Climbing Mount Adams

View from the South Climb

This Labor Day Weekend, I traveled to southern Washington with some friends to climb Mount Adams. At 12,280 feet above sea level, it’s the second highest mountain in the state and is also one of Washington’s five main volcanoes. Located in a rather isolated region, it doesn’t appear to be as well known as some of the other prominent Cascade peaks, like Rainier or Mt. St. Helens. In fact, when I told people what I was doing for the weekend, most didn’t even know where it was. It’s a long 5 hour and 40 minute drive from Whidbey. In fact, we actually had to drive through Oregon in order to get there. By the time I had met up with my friends, picked up our climbing permits at the Trout Lake Ranger Station, and made our way up to the campground, it was already 10 o’clock at night. The plan was to do the whole climb in one day, starting early the next morning at 5:00 am. We quickly got our tents set up and settled, had a small birthday celebration for my friend Lindsey, and went to bed hoping that the weather would be in our favor when we woke up.

The alarms all went off around 4:30 and we woke up to the sound of drizzling rain pitter-pattering steadily outside on the tent. Not the greatest sound in the world to hear at the time, especially since we were told there was a chance for snow and strong winds forecasted for the higher elevations where we would be going. We considered getting a later start in hopes it would sotp, but after a few minutes of debating the rain gave way to moonlit partly cloudy skies. That was good enough for us, so we packed everything up and headed on over to the trail head for the South Climb Route.


The first few miles of the hike was pretty easy going. There was actually a wildfire that burned through the area the year before, so the first portion was mostly through a forest of dead trees. With the lack of vegetation, we could clearly see the sun rise on Mount Adams ahead of us. After leaving the burned forest, the vegetation became more sparse and turned into a lunar landscape–nothing but rocks, ash, and snow. It was pretty cold and breezy once we got above the treeline, even after we got into the sunlight. We eventually got to our first snowfield and put on the crampons and made our way up to what is known as the Lunch Counter (elev. 9,000 feet). I can only guess it’s called the Lunch Counter because it’s a good spot to fuel up on food before tackling the steep slopes up to the false summit. There are also several campsites here for those who do the climb over a course of two days. When we arrived, there wasn’t anyone else there. After taking a food break, we got back into gear and started the climb up the steep, snowy slope.

Walking Through Lava Fields

From the Lunch Counter, it didn’t look like the false summit was too far away. I think distance wise it was about a mile away. But elevation wise, it was a 2500 foot vertical climb so it was a long, steep, trek up the mountain. It got more difficult going up as the sun rose higher in the sky and the snow turned slushier. At one point we were passed by a guy going up on the rocks (the first person we had seen all day) who apparently had been hiking the Pacific Crest Trail all summer (from Mexico to Canada). He was in pretty good shape, because he breezed on by us up the 30 degree slope like it was a bunny hill.

adamsascent adamscrampons

After a few hours, we all finally made it over the edge at the false summit at 11,500 feet. Unfortunately, no one was really motivated to continue on from there for the final push to the summit since it was getting late in the day (it took us a lot longer to get up there than we thought it would) and we weren’t sure what the weather was going to do as the clouds were coming and going throughout the day. So after debating on what the next move would be, the group decision was to turn back, which was disappointing considering the true summit was only a half mile away and 800 feet up.

However, we were ready for the fun part: glissading back down the mountainside. If you don’t know what glissading is, it’s basically like riding a giant snow slide using an ice axe as a brake. What took us a couple hours to go up only took about 30 minutes to get back down to the Lunch Counter. We saw the PCT guy again on the way back down, returning from the summit. No gear, just the “12 inch skis” he had on his feet. And he kept up with us pretty well as we glissaded on down. By the time we got to the Lunch Counter, there were several other parties making their way up to stay the night, making their attempt to summit the following day.

adamstop adamssummit adamsgroupb&w adamsdescent adamsportraitb&w

By the time we returned to the campground, it was a warm sunny day and the lot was packed. Despite not making it all the way to the top, I had a good experience practicing basic mountaineering skills for the first time. I’ll be back to finish someday I’m sure. 🙂

Adams Road


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