Mt. Adams (12,276’) is known as “Washington’s Forgotten Mountain.” Less than 50 miles from the legendary Mt. Rainier, poor Adams is often lost in the shadow of its larger cousin. It doesn’t help that the standard South Side walk-up route is the Pacific Northwest equivalent of Quandary’s East Ridge, one of the easiest climbs to the top of a major Cascade peak. Mountaineers are quick to dismiss Adams. Even Mt. Hood, more than 1,000 feet lower, garners more attention.
But for those willing to venture to the more remote North Side, the second-highest mountain in Washington offers bountiful rewards. The crown jewel is the Adams Glacier, a tortured 4,000-foot icefall that requires diligent routefinding, steep snow climbing and several pitches of alpine ice. Sam and I began targeting this climb in early 2014.
We departed Denver at 10:20 a.m. Sunday, June 29. The original plan was to have a leisurely day Sunday, hike in Monday and summit Tuesday. Record-breaking high temperatures in Washington on Monday/Tuesday, complete with overnight lows in the upper 40s, spooked us into an audible. Falling rock and ice, tumbling seracs and collapsing snow bridges already had us worried enough; we didn’t need those threats amplified by baking heat.
Instead, we rushed straight from the airport to the trailhead, beginning the approach hike at 5:45 p.m. Sunday. As luck would have it, a snow drift blocked the otherwise dry road about two miles from the proper trailhead. Hooray for impromptu road slogs! At least the promise of a solid overnight freeze partially allayed our fears. The negative was we had to stop about 500 feet short of our planned campsite due to impending darkness.
Here we experienced another setback. Despite brand new batteries and being in lock mode during travel, both of our Black Diamond Storm headlamps died almost immediately. I still don’t know what went wrong. I carry a spare 35-lumen Black Diamond Gizmo in my emergency kit, but that wasn’t going to do us much good trying to negotiate a tricky route in the dark. We agreed to start around first light at 4:30 a.m. instead of the normal 2-3 a.m.
We followed a patchy trail past the traditional camping area and slogged toward the start of the glacier at around 8,000’. As with most of the Pacific Northwest volcanoes, the scale on Adams is immense. Features we thought we’d reach in 15 minutes took 45. We eventually found ourselves roping up about two hours after setting out, just as the sun was starting to hit the upper glacier.
The climb started with 45-degree snow slope followed by a 50-degree chute of hard snow, which had been called the crux by prior trip reports. The normal line stays right up most of the glacier, followed by a long traverse left to access the summit plateau. Tracks from a Sunday party veered left way early, and having spoken to them on their way out, we knew they were successful. A teetering serac looming over the right-hand option convinced us to follow the bootpack left. This option immediately led to much more technical terrain.
The Adams Glacier is described as a moderate-to-steep snow climb with perhaps a few steeper sections of alpine ice, depending on varying conditions from year to year. Most guidebooks put the maximum angle at 45- to 50-degrees. The left-hand line, however, put us on a rolling hump of 55- to 60-degree neve and alpine ice. In some areas the ice probably touched 65 degrees. We were comfortable simul-climbing it, with the expectation the steep stuff would only come in short bursts punctuated by moderately angled snow. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
The middle of the route was a sustained 500-foot section that never relented to less than 50 degrees. The only rest we found was a T-slot someone had chopped out for a belay. With some careful maneuvering, we were able to sit in it for a few minutes to eat, drink and rest our screaming calves.
Finally, just when I thought my calves were going to start cramping, the angle laid back. We were able to walk again rather than frontpointing. Hallelujah. Of course, we still had about 1,000 feet to go over snow bridges, under seracs and around crevasses, and the day was becoming stiflingly hot. Our tensions were eased, however, by the end of technical difficulties and the mostly obvious route to safety.
We took the time to admire the stunning environment. Glaciers have to be among the prettiest natural places on earth, and our previously neglected cameras found themselves in overdrive. Some of the crevasse and serac formations high on the route were simply spectacular.
A final challenge was presented in a heavily broken section directly underneath the largest serac band on the face. We nervously crossed a few thin, sketchy snow bridges and had to reverse a couple times when we came upon an insurmountable gap, but before too long we’d escaped the threat of the ice cliff and were starting up the mellow unbroken snow slopes to the summit plateau.
The final slopes, though completely safe, brought their own degree of difficulty. What we’d thought all day was the summit turned out to be a very minor subpeak, and a second false summit taunted us as well. We took a long break to eat, drink and improve morale. The true summit eventually made itself known when we saw small dots of people who had come up the South Side.
Like on Mt. Hood in 2013, I was lucky enough to enjoy a bluebird summit with clear views and no wind. Rainier was just to the north, with the Kautz Route (our next objective) obviously visible. Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters were all easy to make out to the south, along with the remnants of Mt. Saint Helens to the west. We only shared the top with about four or five other people during our 45-minute vigil.
The descent was via the infamous North Ridge, a steep and sometimes exposed cleaver of shattered pumice. It ended up not being all that bad, probably because we were able to stay on snow most of the way. Even the few sections of rock we negotiated weren’t as terrible as advertised. I guess us Coloradans cutting our teeth in the crumbling Rockies translates well to other areas, haha.
We bailed off the ridge about three-quarters of the way down, glissading a gully to reach our morning tracks. An hour-long walk saw us returned to camp, but relief was not to be had. The previous night had been cold enough to ward off another huge negative aspect of this route: mosquitos. Now, in the early evening of a muggy day, they were out in full force.
The sheer number of the damn things was mindblowing. At times it was hard to inhale without swallowing one or more. Sam had bought some Jungle Juice (98% deet), which the salesman said was illegal in some stores and and should be applied conservatively. He suggested a dab or two on a bandana should do the trick. Having done this and still wearing a coat of bloodsuckers, we threw caution to the wind and showered ourselves in the toxic liquid. It still didn’t really help.
Seeking relief, we dove into the tiny Black Diamond Firstlight tent and stripped down to our skivvies to make the heat tolerable. It was extremely romantic. We passed a long few hours until nightfall, boiling in our own juices, counting the mosquitoes on the tent wall and trying not to touch each other. I escaped the tent to take some sunset photos and melt more snow once the temperature dropped and the buzzing assholes disappeared.
Not to worry! They were back with a vengeance the following morning, even at the early hour of 6 a.m. We packed our gear as fast as we could and got the hell out of there. The hike out went fairly quick to the actual trailhead, but the remaining two-mile road slog to the rental car was soul-crushing. What had appeared flat on the hike in turned out to be largely uphill on the return. We probably gained 500 feet on the way out in the rising heat of one of the hottest Washington days on record.
The sufferfest was worth it when we rolled in to Morton, Wash., just in time for the USA vs. Belgium soccer match at The Bucksnort Pub. It took a little charm to get the bartender to warm up to the two smelly cityfolk asking to watch a Euro girl-sport, but after a while she and the other bar patron at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, a fellow called simply Skeeter, embraced us like old friends. The beer probably helped. We even summoned the courage to order burgers after about an hour.
All in all, the Adams Glacier was an amazing route that was definitely one of the finest of our lives. Surely our next objective, the Kautz Glacier on Mt. Rainier, would be a comparative cakewalk. We even had two full days to recover! Basking in the afterglow of Mt. Adams and regarding Rainier as halfway in the bag, we contentedly passed the next 48 hours visiting the Wylam family in Centralia, Wash., and putzing around the touristy areas of Seattle. As it turns out, the Kautz wouldn’t be so easy…