A glorious weather window over a weekend in Washington means a perfect time to go climb a volcano. I’ve been wanting to climb Mt Adams for a while ever since I bailed my friends a few years ago. But the long drive has always dissuade me from doing it. Plus, I wanted to do something interesting with it rather than walking up. Originally I wanted to ski the very popular south side, but when Evelyne contacted me about climbing it via the North Ridge (North Cleaver), I was extremely intrigued!
The North Ridge is supposedly the second most climbed route on Adams, but it still sees far fewer people than the south side. I guess it is a bit more technical since it requires more experience than just the basic tools to walk up a snowfield. The North Ridge consists of a 2500 ft scramble (depending on snow coverage could be more), which is probably not for the novice hiker. I highly recommend other shorter scrambles before attempting this one even though the route is generally class 2 with some class 3 moves.
Scrambling classes can vary, but to me so far, a good rule of thumb is that class 1 is a hiking trail, class 2 feels like a steep trail where you might want a hand to steady yourself, class 3 is where you definitely want to use at least one hand to hold on as you climb up, class 4 is where it might feel like rock climbing with all 4 limbs but the consequences are fatal, and class 5 is where you’d want to rope up for protection. Anyway most standard scrambles are considered class 2-3, a good place for a young mountaineer to start!
I did not do a deep research on the route, but even with at the first page of results, most were not related to the North Ridge and the Summit Post description was quite vague. And then my friend Kyle’s blog was about his traverse and also offered little description of the scramble. So going into this climb, I had little idea of the route with basically just the knowledge that “it goes”. It’s doable, so off we go.
Divide Camp Trail
Using Sentinel Hub, and the latest reports from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, we estimated that there would be the least amount of snow driving to the Divide Camp Trail instead of the tradition start at Killen Trailhead. Plenty of high clearance Jeep-like vehicles passed us and blazed through the snowy patches, but with our little cars, we decided to park a mile from the trailhead to avoid getting stuck.
We had debated the use of flotation devices for the hike to camp. Usually spring snow doesn’t require snowshoes since the only post holing is from softened ice. Maybe I’m a little crazy but I decided to haul my skis and use them for a bit more flotation on the snow. So we walked on the road for a mile and immediately at the trailhead the snow began. I started skinning here, but there were definitely spotty areas where the snow wouldn’t connect. I tried my best to remember the route of most snow for the descent, but spoiler alert, my memory failed me and by the end, it wasn’t worth the transitions between one turn of snow each time.
After around 2.5 miles of shady forest, we crossed the PCT! The views of the north face of Adams was alluring. If we had to walk in the hot sun, at least we could enjoy some sweet views! From here, we started our own path veering east towards camp. Even though on paper, it wasn’t a steep approach, averaging 500 feet of gain per mile, but it was still somehow taxing with the heavy packs and traversing on both snow and boulders.
Countless transitions from booting to skinning later, we reached the aptly named glacial lake Glacier Lake. We refilled on our water here before heading up further to our 8000 ft high camp. We contemplated staying by the lake for the water source, but I’m so glad we decided to stick with our original plan. This isn’t the high camp marked on most maps, but the higher of the camps. Kind of like how on Snowfield, there was “high camp” at the lake below Colonial, but there was also the higher high camp at the col with bivy sites and some of the best views.
Since we were nearing the summer solstice, we had so much daylight to enjoy. We relaxingly set up our tents and enjoyed dinner. A short nap later and a distance visit by goats, we got back up to watch the sunset. It was nowhere near as impressive as the alpenglow on Ruth, but then you can’t argue with views of Rainier. I was surprised with how close Rainier and St Helens looked from here. When you’re on Rainier, everything looks much further and smaller. I guess that shows how massive Rainier is!
We quickly got back into bed because we had a 4am wake up to begin the slog up to the summit. I honestly hoped that we’d move quicker than Evelyne’s estimate, but we were right on the mark. She is incredible at these time estimates and even factors in stopping for breaks and all!
North Ridge – North Cleaver
From camp, we began the class 2 scramble. Basically this is a walk up some slightly loose rock, but stay on top and using gentle feet, you can minimize kicking too many rocks down the slope. Helmets are very useful in this situation! I think our overall tiredness didn’t help with keeping rocks stable here. Soon the class 2 scramble got steeper, requiring a bit more thought into route finding. But this is what I find fun in scrambling! The feeling of a rock climber mixed with adventurer at heart. Each hold of a solid rock feels amazing. And each time when you’re guessing the path and it goes correctly, that’s golden. Maybe it’s these small wisps of euphoria, of doing something right, that generates the high I feel on rock scrambles.
We started off going a pretty good speed, gaining a decent elevation, but as we hit the scramble, we took more time to figure out our footing. And then a multitude of problems started to slow us down. From headaches to tummy aches, blisters on feet to overall fatigue, the elevation gain and altitude got the best of us. But, as always Evelyne was wise enough to factor in all the slowness we might encounter and so we maintained on schedule somehow!
Most of the small patches of snow were avoidable until we reached the top of the cleaver and the snow became a bit more consistent with the mellower slopes. Here, we put on crampons and started the walk up to the summit. Singing songs in my head, the time quickly passed and soon we had less than 1000 feet left, then one more hill, then at last the summit with all the people on it! We had not seen a single soul until we ran into a solo climber who was looking to go down the North Ridge. He had supposedly come up the Northwest Ridge or something like that. And the only other people we saw were 2 skiers who seemed to be skiing back to their camp and the original high camp.
Summit of Pahto
Just like any volcano, Adams doesn’t have a very distinct top. I had to ask other hikers where the true summit was haha. Looking over to the south side climb, we could see the hundreds of ants, I mean people climbing up. I was very glad that we chose the north side! I appreciated the quiet, although I did wish to ski from the summit like some of those people. We took a decent break, hiding from the wind by the building (still covered in snow).
A older gentleman skier sat down near us and we made small talk. But mostly I was somehow quite struck by the fact that he was also Asian. Things I don’t often pick up on in normal life but when you’re out climbing mountains, your brain picks up on differences. And since I’m accustomed to seeing mostly white people climb mountains, and especially in the backcountry skiing world, it’s so interesting to see someone a bit older who is also Asian and also backcountry skis. It’s not the demographic my mind would have expected and it was a welcome change! Also I’d love to grow older and still be doing mountain things!
We took so many pictures on the summit and eventually headed back down to begin our long descent. I love how much less effort is needed on the cardio front. I realized that this was one of the best experiences I’ve had in terms of dealing with altitude. With intentional deep breaths, I never felt like altitude took over! I had struggled with it at the same elevation on Rainier a couple months back, but I feel so much confident after summitting Adams this time. Maybe Rainier is in the cards after all!
When you’re scrambling, the time going up is nearly similar to going down just because you have to really pay attention to where you’re going in both directions. At least for parts of the down climb, there was kitty litter that was easy to walk on, like soft snow. Kitty litter is what it sounds like, small gritty pebbly rock, like coarse sand. There was a little route finding necessary on the cleaver. One wrong direction could send you down the wrong ridge! Visibility and having a track really helped speed things along, especially when we could see where camp was. A direct beeline straight to rest.
We lounged and slowly packed before begrudgingly moving downhill again. To be honest, the skis were marginally worth it. I would have benefited from a lighter pack. And probably our line was not the best for a ski descent, though I’m sure there could have been a better way. After all, we did see 2 other parties ski the Adams Glacier this day.
Pleasantly, we got a few last looks at Adams. This time with a slight variation to our uphill tracks, we got to see the mountain with the meadows below. What a sight! I stubbornly kept my skis on even through parts of the forest until everyone else was walking faster than I was skiing/booting/skiing. Had to admit some defeat, but the skis definitely made for a more interesting time! On our drive out, we said one last goodbye to Pahto basked in alpenglow. Thank you for the wonderful climb. Till later, dearest mountain!
Permits are required to climb Adams above 7000 ft in the May-Sept. They are $15 per person on the weekends and $10 per person on weekdays. They’re sold at the Recreation.gov website and remember to print one for your car.
We started near Takhlakh Lake, one mile from the Divide Camp Trailhead since our cars couldn’t make it pass patches of snow. You can also start from Killen Trailhead for a slightly shorter distance to camp.
I used trail runners from camp to summit since the snow was firm enough and it is easier to scramble in low ankle shoes. But everyone’s comfort with different shoes can vary. I put on crampons on the snowy section and kept them the whole way down the snow since parts were still icy
We camped at 8000 feet where there’s plenty of flat, sandy ground. We had patches of snow to melt for water, but later season, you’ll need to grab some water from the lake below or before. “High Camp” on the map is a few hundred feet lower, but we opted to camp higher for a shorter summit day.
The scramble is mostly class 2 with sections of class 3 and areas of looser choss. Overall pretty good for a volcano and isn’t too slippery if you are careful with foot placement
Stay on top of the ridge when possible. And when in doubt, go right (when possible).
It smells like sulfur a good portion of the upper half, but depending on how the wind blows.
The mosquitos swarmed us between the trailhead and car. There was near none in the forest and on the trail, but that could change throughout the summer.