"I hope you're sitting down."
It was Ned on the phone, just a day or two after we'd been discussing a possible training climb on Little Tahoma or Mount Adams. We had been talking over the pros and cons of each of the climbs and when I saw that it was him calling, I figured he was getting back in touch to let me know which one he'd decided on. His opening line caught me off guard.
It didn't get any better. Ned had been snowboarding, perhaps slightly out-of-bounds, and had crashed into a tree well, blowing out his Achilles tendon. Surgery had been scheduled and he expected to be out of commission for months. He was calling to say that the climb was probably off for him this year. There was more, but I'm not sure I heard. After the part about how he was going to be unable to climb, my ears slammed shut.
We met a few weeks after the operation, just to go over our options. I had decided, after a quick reassessment, to continue. Although climbing with Ned provided an element of safety and experience that would not be there without him, it didn't mean that my hope of summiting Rainier couldn't go on just because he wasn't there. It might make things a tad more difficult, however.
Without Ned in the lead, we decided it was probably best that I not attempt Little Tahoma. The main goal of the training climb was to reacquaint me with the mountain air and to see if I still had it in me to operate at higher elevations; with Mount Adams as the other option, there was no reason to look elsewhere. I picked a date in early June and got busy making mind and body ready.
I bought my climbing permit at the ranger station in Trout Lake. The ranger behind the counter told me that the road was still closed more than four miles from the south climb trailhead due to the heavy snow cover. What this meant to me was that the climb would be nine miles longer than it would normally be, because of the extra-long approach. I had been expecting this to be the case, although it didn't make it any easier to hear, but now that the driving was nearly over, I was ready to start the ascent.
The hike in, up the road at first, and eventually on the snowfields leading up to the south slope, was all on snowshoes. By the time I got out onto the lower flank of the mountain, the sun had turned the snow to slush, making any progress difficult as the angle increased. A huge lenticular cloud sat on the peak above me, giving some indication of the power of the winds at the higher altitudes. At about 7:30pm I got to Lunch Counter, an area that many climbers use as a high camp and where I planned to spend the night. I found an abandoned tent platform that had been carved out of the snow by a previous party. I moved in and started to get settled.
It wasn't easy to get the tent up in the wind and, once I had it together, I thought the wind was going to blow it up at any moment. Conditions were getting progressively worse as the evening turned into night, and the sides of the tent pressed in on me as I lay in my bag, with all my clothes on, not sleeping. Thinking about snapping tent poles and shredded nylon. I doubt I got more than 20 minutes of slumber all night.
I was out of the sack early and as the sky began to grow light, I melted some snow to make coffee and then drank it while I packed. My boots were frozen hard and it took a few minutes of stomping around to warm them up enough to tie the laces. The wind continued strong as I set out toward the top of Lunch Counter. I passed one other tent at about 5:30, but other than that, I had the entire south face to myself. My crampons bit noisily into the ice as the sun came up over Suksdorf Ridge.
It's a long slog up to Piker's Peak, the false summit. One foot in front of the other, a physical monotony, the only way to get up there. The scale of the place and the near-uniformity of color - or lack of color - makes it a mental act as well. Just taking that next step is a battle of the will.
At one point, I carved a small level platform in the steep slope, just big enough for my butt, and stopped for a pull on the water tank and a handful of nuts. I could see another climber gaining on me and I waited for him to get to my station. Rob was from Seattle and it was his tent that I had passed earlier. He had been going back and forth about whether to try the climb in the windy conditions, but when he stuck his head out of the tent and saw me, he decided to give it a go.
We climbed together from that point, each of us pacing the other, and we got to Piker's Peak at about 10:00am. As soon as I crested the slope and got to the level area at the false summit, I had to take to my knees to keep from falling over. The wind had been strong all morning, but the intensity here made it difficult to stand. The summit itself, about a half-mile away, was wreathed in blowing snow and it only took me a minute or so to make my decision and start back down. Rob elected to continue, so we said our farewells and set out in different directions.
About halfway down the south face, I turned around and saw Rob descending as well. Apparently he had come to the same conclusion as I had. In extreme environments, conditions dictate. It is a mountain; it will be here tomorrow.
The calendar may say June, but this had all the hallmarks of an early spring climb. High winds, sub-freezing temps and a very long approach. In fact, even with me turning around where I did, I still climbed more than I will on Mount Rainier. I went from about 4,500 feet to 11,700, which is about the same elevation differential that I'll see later in the summer, but the distance traveled was almost twice as far.
Overall, I'm pleased. I didn't make it to the summit - stopped 600 feet short - but that's all right. I got what I needed to get at Mount Adams, which was to reacquaint myself with the alpine environment, and see how much climbing I can take. I'm slower than I used to be but that is hardly a surprise. It was good to spend the night on snow for the first time in years (even if sleep escaped me.) I know that the many little things I learned and re-learned over the course of the Adams climb will be useful later. Nuggets of wisdom, found on the mountain.
- Ken Campbell