Climbing Mt. Adams

Jake takes a breather
Jake takes a breather on the way to the top.

“How many butterflies have we murdered,” asked Jake.

“Thousands, at least,” I answered as another one splattered across the windshield of my Ford Explorer. We were tearing down Forest Road 23 on our way to pick up our climbing permit at the ranger station in Trout Lake. The butterflies were our unfortunate casualties. I would have liked to avoid them, but there were just too numerous. I’ve never seen so many butterflies in one place in my life--and I’ve visited two butterfly farms. Between the slowly fluttering forms smashing into my grill and windshield, and the ones sunning themselves on the road, there was no way to avoid killing them. We would have needed to get out and walk to do that.

The road soon turned to gravel and the butterfly population thinned out--or maybe I just didn’t notice them because of all the dust. We bounced along until the road became paved again, soon finding ourselves in the small town of Trout Lake. A quick stop at the ranger station and we had our permits. We hopped back in the car and aimed for the trailhead. It was already nearing noon and we still had to start hiking.

The road up to the trailhead became rougher and rougher the farther we went. Soon it was a dirt track barely wide enough for one car. This is why I was surprised to see so many vehicles at the trailhead parking. The two gravel lots designated for cars were so crammed I could barely squeeze into them, only to find there were no open spots. I finally took advantage of my high-clearance and drove up on top of a dirt embankment, on which I parked. It was the only open spot off the road I could find--and I wasn’t the only one using creative parking techniques.

After parking, we organized our packs, shouldered them, and headed down the trail. It was 12:45. Luckily, the Lunch Counter, a popular camping spot on the shoulder of Mt. Adam’s South Ridge, was not too distant. However, the heat was a factor, especially after we cleared the tree line and found ourselves in the full brunt of the sun. We soldiered on, passing droves of summitters on their way dow--and a few on the way up, as well. The snow pack was fairly light this year, so where one would normally kick steps in to head directly up to the Lunch Counter, we had to switchback up an adjacent ridge, constantly mindful of the loose and rocky terrain.

Three-and-a-half hours after leaving the trailhead, we arrived at the Lunch Counter. Situated at 9000 feet, it is the last reliably flat place to pitch a tent. People have taken advantage of that over the years, building up elaborate windbreaks out of rocks. Jake and I found a suitable one and decided that was where we would pitch our tent. By six o’clock we’d eaten, filtered drinking water, and made ourselves at home. We stayed up for the sunset, then turned in. We planned for an early start.

At 4:45am the watch alarms went off. I was already awake and had been for more than two hours. A splitting headache had made it impossible for me to sleep. I slowly dressed and prepared for Summit Day. Jake and I ate a hurried breakfast in the dark, then set off as soon as there was enough natural light to see. We were only taking light daypacks to make the climb as easy as possible.

After a brief scramble up some rocks, we found ourselves at the base of the first big snowfield. We stopped, dropped our gear, and fished out our crampons. After a few minutes of strapping and adjusting, our feet sported sharp, pointy spikes. We began ascending the snowfield.

The snow was hard and crusty, and the angle of the slope was fairly steep. It was my first time in crampons, so I found myself moving gingerly. Once I realized I wouldn’t knock them off my feet with an aggressive kick-step, I started moving faster. I reminded myself that I could always use my ice ax to self-arrest if I fell--and for the first time ever, the slope was actually steep enough, and icy enough, that I actually needed my ice ax. This wasn’t a practice slope.

In a few spots the snow grew patchy and rocks poked through. These were the most difficult sections. The break wasn’t big enough to make taking off my crampons worthwhile, but the lack of snow made footing difficult. It isn’t easy to walk on uneven, loose rocks with spikes strapped to your boots. Higher up the mountain, after negotiating a long section of mixed rock and snow, I found myself on the false summit, also know as Piker’s Peak.

Jake and I stopped there for a snack and a short rest. Since the remainder of the trail looked more rocky than snowy, we decided to remove our crampons and walk normally. This proved to be effective. The patches of snow we did encounter were fairly level and easily negotiated in boots. A few spots were slushy, but not difficult. There was a large patch of snow just below the summit that actually covered the shelter at the top, but the slope was mild. We scrabbled over the last bit of snow and onto the broad, flat peak.

We spent a little while at the top, enjoying a view that was ruined by heat haze and having a snack, and then we headed down. We quickly made it to Piker’s Peak--then the fun started. From here there were some good glissade chutes, of which we decided to take full advantage. We pulled our snow pants out of our packs, put them on, and prepared for the ride. It had warmed up a bit, so the snow was becoming slushy, rather than icy, but it was still pretty fast if you were sliding down it--which is exactly what we planned to do.

After taking a careful grip on our ice axes, we sat down in our chutes and pushed off. We headed for the Lunch Counter like a couple of rockets. Twenty minutes later we were at the bottom of the snowfield--not a bad time if you consider it took us three hours to get up to the top.

We took a short break at our campsite, then packed up our gear, shouldered our now very full packs, and headed for the car. The trip down from the Lunch Counter only took two hours, but it felt like an eternity. It was hot, and steep, and the footing was bad, and I was crushed under the weight of a full pack. After carrying a tiny daypack, a full load is double torture.

Soon, however, I found myself back in the parking area. Most of the cars had left, making it feel deserted. My car looked abandoned, sitting off by itself in a nearly empty lot. It was relief to see, though, because it meant I could take off my pack.

After a quick change into clean clothes, we tossed our gear in back of my car and hit the road. And that’s the story of my first “real” mountain climb. It’s really not much more than a scramble, but that doesn’t diminish my feeling of accomplishment.

Me on top!
That's me on top of Mt. Adams!

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Copyright Tyler Frederickson 2002. All rights reserved.