Adams Glacier Success

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For background on this blog post, please see Jeff’s pre-trip writeup from June 25.

The Adams Glacier
The Adams Glacier

The challenges began even before we boarded our flight. The original plan called for a Monday approach and a Tuesday summit of Washington’s Mt. Adams via the Adams Glacier, but record-breaking high temperatures in Washington – overnight lows on the 12,276-foot summit were in the upper 40s – spooked us into an audible. Falling rock and ice, tumbling seracs and collapsing snow bridges already had us worried enough; we didn’t need those threats amplified by baking heat.

Instead, we rushed straight from the airport to the trailhead, beginning the approach hike at 5:45 p.m. Sunday. At least the promise of a solid overnight freeze partially allayed our fears. Because of a headlamp malfunction, we agreed to start around first light at 4:30 a.m. instead of the normal 2-3 a.m.

We followed a patchy trail past the traditional camping area and slogged toward the start of the glacier at around 8,000’. As with most of the Pacific Northwest volcanoes, the scale on Adams is immense. Features we thought we’d reach in 15 minutes took 45. We eventually found ourselves roping up two hours after setting out, just as the sun was hitting the upper glacier.

The climb started with 45-degree snow slope followed by a 50-degree chute of hard neve, which had been called the crux by prior trip reports. The normal line stays right up most of the glacier, followed by a long traverse left to access the summit plateau. Tracks from a Sunday party veered left way early, and having spoken to them on their way out, we knew they were successful. A teetering serac looming over the right-hand option further convinced us to follow the bootpack left.

The Adams Glacier is described as a moderate-to-steep snow climb with perhaps a few steeper sections of alpine ice, depending on varying conditions from year to year. Most guidebooks estimate the maximum angle at 45- to 50-degrees. The left-hand line, however, put us on a rolling hump of 55- to 65-degree alpine ice. We were comfortable simul-climbing it, with the expectation the steep stuff would only come in short bursts punctuated by moderately angled snow. Wrong!

Sam climbing toward the crux.
Sam climbing toward the crux.

The middle of the route was a sustained 500-foot section that never relented to less than 50 degrees. The only rest we found was a T-slot someone had chopped out for a belay. With some careful maneuvering, we were able to sit in it for a few minutes to eat, drink and rest our screaming calves.

The angle finally laid back after another burst of steep ice climbing. Of course, we still had about 1,000 feet to go over snow bridges, under seracs and around crevasses, and the day was becoming stiflingly hot. Our tensions were eased, however, by the end of technical difficulties and the mostly obvious route to safety.

We took the time to admire the stunning environment. Glaciers have to be among the prettiest natural places on earth, and our previously neglected cameras found themselves in overdrive. Some of the crevasse and serac formations high on the route were simply spectacular.

A final challenge was presented in a heavily broken section directly underneath the largest serac band on the face. We nervously crossed a few thin, sketchy snow bridges and had to reverse a couple times when we came upon an insurmountable gap, but before too long we’d escaped the threat of the ice cliff and were starting up the mellow unbroken snow slopes to the summit plateau.

The final slopes, though completely safe, brought their own degree of difficulty. What we’d thought all day was the summit turned out to be a very minor subpeak, and a second false summit taunted us as well. The true summit eventually made itself known when we saw small dots of people who had come up the South Side.

We were lucky enough to enjoy a bluebird summit with clear views and no wind. Rainier was just to the north, with the Kautz Route (our next objective) obviously visible. Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters were all easy to make out to the south, along with the remnants of Mt. Saint Helens to the west.

The author on the summit.
The author on the summit.

The descent was via the infamous North Ridge, a steep and sometimes exposed cleaver of shattered pumice. It ended up not being all that bad, probably because we were able to stay on snow most of the way. Even the few sections of rock we negotiated weren’t as terrible as advertised. I guess us Coloradans cutting our teeth in the crumbling Rockies translates well to other areas, haha.

We bailed off the ridge about three-quarters of the way down, glissading a gully to reach our morning tracks. An hour-long walk saw us returned to camp and the awaiting swarm of mosquitoes.

The hike out the next morning went fairly quick to the actual trailhead, though we baked in the rising heat of one of the hottest Washington days on record.

All in all, the Adams Glacier was an amazing route that was definitely one of the finest of our lives. Surely our next objective, the Kautz Glacier on Mt. Rainier, would be a comparative cakewalk. We even had two full days to recover! Basking in the afterglow of Mt. Adams and regarding Rainier as halfway in the bag, we contentedly passed the next 48 hours putzing around the touristy areas of Seattle. As it turns out, the Kautz wouldn’t be so easy…

(Mt. Rainier trip report to follow Thursday, July 17.)

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