Mount St. Helens

As I’ve climbed and shared more about the experiences, others have asked to come along. Often these requests aren’t for anywhere particular, more of a budding interest and willingness to follow along any local trail. However, a friend I’ve gotten to know through work had a specific request.

“I want to summit a volcano.”

This request came from Dan F. in the winter/spring, and he said that he was particularly interested in Mount St. Helens. After explaining the permit process to him and how it was no guarantee that we could go in the summer, I told him I’d try to get something worked out and that he should start training on local trails.

Fast forward several months. On the site where permit holders for St. Helens sell/trade their extra permits, I found a seller for a weekend-day in September.

Before this exchange, I had given Dan the info on what to expect, what gear he needed, how to prepare, etc. Once the permits were secured, it was up to him and the others invited to join our crew to be ready for the climb on September 2nd. Our party ended up being me, Dan, Sara T. and her boyfriend, Dom W. All of us were connected through work (same agency, different offices) and the three of them shared the common goal of making it up Mount St. Helens. I told them I’d be happy to help lead them as best I could, the rest was up to them.

Ready, set, go!

Our schedules resulted in a somewhat later start, departing the trailhead at around 9:15 am. Not ideal, but still feasible with an estimated window of 6-9 hours roundtrip based on trip reports and beta from other hikers. I set our turn around time as 3pm, knowing that if it took much longer we would risk coming down in the dark. Overall I knew the crew was inexperienced but also in good shape, so I wasn’t worried. In high spirits, we attached our permits to our packs and started up the mountain.

As we pushed through the first miles of forest, I began to feel some sense of the challenges ahead. The day was already proving to be hot, all four of us glistening as we hiked through the shady forest around the base of the mountain. As we approached the tree line where we would set out onto the volcanic landscape, I felt the heat even more and made sure everyone had sunblock and water. No more shade after this!

 Photo by Dom

The climb that day was one of the most difficult climbs I’ve done to-date. The distant views of Mt. Adams kept me going, as did the words of encouragement I kept saying to my friends as we sweated and struggled to push ourselves on in the heat. We ran into climbing rangers at one point and I got the impression they wanted us to turn around, one saying the temperatures were probably in the 80s and that there was no shade and it would just get hotter. The crew knew my rules about speaking up if things felt wrong but also following the rule of fives if it was just difficult but not illness or fatigue telling them to stop. We conferred and decided to keep going. Dom tended to push ahead and take longer breaks to wait for us while Dan, Sara and I kept a slow and steady pace with numerous water and rest stops. It was grueling.

As each of us reached a point of wanting to quit, we all encouraged each other to go a little further. I set a group goal of making the monitor station, located above the boulder climb and preceding the infamous 1000′ of gain up the ash-dune that led to the top. And so, pausing whenever the rocks provided shade and often where there was none, we prevailed and made it to our pre-Summit destination where we would check the time and reassess our situation.

The mental games we go through on climbs, especially ones where the elements are not aligned in our favor, can be amazing. I felt miserable but kept speaking as positively as I could, more outloud to myself than to anyone in particular. My fellow climbers were encouraged, upset, angry, and more determined each in their turn. Yet as we paused to eat lunch and decide on what would happen now, somehow each one of them looked inside and found the courage and strength to push on for the summit. I was surprised, having thought that by this point at least one of them would want to turn back. But there you have it–once again, the strength of the human spirit prevails. It was after 2pm and close to my turnaround time, far later than I imagined it would be, but I agreed that we could push on if we moved with intention and kept breaks to a minimum and as short as possible. Dom found his struggles motivated him and pushed up to the summit ahead of us, able to keep us in view across the barren mountainside. Sara, Dan, and I pushed on, one step at a time, each fighting an inner struggle to ask more of the body than has ever been asked before.

There is a quote by the founder of Outward Bound that summed up this climb better than any other description for me: “There is more to us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.” – Kurt Hahn

When we stood/collapsed/embraced/stumbled at the top, we were at the turnaround time, tired, dehydrated, and ecstatic. I loved watching the reactions of the three as they stood on their first volcano and realized the magnitude of their accomplishment. I gave myself a small pat on the back too as I looked over at the ever present Mt. Adams and remembered my own struggles to reach her summit, and acknowledged how much harder this climb in the heat had been than anything else I had done so far.

After victory snacks and pictures, it was time to head down. A quick lesson in glissades helped the others get down a small snowpatch in less time, and we raced the setting sun as we hurried down the rocks back to the tree line. I began to feel the effects of electrolyte imbalance and not hydrating enough, even though we all had water left and had been drinking all day (the heat won out in the end) and made the hard decision to push ahead of my friends in order to get off the rocks in case I ended up being in real trouble. I kept them in line of sight the whole way as I raced down the last rocky slope and gratefully rested at the edge of the trees. Even through my exhausted, pain addled state, I was able to watch with pride as they navigated down to where I was, making their own decisions and working together as a team. I may have lent some knowledge and experience to the climb, but I saw with pride how capable and able to lead each of them is. What an amazing gift!

Checking on everyone’s gear and distributing headlamps “just in case,” I encouraged Sara and Dom to set off ahead and Dan and I brought up the rear. Those headlamps proved invaluable as the final mile or two once again proved to stretch on for an eternity and the woods went from dusk to darkness as we plunged down the trail in search of the trailhead. Beautiful views at sunset kept my spirits high those last miles, and Dan and I stopped often to sample the luscious wild blueberries before the darkness hid them from view.

By the time we got to the car, it was a race down the road to get enough cell range to let our emergency contact know that we were alright, a message that was finally pushed through barely 30 minutes before our prearranged “call out the cavalry” time. Car to car took us about 11 hours, longer than I had ever anticipated (my first trip up St. Helens the previous year in colder conditions with fewer stops was about 7 hours roundtrip, for comparison). Never underestimate the effects of heat!

We limped back into Tacoma where we had carpooled from and I barely made it to a friend’s apartment where I gratefully accepted a shower and a couch to sleep on as there was nothing left in my reserves to make it back to Vashon that night. Once my phone lit up with confirmation that everyone was home safely, I was able to relax and share the stories from the day.

Afterwards, I shared our story with a few people at work, and soon it was suggested that I submit our climb to the communications folks as a great story about teamwork. Well, why not? Sure enough, a week or two later, I was called and asked a few questions, and then a small story appeared in between other agency news pieces. Once again, I reflected on how proud I was of my friends and their ability to reach a dream. Never stop climbing.

To follow our trail…

St. Helens via Monitor Ridge


Eclipse in Idaho

For the eclipse, my family decided to head out to one of our favorite places: McCall, Idaho. We’ve gone there many times over the years to experience all manner of outdoor joy, from river rafting to cliff jumping to hotspring soaking to hiking through the Payette National Forest. Because the path of totality would cross just a short drive south of us, it seemed like the perfect place to go.

Leaving Seattle Friday evening due to work schedules, Em, Josh A., and I made it as far as Pullman where we passed out in one of the few available hotel rooms and then pressed on again in the early morning. As we headed into Idaho, the temperatures rose and landscape changed, adding a physical element to the experience of being away from it all and off to the wilderness.

With a quick stop in McCall for last minute provisions, we turned north onto Warren Wagon Road and headed up to our destination, Burgdorf.

Burgdorf is a very rustic hotspring resort, the history centering around explorers and mining in the 1800’s. And by rustic, I mean limited sources of potable water (available in spigots outside the cabins), no electricity, and outhouses only for bathrooms. Maybe not a “resort” for the faint of heart, but definitely one that our outdoor-loving family has always appreciated.

After being on the road for so long, we decided to stretch our legs with a traditional hike up Crystal Mountain, a mountain whose top has been violently mined for the quartz crystal contained therein, the result of which has been a fascinating mountaintop of exposed quartz that can’t help but capture the imagination as you circle the mountain and scramble up to the top.

As a matter of full disclosure, I have promised to tell-all and reveal that my stubborn attempt to find a nonexistent trail up Crystal got us incredibly lost for almost an hour, bushwhacking across the hillsides and strategically avoiding crossing the dense ridge line as we knew that would take us from mostly-lost into truly-lost. Luckily, between Em and my memories of the area, a small photo of a local map I had on my phone (see above image) and some strategery with the location of the sun and distant mountains, we managed to locate the real trail and proceed safely up Crystal. Yes, that was a “my bad” that I will never repeat again!

 Lovely wilderness views… as I wonder if we are going to require Search and Rescue as a result of this misadventure!

Crystal Mountain:

On the hike out (this time on the actual trail), we encountered a grouse family. Em used her uncanny bird calls to trick the fowls into holding still, which was all well and good for some fantastic photos until the mother sensed danger and tried to introduce herself to my face. Alright, revenge for my misadventure achieved, now let’s move on before I lose an eye!

That evening we enjoyed the hotspring and slept soundly in the cabin, the whole party finally together (me, Em, Josh, Brigitte, Mike, Craig B., and Craig’s friend, Robin). Em and I ended up camping out down on the first floor to avoid the nocturnal male musicians, which resulted in us having a late night encounter with a local mouse we heard scratching around inside the cabinet where unsecured food had been stored. Apparently mice enjoy dry, roasted seaweed. Who knew?

The next day generated some debate over what the activities would be. My desire to hike won out in persuading Em and Josh to follow me into the wilderness in an attempt to summit one of the beautiful peaks visible from our windows. While that adventure ended up being over 10 miles roundtrip and not successfully summiting the intended peak, we saw beautiful sights and had lunch on top of a gorgeous ridgeline above an alpine meadow and lake. I’ll be back someday for the peaks, that’s for sure!

We came down too late to head to the cliff jumping spot on Lake Payette, so instead we drove as far as the northernmost end of the lake where the river feeds in and found a nice spot to pull over and cool off with a refreshing evening swim.

Monday we woke up before dawn and packed the cars for the eclipse. Brigitte and Mike had arranged with local friends, Don and Connie, to join them on a friend’s acreage outside of Council, ID. With extreme fire danger making us all extra cautious as we drove up the dirt rode past local bovine, through dry grass and brush, our anticipation grew as we awaited the eclipse.

Words cannot fully describe all that we experienced being in the path of totality. The changing light as the sun began to lose out to the moon, the quiet that fell as the insects and birds went into evening mode, and finally the indescribable beauty of a black sun surrounded by dancing blue and white flames sitting amongst a starry patch of sky in the middle of the day! I have yet to find a photo that managed to capture even a hint of what it truly looks like in person. And in totality, all of the full eclipse could be looked at without eye protection. If you ever have a chance to view totality, go! Do it! It is breathtaking to the nth degree!

 Several panoramas illustrating the changing light as the shadow approached and passed us.

 Photo credit for the eclipse images to Mike’s Post-Doc, Baptiste J. who was just down the road from us during the eclipse.

After the eclipse, we came together to share our experiences and marvel at the photos taken by the group photographers, and then it was time to make the long drive home. As we went, the smoke from the local wildfires gave us a fantastic sunset. The perfect end to a weekend full of nature and beauty (and far too much driving!)

To follow our trail…

Burgdorf Hotspring
McCall, Idaho
Future Eclipses

Mt. Catherine – Short & Sweet

With fall looming on the horizon, my time is already being taken up with Ski Patrol. Particularly this year because I am assisting Daryl R., Summit Central’s Assistant Patrol Director, with running the Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) class. With the class beginning in early September, August has been full of phone calls, planning, and preparations. 

On a dreary Sunday, I made my way up to the patrol building in Snoqualmie Pass to take stock of existing class supplies and do a general walk-through of the building to see what needed to be done before class started. After a busy week, I was also eager to get out and stretch my legs. But being solo, having minimal gear with me, and needing to be back down to meet with a few other patrollers in the evening, my options were limited. What to do, what to do…

The Washington Trail’s Association (WTA) app came to my rescue. I did a double-take when I read that there was a three mileroundtrip  hike just up the road past Hyak that reached a summit and had beautiful views. Mt. Catherine, huh? Well, it was worth considering. As I drove up to the pass and the skies cleared and the sun drenched the hillsides, I knew without a doubt that I needed to go for a hike. Alright then Mt. Catherine, you’re it!

After a stop at the building and loading my car up with dusty boxes of gauze and supplies that needed inventorying, it was time to hike! The drive up the dirt road took a while, and at one switchback several people had pulled over and left their vehicles. That particular turn was more of a riverbed than a road, I’ll admit, but my Subaru Forester made it without a hitch and suddenly I was at the trailhead. 

With only a small bag containing water, an emergency bivy, and a headlamp (and yes, this broke my 10-Essentials rule), I set out. The trail was well-defined, the air was fresh and laced with the smells of wet earth and pine trees, and I was thrilled to discover that the blue huckleberries (or are they blueberries?) were out in abundance!

As I was recovering from some sort of upper respiratory bug, I took it slow, enjoying the views that opened up once the switchbacks brought me to the ridge. 

I knew I was getting close when I found the cables–the WTA reports described a scramble at the top with cables to assist. Sure enough, around a bend with views to the top, there they were! I opted to scramble up without their assistance but made note of them for the trip back down.

There was one other hiker at the top when I arrived, and we shared pleasantries while giving each other space to drink in the views in silence and watch the clouds dance across the ridge behind us. How blessed to live in such a place where a mere 1.5 miles up provides such beautiful scenes!

After a quick break, it was time to head back down. Less than an hour up, and back to the car in even less time. The drive out took about as long as the descent had, and then it was back on the interstate and on my way to my next patrol obligation. A wonderful, quick hike that I look forward to doing again and highly recommend!

To follow our trail…

Mt. Catherine

Mt. Adams Summit

Two posts ago, I shared some lessons learned from the experience of not successfully summiting Washington’s second highest peak, Mt. Adams (see The Lessons of Unsuccess). While I learned a lot on that trip, I was eager for a chance to return and see if I could make the summit.

Last weekend, I had another chance. This time with Angela W., a Seattle Mountaineer who I met on the Granite Mountain scramble. In a whirlwind, new gear was acquired, bags repacked, and it was off to Trout Lake for a second attempt. We rendezvoused at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, picked up permits, and set off to the trailhead in good time. By 11:40 were were booted up and on the dusty path, Angela for the first time, and me with a growing sense of familiarity to the landmarks and majestic views of the volcano ahead of us.

The amount of snowmelt between two weeks prior and now was remarkable! The area James and Kris had used snowshoes was now a dirt trail with a flowing stream where we stopped to filter water. The snowfields we had so easily traversed had given way to what was now clearly a glacier (Crescent Glacier) and the summer route that Dustin and I had debated over tirelessly last time was now clearly defined as up to the ridge and through the rocky landscape. Conditions change constantly in the mountains, especially where snow is concerned.

In the beating sun and afternoon heat, I made good use of my new acquisition, a shemagh. Having seen Dustin wearing it last time and knowing that I needed to do a better job of protecting my skin, I had ordered one online and was curious as to how it would work. As we worked our way up the rocks and back onto the snow towards the Lunch Counter (LC), I quickly fell in love with the comfortable, breathable material, and found all kinds of ways to use it to protect me from the sun.

We trekked up the softening snow and reached the bottom of LC at approximately 4:45 p.m. and pressed on, wanting to camp above 9,000′ so Angela could see how she does at altitude. Other climbers seemed to be pulling off earlier than us, opting to carry their gear less that evening and make up the distance with lighter packs in the morning. The result was that we ended up with our choice of spots and our chosen area seemingly all to ourselves.

My first priority was water, after getting impacted by a lack thereof last time. Near our site was a trickle of snowmelt and I was able to build a small pool and fill and filter enough water to replenish the hydration packs and have some extra for camp. Let it be noted that even though the night did not drop below freezing and the sun was bright both days, on our descent the trickle had stopped and there was no source of water outside of melting snow until we returned to the creek further down. Never take anything for granted in the mountains.

Our evening was spent admiring the views, playing with a beach ball Angela had brought, and watching the sunset. As opposed to last time, there was barely a breath of wind, and the absolute silence was amazing.

After a restless night (neither of us slept well, more of a long term doze for both of us), it was 3:45 a.m and time to get up and moving. We were on the snow somewhere around 4:40 a.m., beginning the climb to the false summit, Piker’s Peak, with crampons on and iceaxes out right around 5 a.m. The snow was solid and slick, not something I would recommend attempting without gear. As we climbed, we could see the headlamps of other climbers waking up and getting ready down at LC. We also saw a solo climber, Kason, who had started from the parking lot around 1:45 a.m. and was doing a single-day ascent. He passed us up Piker’s and we leapfrogged with him the rest of the way, sharing encoragenements back and forth as we all pressed on for the sky.

We reached the top of Piker’s Peak around 7:15 a.m. Two hours was about what we had anticipated for this stretch, and we enjoyed a break before taking on the final climb. From the false summit, it truly looked like someone had taken a mountain and plopped it on top of the mountain we had just climbed. I can see how disheartening it would be if you didn’t read up on Mt. Adams beforehand and expected an easy summit after making it this far.

The bootpath led to a final snowclimb, whereas switchbacks in the rocky scree showed us another option, though perhaps somewhat less traveled. I had no preference and ahead of us we could see Kason taking on the rocky path. After conferring with Angela, we decided to take the scree, a decision that worked fine for us an offered amazing views of the cornices and crevasses off the southeast side of the mountain, but perhaps not the route I would choose again. When we were on snow, it was amazing to look at the contours, the wind and sun having sculpted the snow into amazing patterns and frozen waves. It felt like stepping across a frozen ocean and was mesmerizing to behold. As we got higher, these troughs (also known as sun cups) became more defined, and on our final break before the summit, I was able to sit down inside one to show the size.

One final push for the summit remained! By now, Kason had made it and there were other climbers close behind. We pushed on and before we knew it, we reached the top with breathtaking views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker to the north, the first time we had seen these familiar neighbors since entering the Mt. Adams Wilderness. A few more steps and we were at the true summit (12,276′) at approximatley 9:10 a.m. So, a total of 4.5 hours from LC to summit with several rests and breaks, not bad! My highest peak yet and an even sweeter accomplishment after having to turn back before. Never has a summit felt so good!

We walked across the frozen sea to the east side of the mountain and looked out at the areas that seemed to be Yakima and the Tri-Cities. I remembered seeing Mt. Adams from the road the last time I had been in Yakima, when I hadn’t even considered the possibility of standing on top of her one day, and it struck me again how far I have come in this mountaineering world in barely a year. So many blessings. Such a gift to live this life.

Soon it was time to descend. Just after 10 a.m. we were geared up and ready to go. We both tried the first glissades and felt the crunch of frozen snow beneath us. Angela decided it was out of her comfort zone and opted to walk back to LC, using the opportunity to practice more in crampons for future climbs. I opted to try out every small chute we came upon and by the time we reached Piker’s, I felt confident enough to take on the whole slide. Knowing the west chute led to rocks (from scouting on the way up), I chose the east chute. The top parts were a little challenging, taking a lot of muscle to dig in the iceaxe and control my descent, and at one point the chute walls were so wide that I found my legs splaying and was worried about a dislocation or fracture should I lose control of my speed. However, with attention and careful application of everything I have learned this year, I was able to slide slowly down the steep spots and enjoyed the rest of my 2,700′ descent in 10-15 minutes. What a ride! I stumbled over to the rocks at upper LC and found some welcome shade where I relaxed and waited for Angela.

We made it back to our tents, packed up, and headed down the mountain, happily wishing new climbers good luck and answering questions as best we could. The cold water at the creek crossing was the most delicious thing I have tasted in a long time, and it was gratefully followed by the Mt. Adams Burger at the local cafe back in Trout Lake. The four hour drive back was long and tiring, but the reality set in more with every mile. We had done it! I fell asleep exhausted that night and awoke with elation as it truly, fully set in. We had done it! Every time I push myself past the limits I thought I had, I realize how much more I am capable of. 

To climbing higher! To truly living! To new adventures to come!

Downtime Reading – Denali

Having to take it easy the last two weeks to allow my knee to mend gave me time to catch up on chores, hang with Harley, and get through a few more titles on my to-read list. Both of these were picked up at Half Price Books over the last few months and were delightfully contrasting short reads about experiences climbing Denali.

The first one, “6194” by Ed Darack, is a story about a young Californian who dreams of solo climbing Denali, and his many trials and errors in getting to that goal. He pulls no punches in sharing his mistakes and the lessons he learned as he became more involved in mountaineering. Several times I cringed or scoffed at his mistakes, but overall I admired his perseverance and seeing his growth from his first naive attempt to climb Mt. Whitney to his successful solo summit up Denali, and several mountains in between. 

The second, “The Accidental Adventurer” is the life story of Barbara Washburn, the first woman to summit Denali. Unlike Darack, Washburn never had dreams of peak-bagging or chasing a specific mountain. As she explains, her motives were to accompany her husband and support his travels and expeditions. Although she downplays her experiences through most of the book, the challenges she faced and her drive and dedication on the mountains are inspirational. 

Reading both of these gave an interesting range of views on what Denali is like. My takeaways are that it is a very long endeavor (days and weeks, not hours, to summit), requires a huge amount of stubbornness and dedication, and is possible to do even if you aren’t a mountaineering legend. Darack survived falling down 80 feet into a crevasse and endured whiteouts, high winds, and deep snow. Washburn seems to have lived a healthy lifestyle yet claims she never trained for Denali outside of pushing a stroller and raising children. What I noticed in both of them is that they both wanted to quit and faced their fears numerous times, and in the end it was a mixture of respecting the mountain and using caution combined with sheer determination that allowed them to succeed in reaching the summit and returning home safely.

Both are pleasant reads and recommended if you enjoy mountaineering, adventuring, and the stories of ordinary people pushing themselves towards extraordinary things.

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

Granite Mountain Monday

Monday morning I joined a Seattle based Mountaineers group for a scramble on Granite Mountain. Granite is a year-round scramble (although taken with extreme caution in the winter as avalanches are common and deadly), or a lovely eight mile hike for those looking to stay on trail and still be challenged by approximately 3,800′ of elevation gain. Though still patches of snow at the top, the trail is accessible and well travelled by hikers eager to take in the gorgeous views.

Our group (myself, Angela, and Heidi, with trip leader David) met at the TH and departed at approximately 10:45am. Note that there is still a stand for permits into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness that must be completed and attached prior to your hike if you choose to go. We followed the main trial through the forest, feeling out the group’s pace and getting to know each other.

The trail crosses numerous gulleys as it ascends (the source of serious avalanches in the winter), and under David’s direction, we left the main trail to ascend one of these for our first scramble. Several areas required greater attention as we navigated up what at times felt like a dried waterfall, and one section was a challenging enough climb that David mentioned it was likely rated higher than he had anticipated and though nervous, I was proud to be able to overcome some of my lingering fear of actual climbing enough to work through the problem and come out safely at the top. 

Once we left the gulley, we were surrounded by an abundance of beautiful wildflowers including Bear Grass in full bloom. Carefully navigating the wild terrain with proper care and etiquette, we made our way back to the established trail and stopped for a brief lunch break. 

We followed the trail for a ways, raising the eyebrows of several day trekkers who glanced a few times at our full packs and helmets. Now we could see the lookout tower at the summit and the views continued to expand as we glanced back over the I-90 cooridor and around at the neighboring peaks.

With the tower in sight, the trail took a noteable divide, the right branch switchbacking to the top, and the left providing a boulder/scramble route along the spine that appears well traveled judging by the wear to the dirt and worn boot paths on sections of rock. With our sights on the top, we spread out over the boulders and made our way to the lookout tower.

After relaxing at the summit, we took the trail down and took our time, stopping to admire views and look at neighboring peaks and routes for future adventures, arriving back at the cars a little after 5 p.m. 

To follow our trail…

Granite Mountain (WTA)
Granite Mountain Trail (Mountaineers)