Long planned and long awaited, my partner and I made our attempt on Mt. Adams (12,233 feet) in southern Washington State last weekend. It was, as I had expected it to be, the hardest physical and mental challenge I’ve faced.
Traveling to Portland should have been the easiest part of this trip, but sadly that wasn’t to be. The first leg of my flight out as delayed for over an hour to due a “problem” with a group of passengers, which made me nearly miss my connecting flight.
But I finally reached Portland and relaxed at the airport waiting for my partner to arrive. Once he did, we made our way to the Holiday Inn…conveniently located 10 minutes from the airport (not so conveniently in the industrial zone, affording us a view of a paper factory and a dilapidated conference center). Once we got checked in and settled, we had to make a last second run to REI downtown to pick up some last second items. Post shopping we stopped for dinner at the Brix Tavern in the Portland arts district. It was a great little place with good drinks and good food, I’d highly recommend. Done with the tavern, we returned to the room and got to sleep early in preparation for our early start the next day.
We got up the next day and grabbed our packs and started making our way north towards the border with Washington. On our way, we were treated to the beautiful scenery of the Hood River Gorge for the bulk of the trip. We wanted to grab something to eat before the start of the climb, so we pulled into the first “city” we came across, which was Hood River. A freeway sign pointed us towards a Starbucks in this town, so we pulled onto the main street. Not knowing where to go, we went one way only to find a dead-end. But as we were making a U-turn, we spied a bagel shop. Success! An even better solution for breakfast than anything that Starbucks would have offered. Fresh bagels and a freshly made bagel sandwich was the perfect start to the day.
Once out of Hood River we crossed a bridge and entered Washington State, now heading out towards the Mt. Adams ranger station which is the town of Trout River. After another hour or so of driving we made it to the ranger station and met our guide from Northwest Mountain School, Chris. Our original guide, Andres, was replaced at the last minute (literally the day before) by Chris. But this worked out in our favor, because we couldn’t have been happier with the experience.
We did a final gear check, which basically meant emptying our carefully packed bags onto the grass so that Chris could inspect our gear. Unexpectedly, Chris had the same Cilo Gear pack that I did. This was beneficial because he knew some of the secrets of the bag that I didn’t know or hadn’t yet figured out. So he was able to walk me through some of the finer points of the pack.
We then headed into the ranger station proper to get our climbing pass and pay our park entrance fees. Once done, we all hopped into the car and slowly made our way out and up to the trail head.
The trailhead on adams is relatively high at 5,600 feet (note that until this point, my highest climb was Mt. Katahdin in Maine, which was 5,400 feet). But as we’re coming up from Trout Lake, which is at/near sea level, it’s a fair distance to drive…so it took us probably 20 or 30 minutes to get there. Not helping were the unpaved narrow roads that our rental car wasn’t exactly designed for.
We finally made the trailhead around 9:30am. We ran into two gentlemen that we have come to call Gil and Ben. Ben is an older gentlemen (late 50’s perhaps) who was very friendly, and was climbing Adams for the second time (first attempt was in the 80’s). Gil, his climbing partner was…well, an odd duck. To start, his gait was very awkward. It’s very hard to describe. But in addition to the gait, he was also consistently grabbing his crotch. And not for a quick itch or readjustment, but just to hold it, it seemed. This was superbly creepy and odd. Gil was on a mission to climb the highest points in all “Western US” counties.” We’d learn more about this as the day went on. Luckily they left the trailhead before us. Once they were gone, Chris instructed us on the best ways to pick up and put on our packs. This might sound somewhat inconsequential, but once you get to altitude, the effort exerted to put on a 40 pound pack is critical to your overall performance and well-being.
With that short instruction done, we hit the trailhead.
Unexpectedly, it was hot. Not warm, but super hot (as in, 100 degrees). This really impacted our ability to move quickly and efficiently, as I needed to stop roughly every 45 minutes to an hour to cool down and catch my breath. Plus, as we were gaining altitude, Chris made sure we were eating and drinking at each stop as well. It seemed overbearing at first, but it became clear later on why he was being like that. This heat wave was one of the worst that the Pacific Northwest had seen in quite a long time (I later learned). Our timing for the climb wasn’t exactly ideal!
For the first 2,000 feet or so, the climb was mostly a hike up somewhat wooded and very rocky terrain. Mt. Adams is a glacier-clad volcano, but the lower reaches of the mountain are incredibly rocky and dusty (except when all covered in the snow during the winter). Shade was spotty at best, so that didn’t help with the heat. But once we passed that first 2,000 feet (now at around 7,600 feet), we hit the first patches of snow.
Now, my experience with traveling in snow is relatively minimal. But if I had to walk across a level snow field in snow boots, then fine, that’s easy. But now, we’re talking about snow fields at an angle (at this point, roughly 20-25 degrees), with a 40 pound pack on, in warm temperatures. On the first patch of snow, Chris instructed my partner and I on self-arrest techniques using an ice-axe. The idea here is that if you fall/slip and begin sliding down the snow/ice/mountain, you can use the ice-axe in certain ways to try and arrest your fall. There are specific ways to hold the ice ax so that if needed, you can quickly deploy it (without stabbing yourself). This is where we learned how to do it. Chris demonstrated to us, and then my partner and I got down onto the snow practiced holding the axe, flipping over, deploying it, breaking, etc. It was at about this point that I began to think about sliding down the ice at 10,000 feet…but I didn’t yet know what to expect, and the reality is far, far worse than the fear.
Once we were good to go on the ice-axes, we made our way up this steep snow grade using the ice-axe as a balance point (the angle was such that the ice-axe, only being two feet or so tall, would hit the snow when hanging from my hand). This was the first point of the climb we had hit snow and a serious angle and the use of the axe. Plenty more of that was to come.
After this first snow field we had some more rocky terrain to traverse and a small river to ford. Finally, around 7,800 feet, we hit the snow and ice that would be with us for most of the rest of the ascent.
Now we had giant snow fields that seemed to go on forever on what looked like steep angles. At this point it was early afternoon, and our goal (all along, but now more proximate) was to reach out a point where we could setup high camp. Around 9,000 feet on Mt. Adams there are dozens of these rock wall half-circles built up that make for excellent camp areas. The rock walls are key because once you hit 8,000 feet or so, the winds start to pick up, and the rocks will help buffer your camp. Moving on the snow field was hard work. It was late enough in the day that the snow was slushy, so we didn’t ned crampons yet. Still, we had the heavy packs. It was here that Chris taught us the “rest step” technique.
“Rest step” is a way to move up snow/ice that allows for steady movement and progress while limiting energy exertion and maximizing breathing. It’s not hard or complicated, in fact it’s very simple, but it’s incredibly important. Basically, as you go up the snow bank, you take a step, rest a second, then another step. Your weight is placed on the rear leg. You want to get into a rhythm that just goes on and on. Every 10 steps or so, you take a deep breath and quickly exhale. This method does create for somewhat slower movement, but it is designed to keep a steady pace, which is key.
So we started rest stepping up the snow field towards perspective camp sites. This was tough going, and the altitude was starting to get to us. There was definite nausea, headaches, and general body aches with every step we took up the mountain. At 7,600 feet it was apparent, but soon it would get worse.
Finally, around 8,600 feet, our guide chose a particular rocky outcrop and rock wall for us to call home for the evening. We came horizontal across the snow and made it onto the rocks, quickly dropping our packs (which was a huge relief every time we got to do it). We worked with Chris to get our tent setup and secured, and he began putting dinner together.
After about 10 minutes in camp, I started to feel really nauseas and my head was hurting pretty bad, plus I was quite dizzy. The altitude was definitely getting to me. I popped some ibuprofen (mostly to help with the pain in my shoulders caused from the pack) and laid down in the tent. I probably stayed there for about an hour trying to get better, but it just wasn’t happening. Dinner was ready around 6 or so, and I came out of the tent to try and eat. One of the effects of altitude sickness is that your digestive systems tends to slow down (more so for some than others). I just wasn’t hungry at all. I had barely eaten anything over the course of the day, and now at dinner the last thing I wanted to do was eat. But, you have to eat. Otherwise you won’t have the energy to get up the mountain. So, I very slowly ate the food in my bowel. And after about 30 minutes, I was feeling much better.
A side note about the food: the dinner was amazing. Chris cooked up some pasta, and then added broccoli, chicken, walnuts, cheese, and pesto. Even off the mountain it would have been good food, but it was a wonderful surprise to have that kind of meal at camp. It was so good that I had seconds.
It wasn’t much later that we watched a bright red sun drop down the horizon- sunset at 8,600 feet is quite a sight.
Considering our planned 3am start, we were in our sleeping bags pretty early (8pm). But that cup of hot tea before bed did me in, and around 10pm I woke up and had to excuse myself from the tent. Given the speed at which I wanted all of the above to occur, I neglected to put on an extra layer to leave the tent (not an issue, it wasn’t that cold), nor did I use my headlamp. For a nearly moonless night (it was a new moon) it seemed just a bit light outside. Enough so that I didn’t need my headlamp to at least see the rocks from the snow. So while this seemed to work just fine, I will say that there is little more terrifying than being alone, shoe-less, and without a light, 8,600 feet up on a glacier. I knew that the “edge” was a few dozen feet from where I stood, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was about to just step off the edge of the mountain.
It took me a minute or two to look up and see the sky. It’s hard to explain what the scene looked like. First off, if you’ve seen the starry sky on a dark night sans light pollution, you know the sheer number of stars visible. But add in the complete absence of artificial light and no moon light, and the sky gets a whole lot more crowded with a view of the Milky Way itself. It looks a bit like the below picture, with the “band” of the Milky Way across the sky:
Our guide rustled us awake around 3am or so. We got our gaiters and crampons on and hit the snow/ice around 4am. It was rest-step up the remainder of the snow field to around 9,100 feet where things got a bit steep.
My climbing partner may disagree but it was here that I found the scariest point of the whole climb. The pitch was probably about 30 degrees of mostly ice, and it was still dark. This was our first real pitch with the crampons, and both of us had obvious and serious doubts that we wouldn’t fall right down the glacier. It seemed that the teeth of the crampons weren’t biting all that far into the ice, which in turn made it seem like we were in a severely precarious position.
Our guide assured us we weren’t, and he actually down-climbed and helped us both past this point. It was a few minutes of terror, but it very much helped make me confident in the crampons so that later, as the pitch increased, I didn’t fret nearly as much. Once you get the techniques down for how to use the crampons on a steep pitch, it makes a bit more sense.
Through this section we spent a few hours before hitting a “flat” section of snow where we could sit down for a well-deserved break. Light had finally began to reclaim the sky, and we simply sat there and marveled at the beauty around us. Of course this didn’t last long, as we were getting cold and it was time to continue. Except now, it was time to rope up…as we were very soon hitting what was arguably the crux of the entire climb.
For about 2,500 feet, our pitch hit nearly 40 degrees. The sun was now out and shining down on us as we moved very slowly up the glacier. Crampons and the ice axe made it possible (I don’t know how people without them make it up!). It was very steep, and the footing was a bit touch and go. I’d say about 60% of the section had decent to good footing, while the remainder was iffy. Our guide (in the lead) was kind enough to kick us in some steps in the places where the footing was super iffy. With our harnesses on, we were roped up, with the guide in front, me in the rear, and my partner in the middle. If one falls, we all fall. But that’s three chances for self-arrest and safety.
This is about the point where things started to take a turn. Around 10,700 feet (per my watch), I had a cramping in my right leg. I informed the guide when it didn’t go away and steadily got worse. We stopped at one point (though we didn’t try to sit down) and talked through it. The bottom line was that it hurt pretty bad. But we were in a bad location to just stop. If we did, the entire group would have to turn around and head down in what would have likely been a challenging position. The ice/snow was still well frozen, so we couldn’t glissade down. Boot-ski’ing would have been possible but hard. Alternatively, the false summit, at 11,400 feet, wasn’t too far up. And once there, I could hunker down while my partner and the guide made the final summit push if I didn’t think I could continue. Plus, the false summit was a good goal, all things considered. So with that, we decided to continue on to the false summit.
It hurt, but it was doable. We finally made the false summit around 10am (that was 6 hours from 8,600 to 11,400). Now I faced the big question: do I continue? I was pretty well convinced that I could work through it and make the true summit, only 800 vertical feet from where we stood. The question I had trouble answering was whether my leg would be good enough from there to make it all the way back down to the car at the trail head. I just wasn’t sure. And with that much uncertainty, I didn’t want to take my chances. I stayed at the false summit and let the others make the push.
Two hours or so later, they came back glorious, basking in the glow of their successful summit attempt. Within a few minutes we were ready to make our way down.
From 11,400 feet we glissaded down to 9,000 feet. What took us nearly 6 hours that morning took only 30 minutes now! Glissading is reason enough to get into alpine climbing: you sit on your butt and use what is a more or less a luge chute and slide down the glacier. The higher the pitch, the faster you slide. You use your ice axe and other techniques to break and stay in control. See this for an example on Mt. Adams:
This got us to 9,000 feet or so, where we then boot-ski’d back down to camp at 8,600. We quickly broke everything down and packed up and shed layers (it was so hot!). Within 45 minutes we were back on the descent. It was a long walk down the mountain, but inevitably we made it down to the car by around 4 or 5pm.
Upon the suggestion of our guide, we made our way over to Double Mountain Brewery back in Hood River, where we had pizza. Each of us scarfed down a 16-inch pizza. This was by far and away the best pizza I’ve ever had. The food was amazing, and we both felt much better after some good food. A short ride back to the hotel followed up with showers and wonderful sleep ended the trip.
A note on altitude sickness: I definitely had it. It wasn’t severe, but it was enough that within the hour or two after pulling into high camp, I was laid out in the tent trying to breathe and not vomit. It was a constant dull headache, constant nausea, and a desire to not even look at food. You basically have to force yourself to eat and nibble on things since your appetite can quickly disappear. Same with water, you just need to force yourself to drink. After dinner, I had recovered pretty well. But the dull headache and a little bit of nausea just continued. At the false summit, the above symptoms just become more pronounced. But now breathing became hard…it literally hurts to take a deep breath. Some described it as breathing with water in your lungs, I’d say every deep breath was like a lit flame in your lungs. Either way, not pleasant. But ultimately, it wasn’t a show-stopper. It’s always worse in camp because you’re sitting still, and thus breathing slower, and thus taking in less oxygen. While moving and exerting, you’re breathing harder, so the symptoms are less pronounced.
On my failure to reach the true summit: yeah, this one pretty much sucks. A mere 800 vertical feet (after climbing more than 6,200 feet) short… it was a tough decision. I kept thinking about the Ed Viesturs quote that “the summit is only half way. You have to still get down.” The mountain will always be there, I’ll have another chance. Ultimately I know it was the right decision, but that asterisk on my list of summit’d peaks will have to be dealt with at some point.
This was an amazing trip and an amazing climb. As our guide warned us, the altitude and the climb is like a drug. Within days of our return to our home cities, we began discussing what mountain is next.