I’ve never been especially interested in climbing mountains. The whole “because it’s there” argument does not strike me as a compelling one. Mountains are great to view from a distance, but on top of the mountain itself is not usually a very pleasant place to be. Watching movies like Touching the Void just makes me think of all the pleasant, comfortable places in the world where one could be. In a world full of spas, beaches, and beds with soft fluffy pillows, why would you go out of your way to put yourself on cold and windy glacier or rock in the thin oxygen-lacking air?
Nevertheless, I found myself doing exactly that this past weekend.
Mt. Adams was our goal, and as we drove towards it and it got bigger and bigger, I started to feel more and more apprehensive. The route we were taking wasn’t a dangerous or technical climb like Everest or even Mt. Rainier, involving rope lines or ladders across crevasses. You basically walk right up the south face. But once I could actually see that face and imagine myself walking up it, it didn’t sound quite so simple.
This doesn't look that big...
...okay, maybe it does
None of the three of us had ever done any real mountaineering before, but we had plenty of backpacking and hiking experience, and we did our research beforehand. We armed ourselves with crampons, ice axes, and the half-dozen different permits and forms required, and headed on up to the trailhead.
We camped at the trailhead to head out first thing in the morning, doing the entire 11-mile round trip hike in one shot. The campground was basically a real-world demonstration of Nietzsche’s statement that hell is other people, but despite the noisy neighbors we got some sleep and set out on the trail at 6:30 am.
We were hiking in snow within the first mile, and within the second mile the trail went from “a little steep” to “straight up the mountain”.
It wasn’t too long before we were high enough above the trees to get views of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens.
Mt. Hood off in the distance
We kept trucking along and made pretty good time getting to Lunch Counter around 10:30, where we had a view of the infamous false summit.
You would think you'd be at the top after that climb. But you'd be wrong.
The people climbing up looked like tiny ants. Tiny ants that were moving at a depressingly slow pace. After a lunch break, we strapped on crampons and started our own depressingly slow ascent.
One of the good things about so many people being on the mountain (the ranger station told us over 200) was that the steps in the snow were pretty well-defined for the most part. I was in good spirits for the first third of the climb, and started to get excited and believe for the first time that we really were going to make it to the top.
Kind of like a stair climber machine at the gym.
About 2/3 of the way in, it got steep enough that I got slightly freaked out looking around or taking pictures. I always say that I’m not afraid of heights, I’m afraid of falling (yet another argument against my future as a mountain climber). When I stood still, all I could think about was the slipperiness of the snow, and the pull of gravity, and how you could keep on sliding down all 2,000 feet you just climbed up (unless your crampon snagged and you broke your ankle on the way down). Really, the climb never got all that steep and there were several little kids and a dog that made it to the summit as well, but I was still very glad that I had crampons and an ice axe to help anchor me into the snow.
I also started to tire out and have to rest more. I live about 400 feet above sea level, so I could feel the effects of the altitude even at the trailhead at 5,600 feet. Making that steep climb at 10,000 feet required lots of stopping to catch my breath. I got in a pattern where I would take 20 slow steps, then rest for 30 seconds, then take 20 more. After 60 steps I was allowed to look at the top to see how much further, because looking more often was discouraging since the top didn’t seem to be getting any closer.
Overall it took me about an hour and a half to reach the false summit. We rested for a while before setting out on the final section of climbing. We knew about the whole false summit thing, but the final climb looked steeper than we had expected (or hoped, I guess).
Just a little more climbing...
It was a lot shorter and less steep than the previous section, and my outlook started to improve. The morning’s clouds had cleared and the sky was an amazing deep cobalt blue like I’ve never seen before. I started thinking about how amazingly lucky I was to be there and to have the chance to be doing something like this.
Finally, after 8 hours, we reached the summit. It was exhilarating to be up so high, seeing for hundreds of miles, and looking at just how far we had come in one day. We had seen Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens the whole way up, but this was the first time we could see Mt. Rainier to the north.
Mt. St. Helens in the distance
Mt. Rainier. I forget what that range to the right is called.
I had been hoping to see the old mining building, from the days when they used to take mules up here to mine sulfur, but it was all covered with snow. It made for a great “king of the mountain” posing spot though.
Way higher up than Mt. St. Helens
After spending some time taking it all in, we started our descent. There were around a dozen people on the summit at the same time as us, and about half of them had snowboards or skis with them for the descents. We stuck with glissading down, sliding on our butts down chutes created from all the previous glissaders.
Glissading down the mountain
That picture is actually from when we were hiking up. I didn’t get any pictures while we were descending because I was too busy screaming in terror. For the most part it wasn’t too bad, but there were some really steep sections where you quickly could gain enough speed to feel very out of control.
There was still some hiking to do, but being able to glissade down those long steep sections really sped up our descent. It took us less than half the time to descend than it did to reach the summit, and that’s with one especially slow person who kept digging in her ice axe trying to slow down while glissading (ahem).
Hiking back down
Overall it was an incredible experience. It was great for a first climb because it was basic enough for beginners with no mountaineering experience, but it still definitely felt like a real mountain and a big accomplishment.
I definitely have more understanding of the appeal of mountain climbing now. The mere mention of the word “crevasse” still kind of freaks me out, but I could see myself doing something like this again in the future. On the drive home, we saw Mt. Hood glowing in the sunset light, and it looked awfully tempting…