Skamania Pinnacle
The Pinnacle
Mt. Adams P5K

Jun 29, 2012

With: Adam Jantz

Mt. Adams
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


We were on the leading edge of a weak storm system that was swinging into the Pacific Northwest during our week-long road trip through the area. It was not forecast to produce any rain until the following day, but the clouds came in earlier than we might have liked for our climb of Mt. Adams. As the second highest mountain in the state, Mt. Adams requires a non-trivial effort to reach its 12,000-foot+ summit. The standard route from the south was made longer by the road being closed four miles from the TH due to snow, but this didn't have any bearing on us since we planned to use a different TH. It was, however, indicative of the amount of snow we would encounter on our route. We picked the longer West Ridge route primarily because the Skamania County highpoint is located along the way just below the 9,000-foot level. This would allow us to bag two county highpoints with one outing - hard to do anywhere without driving in between.

We arrived at the Stagman Ridge TH at 5a, but it would be another 20 minutes before we got started. Adam needed to collect a bunch of gear from the back of the truck that after three days had become a huge jumbled mess. I had done my best to keep my gear organized on one side, but it was difficult to keep order when Adam would toss everything aside as he dug around looking for something, only to repeat the process for the next item. In a short time all became thoroughly mixed as in a blender. It provided equal portions of amusement and annoyance, so I waited less than patiently all the while making fun of him.

The trail was snow-free at the start but the encroaching plants on either side were wet with the morning dew that hung heavily in the air. My boots would get pretty damp, but luckily never soaked through to my socks and feet - that would wait until we were descending through heavy slush later in the day. For about half an hour we had a pleasant stroll through green, green forest until the first bits of snow began to appear on the trail. By the time we'd reached Grassy Hill (which was far from grassy, btw) near the top of Stagman Ridge, we'd found ourselves in complete snow coverage starting around the 5,000-foot level. The map showed the trail dropping more than 200ft to a ravine on our left before resuming the upward climb, and since this made little sense given the complete snow coverage, we opted to simply continue up the ridge to the 5,400-foot level before turning north and following the route. There was no sign of a trail anymore and no boot prints from previous travellers (whether we were the first on the route this year we couldn't tell as there had been fresh snow within the last week) to follow, but I had the route dialed into the GPS which made things rather easy as long as the batteries held out.

It wasn't until 7:30a that we managed to break out of the woods and get a first view of the West Ridge, or at least a small portion of it. Clouds hung low over the mountain, giving us only fleeting glimpses of the mountain ahead and never more than a few thousand feet worth, and even the lower parts of the West Ridge were obscured by the cloud layer. This would not be a day for great views, not even a day for good ones. An hour later we were on a rocky outcrop in an open basin just south of the West Ridge. We decided to dump our snowshoes here as it seemed unlikely they'd be needed. So far, the snow had been firm enough to simply walk on, and further up it appeared more likely that we'd need crampons instead of snowshoes. We took the opportunity to change into some warmer clothes, saved a GPS waypoint to find our stuff on the way back, and then started up again.

We followed along the windswept ridge on exposed rocks where we could. The views continued to be marginal, only now and then did we have an opportunity to see more than a few hundred yards off the side of the mountain. Shortly before 10a we reached the Skamania boundary and CoHP according to the GPS we carried with the appropriate coordinate. We looked around the ridge for any sign of a register or cairn but found nothing - just more rock and snow like we'd found on the rest of the ridge so far. The slope grew steeper and the temperature colder as the wind began to play a factor. The ridge now sported a mix of old and new snow that were evident by their color. The new snow was probably laid down 4-5 days earlier in the same storm that left snow high on North Sister in Oregon and kept us from the summit days earlier. We ran into some class 3 rock as the ridge narrowed. These could all have been bypassed by moving south onto the glacier and rejoining the ridge higher up, but with the poor visibility this was not evident to us until well after the fact.

By 11a the visibility had permanently deteriorated to a hundred yards at best, 20 yards at worst. The slopes grew steep, very steep in places where our axes became essential tools. Though it wasn't snowing, it seemed more like a winter adventure at this point than a summer one, bundled up as we were in all of the extra clothing we'd brought. The ridgeline eased off when we reached a feature called The Pinnacle, a rocky outcrop that gave off faint sulphurous smells. Had we not had the GPS with us, it would have been very easy to mistake this for the summit. But the summit was still some ways off to the east, down across a small saddle and then up to the rounded summit with a nebulous highpoint. All was snow at this point and only the GPS would allow to reach the actual highpoint.

It was 1:30p when we reached the point indicated on the GPS. We sat down for a few minutes to take in the whiteout views found there. It was not the breathtaking scene we had hoped for, just a short expanse of wind-driven snow on all sides, receding into the fogbank. We had to laugh at our willingness to climb such a peak even without the possibility of views. Surely there were strange demons driving us on. As if to prove we were not alone in this alien world which held others pushed by the same demons, we came across a roped party of three not fifteen minutes after leaving the summit. According to the rope leader, they had come up the White Salmon Glacier from the southwest. They too were being guided by GPS as seemed the only possible method at this point.

Our descent followed nearly the same route, guided by the traceback feature on the GPS for the track we'd taken on the ascent. Our only significant diversion came at 10,000ft where we left the ridge to avoid the knife-edge section and the sketchy class 3. We dropped down hundreds of feet through thick, slushy snow before starting a traverse on the south side of the ridge. Wallowing up past our knees in the thick soup, I was setting off a series of wet avalanche slides below me as I led us across a wide open slope in a bid to return to the ridgeline. It was a great deal of work wading through the stuff and at times it seemed like we might grind to a halt and sink into it like frozen quicksand. But there would be no such doom in store for us and shortly after 4p we had returned to our cache on the rocks where we'd left our snowshoes, water and a few other items. These we retrieved, then put on our snowshoes for the return across the lower slopes that had similarly softened in the afternoon.

We returned to the forest and followed our faint footprints back towards Stagman Ridge. Our afternoon prints were far more obvious as we sunk 2-4 inches with every step. Some orange flagging proved helpful in finding the trail once again. It was nice to be off the snow f inally, even though the green plants continued to wet our boots as we brushed against them. By this time our feet were swimming in water so a little extra wasn't going to make any difference. The wild irises and other flowering plants made a welcome contrast to the snow and rock landscape we'd spent the last 7-8hrs traveling in. It was nearly 7p before we reached the TH and our car. We took less than ten minutes to get out of our boots and start our driving back to Oregon. We had just reached the pavement a few minutes after leaving the TH when the rain started, a slow drizzle that is often characteristic of the Pacific Northwest at this time of year. We were glad to get away with only our boots and feet getting wet. If only we had gotten away with a view...


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