“No one can call themselves an experienced mountaineer unless they have turned back unsuccessfully from some of their summit attempts. Climbing is a game of knowing when to press on and when to bail, and these choices can mean the difference between great success and needless death. It is a misnomer, of course, to call any trip into the mountains ‘unsuccessful’ —these attempts are often richer experiences with far more opportunities for learning and growth.” – Peakbagger.com
Dropping a spoiler in the first paragraph!
Nothing stings like failing to summit a peak that you flew out to Washington to climb and planned a special trip around, one you felt prepared and trained for. Double the sting when it also toppled my second chance at giving Mount Saint Helens a go before even stepping foot on that trail…
So here’s a little story about a climbing trip on my first Cascades volcano that all ended up going a bit horribly wrong…
After Mount Saint Helens evaded my presence in May with several feet of snow on the planned climb date, I hatched a plan with my friend Eric to fly back out to Washington at the end of June for another go at a volcano that I am apparently not seeing eye to eye with. But because one volcano summit wouldn’t be enough, I added Mount Adams on to the start of the trip, because why not? Maximize those airline miles and leave hours! Mount Adams is Washington’s second highest summit at 12,281 feet. More impressive, it is the chonkiest volcano in the Cascades, meaning it has the most volume (yes, even more than Rainier!). Yes, I called Mount Adams chonky… People love chonky cats, so why not love chonky volcanoes?!
Mount Adams is a pretty legit climb, even if the altitude is not all that high (comparably to Rocky Mountain standards). The trailhead is at 5,555 feet, and the trail, though only about 6.2 miles long, climbs over 6,700 feet. Many people split the climb into two days, climbing first to the “Lunch Counter,” a broad, flat part at about 9,250 feet to camp overnight, and then make an early summit attempt up the stupidly steep slopes to Pikers Peak, the false summit, and then up the true summit. Most of the year the mountain is snow covered, which I think is much more appealing than climbing on loose, abrasive volcanic rock and ash like the late summer months will offer. Even better, when snow covered, Mount Adams offers up a famous glissade option that makes the descent down to the Lunch Counter a fast and furious affair.
After spending the night in the fantastic campground in the middle of Trout Lake, we grabbed breakfast at the gas station/auto repair shop/cafe/coffee shop, trying to fuel up on those carbs for all the kick stepping to come. We listened to the local residents talk shop, discuss rodeos, and offer advice to a tourist on where to watch the rugby “super bowl.”
As we approached Mount Adams, I remember feeling excited, but also kinda gulping and thinking, “wait, I have to climb that?” as the chonk of a volcano came into full view. 12,000 foot mountains are usually not scary to me – Medicine Bow Peak tops out over 12,018 feet… but the trailhead is at like 11,000 feet. The idea of having to start at an elevation lower than I live at, and then climb to above Medicine Bow Peak essentially… was finally dawning on me. Oh, and I’d be wearing like a 40-50 pound pack. Yayyyy!
“Why can’t I have a typical American hobby, like watching sportsball and drinking beer?” I mused to Eric. I mean, I wasn’t wrong… why am I compelled to do such ridiculous things? I’d venture to say the average person has no desire to go stand on mountains.
Mount Adams was crazy busy, and we had to get a bit creative on making a parking spot for the truck. We kind of dallied around getting ready, and finally donned the mountaineering boots and hoisted the massive packs and hit the trail at 11:10am.
I’m not even sure we hit one mile before the snow started and remained for the rest of the day. I didn’t really mind this, as snow is fairly even (no rocks and roots to watch out for), and hey, I was doing like mountaineer-y things, finally! And surprisingly my pack did not feel as bad as I thought it would. Mount Hood was to our backs, perfectly clear on this blistering hot day (warmest day in Washington of the year… apparently I brought the heat with me), and Mount Saint Helens teased through the trees (who I took to apologizing to, hoping I’d land in her good graces for the climb in one week).
Up and up and up. Kick, rest, kick. Repeat. Up and up and up. Kick, rest, kick. Stop to slap Leukotape on Eric’s heel blister. Up and up and up. Eeek, my arms are sunburning!
It is funny how hypnotized I was by kick stepping, almost entering a trance as I kicked up a slope, with others falling in behind me as I apparently kick really pretty steps.
“That’s impressive you’re not wearing crampons!” a random guy commented as I stopped to let Eric catch up and to take a snack break. I had only kicked into solid ice and slipped once, which was a win, otherwise the snow was soft but not unbearably stupid.
After about 3.5 miles and over 3,500 of climbing, we found a nice camp spot just below Lunch Counter at 8,900 feet that had already been leveled out for a tent. It took us five hours to reach this part, but we had stopped for plenty of breaks, and really there was no need to speed up the mountain. I was pleased with myself, hauling that big pack all the way up and feeling pretty decent, considering I had never had to kick step so much in my life nor had I ever had a pack that weighed that much.
We set up camp, and Eric took to melting and filtering water as I puttered around in my new lined Crocs, debating if I should mount my crampons to them for a photo opp (I decided laying on a rock in the sun was time better spent). I was feeling a normal amount of tired, but otherwise excited for the next day! I enjoyed a Mountain House beef stroganoff with views of Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens, and took to being a raving lunatic when sunset created a great mountain shadow. 10 out of 10, one of the best sunsets of my life!
We bedded down in the tent. And then it all went wrong.
First came the pee. Copious amounts of pee every hour to two hours. Now, I usually have to pee once after laying down for bed – completely normal for me. But this? This was not normal. I had not drunk an extreme amount of fluid before bed, so I was confused. “Did you just become diabetic?” Eric quizzed as I disappeared out of the tent for the millionth time. I rolled my eyes. “Maybe you should text Marie, she’s a doctor?” he asked. “I don’t think she’ll diagnose me as diabetic in the middle of the night…” By now it was late, and we were both getting irritated by the lack of sleeping going on with a 3:30am alarm.
But also concerning was my complete inability to get warm. With the high temperatures during the day, it was NOT cold whatsoever, maybe in the 40s… plenty warm for the sleeping bag I brought. I had on wool leggings, a wool baselayer, my down puffy, and full gloves, with both the wool and down puffy hoods pulled up, and was also in my down sleeping bag. Finally Eric insisted I swap into his mummy bag (ugh I HATE mummy bags, so claustrophobic!) which is rated for a colder temp. In a moment of desperation, I ripped open the package the emergency space blanket I always have in my pack, the foil mylar temporarily warming me until I fell into a fit of shivers and chills. And there Eric was, sleeping in shorts, not even in the sleeping bag really…
Eventually we both fell into a fitful slumber, and I managed not to pee for about 3 hours. I briefly awoke at sunrise, clambering over Eric to take in the fuzzy scene since my contacts where out, and mumbling “the colors aren’t great, let’s sleep.” Finally after 6am I was up and anxious, ready to do something to get myself warm. Neither of us slept well, but we dragged ourselves out of the tent. Eric boiled water for his oatmeal and our coffee, and I choked down half a bagel, not knowing it would be my final food until the afternoon.
At 7:19am we hoisted on much lighter packs containing mostly snacks and water, donned the crampons (yay, stabby feet!!), and set out for the summit. Immediately I fell way behind Eric’s pace, silently cursing how much elevation gain we had to make before even reaching the base to the pitch of Pikers Peak. “Ughhhhhh we should’ve camped closer!” I complained.
At the base of when the climbing really starts climbing, we sat down for a snack break, and I decided it would be more fun to puke back up the fruit bar I was attempting to eat and the tears started. Why, why today? Come on body…
I caught my first wind of the day as we begin up the kind of icy slope, and I fell into my kick stepping trance, this time counting every step. I had to restart a few times, but eventually I counted all the way up to 188, which is impressive because I rarely count over 25, and normally restart any counting at 50. We were slowly making our way up, but I was getting discouraged at how everyone else seemed to by running by us, and when looking up, the summit beyond Pikers Peak seemed exhaustingly far away, even though we only had like 1.5 miles to go to the summit (which equates to hours in mountaineering).
Then the curtain came crashing down at 10,030 feet. My body was done. Somehow I managed to sit down on the crazy steep slope without just sliding back down, and the sobs came in dramatic waves. Something wasn’t right. But then I was sad. Was I just being wimpy? Why was this so hard? And dammit, I didn’t want to give up! I had never up to this point, had to turn around on a summit attempt of any mountain. I’ve had plenty of moments of not wanting to quit (I laid face down on Quandary for awhile in February, wanting to give up), but that’s my status quo and I always end up pushing on.
But today was not my typical thinking something sucked. Eric pulled off my crampons and stuffed them in my pack, and suited me up with a super attractive contractor trash bag “diaper” so I could glissade down. And that was that. The day was done, but in so many ways, just getting started.
I felt like a zombie walking back to our tent, and I had the awareness that I really wasn’t right, but couldn’t comprehend exactly what was happening to me. Finally we came upon our tent, and I remember being really confused as I swore Eric’s tent was blue and that he was making me get in the wrong tent. I flopped down half in the tent, freezing cold, curled up in my space blanket, and I remember hearing a deafeningly loud roar in my ears and then some weird drumming music started. I told Eric to stop making the noise, and he was like WTF?! as it was silent outside. By now he was messaging his buddy that is part of search and rescue (SAR), and I honestly am really fuzzy on the details from here for a little while…
Apparently I told Eric I was going “to become the ‘Maroon Boots’ landmark on Adams, just like ‘Green Boots’ on Everest,” freaked out about having my phone, freaked out about having my glasses, and ended up curled in a ball in the hot sun, wrapped up in my precious blanket, repeating how cold I was as Eric took to frantically tearing down the tent and packing as much stuff as he could into and onto his pack so I’d have a lighter load to get off the mountain. SAR told him it would be hours to reach us, and the best option was to have me start descending.
What took us five hours the day before took two hours going downhill. I remember descending, more lucidly the further down in elevation. I was being stubborn on everything NOT being altitude sickness, as I simply wasn’t high enough for my body to do that (9000 feet is a really common elevation for me, so I mean, I wasn’t crazy in my stubbornness). I alternated between freezing cold, to burning up hot. Because I had some unfortunate sunburning from the day before, I kept my long sleeved, hooded Smartwool baselayer on, which is quite toasty in the bright sun. Strangely enough, I noted I wasn’t sweating when I was hot. I took to glissading when I could, not caring that I had soaked my pants through to my underwear, and finding shade once we were below treeline. I took a few pee breaks (oh yay, the ever present constant peeing!). I had worried about rhabdomylosis, and always peed in snow so I could monitor the color (not tea colored, yay!).
By the time we hit the dirt homestretch, I wasn’t feeling great, but I could carry on a conversation with a guy named Steve that knows the owners of Exum, who I have looked at for a Grand Teton climb in the future. So much less confused and weird. It was the longest two hours in my life, but I found myself at times so damn determined to get off that freaking disaster of a mountain that I was a woman on a mission, no matter how awful I felt.
“I don’t want to climb Mount Saint Helens,” I told Eric somewhere along the way, who hung back with the crazy heavy pack and was keeping SAR up to date on the radio on our progress and on if I was alive.
At about 1:20pm we made it to the truck, and I was feeling exhausted but much more perky. I took to cleaning up and getting out of the nasty wet pants and underwear that felt just gross at that point. We headed back to Trout Lake, where we grabbed lunch and I ate my first food since 7am and enjoyed the shade.
What the hell just happened to me?!
The longgggg drive to Puyallup was trying at times, as I was just so tired. Eric stopped to buy a thermometer at Walgreens, and we confirmed that I did not have a fever (at that moment). Once getting back to Eric’s house I left most of my stuff in the truck, and headed to the shower and then the bed. Theories flew between Eric, me, and social media on what happened… most people calling it altitude sickness, with me vehemently denying the elevation had anything to do with anything. I was leaning towards SAR’s hypothesis of heat stroke.
The next day, and the resulting COVID19 test days later, and the following two weeks told the story of what really happened. Yep, after two and a half years of successfully evading COVID19 with social distancing, masking, and three doses of the Pfizer vaccine, omicron hunted my butt down and unleashed itself at the most inopportune time. The chills on Saturday night at Lunch Counter? A hallmark high fever of COVID. (I still have not had time to discuss with my mountaineering physician friends the insane peeing and weird mental status, though Marie and I briefly connected and she proposed that the viral infection kicked off HAPE/HACE and diuresis as she has had a similar experience at an elevation that, like me, shouldn’t have affected her.) I really am not here to further discuss COVID19, vaccine efficacy, discontinuation of mask usage, or really anything else on the topic. It is what it is (meaning I can’t change what happened). It’s really not the moral of the story anyway, just really the explanation of most of what went wrong.
It should go without saying, we did not even attempt Mount Saint Helens. 0 for 2. I’m starting to get really spooked by that mountain, and those in my life have settled into two camps:
1) Never, ever ever attempt Mount Saint Helens ever again as the mountain is cursed and she does NOT want me up there and I’ll die the third time I hold a permit to climb
2) Third time is a charm and I should try again ASAP
My personal internal jury is still out. I think I’m done with the Cascades for 2022. Funny, because by the time I was flying home I was flirting with making Mount Baker my 2023 goal in my head, but yeah…
Mount Adams was tough for me to swallow. I really struggle with failing at things, it is one of my personal flaws and when I get into something, I tend to pursue it to perfection (see my cycling career for Exhibit A on this). I was getting so discouraged headed up to Pikers Peak because everyone was so much faster than me, but of course now we know the reason why. I’ve tried to focus on the positives, like how strong I was on the first day up to Lunch Counter, and how I got to see the most amazing sunset. And now when I see Mount Adams out of an airplane window, or in photos, I can point to the spot below Pikers Peak, and go, “I sat right there!!!!!” or “I puked right there!”. Eric pointed out to me he’s only at a 50% summit rate for Mount Adams (2 out of 4), and browsing through peakbagger.com, I see a lot of others have turned around as well (most of them about at the same spot/elevation as where I did as well, strangely enough). It’s a hard mountain… mountaineering is hard. If it was easy, well, I suppose less people would be into sportsball and more people would be mountaineering. I think what finally hammered it home was when I opened up my “Unsuccessful Summits” list on Peakbagger, and saw the blurb that I opened this blog with. For some reason it made me feel okay.
I was smart. Eric was smart. We turned around, and I made it off the mountain myself (though a toboggan or helicopter ride would’ve been easier on me, ha!). I’ve been in the position of being the hiking partner to someone not feeling well a mile or so into a double 14er hike, and I remember pushing that person to keep going (thankfully we had a successful and safe summit day…). This Mount Adams experience has had me reflect on maybe how that wasn’t the right thing to do. I really frown upon people who leave partners, who don’t stay in visual view, who allow summit fever to cloud judgement. My Mount Adams experience brought everything in perspective and past behavior. The damn mountain should always be there (I say should because hey, a volcano can blow its top off like Helens did in 1980!), and can be climbed another day. Yeah, it sucks to spend airfare and time and vacation leave for unsuccessful days, but being safe and alive is kind cool, too.
So yep, that’s the Mount Adams story! Onward to more summits in the Rocky Mountains once I further recover!