One true account.: I pulled the old truck into the parking lot at “The Logs” late to pick up Rob, my local friend who wanted to enlist. He’d made sure I included him on Master Sergeant Luke Edgar’s August backcountry snowboarding excursion to climb Mt. Adams.
Mt. Adams is located in southern Washington State, just across the Columbia River from Oregon. It’s north of Mt. Hood and east of Mt. St. Helens. What’s unique about the slope is its mundane snowfield. No snow bridges, no crevasses, just one smooth, sweet layer of corn snow all the way to its 12,276 foot summit. It is the second most climbed peak in Washington. Only Mt. Hood sees more people on its summit. Regardless, our aim was to ride 3-3-3 again, one of the most badass chutes going.
Rob hadn’t skied for years, which didn’t stop him from weighing down his pack with a pair. We loaded our gear, and a long drive later found Luke’s car. He’d conveniently stashed a radio there so we turned it on and received our call: “Lincoln Turns? This is Aaron Bergshrund, over.” Then Luke guided us up to his camping spot on the Lunch Counter. The entire mountain was bathed in moonlight as we made the climb.
We pulled into Luke’s camp as a golden dawn broke over Eastern Oregon – just enough time to slip into our sleeping bags for a couple hours of sleep before starting the climb. After breakfast we had packs on our backs and were four-wheel drivin’ it up the peak with ski poles, looking forward to a decent made up of a few thousand vertical feet of sautéed summer corn.
For all the snow we’d seen on the hike up to basecamp, there were a lot of dirt patches on the ascent above us. Massive volcanic uplift caused piles of lunar rocks and boulders. They stood like little walls of China – except these were in Washington. That’s the state Luke Edgar is from. He does these climbs all the time. In fact, he has successfully snowboarded off every peak in Washington. “Adams is always the last climb of the year,” Luke says, “but in ten years of going up, I’ve never seen it so ugly.”
Snowboard mountaineering is all about not getting ahead of yourself. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other with lots of cheating help from your arms, thanks to collapsible pole technology. Above us the hateful false summit, aptly named Sucksdorf Ridge, gleamed like a bowling lane. By the time we began the charge there was a conga line of mountaineers stretching up its shining, sucking side.
More power to all the mountaineers, but I have trouble understanding the art of the downclimb. At the end of our toil we get the blissful riding reward of actually snowboarding back down the mountain. Like Jon Krakauer notes in Into Thin Air, downclimbing is just as heinous as climbing up, only more dangerous.
To make a short story long (and this may have been the longest 24 hours I’ve ever spent) we finally sucked up Sucksdorf’s Ridge with much effort. Rob talked me into continuing up right at the point the snow was actually good, though we didn’t know that then. Everything moves so slowly, it’s like deep sea diving on land. The valley hangs eerily in the distance. There’s no sound but my labor for breath and my heart pounding in my neck, which feels like it might go through my head. Need for air is inversely proportionate to the ability to get it, and we’re sweating like a pack of pigs in heat.
Scale gets so magnified. A layer or an unzipped zipper can be the difference between serenity and torture. Expending energy down to the last calorie, food and water become a literal lifeline. Their proper intake is the one weapon against the elements. That and brains – this game is entirely mental. Attitude makes or breaks effort. Stop paying attention for a second and suffer consequences that can be grave.
Summitting was not in the picture – just as well since there was hardly any snow up there to ride anyway. The best riding was dropping in from where we were: 3-3-3: three thousaand vertical feet, 300 feet wide on a 30-degree pitch. Claiming Mt. Adams here would mean being branded a “piker,” according to a rock’s inscription left at Sucksdorf ridge by Arthur Jones this same month – in 1923. “You are a piker if you stop on this summit,” it reads. Having been hikers far too long, pikers it would be.
You know how this ends: snow that had been a blissful curtain of corn in past Julys, was sun-cupped and horrible on this first day of August. It was unrideable”the tops were slush but the troughs were solid, solid”craters so deep you could’ve bathed in them.
The snow was so horrible it made us wonder why we’d carried our boards, but then snowboarding down was the whole point of the climb.
We were hosed. “It just got uglier and uglier,” Luke says. “The sun cups this year on Adams were the nastiest pieces-of-shit snow I’ve ever put my board on.”
Rob hadn’t skied in years and certainly couldn’t start again here. He ended up surfing down on his butt like the climbers. Except they had ice axes for rudders and he had a pair of 190s sticking up from his pack.
We kept thinking it would get better on the way down, but it never did. Taking 3-3-3 would mean an additional five mile hike back to the parking lot on the round-the-mountain trail. Finally, abused too completely, we decided to cut our losses and hike back to the main run. That meant crossing steeply pitched, steamy, volcanic rocks that could slide and bury you, or just roll out from under your feet until you slammed. With no energy left, we had to be on our sharpest watch yet, our lives in the balance. And we had to downclimb!
We did make it to “rideable” snow, but that’s being really generous. It was only rideable in the sense that e didn’t have to worry about wrecking within an inch of our lives. Let down our guard too much, and there was a nice, icy dirt patch to wake up to.
Even when things finally turned slushy, I was too exhausted and too busy searching for my lucky hat to enjoy any of it. This was survival snowboarding. At the bottom was a long, long walk that seemed longer than the round-the-mountain trail. I thought we were right close, so I lazily strapped board and helmet on. They rattled and tripped me up the entire way back. I wanted to rip my pack off and hurl it into the woods. I swore to myself that I’d lick the first car I saw.
When we got to ours, there was another present”a ticket from the U.S. Forest Service stuffed under the wiper blade noting we hadn’t paid for a fifteen-dollar “Volcano Pass,” and needed to drop the fee off before leaving town or it would turn into a $30 fine.
Normally, I break ten laws just riding my bike to the grocery store, but karma was clearly not with us. Fourteen dollars cash in my wallet was the sign I had better put up and shut up.
The scenario held one last treat “the long, dusty drive back down and an hour home. Luke had to drive four hours to Seattle, and later found an explanation for our misery on the mountain: “I think it was so cold down low, most of the snow was happening between the three and eight-thousand foot elevation and the peak was in the sun all winter.”
But it is still better to have climbed than to climb, just as it is to have written than to write. Before my drive back to Portland (on the same hour I left 24 hours earlier) Rob’s wife Luisa graciously fixed burritos for us tired warriors, and let me in on the real reason it all turned into lo-down dirty adventure:
“Didn’t Rob tell you his middle name was Epic?’”
©opyright 1999 by Billy Miller