Peak 12: Klickitat (Mt. Adams/ South Climb)
Total Mileage: 9-12 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 6901’
Date: May 26, 2019
This was to be my first serious volcano ascent, and a good primer for Tahoma. While Loowit is a volcano climb, it’s pretty straightforward, and an ice axe and traction weren’t necessary. The South Climb up Klickitat isn’t technical, but it is significantly more challenging than Loowit. It would be the highest I’d ever been by my own power, too.
Happy to have had the comfort of the Westie for a good night’s sleep at the trailhead, we awoke early to start up the mountain while the snow-blanketed ground was still firm. While many climbers opt to camp at the Lunch Counter to break up the climb and to avoid ascending too quickly, we opted for a car-to-car summit. The trail wound up through the woods and soon enough we were above tree line. Seth, Jen, and Harrison were going to skin up and ski down; I was on snowshoes and planned to glissade down, having read so much about the epic Adams glissade chute. Just wait to hear how that all turned out.
As the sun rose, we could see St. Helens to the west. It was surreal to think that just a couple of weeks ago, I had been standing on the flank of that volcano, looking over at the one I was now climbing. It was, initially, a beautiful morning, albeit a bit cloudy.
As we lumbered up the side of the mountain, though, the weather turned, as mountain weather is wont to do. The temperature dropped and the precipitation commenced. By the time we reached the Lunch Counter, my hands and toes were painfully cold, and my rain gear was starting to soak through. The wind picked up, and the adventure had turned into a true slog. We had some discussion about how to proceed. I was so wet and cold that if someone had said “Let’s bail,” I probably wouldn’t have protested. You know it’s bad if there’s even a whisper of quitting in my mind. Harrison suggested that we might be able to get above the weather, though so, hopeful, we agreed to keep at it a little longer.
Sure enough, we soon found ourselves above the bad weather, and blinding snow turned to brilliant sunshine. Crossing a wide plateau, we could see only one other climber going up the south face. Taking a look at this solo figure above, Harrison, in his calm and deadpan fashion suggested, “Anyone with a helmet should probably put it on now, with this yahoo above us. He might send something down.” The climber appeared to be having some trouble, so we quickly complied. This section was one of the most difficult parts of the climb. It was incredibly steep; much steeper than anything I had climbed. I dealt with the vertigo the only way I knew how, by keeping my head down and focused on the heels in front of me. Harrison blazed switchbacks up the face, and I followed, one foot in front of the other. When the going got simply too steep to keep my vertigo at bay, I opted to put on my crampons for some extra traction (but mostly for peace of mind.) Harrison and Jen put crampons on their skis. Seth had tried to go up closer to some rocks along the ridge, but that didn’t seem much easier, so he soon joined us.
My breath became shallow, and as the snow returned, the whiteness of the mountainside and the whiteness of the snowstorm merged, disorienting me and bringing on a wicked case of dizziness. It’s difficult to describe other than to say that I had trouble distinguishing between land and sky, and that sensation caused a panic that I worked hard to bottle down. It became easy to see how weather can effortlessly lead climbers astray. I also understood Chapter 42 of Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” in an entirely new way. As Ishmael says, “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.”
Harrison motioned me to the front to take a turn breaking trail. My rest step, French step, and will power to overcome fear all had ample practice time. It felt like we zigged and zagged for hours, left foot, right foot, repeat. It occurred to me for the first time that climbing an enormous stratovolcano can actually be a bit boring. There’s less taking in sweeping alpine views as you ramble along and more of just putting your head down and grinding out each step. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be a mountain climber after all, at least not in this fashion.
We finally reached the next plateau below Pikers Peak. For about a millisecond, I considered running up to tag this false summit. Seeing how far off the true summit still stood, I quickly gave up that notion. As the air grew thinner, each movement took more effort. After a quick breather, I changed back to snowshoes, and we proceeded over toward the true summit. This entails a relatively long traverse before you reach the final pitch.
Oh, that final pitch was tough. I don’t know if it was as long or as steep as the section below Pikers Peak, but I was tired, my energy zapped by the altitude. With each step I thought to myself, “This is the highest I have ever been by my own power.” That was pretty incredible, and the thought helped to distract me from the vertigo. As before, I followed Harrison and Jen, head down, eyes fixed on their heels. I think what most bothered me was that I had left on the snowshoes instead of putting my crampons back on. The crampons had made me feel more secure. With the snowshoes, I felt like at any moment I could slip and hurtle down the slope and off a cliff. Breaking the nervous tension that I was clearly projecting, Harrison matter-of-factly said, “This is where I started carrying Torrie up.” In disbelief, I repeated, “You carried her up?” “Uh huh.” Well, I wasn’t about to have Harrison carry me up, so I gave a little snort and pushed myself upward.
As the degree of the slope relaxed, my nerves eased up, and then, suddenly, we were on the summit. Jen and Harrison did a summit dance. I spun around for a 360-degree view of the Cascades unfolding around us. Tahoma stood to the north, Loowit to the west. Clouds were rolling in, so the views weren’t unobstructed, but the sky was clear enough in spots, and overall, it was what one would hope of a mountaintop view: a sea of jagged, snowy peaks rushing to the horizon and stunning you with their stoic elegance and grace. Here we were, perched high above this maze of mountains, nearly touching the sky. What a life we live.
I took a few brief minutes to soak in the experience, but the knowledge of what was yet to come did not allow for much peaceful reflection. I could hear Seth’s reminder in my mind: “Going up is optional; coming down is mandatory.” It was going to be a very long way down. It was going to be a very steep way down. And there was one very ugly cumulonimbus cloud galloping toward us.
Everyone else donned skis for the descent, while I opted for my crampons. Harrison had encouraged me to use the snowshoes, but I had myself too psyched out to trust them. I kicked myself for not putting on the anti-balling plates, as gobs of snow, as you might guess, balled up in my crampons, making them essentially useless. I had to stop and knock my ice axe against them every few steps. Oh, and the epic Mount Adams glissade chute of lore? Well, it apparently doesn’t show up until later in the season, as there was not a glissade chute in sight. As such, I slowly plunge stepped my way down the steep face. If I thought my vertigo was bad going up, it paled next to the descent, as I couldn’t just look down at the ground but, instead, had to look straight down the face. I tried, briefly, to glissade, but with no established chute, I was just zipping all over the surface of the snow and had very little control over my direction. In that moment, I realized that the stakes were much higher on this mountain than in any other alpine situation I had ever found myself. Looking at the cliffs that flanked either side of the face, I understood that this was serious. This was not a Mickey Mouse volcano like St. Helens. There would be serious, if not fatal, consequences for glissading out of control, for not being able to self-arrest. That reality hit me with such force that it felt like a sucker punch to the gut. Confronting your fears is fun, said no one, ever.
As we traversed back to the plateau under Pikers Peaks, it was clear that I was going to be the weak link. Everyone else on skies, they were able to zoom down in no time. We stopped to assess the situation at the top of that final steep face and melt some snow for water. Jen and Harrison decided that they wanted to ski out fast. Seth, of course, would stay with me, skiing a bit then waiting for me to catch up. Since we would be out later than them, Harrison gave us his jetboil so that we could melt more snow, if needed. You could feel our sense of dread as Harrison and Jen slipped out of sight. It felt unsafe to break up the team, but we understood their desire to get off the mountain. For me and Seth, we had no choice but to settle into what was going to be a long, slow descent.
Coming down that last steep face was as bad as I had expected, but by that point I was motivated to push hard to get down as quickly as possible, preferably not by headlamp. Seth was saintly in his patience. He never skied too far ahead that we lost sight of each other. I plunge stepped like a maniac until the slope leveled out, and then I ran. I guess you could call it a run. The spots of sun had warmed the ground enough that it was more of a shuffle from posthole to posthole, but I was doing a fairly good job of keeping up with Seth.
Near the tree line, we tracked too far to the north and got off trail. I caught our mistake quickly, but daylight was in short supply, and it only dampened our already sinking morale. I was able to navigate us back to the trail, and shortly after that, the snow subsided into patches. In the dusky light, we agreed to take a break from Type 2 fun. I admitted that I found the climb to be tedious and questioned whether I wanted to do stuff like this. I like being up high, running along ridges and taking in big views, but the rest stepping up the snowy face of a volcano felt, largely, like a slog. We discussed these ideas all the way back to the Westie, which was waiting there to provide warm clothes, a hot meal, and a comfy bed. We hadn’t planned to spend another night there, but in the late spring twilight, exhausted and spent, we were happy for our little van home and the comfort it gave after a tough day.
I realize that this sounds more of complaint than of joy, but it is an honest assessment of the experience. Yes, I am grateful to have done this climb, and I did enjoy quite a lot of it. There is something magnificent about standing so high above the world. There is something alluring in the risks of mountaineering; it is the simultaneous experience of terror and awe—the sublime—in its purest form. There is something satisfying about facing your fears head-on, fighting the urge to flee or scream or faint, and, instead, willing yourself to push through that which would otherwise hold you back. All of this, and more, I appreciated about this climb. I am eternally grateful for the privileged life I live that presents me with opportunities to test myself in the wild.
The experience also leaves me with some valuable lessons learned. As is my habit, I minimized elements of the excursion. Seth and I should have been carrying a shelter, sleeping bag, and jetboil. We should have been more prepared to spend the night outside. We came pretty darn close to getting way off route on our return, and a night on the mountain was a real possibility. I learned that someone on snowshoes absolutely cannot keep up with skiers. While I had beaten Seth down St. Helens, there had been a bomber glissade chute there. Without one on Adams, I was dangerously slow. Not so much a lesson, but I felt like I passed my first altitude test. This was the highest I’d ever been, but I didn’t have any adverse effects from the altitude. Near the top, I moved more slowly, but that’s to be expected. I had a very slight headache, but I suspect that was more from dehydration than altitude. Overall, it was reassuring that I might be ok doing other high-altitude excursions in the future (such as Rainier in 2 months and Nepal in the near future.) While it might seem minor, I learned a painful lesson about chapstick: make sure that it contains sunblock. I faithfully reapplied sunblock to exposed skin and lip balm to lips throughout the day, but, alas, I learned the hard way that my lip balm did not have sunscreen in it. As a result, my lips bubbled and peeled, and I was a total freak show for a week after this. Finally, I learned that big mountain climbs might not be my thing. I was excited to give it a try, and I had no plans to bail on my upcoming Rainier expedition, but I found the one-foot-then-the-other monotony of the experience to be rather dull. As I said above, I like to be up high and get big views, but moving forward, I might seek out those experiences while traversing a ridge instead of rest-stepping up the snowy side of an enormous volcano mountain. That sentiment seems to encapsulate my approach to embarking into the natural world. I’m keen to have new and varied adventures, but I’m also prepared to discontinue pursuits that don’t light my fire and, instead, will gravitate toward those that make my flame burn bright.