me to weight another 12 pounds. To summarize, we had a heavy load and were trudging up through soft snow so the going was rather slow and tiring.

Some hikers we crossed as we went up suggested we camp low to minimized the trudging though this area and then go light and early in the morning. This was reasonable advice but the flip side was a much longer climb for the next day. The usual camping spot is at a place called the "Lunch Counter" at about 9000 feet, but we decided to only go to about 6800 feet to camp. Those extra 2200 feet would make a big difference on the next day. We were planning on taking the so called "winter route" of the South Climb, which goes up over South Butte and along the Suksdorf Ridge where it joins the normal summer route at the saddle above the Crescent Glacier just above the Lunch Counter. This is actually a nicer route which has, I would say, a better elevation profile but in summer it is just a mass of rocks and is impassible. With the snow cover we had it was an ideal route.

We camped just below the South Butte. Our camping spot was at the lower edge of this map, southwest of South Butte, where the forested area peters out.

The ranger had said there would be tons of cars and people but we saw only about 8 cars and not very many people on the trail at all. Maybe 10 or 12 going down and no one going up except 3 people we saw going by after we had reached our camp. The trail through the lower, heavily forested area was well graded and easy to follow (although it had 2 - 4 feet of snow cover) but after about 6000 feet, where the trees started to thin out, there were a multitude of herd paths up the slope and it was never clear exactly where the "real" trail went. We followed the general topography and found a nice spot to camp by about 5:15 PM and settled in. Our progress had been slow but relatively easy except that my heavy, lopsided load had caused an old running injury in my right leg to "act up" along the way. I looked forward to a light pack the next day. I cooked supper (boil in a bag freeze dried food) while Payslee scouted out the route for the morning. We basically had to make our way up onto the ridge to the northeast by the path of least resistance. She found a reasonable route and we got ready for the night. A group of three passed by heading for the Lunch Counter about 6:30. They were gearing up for a very early (midnight) start the next day so we did not envy their plan. It was nearly the Summer Solstice and the light stays bright till well after 9:00 PM but we forced ourselves to hit the sack by 8:30, since our alarm was set for 4:00 AM the next morning. The evening, much like the day, was warm, with clear skies and little or no wind.

I answered a call of nature about midnight and saw an awesome star filled sky above with no moon. Stars like you never see them except in places like this. Shortly after I returned to my sack, the wind started and kept howling for the rest of the night.

We dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:00 AM to a pre-dawn clear, but cold and windy, day. We got our climbing stuff together and left the rest in the tent where we would return in the afternoon. It was hard to get moving, especially with no hot food since we had decided we didn't have the time to do any cooking. For some reason I will never understand, it seems to take forever to get ready and today was no different. When we finally got moving it was about 5:00 AM and the sky was getting light with glimpses of sunlight on the mountain tops.

Our climb consisted of two sections: the long ridge line to the saddle below the summit cone - a distance of about 2.5 miles and 2400 feet of elevation gain, and the summit cone itself, a much steeper climb of about 1.6 miles and 3100 feet of elevation gain. Moving along the ridge was relatively easy and we made it to the saddle by about 7:30 AM (the Lunch Counter was on the south side of this saddle) . Along the way we passed several tents so we knew others had made it up further than we did. For some strange reason, we saw no one camping at the Lunch Counter itself - which was where everyone said they were headed. The uncharacteristic wind direction (from the east) had probably kept most campers away from this exposed area. Meanwhile, I was having problems with my boots, which were evidently a little too big. There was pressure and pain on my heels and I was getting a blister on one side.

We saw several little "dots" of climbers moving up the slope in front of us and we wondered why these people were moving so slowly. We would soon find out. Evidently a number of people had gotten an earlier start than we did since we saw about a dozen "dots" above us on the slope. The slope was wide and relatively even between two ridges, with a series of rock outcrops on the right (east) side which most of those in front of us seemed to be following, so we stuck to the right as well. I soon discovered the combined affect of the long climb to get to this point from our camp, the affect of the altitude, and my lack of real mountain training (although I had only recently run a marathon) made for very slow and laborious going. To make matters worse, there were no tracks to follow to speak of and we started hitting soft spots and fell to post-holing occasionally. We made frequent stops but when we were moving I would need to stop for a moment or two every 20 or 30 paces. My breath would recover at these pauses but my heart rate never seemed to slow. We stopped for longer rests at several rock outcrops and finally made it to the highest outcrop below the peak (actually a false peak called "Pikers Peak"), about 11,200 feet. The wind had just picked up and this pushed me past the line. I said to my daughter, "My heart has gone out of this climb". She said, "Then let's turn around". She had been thinking the same thoughts but didn't want to say anything since she wanted to go on if I wanted to. She was doing better than I but still felt the affects of the long slog to get to this point. It was just before 11:00 AM. In retrospect, I realized it would have been at least another 2 hours to the summit and if I had managed to push on, it would have been an extremely long and trying day. We had made the right decision.

So we turned around and glissaded down most of the steep slope. It was fun and fast but was actually quite a lot of work. We got to practice our self arrest technique but my pants took a beating on the hard icy surface. I'm told that in the summer there are icy luge tracks here made by repeated butt-sliding of many climbers but at this point it was just hard icy snow.

Once down to the saddle we got back on the ridge and eventually met up with another climber coming back down who had also camped down near the bottom of the ridge as we had. She was also pretty beat, but had gotten an earlier start and had made it all the way. She was one of those black dots we had seen who were moving very slowly when we were at the bottom of the steep slope. We chatted as we moved down and we all were impressed at how much elevation we had climbed on this ridge. We finally split up and made it back to our camp at about 2:20 and took an hour to get our stuff packed up. The last mile or so on the ridge was very slow going since the snow cover had softened in the sun and we were constantly post-holing. We were glad our snow shoes were waiting for us at camp.

If anything, my full pack was now even more uncomfortable than when we had hiked up. I managed to get the day pack lashed onto the overnight pack (instead of wearing it on my front) but that made the load very lopsided. The uneven weight distribution combined with my general exhaustion made for a very uncomfortable trek down. When we finally made it to the car I was almost limping. That old running injury was screaming at me.

For a while we were quite disconcerted as we trekked down since there were numerous tracks going in various directions but we never found what seemed to be the best one. My daughter thought we were lost and I felt uneasy but since we were following fresh footprints, I said if we are lost, so are 4 or 5 others in front of us. Finally, to our great relief, we crossed two climbers coming up who reassured us that we were on the right path and the trail ahead of us would be easy to follow. Thank goodness they were right but like (almost) every hike, the last mile to the car seemed to take forever. We finally made it to the car at 5:20 PM and it felt great changing into clean clothes at last. I hate to think of when we would have got back if we had pushed on to the summit and what condition we would have been in.

It had been a tiring day but a good one. With picture-perfect weather on a beautiful mountain we could not complain. Conditions and strategy had kept us from the summit but not from having a great day.

Being the analytical type that I am, I did think about how we could have done better. Here are some ideas:

1) Better conditioning! This is a tough climb, especially with snow cover all the way from the trailhead. I trained for months to run a marathon but the only real mountain training I had done was a few easy hikes in Vermont after my marathon a week prior to this climb.

2) With late spring snow cover, especially soft snow on the lower part of the trail, we should have allowed more time the first day and camped higher up. Snowshoes are highly recommended for these conditions.

3) We should have worked on packing lighter - especially a lighter tent and a way for me to balance my load.

4) Better hiking boots. Heavy rentals that didn't quite fit did not enhance my climbing experience.

5) Better conditioning! Did I mention that?

A summer attempt on Mount Adams, with little or no snow below the summit cone, would be a very different experience, undoubtedly easier. Maybe I'll get to find that out this summer or next.

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