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Ascent of Mount Adams on 2019-12-07

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, December 7, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Adams
    Location:USA-Washington
    Elevation:12276 ft / 3741 m

Ascent Trip Report


Mount Adams (12,267ft) Summit Bivy

Dec 7-8, 2019, Eric

I needed to preacclimate for an upcoming high altitude mountaineering trip to the Andes, so wanted to get as high as possible for as long as possible over the weekend. I considered climbing Rainier, but with bad weather forecast Saturday it seemed likely the road to the trailhead at Paradise might not even be opened. That decision wouldn’t be announced until Saturday morning, so seemed risky. Mt Hood would have a reliably-open trailhead, but seemed like it would be crowded and not as high as Mt Adams. Mt Adams had zero red tape, had a crevasse-free route to the summit which meant soloing would relatively safe, and I could probably camp on the summit above 12,000ft.

The forecast was for precipitation starting Friday night and continuing through Saturday night. But Sunday would be clear, so I figured if I could tough it out Saturday and hike up to the summit through the whiteout, I would be rewarded with a nice sunrise Sunday morning.

The road to the south side trailhead on Mt Adams was reportedly driveable as of Tuesday according to the Gifford Pinchot forest service website. However, there was forecast to be up to 9 inches of snow falling at Paradise Friday night through Saturday night (at a similar elevation, around 5,500ft). So it was unclear if the road would stay open past Saturday, or get snowed over. The road to the south side trailhead is unmaintained, so once it gets snowed over you have to wait until May until the snow melts out.

My final decision was to use snowshoes or skis. It would be very fun and fast to ski from the summit of Adams 8,000ft down to my car. However, there was a higher risk of injury skiing vs snowshoeing since I would have a heavy overnight pack on, would be skiing in potentially challenging rime ice conditions, and I hadn’t skied since May. I really didn’t want to get injured before my bigger high altitude mountaineering trip, so decided to go the slower and safer way of snowshoeing.

Friday night I drove down to Trout Lake and up road FS 8040. There were many fresh blowdowns over the road that had very recently been sawed out. I hit snow on the road around 5,000ft and in several places the center was deep enough to bottom out the forester. I made it to the trailhead at 5,600ft, unsurprisingly the only one there. I stopped to decide on a plan. It seemed risky to park there for the next few days. If it snowed as predicted, I could probably barely make it down with an extra 9 inches of snow on the road. But if the forecast was a bit off and snow level was lower, I could easily get stuck. Just about then it started snowing very hard, quickly blanketing all remaining dirt patches on the road.

I reluctantly made the call to park 1,000ft below projected snowline to ensure I wouldn’t get stuck. I drove back down to 4,600ft, just below a gate at the Morrison Camp turnoff. At that elevation the snow had turned to heavy rain. I parked on the side of the road, crawled in the back of the car and went to sleep.

The next morning a thin coating of snow blanketed the ground, but it had changed to cold rain. I scarfed down some food and starting hiking at 3:45am through the rain with all my overnight gear. As I got higher the rain changed to a heavy snow, and luckily I hadn’t gotten too wet yet.

I reached the trailhead an hour later, trudging through deeper fresh snow. I put on my snowshoes then, following faint tracks likely from last weekend. The trail was pretty easy to follow up to the edge of treeline. Just as I emerged above treeline the sky was bright enough to no longer need my headlamp. However, it was becoming a thicker whiteout as I moved higher.

I managed to follow the intermittent wooden posts up to the ~8,000ft bivy sites, but above then it was basically navigating by GPS. I tried to follow rocks sticking out of the snow to have some reference points, but often just pushed up through the snow. Progress was pretty slow breaking trail solo.

Eventually I topped out on Pikers Peak, and then the wind and snow really picked up. The whole left side of my body (the windward side) was becoming plastered in thick rime ice. It took approximately 60 seconds for my goggles to ice over on the outside, so I was constantly scraping the ice off. I could barely see my snowshoes, and got a bit turned around in the flat area between Pikers Peak and the summit.

It wasn’t actually that dangerous, though, since I was fully prepared to camp wherever I wanted with full winter overnight gear in my pack. The conditions couldn’t really get much worse, I figured, so if I’m going to camp anywhere it had better be the summit so I can get the most acclimation.

By 2:30pm my GPS showed I was on the summit, though it was impossible to tell. I eventually stumbled across the wooden structure up there, which indeed verified I was on the summit. However, it was completely buried in snow except for a small patch of wood visible between the 3ft-long rime ice feathers. I managed to find a small region on the leeward side where the wind was a bit less ferocious, and quickly set about making a campsite.

I used my snowshoes to level out a platform, then carefully stacked out the tent with my ice ax, hiking poles broken down, and deadmen anchors. I then crawled in the tent to insert the poles, and dug out a nice vestibule. I crawled in the tent and wouldn’t leave for about the next 16 hours.

Over the next few hours I melted snow from the vestibule and put the warm nalgenes under my shirt. I also worked to peel the rime ice off all my clothes, and cooked up three packs of Ramen noodles for dinner. By 5:30pm I was done with all my chores, and pretty cold and tired still, so crawled in my doubled-up sleeping bag setup and went to sleep.

The wind and snow appeared to continue throughout the night, until about 3am when the wind intensified. I recalled
it was forecast to change from SW to NW, and the shift must have happened then. That’s also about the time my pad had self-deflated enough for me to be resting on the snow and very cold. I reluctantly got out of my bags to re-inflate my pad. After 3am I never really got any more sleep, through a combination of the wind shaking my tent and me being very cold (despite doing situps). I regretted not just bringing my heavier-20F bag. It was definitely a good character-building experience though. I just hoped the forecast was correct for clearing Sunday.

By 6:30am I poked my head out the tent and the skies were clear! There was an undercast in almost all directions, with Rainier and Hood sticking out prominently. It was quite cold, and I really wanted to stay in my sleeping bag, but convinced myself to get outside quickly to catch sunrise.

I suited up, crammed my feet into my frozen boots, and braved the cold and wind to get some cool pictures. I soon retreated back to the tent and crawled back in the sleeping bag. Over the next hour I waited while the sun warmed up the tent and I warmed up my frozen toes.

By 9am I decided to head down so I could get back to Seattle at a reasonable hour. I’m not sure if an extra hour above 12,000ft would help with acclimation, or if the benefit really comes from merely being exposed to 12,000ft and returning to sea level to let my body recover. At any rate, I was moving down by 9:30am.

Navigation was infinitely easier this time, and I easily hiked down over Pikers Peak, then plunge stepped down the south slopes. I then crossed over some exposed rocks and switched to snowshoes as the terrain leveled. I descended down to the 8,000ft bivy sites and was surprised to see another group of skiers and snowshoers ascending. It seemed a bit late in the day, around 11am, but they said they were going for the summit. Hopefully my tracks helped.

I quickly descended back down through the trees and reached the trailhead around noon. Interestingly, much less
than 9 inches of snow had fallen, and there were four hardcore trucks parked there. It looked like two of them were snowmobilers and the other two were from the group of skiers and snowshoers. In hindsight my forester could have certainly made it down in those conditions. But I think I made the right choice to minimize the chance of getting stuck there til spring. It’s much safer to drive up a road as high as possible in good stable weather than to drive up in worsening weather, and park while more snow accumulates.

I continued hiking down the road for another hour back to my car, which was almost exactly at the edge of snowline. I didn’t even have to put chains on, and was soon driving back to Seattle.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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