Friday, August 5, 2016

Mount Adams South Climb

View of Mount Rainier from the summit of Mount Adams
12.5 miles round trip, 6750 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Road to trailhead for high clearance vehicles only; $30 annual Northwest Forest Pass required to park at trailhead, $15/person Cascade Volcano Pass required to attempt summit

Mount Adams is the second-tallest peak in the State of Washington, a massive, lonely stratovolcano that towers over the state's southeastern portion of the Cascades. Although Adams rises well above other well-known Washington peaks such as Baker, Glacier, and Olympus, it is a surprisingly straightforward climb for a mountain of its height. The South Climb via the Lunch Counter and Pikers Peak is a nontechnical route that allows access to the lofty summit and its thrilling glissade chutes for extremely fit hikers equipped with ice axes, crampons, and the knowledge to use both. While some hikers are able to tackle the entire mountain in a day, we took two days, an approach I'd recommend to most other hikers.

Mount Adams is many things: besides being the second tallest peak in Washington state, it's also an ultraprominent peak and the ninth most prominent peak in the 48 states; in fact, its clean prominence of 8117 feet dwarfs the height of any peak in the Appalachians. The elevation gain on this hike is more than sufficient to climb from sea level past the height of either North Carolina's Mount Mitchell or New Hampshire's Mount Washington, so suffice it to say, it's a pretty sizable mountain. It's also a massive mountain: by volume, it's the second largest mountain in Washington state, with a broad summit plateau and fairly gently sloping sides. Rainier and Shasta are the only Cascade volcanoes that exceed Adams in height and size.

Adams, being far inland and generally not visible from the Puget Sound or the Pacific coast, was not named by George Vancouver during his maritime expedition to the Northwest in the late 18th century, thus escaping the indignity of being named after yet another British naval officer. The Yakama who lived on the lands to the east of the mountain knew the volcano as Pahto, but Lewis and Clark, while passing through on their way down the Columbia River to the Pacific, spotted the snowy eminence and decided that it should instead bear the name of the nation's second president.

The route up the mountain is fairly straightforward, but does require a general understanding of the mountain to prevent wandering onto the Crescent Glacier or down the Southwest Chutes. From the South Climb Trailhead at 5600 feet, the first two miles are on a well marked trail along an easy uphill grade to the Morrison Creek crossing below the Crescent Glacier. The next half mile is a journey through rocky terrain with the trail marked by cairns and posts to the top of a ridgeline; here the trail remains reasonably easy to follow until it hits the snowfields below the Lunch Counter. From here on, the trail stays almost entirely on snow, requiring either microspikes or crampons for traction depending on snow conditions. Most climbers choose to set up a high camp at the Lunch Counter, where rock shelters help protect climbers from the oft-intense wind. After reaching the Lunch Counter at around 9000 feet, the trail begins a relentless climb along the snowfield coating the mountain's south spur to reach Pikers Peak, the false summit, at over 11500 feet. A flat reprieve along the plateau north of Pikers Peak is followed by a final push to the summit at 12280 feet. This route requires rock scrambling, extensive snow travel, and knowledge for self-arresting with an ice axe, and also presents the danger of altitude sickness. Sunscreen is also an absolute necessity, on every imaginable area of exposed skin: UV is strong at high elevations and in the snow. Don't climb Mount Adams if you don't know what you're doing.

Two friends and I set out from Seattle on a Saturday morning, heading south along I-5 and then I-205, crossing the Columbia River into Oregon. After lunching at Portland's somewhat eclectic Cameo Cafe, we followed I-84 east through the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River, then crossed the river on the toll bridge and followed Route 14 west, then Route 141 north, to Trout Lake. We stopped at the Mount Adams Ranger Station at Trout Lake, where we picked up Cascade Volcano Permits for climbing the mountain and were given bags for packing out poop (leaving solid human waste on Mount Adams is illegal). We then backtracked slightly to follow the Mount Adams Road towards the trailhead, turning onto NF-80 a few miles north of Trout Lake and later bearing onto NF-8040, which both were signed to lead to the South Climb Trailhead. The last few miles of the drive were quite difficult to drive: the roads were heavily rutted, making a high-clearance vehicle a must.

By the time we got to the trailhead, it was past 5 in the afternoon. We shouldered our packs and headed out onto the trail, which started out as a decomissioned road. The grade was not too steep but was still fairly steady, bringing us gradually uphill as we hiked closer and closer to the bulk of Mount Adams. The trail was surrounded constantly by a forest that seemed to have burnt recently: whitened and blackened trunks were everywhere. Lupine dotted the trailside and the small patches of meadow that were interspersed in the forest. Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens made occasional cameos through the open forest.

Mount Hood and trailside lupine
A little over a mile from the trailhead, we came to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. We stayed straight through the junction, continuing on the South Climb Trail. After passing the junction, we began catching frequent nice views of our destination, the massive volcano Adams. As we began to approach the mountain, the true summit began to sink behind the southern prow of Pikers Peak.

Mount Adams from the South Climb Trail
About two miles from the trailhead, the trail emerged at the bottom of the bowl of the Crescent Glacier. After crossing Morrison Creek, the trail became and narrow and rocky. We decided to camp here near the creek, which was the only true water source along the entire hike. We set up camp at the foot of a few pines with clear views of Pikers Peak, Mount Hood, and Mount St. Helens. After eating dinner, we watched the evening light color Hood's elegant summit pyramid.

Mount Hood from our campsite near Morrison Creek
Crescent Glacier and Pikers Peak from our campsite
We headed to bed at a little after 9 PM to prepare for the next morning's early start. Waking slightly after midnight, I wandered outside our tent and found a Jackson Pollock of stars strewn across the sky. The moon was new and absent from the night sky, which was sullied by no external light- both Portland and Seattle were hours away. There were surely no less than ten thousand stars twinkling above- a night sky unrivalled by any other I've ever seeen.

When I woke again, it was still dark but the stars were fading. We ate our 4 AM breakfast, packed up our campsite, stowed our gear, and then began our summit push by 5:30 AM. As we hiked out of the bowl and arrived at the foot of the Crescent Glacier, dawn began to paint the sky.

From the foot of the Crescent Glacier, the trail turned to the left and headed towards the ridge that rose to our west. Here, the route was slightly unclear; we chose to follow the route that most others were taking, which involved a climb up a steep set of snow steps to reach the ridge. The snow steps were both steep and slippery and at their end led to the lip of a 20-foot deep randkluft, a melted rift between the snowfield and the underlying rock. We gingerly negotiated the randkluft, scrambling through it while noting thankfully that we weren't carrying heavy packs up to the Lunch Counter. There may have been easier ways around this obstacle, but this was the route we found.

The trail then continued up the ridge, climbing fairly aggressively uphill with sweeping views to the south of the forested Cascades, Mount Hood, the very tip of Mount Jefferson, and the endless Oregon desert. The sun had finally risen, allowing us to see Mount Adam's massive shadow cast onto the sea of fog to the west stretching towards the morning-lit St. Helens.

Mount St. Helens and the shadow of Mount Adams
About an hour out of our Morrison Creek campsite, we reached the beginning of the snowfields. We followed existing tracks uphill through the snow. In the early morning, the snow was still solid, making snow travel easy with appropriate traction.

An hour of hiking through the snow brought us past rock-walled campsites and views of Mount St. Helens to the Lunch Counter, a flatter portion of the mountain at the base of Suksdorf Ridge. We donned our crampons at the base of the long climb to Pikers Peak.

Looking up at Pikers Peak from the Lunch Counter
The next two and a half hours were an endless, steady slog up the 30 to 35 degree snow slope leading from the Lunch Counter to Pikers Peak. As we hiked up, the snow softened in the sun, making uphill progress progressively more difficult. We ascended alongside the glissade chute, watching jealously as early-rising climbers zipped downhill on their return journey. There were very few flat spots to sit and rest, but the snow was bumpy and soft enough that we could at times sit without having to worry about sliding downhill.

Looking back to the Lunch Counter on the climb to Pikers Peak
The long slog ended at Pikers Peak. At the windy false summit, we had 150-mile views into the Oregon desert and south past Mounts Hood and Jefferson to the Three Sisters. We were now at a higher elevation than everything within our sight. We were all slighty light-headed and out of breath from the altitude, but the views of the parade of Cascade volcanoes still left a strong impression in my mind.

Mount St. Helens
Mounts Hood and Jefferson
North of Pikers Peak, the relentless climb paused briefly as the route crossed across the broad plateau of the false summit. The true summit rose ahead, seemingly still forever away. We trudged across the flat false summit to the base of the summit block, taking in views of the glacier pouring down the mountain's east face as we ascended.

Mount Adams summit from Pikers Peak
Almost fully exhausted, we made a final uphill push along the snowy patch on the southwest face of the summit block. An hour after leaving Pikers Peak, we finally saw the uphill icy slope end ahead of us, giving way to a jaw-dropping view of Rainier to the north. We had reached the summit.

The views were tremendous: we could see forever in every direction. Besides Rainier, every point in our view was at a lower elevation; we were standing atop the second tallest point in the Pacific Northwest. We could see the Cascade volcanoes, the Goat Rocks, and the Stuart Range, as well as just about every peak and ridge between Santiam and Snoqualmie Passes. The summit of Mount Adams itself was not particularly notable, simply a deeply snow-covered summit plateau.

No wonder that the Forest Service chose this summit for a fire lookout in the early twentieth century. Although the summit was remote and hard to reach, the summit's wide viewshed prompted the Forest Service to maintain the lookout for a short number of years. The structure still sits atop the summit, now almost entirely encrusted by ice. The high winds of the summit and the ice are gradually tearing the lookout apart: we were struck by a small chip of the lookout while we were resting at the summit.

Former lookout site at the summit

Summit plateau
View of Pikers Peak from the summit
The wind, our exhaustion, and our schedule forced a short stay at the summit. One of my friends and I descended via glissade when possible, while our other friend tried to ski down portions of the mountain. Skiing was difficult in the bumpy snow, but glissading down was extraordinary. We found three glissade chutes that carried us downhill an aggregate 3000 feet. The first chute descended from the summit block to the plateau of the false summit. The second chute descended over 2000 vertical feet from Pikers Peak directly to the Lunch Counter, an unbroken slide that may be the longest glissade in the Cascades.

The last glissade chute descended down a snowfield just west of the Crescent Glacier, below the Lunch Counter. This chute was the most exhilarating: plunging down a narrow, steep chute that was perhaps as steep as 40 degrees, I descended a long snowfield in two minutes at an average speed of 9.5 miles per hour, hitting over 15 miles per hour at the fastest point in the slide.

Glissade down snowfield adjacent to Crescent Glacier
Understand that glissading is an extremely dangerous activity with many potential sources of injury and requires knowledge of self arrest with an ice axe. If you choose to glissade, you do so at your own risk and agree that this blog is not liable for your decision to do so.

After the final glissade, we hiked back to our campsite, packed up, and made the trudge back to the trailhead. We arrived back in Seattle just before 2 AM.

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