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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Climbing Washington’s second highest mountain was an elevated experience

There is no comfort zone when climbing Mount Adams, the second-highest peak in Washington. The area looks like an alien landscape, the hike is difficult and there’s no restrooms or running water. But reaching the top is beyond rewarding.

Earlier this month, with a group of other young women and their parents, my mom, younger sister and I summited the mountain.

There was a hodgepodge of different hiking abilities and preparedness levels in the troupe. High school freshmen and college freshmen were all attempting the climb together.

What bound the group together wasn’t the fact that we were mostly female, or all Liberty Lake residents. It was our religion – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As a young female Latter-day saint who loves a challenge and the outdoors, it was always hard for me to watch the boys go on what are called High Adventures: crazy hikes, bike rides or whitewater rafting trips. Young women usually went to less intense camps with a lot of singing and crafting. Not that there’s anything wrong with crafts. I just wanted the intense experiences afforded to the young men.

In recent years, the culture surrounding the church has changed. With it has come more opportunities for women, including this most recent one, my first High Adventure: summiting Mount Adams.

Mount Adams is 12,276 feet tall and sits near the Oregon-Washington border. The peak is about a seven-hour drive away from Spokane.

The south climb route of Mount Adams is the most popular route. It is about 12 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of 6,700 feet. Most climbers split the hike into two parts, hiking about 4 miles the first day to a rough camping area called Lunch Counter, then summiting and descending the next day.

The first 2 miles of the trek are pleasant. Elevation gain is mild, and the trail is packed dirt. The Cascade Creek fire in 2012 decimated the landscape, but it’s now recovering, with white skeleton trees looming over young evergreens. Green underbrush colored with wildflowers fills the area.

Our group stopped for a sack lunch by a clear alpine creek. All relatively novice backpackers, there was a lot of pack adjusting. After purifying water and pouring electrolyte packets into our two required 32-ounce bottles, we began to climb a ridge with moderate elevation gain and a rocky, less clear trail.

Once above the tree line, it’s snow and volcanic rock all the way to the top.

The views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens beyond the mountain are stunning, but it was difficult to actually enjoy the sights because a lot of my energy was going into not tripping on a rock.

About a half-mile to Lunch Counter, the trail becomes a snow plane, necessitating crampons to grip the snow and gaiters to keep legs dry. This is where fatigue began to affect our group. A lot of breaks were taken, making the short stretch take an hour or two.

On Mount Adams, time doesn’t seem to matter until it’s crucial to hurry up. One climber we met woke up at 2 a.m. and hiked the whole thing in six hours. He claimed he didn’t run, but he totally lied. It took our group around 18 hours of hiking over two days, and we were still rushing off the mountain near dark to try and get a campsite at a nearby county park.

Lunch Counter itself is a primitive camping area with enclosures built by backpackers over time. These waist-high walls of volcanic rock protect tents from exposure to the elements.

On our night camping there, the sunset was spectacular. Mount Hood in Oregon and Mount St. Helens were both visible from tent windows as the sun faded away. The mountains below us seemed to get lighter toward the horizon, starting at indigo and moving toward aqua and lavender. The whole “purple mountains majesty” lyric in “America the Beautiful” finally made sense. One small layer of wispy clouds broke the otherwise clear sky that only got more vivid as the evening went on, settling on a bright orange color before dark.

The morning after, summit day, we woke up at 6 a.m., later than we probably should have. It took us six hours to reach the summit. Crampons were begrudgingly put back on for a mile of steep snow climbing. Ice axes were used as walking sticks or even canes as we trudged through the snow. The slope would have made a great double black diamond for a ski resort.

Hiking to Lunch Counter seemed like a joke compared to this section’s level of difficulty. One group member said she “didn’t know hiking could be this hard.” She was about to be surprised again.

Mount Adams has a false summit, called Pikers Peak. The real summit stays completely out-of-sight until beyond this point. Even knowing this, reaching Pikers is completely demoralizing.

At that point, there’s been intense elevation gain, scrambling over rocks, slipping on ice, and generally carving out an individual trail. The only thing that alleviated our collective pain at the false summit was a Snickers bar, which all of us had saved for just that time. I don’t like chocolate, but it was the best thing I had ever eaten.

After Piker’s, climbers get a bit of a reprieve. The ground levels off and even slopes downhill as the trail passes through an ice-covered saddle prior to the final summit push.

The snow in the saddle is whipped by wind and melted by the sun, resulting in what looks like an eternity of meringue topping. Here is where the oxygen got thin, forcing us to begin relying on tricks like breathing through our teeth or trying to “spit” old gas out of our lungs.

Then the uphill slog began again. We traversed up a sandy trail about a half-mile to a mountain stream. Adams is truly a mental game. Real grit is needed to keep putting one foot in front of another.

But finally, we were almost there. The peak was about 100 yards away. I knew that if I stopped now, I would never start again.

We picked up our pace for the final part. I wish I could say that I ran, but my pack was too heavy and my exhaustion too strong.

Cresting the final peak made me feel weightless. Mount Rainier was immediately visible. I started to cry. The climb was so difficult, but I had made it. And my sister was right behind me. We took off our summit packs and yelled with joy.

There’s an old fire lookout on the top of Adams. The roof was rickety, but we didn’t care. The inside was filled with snow. All 13 of us slowly struggled to the top of the cabin.

There was snow on the summit, and the sun was bright. Most climbers experience wind on the peak, but it was perfectly still for us. It smelled like sulfur, reminding hikers that they are on a potentially active volcano.

After the triumphant summit photos were taken, we began to climb down. Most of it was carefully stepping on loose rocks and hoping our knees held out, but once we got to the snow, it was time to glissade.

Glissading is grown-up sledding. We protected our pants with house wrap, braked with our ice axes and slid down chutes carved by past climbers.

I’ve been on the Park City alpine slide and the one in Leavenworth. This was the real thing, and it was so much better. The cold wind combined with high speeds was exhilarating. The views were finally enjoyable, and we descended in five minutes what took us three hours to climb.

After glissading, hail and rain began and continued the rest of our trek down. When we reached the cars, a double rainbow appeared. That was the whole story of Mount Adams: discomfort, then awe.

A friend who had climbed the mountain previously told my mom that we would be happy we climbed Adams about a week after getting home.

She was wrong.

On that summit with my mom, sister and other young women, I was the proudest and most grateful I have ever been in my life.

I’m already planning to summit more of Washington’s peaks next summer. After all, Rainier doesn’t look that tall from the top of another mountain.

Paige Van Buren's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.