The Lessons of Unsuccess

This weekend’s climb of Mt. Adams (Pahto to the Native Americans), the third tallest Volcano in the Cascades, was long anticipated. Plans and details were worked and reworked, obligations rearranged, and excitement grew each day leading up the weekend.

The day began with the drive to Trout Lake, a town at the foot of Mt. Adams where the crew would assemble and register at the Ranger Station for the climb. Via I-5 down to Oregon, following I-84 to Hood River then jumping back into Washington, the drive took me just under four hours without traffic. With an early start, I took my time and enjoyed several stops along the way, even one to simply admire the views across the Columbia.

A stop for brunch in Hood River provided amazing views of Mt. Hood, and also my first glimpse of Mt. Adams in the distance.

 Driving up highway 141, the views of Adams continued to increase and my anticipation grew even more. The presence of wilderness firefighting crews along the highway were a sobering reminder of how fragile these natural places we treasure can be. As I drove past, I sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the women and men who work so hard to keep us safe, especially this dry, fire-prone time of year.

I arrived in Trout Lake early and spent my time visiting the General Store and Saturday Market and pulling over for views of the ever present stratovolcano looming in the distance. Stopping in the Ranger Station to start on paperwork, I had my heart warmed watching one of the employees open a handwritten envelope and pulling out a check and exclaiming, “they actually sent the money owed, unsolicited–my faith in humanity restored!” No further context was needed to make me smile right along with her.

Perfect weather, plenty of other climbers passing through town heading to and from the mountain, and my full pack in the backseat just waiting to go had me daydreaming about how it would feel to stand at the summit the next morning with Mt. Adams successfully in the bag. Little did I know that this would not be the outcome of this adventure.

Shortly after noon, the crew had arrived and we were piling into one car to carpool up to the trailhead at Cold Spring Campground. There were four of us meeting, some for the first time, to climb Mt. Adams together. Finally meeting Dustin W., a man I’d gotten to know through Facebook messages over the past half year, primarily through sharing inspiring photos and beta about our hikes/climbs, was an absolute highlight for me. He came from the Tri-Cities with fellow climber James, and James brought his wife Kris for her first experience in snow scrambling. Introductions were made and conversation flowed as we piled in and Dustin maneuvered up the challenging dirt roads to the mountain. Then it was one last pitstop, boots on and packs up as we hit the trail just after 2 p.m.

The trail begins up an old road through the remenants of a forest fire (2012 Cascade Creek Burn Zone, according to WTA). The most obviously trafficked route was “summer route” and we followed it through the trees to the snow, and from there adopted a landmark to landmark approach to determine the way as we could see hikers above us tackling the steep slopes and snow filled bowl via a variety of routes. 

The hike in provided us with a lesson in team dynamics and decision making as we all had route opinions and different levels of acceptable risk-taking. In the end, caution prevailed and taking one leg at a time to assess and reasses brought us into the bowl and to the base of our first significant snow scramble below the Lunch Counter snowfields.

For the record, the next person who tries to tell me that Mt. Adams is “just a hike” is getting throat-punched. Traversing the bowl and beginning the steep ascent straight up, even at the most forgiving looking slope, was a challenge and made me evermore grateful for the fantastic instruction I have received from the Mountaineers over the last few months.

The slog through the soft snow to the Lunch Counter was tiring and the prospect of camp and a hot meal all the incentive needed to make the final push of the day. As we climbed the bowl and made our way up, winds began to pickup and we knew we were feeling the start of the 30-40 mph winds that were expected that night. The gusts kept us cool but also made the climb tougher. By the time we arrived at the Lunch Counter, we were shouting to each other to be heard and muscling the tents into submission as we worked against the increasing winds. In between assembling camp, securing our gear, and fighting to get the stoves going to make dinner, we were able to pause to enjoy the gorgeous sunset and I caught a glimpse off the east side of the infamous evening mountain shadow (my first sighting and definitely not the last!)

The high winds and difficulty with one of the stoves that evening gave the earliest hints that we may not be able to summit in the morning as planned. We had arrived later than expected (around 7:45 p.m.) and by 9:30 p.m, it was too cold with the wind chill to stay outdoors, the snow was frozen solid and chopping enough to replenish our dwindling water supplies would mean getting even colder, and all we could do was set the alarm and wait and see what conditions would be like in the morning. 12:30, 2 a.m., 3 a.m… the hours ticked by interspersed with periodic dozing and quiet conversation and speculation as to which tent would be blown off the mountain first by the strong winds. Catching a glimpse of the stars almost made it worth braving the cold, but after a few minutes outside it was time to be burrowed back in the sleeping bag. The image of the Big Dipper tilted up against Piker’s Peak in the moonlight is one of many moments I will treasure from this trip.

Sometime around 7 a.m. the winds were back to manageable levels and we had all managed to doze enough to look at our options. The original alpine start had been bagged due to the wind, and now we could see climbers heading up to the false summit and had to make a decision. James and Kris decided not to go, leaving Dustin and I to decide if we would make an attempt. Because we had come as a group, considering the several hour delay that would now impact our departure was a big factor. Also, the fact that we hadn’t made more water the night before weighed on me. I was down to a half liter in my backpack, having consumed two liters on the way up to the Lunch Counter. It would take another hour to make enough for me to feel safe making the attempt–some people need this or that when they hike, and for me it is constantly sipping water as I climb. Without adequate water, I suffer. Heading up to 12,276′ at the summit, I knew I’d be putting myself as risk if I didn’t have enough to stay lucid and keep moving. I know my strength and knew I could probably make it, but should I? As I scrambled around camp during breakfast, this debate raged through my mind. Finally, I pulled Dustin aside and told him I wouldn’t be going. Knowing he was the fastest of the group and having exceptional experience in mountaineering and solo climbing, I asked if he wanted to still go. I can’t begin to know what thoughts flew behind his eyes as he considered the many variables as well, but he made the decision to try and flew into action.

As I watched Dustin packing the lightest amount of gear he could manage and set off from camp, another lesson became concrete and migrated from my head to my heart: sometimes you have to say no to the climb. I’ve told people this since I can remember, telling each group I go out with to speak up if things feel weird and that there is no shame in turning around when you can’t keep going. “The mountain will still be there tomorrow” is an often heard phrase in the alpine world. I’ve said it countless times, yet for the first time I was faced with a decision not formed by the weather or conditions or any other objective factor that usually makes the decision easy. I decided based on knowing my own strengths and weaknesses and my role as a member of a team. I know I could have made it if I had tried. But I made a choice and as hard as it was, I know it was the right one. Mt. Adams will still be there another day. 

As if to solidify this choice, shortly after I had decided not to go, a combination of poor footing and an ill timed wind gust tumbled me onto the volcanic rocks and left me with a few bruises and a knee that required several hours of TLC (well, more like iBUProfen, ice, elevation, and rest) before I was able to make the trek out. It’s like the mountain gods were making sure I would stick with my decision not to climb further. Alright, point taken, this was not my time for Adams! Instead, I learned to be happy with the views around me and to celebrate the fact that I had now spent a night at elevation (approximately 9,200-9,400′ depending on where you camp). Small victories, and good ones!

 Watching the climbers ascending above the Lunch Counter. Dustin is probably one of the dots towards the top.

 Relaxing at camp Sunday morning.

 James and Kris returning from some glissade and iceaxe practice.

 St. Helens to the west.

 Mt. Hood to the south.

Just before 1 p.m., James, Kris, and I were standing around watching the human specs moving up and down the mountain, speculating on which one might be Dustin. We concluded that if he had made good time, he would likely be just approaching or starting to glissade down from Piker’s Peak. No sooner had we said this then from our west came a joyous hail and we watched the man himself climbing over the rocks back to camp. Dustin must have flown part of the way, having returned to camp with a successful summit in roughly 4.5 hours roundtrip! For reference, most trip reports have people taking 3-5 hours to make the summit alone from the Lunch Counter. Pretty amazing mountain goat status right there!

 Dustin returning to camp with the mountain behind him. 

 Dustin’s summit photo.

As Dustin recounted his climb and began rearranging his pack, something clicked for me that I had always wondered about while reading the stories of climbing expeditions to places like Denali and Everest. On those expeditions, there are team members who make it all the way to base camp or a little beyond and never a step further. In their accounts and interviews, they always extoll the success of the climbers who made the summit, their words sometimes tinged with personal disappointment but always with an overwhelming mixture of pride and gratitude for the ones who did make it. And I always wondered, how, after coming so far and putting in so much effort, do these people not feel resentful or negative about the fact that they got left behind, that someone else took the journey that they had planned for themselves and would now receive the accolades and glory for it. Yet now I understood. Mt. Adams may not be an Everest or Denali, not even a Mt. Baker or Rainier, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was how proud I was that a member of my team had made the summit, that he had trusted us enough to wait for him, and that we had enough faith in his abilities to know he could do it. Another lesson learned, this one full of joy and a deeper understanding of the mountaineering community.

On the drive home, I called my parents to check-in and started to feel a flush of shame at not having accomplished what I had set out to do. Yet my mom listened to my story of the weekend and the climb, and as I explained the highs and lows of one person’s success and my own unsuccess, my mom said exactly what I needed to hear: “I’m proud of all of you, and you especially because you’ve shown me that you’re not just a peak-bagger. You’re a mountaineer.”

 Breaking camp, James and Dustin engaged in  synchronized packrobatics as Kris and I look on.

The climb/glissade/hike down was uneventful, full of conversation and laughter and wellwishes to other climbers also descending from the mountain. The ride back to the Ranger Station to retrieve vehicles and be on our way seemed too short, and it was bittersweet saying goodbye to new friends after sharing such a wonderfuly chaotic adventure.

Still riding the high from the last 24 hours, I somehow found the energy (read: insanity) to stop at Multnomah Falls on the way home and make the 2.4 mile roundtrip hike to the overlook on top of the falls, in flip-flops and with an aching knee no less. Hiking and stubbornness must be a part of my genetic makeup. And thank goodness for that!

 Multnomah Falls

 The view from the top of the falls (895′)

 Evening on the Columbia River, on the way home.

Mt. Adams is a challenge and an adventure, and if you have the abilities and mindset for it, I highly recommend it! May you find joy and success, or unsuccess, as the case may be.

Pahto, I will be back. Thank you for teaching me so much this weekend.

To follow our trail…

Mt. Adams South Climb (WTA)
Mt. Adams (Summit Post)
Mt. Adams Permits/Red Tape (USDA Forest Service)
Multnomah Falls


2 thoughts on “The Lessons of Unsuccess

  1. Katja, you wrote such a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. And, yes, it takes a true Mountaineer to make decisions like you did. I am so glad you wear that badge instead of the Peak Bagger one. You are my rock star this weekend ⭐️


  2. Pingback: Mount Adams Summit | The Time That Is Given Us

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