June 30-July 1, 2007.
South Spur route | 11.4 mi | 6676′ ele. gain
We’d been watching the weather all week, and planning this adventure for a while now. This was one of the only weekends all summer that two good friends and I would have time to go climb a mountain. And so, we set off on Saturday morning for the South Climb trailhead. Destination: Lunch Counter, to camp for the night.
Sue, Kevin and I started up the hot, dusty trail under blue skies around 1:30pm. The first couple of miles wound through lovely subalpine forest. Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Hood lurked above us, piercing the stunted evergreens with their reflective stares. We ascended slowly, burdened with our bursting backpacks. Soon, we crossed soft patches of snow and later exited the shelter of the trees. Before us, a spindly arm of the Crescent Glacier stretched down to greet us. Of the many bootpaths tattooing its surface, we chose the most direct and well-trampled route up to a rocky ridge to our left. This was a bad idea. There were huge trenches and holes in the glacier, as well as some sketchy snow bridges near the top. Once we got off the snow, I was glad to be on solid ground, so we stuck to the broken rock as we continued towards our destination.
After scrambling along the ridge for a short time, we tumbled out onto a snowfield above the glacier. Each of us sank into our own meditation-like state as we plodded happily along at a steady pace. We reached the Lunch Counter at about 5:45. There were many open shelters to choose from, so we selected the closest one that would allow room for both of our tents. Soon, we were boiling water, taking in the views, and laying out our sweaty socks to dry.There were many lessons to learn this weekend. One involved meteorology. We watched the birth, growth and death of several interesting types of clouds. One particular gray cloud in front of Mt. Hood appeared from nowhere and grew 10 times its size in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the summit behind us became obscured by swirling bodies of water vapor. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Slowly, the sun dropped as well.
At sunset, we feasted on buttered bread, mashed potatoes, gravy and meatballs. We were tired, so we hit the sack as soon as we packed up our cookware.
The next morning, we woke up early for an alpine start, but the route was mostly hidden under blowing clouds. We drifted back to sleep for a few more hours. At 7:30 am, the visibility improved and the three of us agreed to try for the summit. It took nearly an hour to wake up, pack up camp, and rearrange our backpacks with what we’d need for the climb. Sue led us across the mess of rocks and slushy snow to the base of the snowfield, where everyone was stopping to put on crampons. I gave a quick tutorial on self arrest, explained how to carry the axe, and demonstrated a few techniques for climbing with crampons. It was fun to be the teacher out there. They caught on quickly, as I’d expected, and we started our push for the top.
From camp, we had seen a band of clouds cutting across the halfway point of our route. As we hiked up to this band of clouds, the view ahead slowly melted away into nothingness. We stopped more frequently to talk about our concerns about the weather, and to make sure everyone was fed, watered and warm. We kept within sight of the glissade chute so we wouldn’t lose our way. Although we started the climb with maybe 30 other people in our view, in these whiteout conditions we could only sometimes see one or two other people.
Approaching the false summit, we encountered a group of three on the descent. They said the whiteout continued all the way to the summit. After a 10 minute snack break, we decided it was no fun to push ourselves up this peak for another grueling hour with no visibility. We then began our careful descent on the soft snow until the clouds dissipated and the mountain was tangible again. Eyeing the glissade chute, we took off our crampons and prepared to slide down to the bottom of the snowfield. We watched a few people go past, and I was able to point out who was carrying their axe correctly and who was not so that my teammates could safely glissade without impaling a thigh.
Up to this point I was making an effort to keep the group together. I usually stayed behind Sue and Kevin, to both keep an eye on them and to moderate the pace. But once I started barreling down the mountain on a thin plastic sheet, I couldn’t stop. Physically, I could, but mentally, I was intent on flying down to the bottom as fast as I could. I had to self-arrest twice because of speeds beyond my control; it was like going down a slide at a waterpark. I swung my hips into each turn and lifted my feet to go over the bumps and dips in the snaking path. I arrived at the bottom with a huge grin on my face and a frozen behind. There, I waited for my two friends to complete the harrowing journey.
We wobbled back to camp sans crampons. We slipped and slid across the snow, which looked like a stormy sea frozen in time. When we located our cache, we ate lunch, drank gatorade and reluctantly put our tents, sleeping bags and other overnight gear into our packs.
Fully loaded, we spryly ambled down the snow, cautiously perching at every viewpoint that allowed us to scrutinize the landscape ahead. We knew we needed to take a different route back than we took up, and of course, things look different when you’re going down from when you’re coming up. When the slope appeared to get very steep very fast, we cut right to follow faint herd paths along a rocky debris pile (green line, top center). This route also sucked. I decided to try my luck on the snow (shown in red), while Sue and Kevin preferred the rocky rubble (continue along the green line). The snow path was the route of choice for most other parties on the mountain, although each individual chose a different line of travel and descended using a different technique. All in all, it was challenging and fun–two adjectives I didn’t expect to use on a Mt. Adams South Side climb. I got a couple more chances to practice self-arrest, and exhausted all the snow climbing styles I knew of.
I waited for my teammates at the base of the glacier. I had plenty of time to take off my boots and socks, guzzle water, and snack on the goodies I had in my pack. Shortly after I began doubting my decision to let the team split up, I saw Sue and Kevin preparing to glissade down a steep track left behind my several other climbers (blue line). Once reunited, we began the more mundane task of following the trail back to the car.
Drifting in and out of conversation, we listened to the squawks of gray jays, watched others drag up the trail, stepped carefully across patches of rotten snow, and marveled at the colors of the blooming flowers. Much of the last mile was spent in silence, as all of us began feeling the weight of our packs again, hungering for hot food, and dreaming of flip flops.
Mt. Adams will be there another day. I was happy to be part of such a great team; safety and enjoyment came first, before speed and summit fever. I enjoyed every moment of this trip. I am eagerly awaiting my next glissade run.