Loitering in Portland Before the Climb
Prior to actually climbing Mount Adams, I had a chance to kick it out in Portland for a few days, with my friend Kristin and some newfound fellow misfits. To say Portland is a weird place is an understatement; in fact, it's cliché. Portland's unofficial, official motto is "Keep Portland Weird" or “Weirder”, I’m still not sure exactly which, but even if you've never been, feel free to surmise my word for it. Never in my life have I been tangled up in such a concentrated mess of outwardly disparate people -- hippies, outcasts, goth heads, emo boys and girls, and your everyday, run of the mill sketch-balls are more or less living together in harmonious accord, heedless of thy neighbors mohawk, passionate for thine head-to-toe tattoo. The entire scene was quite refreshing actually; I felt weird looking normal. For Portland, in all its oddities, was super fun, providing us a place with lots to do, and do
we did, before making our way out to the great state of Washington to climb Mount Adams.
Hiking-up to Base Camp
(from left to right) Tim, Lauren, Kristin, Andy, Stefan
Our first day out, the task at hand was a fairly simple one: (1) load up your backpack with whatever personal stuff you needed plus whatever communal gear you were assigned to carry (e.g. dinnerware, sleeping paraphernalia, poop bags (personal not communal;), and an abbreviated list of several other necessities); (2) cram it all into your pack as far as humanly possible so that the balance between having your belongings feel safe and secure versus savagely spilling out of every strap and zipper had reached a point of apparent equilibrium; and then (3) sling the sixty or so pound pack on your back and start hiking up a mountain in hundred degree heat for six hours straight so you can set up camp on a bed of dirt and rock for the chance to wake up at 5AM the next morning to really start climbing the glacial complex precariously looming overhead. Sound fun? Absolutely – my thoughts exactly!
As for the actual hike, the beginning, or base of Mount Adams is pretty much standard fare: mountain trails with open meadows, running streams moved by melting glaciers, and boulders the size of Volkswagen bugs resting idle until the next rock fall.
Although the weather was hot and the weight on our backs was heavy, our first day out couldn't have been nicer. Constant banter and sporadic refueling stops provided us the opportunity to build a foundation of growing rapport, which now looking back on it, is absolutely essential for a team to have when trying to summit a mountain together.
Sunset over the Mazama Glacier
About two hours into our hike, we reached a point past the tree line, which is a pleasant sounding term used to describe the line at which decimating weather conditions and a lack of oxygen make even the grittiest of vegetation struggle for survival. From here we chewed our way up through a steady diet of jagged boulders and manageable ice flows to Sunrise Camp, the place we would rest for the night, just below the ominous, yet beautiful Mazama Glacier just tens of feet from our tents. Night came quickly, as camp was set up, dinner was made and a quick hands on tutorial of how to climb a glacier was given.
Climbing Up the Mazama Glacier
The following morning, we put our newly acquired mountaineering skills to the test as we roped-in to two teams of four and started our ascent of the Mazama Glacier. Slow and steady was the pace to be had as our crampons dug into the icy terrain crunching below our feet. At a point about halfway up the Mazama, crevasses began to appear with greater consistency.
Andy and Stefan traversing on the Mazama Glacier
Large and small, deep and shallow, the range of openings in the ice left little to the imagination as pit falls dwindled into permanent darkness of the depths of open ice cracks, spanning hundreds of feet beside us, and down a distance I’m happy remains hypothetical.
In order to ascend successfully, we had to traverse, or zigzag across the glacier so that we could negotiate our way around each crevasse and continue upwards towards the top. After climbing for quite some time, we reached an apex on the Mazama, now providing us a clear vantage point to see our next route up the South Spur to a place called Pikers Peak, which is otherwise known as the false summit.
The Feeling of Failure
Before moving on, we rested up for a few minutes in an effort to rehydrate ourselves and get energized for the tough climb ahead. As we sat there, ass on rock, we attentively listened-in to a disconcerting conversation between our three guides and Andrew Buerger, the founder of Climb for Hope
, and fellow first time Adams climber. Apparently our pace, up to this point, had been of the leisurely rate, which unfortunately for us, meant that our chances of reaching the top and achieving our goal had pretty much come and gone. It was twelve-thirty in the afternoon and from where we were to where we needed to be, left us close to another full day's climb, totaling at least four to five hours more of rugged ascension. Tack that on to the time it would take us to descend the steep glaciated slopes and arrive back at camp meant that it would be well past dark, and unsafe considering we hadn’t planned for a night hike and thereby brought the appropriate gear.
Safe to say, among the climbers, we understood the severity of the guides’ decision to put safety first, but we also grew in rebellion to the fact that we had come here to climb a mountain, not just hike half of it, and in good health or not, we were going to make it to the top of this thing. Regardless of our ambitions, the decision was made, summit would not be reached, and instead we would just continue our way up the mountain as a conditioning exercise out towards the South Spur upwards toward the false summit.
As we walked out to the South Spur and back onto the ice, the realization of personal failure and the ultimate disappointment began to set in; a tactile pain striking so deep I literally felt the knots in my stomach. A solid mix of the disappointment in myself for not achieving my goal, disappointment in my guides for taking an imprudent route, and most of all, the disappointment from home I’d feel after having to tell all who so adamantly supported me that I didn’t quite make it to the top – but almost. At first sense, I felt like running up the mountain, me and me alone, but after a comment craftily dropped by Jerry, maybe I wouldn’t have to.
The Final Push
“You know,” Jerry cooed, “if we were to climb at about a thousand feet of elevation gain per hour, we could possibly make this summit.”
“Wait ... What!?! Just a minute ago, you were saying how making the top of this mountain was undoable, unsafe and out of the question,” the little voice in our heads replied.
“Are you fucking serious?” the audible voices from our mouths reverberated throughout the bunch. “Well then, what the hell are we waiting for? Let’s move!”
The disappointment once heavily weighing upon us now resonated into grounds for motivation. A thousand feet per hour – that’s child's play – maybe to the uninformed, yes, but in reality, no. Apparently, climbing up a mountain at a thousand feet an hour is considered a solid pace – anything faster, an excellent one.
We had all bought in – we were going to reach the top of this mountain, and that was that. Brian started out as the lead, asking Jerry for fifteen-minute altimeter readings to keep track of how fast we were moving. Taking turns, we climbed up the ice flow, single file, switching lead every five minutes, cutting our own steps into the snow as we ascended the South Spur, sweat dripping from every pore. Time had lost significance. Effort was the only currency in our crazed condition. The physical endurance and mental stoicism displayed by each and every one of us was contagious and uplifting in times of dire pain and complete exhaustion. Failure was not an option.
View of Summit from Pikers Peak
At maybe a thousand feet below Pikers Peak, we were informed that we’d been climbing up the glacier at a pace of eighteen hundred feet per hour, which in layman’s terms meant we were hauling some serious ass.
Now leading at this point, cutting steps for my team behind me, I took a minute to glance down at the group to see how everybody was fairing. Both Brian and Lauren, who had climbed Mount Adams the previous summer, were close behind, as were Andy and Tim, a heroic Irishman from the city of Boston. Kristin appeared to have fallen back a considerable distance after struggling to physically and mentally hold shape after repeatedly slipping with each step up the glacier. Jerry remained steadfast and by her side, undoubtedly coaching and providing words of encouragement to speed up the pace and keep hope of a summit attempt alive.
Sometime thereafter, Brian, Lauren, Andy, Tim and I had all reached Pikers Peak, where we dumped our gear and rested for a few minutes before making the final push for the real summit. Although it remained unspoken, a shared feeling of frustration was present throughout the group in realizing that we were probably going to make summit, whereas Kristin and Jerry, still climbing a few hundred feet below us were probably not. Regardless, we had to keep moving, so we made our final push for the top, which was now only a few thousand feet in front of us and a little more than six hundred feet in elevation.
As we climbed further and higher, the summit began to take shape and the pain in my body began to dissipate. I was about to summit Mount Adams – all twelve thousand two hundred and twenty-six feet of it (not really though since we didn’t start at sea level).
Upon reaching its highest point, the emotion at summit was mixed between celebration and relief, camaraderie and personal achievement. We did what we said we would. We made it even though they said we wouldn’t.
All was well except that we were here and Kristin wasn’t. The 3:15PM turnaround time we had all agreed upon was rapidly approaching and still no Kristin. Then, out of fortunes eye, we spotted two specs in the downward distance, undoubtedly Jerry and Kristin, meticulously moving up the last stretch, still gutting it out and working hard to join the group now anxiously awaiting their arrival.
At 3:10PM, they finally made it – we all did, and now that we had all summitted Mount Adams for our friends and for family back home, for the cause and for Climb for Hope, and for ourselves and for the hard work we had put in, we all exchanged in an energetic round of big hugs and shared smiles, soon to dwell over the simple climb down ;)