PREPARATIONS:With War Of Man looping over time and again in my mind I tell myself, “One more step, okay, now just one more step, okay …” The distractions are as unrealistically beautiful as they are plentiful and I cannot help but stop to soak in my environment with a frequency that’s continually pushing back a scheduled summit. Personally, the summit goal is often the dominating thought and as the climb progresses so does my focus. However, while ascending the Northwest Ridge of Mt. Adams I felt I could relate with those who say it isn’t about being on top that is so satisfying, but rather it’s in getting there that one finds the reward.
One week on, one week off. That’s how my brother Isaac and I have treated the summer climbing season thus far. Having failed Mt. Shasta due to mild AMS and frostbite a month earlier but scoring two for two on Mt. Hood a week prior we felt another go on Mt. Shasta was in store. Knowing this couldn’t be, under our time crunch, Mt. Hood’s neighboring Adams became the obvious choice and with less than one week’s notice I began to gather data on the sleeping giant. Finding good beta on our chosen route soon became a more tedious task than I had anticipated, but this intrigued me all the more. Summit Post had a recent trip report on the Pinnacle Head Wall that came in handy for general conditions, the Cascade Climbers site shared a little approach information that was over a month old and a Google search yielded some information on ski descents plus a North Ridge TR, but while reading the meager route page on SP I was still left feeling empty handed with the NWR.
DAY 1:It’s 1am as I look around to see gear sprawled out across my bed. Although organized I feel I am badly lagging. With our departure now dictated by the timing of this circumstance and a general lack of sleep I had incurred the previous week there becomes little choice in holding firm to our original plans. From 7am to noon the following morning progresses on an extremely leisurely level, setting the tone for our trip. After breakfast and coffee at the Little T Bakery, a final supplies run up to Fred Meyer, packing and double checking gear/food lists and a final stop over at REI to pick up a pair of zip-off pants to aid in the comfort factor we were finally saying goodbye to Portland and only five hours behind schedule. Immediately while crossing the Columbia River our first view of Adams opens up, along with St. Helens and Hood – what a send off! At this point anticipation should be welling up within me, but I feel utterly relaxed, more like I’m on vacation. Maybe playing Neil Young had something to do with this. Hours later Isaac and I are in shock to find there isn’t any Hard & Fast in Randle despite the fact that the town’s high school would most certainly support at least one Dairy Queen. We first check in at the Cowlitz Valley Ranger Station to acquire our permits and are greeted by two lovely ladies. They know very little about the mountain’s current conditions, but do give us some pointers on where to eat. Based on the older woman’s advice we head across the Highway to the Tall Timber. Much to our delight we eat some of the best burgers and fries around.
The NWR route page provides nicely detailed directions for accessing the Trailhead and we arrived at Killen Creek in a timely manner. Do be aware that several road signs are either greatly obscured or nonexistent out here and if you follow your odometer with the mileage descriptions provided be patient in driving a few extra miles before reaching the next turn or fork. We arrived at the Trailhead a quarter past four with favorably clear skies and warm temps. The initial mountain-view was of the North Ridge, but by six we had reached the upper meadows breaking through timberline and began to catch glimpses of the Northwest Ridge. Attaining this ridge for the night was our goal, but the late start forced an early base-camp lower on the mountain below the Adams glacier, an inconvenience that later turned out to be a blessing! We setup on a small snow patch surrounded by rocks somewhere around 7,500 feet. The rocks provided an excellent shelter from the wind that made cooking dinner extremely pleasant. We sat watching Rainier slowly turn into an incredible silhouette as the sunset dipped within the inversion layer. Soft light occasionally peaking through the clouds had cast a warm alpenglow on our surroundings. Neither words nor my camera are able to describe or capture the beauty felt at this moment. All was perfect as I drank my hot tea and ate cookies while preparing for bed. By eleven-o-clock I had settled into my sleeping bag. With the tent flap left open I sat starring into the sky while listening to a podcast on 01Corinthians.
DAY 2:Down2Business wasn’t going over so well with Isaac a few hours later. This has to be one of the most anxious phone alarms I have, but it does the trick. To my surprise I felt extremely well rested and popped out of my bag immediately to catch a few timed exposures before we set out. Upon forcing down a power bar, drinking some old bitter coffee from my thermos and securing camp the two of us were ready to tackle the ridge. Thinking we were lower on the mountain Isaac and I immediately made a beeline for the northern snow banks of the NRW, but within a mile had encountered a few small crevasses. After retracing our steps a bit we navigated down some and kept near the rocks awhile. Within the first hour we had reached the lower slopes of the NWR and traversed up and to the right of the small Bergschrund. Once atop the ridge we worked our way up the snow fingers, through varying rock bands. Two other climbers were heading up next to the ridge proper, following the broader snow slopes to the north of us, but I found it a lot nicer to pass through the narrow snow fingers creating an acute awareness of the distance traveled by way of the surrounding rocks. Soon we deviated from the fellow climbers tracks onto mixed terrain of snow, ice and rock that continued to steepen with small sections ranging between 40 and 55 degrees. This was likely the most fun I had ever had climbing and the experience was on par with the beauty seen the previous evening. Sunshine was by now skipping across the pillow top clouds thousands of feet below us, the snow was still giving us good foot holds and solid purchase for self belay and we had two hours of shade to go. By the time the sun had begun to grace us with it’s presence Isaac and I had slowly traversed the north side of the NWR and were now climbing the sustained 50 degree North Face of the NWR. At this point it felt as though my mind was completely free of thought, but in reality I’m not sure it could have been much more cluttered. At the forefront of my mind was the simple demand to take just one more step and repeat. Other things going through my mind went somewhat in this order, “Keep us in your care God. Is Isaac still behind me? I need another snickers. Uff, indigestion maximus! Stop taking pictures and focus on climbing already!” Two hours of crux climbing on gradually softening snow eventually spit us on top of the North Face and just below the Pinnacle. This final stretch felt like we were heading up Misery Hill on Shasta and although it was only a 30-degree slope it was easily the most grueling hour of climbing I have ever faced. To be honest I had completely lost my moral for a brief moment, up until my brother saw what was happening and snapped me back out of my funk, forcing me to acknowledge my pathetic state. I finally quit breaking trail and allowed the two other parties behind us to pass on by while I rested. Later that day Isaac commented on how snide we’d been toward all the other climbers during this period. Once the other parties caught up to us they stopped to chat for a little bit and expressed their appreciation for me breaking trail through the crux. This was a crucial point for me since each group lifted our spirits way up and turned our moods back around. My thanks and apologies go out to all of those who took the time to be an uplifting and positive influence.
Descending into the crater and up to the summit was rather uneventful. At this point I just wanted off the mountain. Being fully aware of the time it would take us to reach base camp and pack out I tried to work my way over as fast as I could, but Isaac was falling behind. I did not realize just how bad off his knees were. He had mentioned some pain and discomfort, especially in his right knee, but it didn’t sink in my conscious until later that his reason for so many short breaks on our ascent was so he could immerse his knee in the snow. This was a bad situation and I knew we both needed some solid rest. At the summit we met two other climbers about to head down, but before departing they offered to take our picture. Almost immediately after our summit photo we dropped down fifty feet to the south and found a little shelter from the wind to take in a bit of lunch. An earlier decision not to descend the same route due to its exposure and the softening snow, plus Isaac’s knee, had already left us thinking about taking the North Cleaver off the mountain. I pulled out the map, got oriented in case of a whiteout and within a few minutes we were crossing the three glaciers along the summit plateau bearing North.
The North Ridge is definitely a sketchy route and although it was a much easier descent than the NWR would have been I now relate with those who say they refuse to climb it. It is a crumbling talus mess with a lot of sun exposure, thus the snow melts off earlier in the season leaving rock fall hazards sooner than later. In its defense I feel it would make a fun winter climb for those willing to take on the extra approach miles. What little snow the ridge did have to offer made for some great plunge stepping, which seemed to help ease Isaac’s pain. About a third of the way down talus became the predominant terrain and so off with the crampons, that at this point were balling up pretty badly anyway. About this same time Isaac gives a shout at me to turn around. As I look toward the summit I see a gigantic lenticular directly above us capping the entire top portion. A mixture of seeing how fast that cloud was growing and the rate of the approaching clouds below us was cause for concern and I now felt all the better about orienting myself earlier. Not long after this we were beyond the talus and working our way into a couloir where we downclimbed the final third of the mountain proper. We crossed over a closed up Bergschrund, enjoyed a brief glissade and were back onto the Adams Glacier. Following a pair of fresh tracks over the glacier felt secure without roping up and it cut down significantly on our time as it led us directly to our base. Much to my surprise I still had a lot of energy and was able to break camp within fifteen minutes. Despite our fatigue, having less than an hour of direct sunlight motivated us to hightail ourselves off the mountain while we could still retrace our steps. Miraculously Isaac and I did retrace our path exactly and at an extremely fast pace. We both believe God helped us off the mountain that night as we arrived back at the trailhead 19 hours later. The time was 10pm.