Franken, our resident mountaineer, has had his sights fixed on the summit of a glaciated peak for many, many months. He spent the first four months or so of the year in a brutal Mazama training regimen to prepare him to ascend Mount Hood. As chronicled on this blog, I joined him on several preparatory hikes, including Ruckel Creek, Kings Mountain, and the famous post-holing trek to Twin Lakes. This goal led him to Mount Hood, only to be turned back a few hundred feet from the summit. How would I tell him to respond after having his hopes dashed due to the whims of Mother Nature? “You get your ass out there and you find that f**kin’ summit!”
Over the course of the year, our collective mountaineering goals have waned. The three of us originally had our sights on Mount Adams, the 12,281 ft behemoth in Southern Washington, as a celebratory statement for our 40th birthday year. Instead, my “mountaineering” coin went to ultralight backpacking gear and McL’s plans became assigned to the Olympic Peninsula. McL went as far as to assign a likelihood of “probably not” to the ascent. I must say that my desire to bag a bunch of peaks went from excitement to ambivalence as I didn’t want to risk our annual backpacking trip with an injury suffered mountaineering.
There were many obstacles in our way of summiting Mount Adams. The first was a complete lack of mountaineering gear in my possession. The second was Frank’s desire to bring his black lab, Rudy. The third was an extremely narrow summit window of Father’s Day weekend (or Father’s Day weekend). The fourth was typically heinous weather in June. The fifth was the fact that the road to Cold Springs Campground, the starting point of the South Route (trail #183) was buried in snow, and would require an addition 3-5 mile hike to reach the trailhead from the closed access road.
These obstacles gradually were overcome. Happy Gurl loaned me an ice axe and Frank loaned me his aluminum crampons; Frank eventually had a break in his cloud of confusion and decided that it would be a poor idea to bring his dog with us; the weather forecast, the most important factor in any summit attempt, provided one sunny day on Saturday, forcing us to move our ascent up by one day and allowing me to attend the annual golf outing with my father; and the road to Cold Springs opened up two days before our climb! Over the week preceding the summit bid, my excitement returned as my first summit became a tangible and achievable goal!
On a dreary Friday, June 19th, we left Portland for Trout Lake, Washington. Located approximately 2 hours from Portland, Trout Lake is a small town located at the foot of Mt. Adams. Upon our arrival, we found the ranger station and purchased two climbing permits @ $15 apiece and received a couple of pack tags and poo bags in return for our coin. From there, we drove ~25 minutes up a gravel road to the Cold Springs Campground where there were, surprisingly, a bazillion cars. Franken and my outfits were juxtaposed against one another with Franklin donning an ultralight poncho and my shell consisting of heavy, triple-layer gore-tex.
From trailhead #183, we departed @ ~10:30am. The trail was mostly covered in snow even from the starting elevation of ~5,600 ft and we trudged our way up the old road to the timberline. We encountered many dejected climbers on the trail. A couple of dudes carrying a slider that said they had to turnaround due to a blizzard at 10,000 ft. We ran into a couple of jokers who, although they didn’t reach the summit, stated that it was 75 degrees at lunch counter and there was an espresso stand! While I typically appreciate some well-timed sarcasm, this was a bit lame in the face of two eager climbers who were looking for a bit of good news! It didn’t help that there was an additional forlorn gentleman who looked as if he had been through a laundry spin cycle. As far as we knew, none of the people who had attempted the summit had succeeded on the 19th, yet still we trudged along.
We followed the cairns through pounding rain for several miles and finally the weather cleared enough for us to reset our attitudes. It was tough mentally to hike with base camp pack weights up the trail to lunch counter in driving rain. Although the pleasant weather only lasted for a half-hour or so, it was welcomed and recharged our batteries.
Unfortunately this all changed for the thousand remaining feet leading up to Lunch Counter. The sun was replaced by windy conditions and driving rain and snow out of the west. I was often in my pack grabbing different gear to confront the varied conditions of the mountain, be it my shell, gloves, goggles, bandanna, etc. Fortunately I carried everything that I needed, but didn’t have any place very handy to store it during the ascent. At approximately 4pm, we reached Lunch Counter (elevation: 9,300 ft where we camped), a rocky portion of the mountain with many campsites consisting of sandy ground shielded from the west with windbreaks constructed of rock piles.
Rather than camp in a designated campsite, Frank elected to choose a snow patch for erecting the North Face mealy grub ™ tent. We had split the weight of the tent in two for the ascent with Frank carrying the rain fly and poles and I carried the tent. Instead of bringing 5 one-ounce snow stakes, Frank brought five bags and some string to fill with snow and bury to secure the tent. This is a good idea for saving weight, provided that you don’t bury the bags three feet in the snow! Frank used his shovel to create a bumpy platform for the tent. After a half-hour and several unsuccessful attempts at securing the luffa sponge attachment, we had a base camp!
At base camp, our activities consisted of (1) jamming to tunes on my iPhone, (2) melting snow on Frank’s sno-peak stove, and (3) fantasizing that the weather would support our climb on Saturday. My meal consisted of a 500 calorie Mountain House Grilled Chicken Breasts and Mashed Potatoes meal for two one. Frank’s meal consisted of a 1000 calorie Backpacker’s Pantry Chicken Saigon Noodle dish. It didn’t help that he wasn’t feeling very well due to the altitude, but he suffered a 1,000 calorie intestinal pounding as well. My meal’s grilled chicken was curious as the instructions stated that you should hydrate the chicken first and take it out of the package, then add the potatoes and once cooked, return the chicken to the pouch. WTF? Do you think I brought a freaking ultralight kitchen to prepare my meal? I skipped this step and once the chicken was cooked, dumped all of the potatoes in. Still it was quite a good meal!
I used my Z-lite pad for my insulation layer with a NeoAir for comfort. This setup worked really well and was very warm even with my 20-degree Nunatak quilt. Frank, conversely had a single pad that leached moisture into the bottom of his sleeping bag throughout the night. The entire bottom of his bag became soaked during the night. I had a fitful “sleep” and probably got about four to five hours in total. This was, perhaps, due to the altitude. I woke Frank up around 4am for our preparation. He suffered a bit to get ready and was almost in a McL-like state as he tried to pull together his gear. This is atypical for Franklin and he was clearly suffering a bit from the altitude. He complained of a head and stomach ache at around 9,000 ft onwards, but desired to forge ahead as planned. This didn’t, however, have an effect on his ability to drop a morning load from his evening meal. Frank made short work of a poo bag in the morning in preparation for the summit!
We donned light pack loads for the summit bid and wore crampons, making a “charge” for the false summit @ Pikers Peak around 5:30am. From Lunch Counter, one cannot actually see the true summit of Mount Adams and is led to believe that Pikers Peak is the final destination. The temperature dropped below freezing overnight and the snow had a hard ice shell. This section of the climb was extremely steep and I felt very uneasy on this section of the hike. My boots didn’t seem to enjoy the crampons very much and the front portion of the crampons slid to the side, making me feel as if I could easily fall! I continuously had to adjust them to prevent a crampon FAIL. It was this feeling that accompanied me as we duck-walked up to Pikers Peak, planting our ice axes directly in front of us and taking two angled steps up the mountain.
At this point of the climb, we were passed by 2 mountaineers (AKA zealots) from Colorado who passed us as if we were standing still on the mountain. We passed a couple of dudes from Seattle who started their hike around 11pm on Friday. They were clearly bonking on this section of the ascent and complained that the pitch here was steeper than anything that they experienced on Rainier on Memorial Day weekend! Although I have no basis for comparison, I will agree that the pitch was extremely steep!
Reaching Pikers Peak (11,600 ft), we could finally see the true summit some 700 vertical feet away. At this point, I was feeling really tired and had to commit, hard, to make the push onward. The snow, due to the sun, became a thick powder and it became tough to use crampons. I nixed them as a result. The Colorado dudes passed us a second time on their descent as we ascended the summit. They were on a weekend trip and planned to summit both Adams and Hood on the weekend. I guess it makes a big difference to be acclimated when you live near so many 14ers! One dude spoke of how he made a killer Goo (seemingly like the killer eggnog made with lighter fluid) that he was going to give to the bonking mountaineers below us! It’s pretty cool how everyone looks out for one another on the mountain and was encouraging for me as but a learner!
At around 9:40am, we reached the summit of Mt. Adams and stood on the historic fire lookout that was built in 1921. Apparently the site was used as a sulfur mine back in the 1930s. We became the third group to summit the mountain on June 20, 2009!
It’s important to note that the fire lookout isn’t the actual summit, so we hiked the 30-40 yards to the officially recognized summit! The glaciated peak that had eluded Frank for so many months was conquered and this would make him eligible to finally join the Mazamas. We met two other groups after about 20 minutes and shared some wasabi peas, gorp, and chocolate that Frank brought for the peak! Thanks Franklin! One group was from Tennessee and traveled to Seattle to summit Adams, Hood, Shasta and Rainier. They only had Rainier left on their itinerary by this point!!!
From here, we plunge-stepped down to Pikers peak and began the descent down the steep pitch to our basecamp. We had figured it was still too icy for glissading, but after I saw the dudes from Tennessee doing it, I followed shortly behind. Instead of using the glissader ™ that Frank built and that I carried on this entire trip, I slid on my ass down the mountain for about 2,000 ft. It was pretty difficult at first and due to the incline I felt pretty exposed to a wipeout. Frank’s glissader/sleep pad failed on his descent and ended up neither functioning well as a sleeping pad nor a glissader. This was freaking awesome and well worth the price of admission!
We descended to Lunch Counter to disassemble the tent, boil some water for Frank, and load our packs for the descent to 5,600 ft. As noted previously, the bag filled with snow method is killer as long as you don’t bury the bags under 3 feet of snow. This common sense, I’ll note, eluded Franken. Given that the weather was very sunny all day and that the sun shone directly on our camp for several hours, this created a packed slush and we literally had to excavate the bags to leave no trace of our visit. This required his snow shovel and the picks of our ice axes to complete the job and was like working a full day walking the beat and then having to mine coal. Anyway, I performed the majority of this duty while Frank tended to his water needs/modified his glissader and we packed up all of our gear for going down the mountain.
From lunch counter, there were still some amazing sections for glissading, probably about 2,000 more feet or so in total. We saw multiple people ascending the mountain, ski mountaineering or traveling with snow boards. Saturday really brought out the trogs to the mountain and we were happy to be going the other way. I’m happy to say that my shell pants made it without any rips or tears after protecting my gluteus maximus for ~4,000 vertical feet.
We finally reached the Cold Springs Campground about 2:30pm on Saturday and were greeted by a parking lot full of hikers who were traveling to various portions of the mountain. Frank parted ways with me to go deposit his bag of feces near the toilets and I returned to the car to chat with a couple of dudes who were preparing to camp at the timberline and ski down the mountain on Sunday. We really got to chatting with a bunch of peeps on the mountain and versus backpacking, the people climbing the mountain really bond together. Perhaps it’s the danger or moxie involved in ascending glaciated peaks, but we and the people we met were very willing to share a tale or two about how we “tamed” the mountain if for only a brief span of time. The end definitely justified the means and while I’m certainly not in a hurry to climb another peak, I will gladly accompany Frank on his next peak of choice. We had a great time on the mountain and leveraged the skills acquired over many, many seasons of backpacking to their fullest extent!
The hardest decision for Frank was where to locate his bag of excrement. He planned to attach it to the outside of his pack, but I pleaded with him to put it inside, stating that I didn’t want to stare at his shite all the way down the mountain. After thinking this through fully, he obliged.
All-in-all, the south climb approach of Mount Adams was accessible and challenging at the same. I must say that building base camp at the Lunch Counter was a wise call and provided us with the opportunity to lighten our loads, escape from the grim weather, and acclimatize a bit. Hiking it in June, while providing a challenge in the weather window, allowed us to avoid the hassle of dealing with mixed terrain and make the entire hike in snow. This, of course, made the climb more challenging due to the extra energy expenditure required to climb in deep snow.
- My Six Moon Designs Starlite pack was perfect for winter backpacking. The aluminum stays and large pack volume (4200 ci) were well suited for this adventure, weighing only 30 ounces with stays (not including the z-lite pad)! There was ample room for all of my gear and the large side pocket could fit my glissader upright.
- The NeoAir worked very perfectly. I disagree with many reviewers who have dogged it due to complaints of a narrow width and loud, crinkly material. It fully met my “lofty” expectations.
- My Nunatak Arc Alpinist quilt was also perfect for this pursuit, keeping me warm and dry during the night.
- Melting snow with a gas canister stove takes a long time. The GSI kettle worked very well for pouring out melted water, but the volume for winter camping is a bit low. The crown jewel, apparently, is a white gas stove for pumping out serious BTUs required to melt snow. I’d recommend a two liter titanium pot for serious winter camping!
- From a clothing perspective, everything worked really well, although I could have used a lighter shell. A wind shirt probably would have met my needs for the most part, although it would have likely leaked on Friday. Combined with a wool base layer, a level of dampness would not have mattered.
- An ultralight CAMP Corsa ice axe would have met my needs, but I can’t complain about the Black Diamond Raven Pro. Fortunately I didn’t need to self-arrest on this trip as I have no experience doing it! If I’m going to do more climbing, I will probably stay away from an aluminum ice axe head as it is nowhere near as functional on ice as it is for snow. As such, I’ll probably be picking up a Raven Pro as it’s the lightest ice axe that works well in icy conditions.
- I’m not the biggest fan of the CAMP Crampons. Perhaps my displeasure was a result of Frank using larger boots with them or perhaps I was doing something wrong. They did the trick though and saved a lot of weight, but I didn’t really feel comfortable in them.
- For glissading, I think my Snow Claw Guide Snow Shovel would have worked very well. Although I didn’t need anything under my butt, it’s small and sturdy enough to make a future trip!