A Beginners Guide to Climbing Mt. Adams – South Side

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Cold Springs Campground - Photo taken June 2016
Cold Springs Campground - Photo taken June 2016

All climbers should be aware of the elements of risk associated with climbing on Mt. Adams. While some dangers are more likely to occur during particular seasons it’s important to be familiar with each type and how to avoid, prevent, or mitigate the risk associated.

Elevation Sickness (AMS)

This climber experienced mild AMS. - Photo taken June 2016
This climber experienced mild AMS. - Photo taken June 2016

What is it?

  • Acute mountain sickness (AMS), or elevation/altitude sickness as it is more commonly known, is an illness that can affect mountain climbers at high altitudes, usually above 8,000′.
  • Symptoms of mild to moderate AMS may include:
    • Difficulty sleeping
    • Dizziness or light-headedness,
    • Fatigue
    • Headache
    • Loss of appetite
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Rapid pulse
    • Shortness of breath with exertion
  • Symptoms of severe AMS include:
    • Blue color to the skin or gray/pale complexion
    • Chest tightness or congestion
    • Confusion
    • Cough
    • Coughing up blood
    • Decreased consciousness or withdrawal from social interaction
    • Cannot walk in a straight line
    • Shortness of breath at rest.

Why does it happen?

  • It is caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitudes.

When is it likely to occur?

  • You are at higher risk for elevation sickness if you live at or near sea level and travel to a high altitude or if you have experienced it before.
  • The faster you climb to a high altitude, the more likely you will get elevation sickness.

How can it be mitigated?

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Eat regular meals high in carbohydrates
  • Climb the mountain gradually, climb down (descend) to a lower altitude if symptoms develop.
  • Acclimatize at a higher elevation overnight (Lunch Counter).
  • Acetazolamide (Diamox) can assist with breathing, reduce mild symptoms, and increase the body’s ability to acclimatize.
  • Dexamethasone (Decadron) can reduce swelling in the brain.

Rock / Ice Fall

The route up to Pikers Peak can be steep enough for rock / ice fall to occur. - Photo taken June 2016.
The route up to Pikers Peak can be steep enough for rock / ice fall to occur. - Photo taken June 2016.

What is it?

  • Rock / ice fall occurs when surfaces holding rock, dirt, ice, or snow in place are unable to hold their current formation and begin tumbling down the mountain.

Why does it happen?

  • This can be due to the warmth of the sun, strong wind, or vibrations from the earth or other climbers.
  • The Cascades are mostly composed of rotten rock piles loosely held together by snow, ice or convenience – in other words, don’t consider the ground beneath the snow and ice to be solid.

When is it likely to occur?

  • Rock fall is most common in the Summer and Fall.
  • Ice fall is most common in the Winter and Spring.
  • Plan to be off the summit before peak rock / ice fall danger time (12 to 4 pm)

How can it be mitigated?

  • Get an alpine start (anytime between 4 to 7 am from Lunch Counter).
  • Starting early will help you get up and down the mountain before the sun comes out and the rock / ice fall danger increases.
  • Always wear a helmet on the upper slopes of the mountain.

Crevasses

Crevasses of this size are not typically found on the south side route, but here is a picture of the Mazama Glacier crevasse located just to the east. - Photo courtesy of SomeGeek@imgur
Crevasses of this size are not typically found on the south side route, but here is a picture of the Mazama Glacier crevasse located just to the east. - Photo courtesy of SomeGeek@imgur

What is it?

  • A crevasse is a deep, open crack that can occur in large glaciers.
  • Crevasses can range in size – from a few inches to several feet in width and tens or hundreds of feet in depth.

Why does it happen?

  • Crevasses form as a result of glacial movement and stress in the surrounding landscape.

When is it likely to occur?

  • Crevasses do not typically appear on Mt. Adams’ South Side route, but they can emerge on the summit.
  • The Mazama Glacier – further east – can have significant crevasse exposure.
  • Crevasses can occasionally become filled in during the winter and gradually become more exposed through the spring and summer.

How can it be mitigated?

  • If you do encounter a crevasse proceed with caution and try to navigate around rather than over it.

Underestimation

Yup, same guy in the AMS picture. - Photo taken June 2016
Yup, same guy in the AMS picture. - Photo taken June 2016

What is it?

  • When you think you can chew seven pieces of gum, but you can only chew six.
  • Mt. Adams is often characterized as an easy hike, or a “walk up” by some accounts, and while many inexperienced / ill equipped climbers are successful, this is not a climb for those lacking high altitude experience.

Why does it happen?

  • They might say: “I’ve never climbed before, but I heard it was easy so I’ll give it a shot and see what happens.”
  • They could also say: “I’ve climbed Mt. Adams before, it will be even easier this time.”
  • Inappropriate or the absence of specific gear required for a given situation will increase climber risk.
  • Lack of knowledge on the use of climbing equipment increases climber risk.
  • Lack of ability to properly assess a dangerous situation and/or potential risk increases climber risk.

When is it likely to occur?

  • Underestimation is most likely to occur when climbers have neglected to thoroughly understand the risks involved with climbing Mt. Adams.
  • Some say… “bro” culture has a strong impact on the accurate assessment of risk and danger, but sometimes it comes down to pure negligence or even a simple mistake which can happen to even the most experienced climbers

How can it be mitigated?

  • Climbers should become as knowledgeable as possible about the route, conditions, risks, and up-to-the minute weather patterns on Mt. Adams prior to a climb.
  • Constantly re-assess risk and perceived danger as the climb progresses.
  • Proper attire & climbing gear, emergency equipment, backup plans communicated to people not on the mountain.

Other Climbers

Near old lookout, close to summit. - Photo taken June 2016.
Near old lookout, close to summit. - Photo taken June 2016.

What is it?

  • Climbers may pass you quickly, stop in front of you, fall and slide into you, drop debris or equipment, etc. – In other words – Despite your best efforts, other climbers must be taken seriously as a variable of risk.

Why does it happen?

  • Improved weather during the Spring and Summer months attracts more climbers, especially to the “easier” south route.
  • Whenever there are a lot of climbers together in a relatively small area there is the potential for danger.

When is it likely to occur?

  • Spring and Summer seasons – especially from Memorial Day through July.

How can it be mitigated?

  • Move quickly, carefully and efficiently through chutes.
  • Yield to uphill traffic while descending.
  • Wait behind slower climbers, don’t pass unless they give you the OK.
  • Pass quickly and well to the side of other climbers / teams.
  • Give other climbers and teams lots of space.
  • Travel single file.
  • Be patient
  • Be polite.

Overview

Permit Cost > 7,000′ < 7,000′
Wilderness Permit Free Yes Yes
Cascades Volcano Pass Varies Yes
Climbers’ Registration Free Yes
Northwest Forest Pass Varies Yes

Wilderness Permit

  • Required?
    • Yes, if traveling below 7,000′ in Mt. Adams Wilderness.
    • Technically, since the Cold Springs Campground is at 5,570′, you will be traveling below the elevation threshold initially.
  • Use:
    • Mt. Adams Wilderness access
  • Where to acquire:
    • Free, self issue, no quota
    • Available at all trailheads and Ranger District offices.
  • More info: USDA.gov

Cascades Volcano Pass

  • Required?
    • Yes, if climbing above 7,000′ in Mt. Adams Wilderness between May 1 and September 30.
    • No, if climbing below 7,000′ in Mt. Adams wilderness.
    • No, if climbing between October 1 and April 30.
  • Cost:
    • $15 per person for a Weekend Climbing Pass (Fri-Sun) – Single trip
    • $10 per person for a Weekday Climbing Pass (Mon-Thurs) – Single trip
    • $30 per person for an Annual climbing Pass (calendar year) – Unlimited trips
    • Free to people under 16 years of age
  • Where to acquire:
  • Additional Info: USDA.gov – Cascades Volcano Pass

Climbers’ Registration Form

  • Required?
    • Yes, each group must fill out one climbing register and leave in the register box at the fee station.
  • Use:
    • Provide statistics on Wilderness use.
    • This is a general form stating the people in your party, planned route, climbing dates and emergency contact info.
    • However, if you don’t come back on your stated date, don’t depend on this form to initiate a search for you.
  • Where to acquire:
    • Available at all free stations
  • More info: USDA.gov – Mount Adams Wilderness

Northwest Forest Pass

Climbing is a physically demanding activity, requiring proper conditioning and training. In addition to the strenuous activity of walking uphill with weight on your back, you will be breathing less oxygen due to the elevation. With less oxygen your muscles will be working at a diminished capacity.

Before climbing Mt. Adams, you should go on several training hikes. These hikes should consist of elevation gains of 5,000-7,000 feet and distances of 10-12 miles to simulate the slope of Mt. Adams. Locally these are climbs such as Mount Defiance, Table Mountain, Dog Mountain, and Hamilton Mountain to name a few. Climbing other mountains like Mt. St. Helens or Mt. Hood will give you an idea of what it’s like to climb at elevation. During these hikes, if possible, carry the equipment you will climb with. If you do not own all the equipment you will need, put other items in to simulate weight. A pack of 30-40 pounds is average for a Mt. Adams climb.

Photo taken June 2016.

A person who exercises regularly and is in good physical health should plan on doing 5-10 of these sorts of hikes before a climb. Those who do not get regular exercise or have other health problems should consult their doctor for an exercise routine appropriate for them, and slowly add in hikes with elevation and a weighted pack.

Every climber should also be trained and practiced in self arrest, crampon techniques, first aid and navigation. These are skills you will need for the climb. For an overnight trip, it is important that each climber have a proper shelter, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad for alpine camping. Remember that the safety of every climber on the mountain is at risk whenever a single climber is unprepared.

Ascent

A typical 2-day schedule for a south side climb of Mt. Adams might look like this:

Day 1

  • 7:00 AM – Arrive at Cold Springs Campground (5,570′).
    • Check in, organize gear and use the restroom.
  • 8:00 AM – Depart from South Climb trail head.
  • 8:40 AM – Arrive at Timberline Campground (6,267′).
    • Take a break – Eat a snack, drink water.
    • Evaluate whether the Summer or Winter approach appears more feasible.
  • 10:30 AM – Arrive near South Butte checkpoint (7,750′).
    • Take another break, check weather and visibility.
    • If either is poor consider waiting for better conditions, turning around, or use map & compass to follow bearings to Lunch Counter.
    • Depending on conditions and season it might make sense to put on crampons or snowshoes.
  • 12:45 PM – Arrive at Lunch Counter (9,281′).
    • Setup camp & rest.
    • Melt snow for water.
    • Eat food, drink water.

Day 2

  • 6:00 AM – Wake up.
    • Prepare a high calorie breakfast.
    • Pre-hydrate with at least a liter of water.
    • Prepare gear – We recommend you start with crampons, helmet, and ice axe/trekking poles.
  • 7:30 AM – Depart from Lunch Counter.
    • Evaluate the condition of your group and yourself as you climb.
  • 9:50 AM – Arrive at Pikers Peak / False Summit (11,555′).
    • Take a break – Eat a snack, drink water.
  • 11:00 AM – Arrive at Old Lookout (12,257′)
    • Many people stop here, however just a 5 minute walk away is the true summit (12,280′)
  • 11:05 AM – Arrive at Summit (12,280′)
    • Take pictures! Eat snacks! Drink water!
  • 12:00 PM – Depart from Summit.
    • Glissade down the mountain for bonus fun points.
  • 12:30 PM – Arrive back at Pikers Peak.
    • This is where the glissading gets serious due to the steeper grade. Be careful on this section as speeds can get out of control very quickly.
  • 1:00 PM – Arrive back at Lunch Counter.
    • Eat lunch and rehydrate.
    • Pack up camp and prepare to descend down the mountain.
  • 2:00 PM – Depart from Lunch Counter.
  • 3:30 PM – Arrive back at Cold Springs Campground.

Section I

Cold Springs Campground to Lunch Counter

Mt. Adams south side climbs can be completed in a full day (10 – 12 hours), however most climbers plan it as a weekend trip taking place over 2-3 days. Scheduling additional time is beneficial because it allows for acclimatization at altitude and a chance to recover from fatigue at Lunch Counter.

Typically climbers leave the Cold Springs Campground between 6am and 9am, either having camped overnight or driven in early. The trailhead campground can become crowded during peak climbing season (May – July). Some climbers prefer to hike a bit further up to the Timberline Campground area for a bit more solitude.

A start time should be established based on an estimated pace and your desired time to make it to camp. Someone who has prepared properly to climb can average 1,000 vertical feet per hour, at that rate it will take a roughly 4 hours to reach Lunch Counter. We recommend starting in the morning while the snow is still mostly solid and temperatures are comfortable. By the afternoon the first section of the climb becomes very slushy in the spring and summer and there is very little protection from the sun. Temperatures allegedly reached 110 °F (43 °C) at an elevation above 12,000′ before plummeting 12 hours later to −48 °F (−44 °C). Although that may have been an extreme case there is truth in the dramatic shift in temperature which can occur at elevation. According to the Mt. Adams Ranger Station, a balmy, average temperature of 77 F in June can drop to below freezing within hours of the sun setting.

If you are in good shape and have trained to climb Mt. Adams you can estimate 3-6 hours to Lunch Counter. Other climbers should prepare for a longer climb, maybe 5 – 8 hours.

The initial section of the trail from Cold Springs to Timberline Campground is fairly straightforward and well-marked. However, about the time that you intersect with the Round the Mountain trail sign the route can become more difficult to identify. Pay attention to where the established path appears to be and monitor where other climbers are ascending to or descending from. Being aware of your surroundings, recognizing landmarks, and getting your bearings tend to be very important to arriving at Lunch Counter safely via this route.

Winter or Summer Route?

Despite the naming convention one route should not be chosen over the other simply based on season. Both routes are roughly the same distance and difficulty. The Winter route is labeled as such because it requires a significant snow pack to allow for safe climbing. When melted out the Winter route has many sections that require scrambling on rock and scree. The Summer Route follows Suksdorf Ridge after passing South Butte. Both routes have a fairly consistent, gradual uphill grade and are best climbed when a significant snow pack is present.

When picking one route over the other we recommend evaluating current conditions. If one route visibly has more snow pack than the other that will potentially offer a smoother climb. Consider the route that other climbers are taking. Talk with climbers who are coming down the mountain and get a better understanding of what lies ahead.

Lunch Counter

The Lunch Counter is a wide open area that, while relatively flat, still has a slight upward grade to it. Rolling hills of rock, snow, and ice form protective barriers for climbers. One of the most interesting aspects of Lunch Counter are the tent sized rock shelters that visitors have built to block out the wind and snow. Claiming a shelter is desirable but, like Cold Springs Campground, they fill up fast during peak climbing season.

At this point most climbers begin setting up camp, preparing meals, and melting down snow to replenish water supplies. It is very important to drink enough water and monitor conditions relating to elevation sickness. Even at Lunch Counter (9,281′) minor symptoms of AMS can develop and may only get worse the higher you climb. Early arrivals may opt to take a nap in the afternoon after an exhausting morning climb. In the evening they will wake up, catch a beautiful sunset, and then get more sleep in preparation for an alpine start for the summit.

Section II

Lunch Counter to Summit

The day has finally arrived! It’s going to be cold and you will not want to get out of your warm sleeping bag but you have to.

It’s important to begin sipping on a liter of water immediately upon waking. Preparing a hot, high calorie meal is great for bringing warmth and energy to your body in preparation for the push to the summit.

Expect between a 3 -4 hour climb from Lunch Counter to the summit. If your goal is to catch the sunrise from the top then you will want to set an alarm accordingly. The route is long and straight – during the day you may see a string of block dots; at night it may be a line of head lamps. During peak climbing season the trail is well establish and may even have established steps that do not require crampons. Either way, we typically recommend putting on crampons, helmet, and equipping either a long ice axe or trekking poles at Lunch Counter.

Pikers Peak

From Lunch Counter, Pikers Peak appears to be the summit but the true summit is just out of view behind it. The climb will be long and grueling and by most accounts it’s the most monotonous part of the entire route. The good news is that if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other eventually you will make it to the top. The bonus is that these long straight sections offer fantastic glissading. As you’re climbing glissade chutes may be visible on other side of the climbing path.

Reaching Pikers Peak allows for a short break, but this is the point where the wind can really start to pick up. Eat a quick snack and continue to sip water. Once your climbing party has caught their breath continue the slow trudge toward the true summit. There will be a slight dip in the terrain as you climb down into a large bowl that exists between Pikers Peak and the true summit.

The top should be within view now. Expect another 1 – 1.5 hours to reach the summit from Pikers Peak.

The Summit

There is an icy lump on the top most ridge where most people stop. During most of the year this snow covered lump conceals the old fire lookout which has now collapsed into rubble. It offers a small amount of wind protection on a relatively flat, open summit ridge. The true summit is actually only a few yards a way and, due to the flatness and bright white color of the terrain, is difficult to perceive. Other way, congratulate yourself and other members of your party – you made it!

Descent

A little glissading cured our AMS victim. - Photo taken June 2016
A little glissading cured our AMS victim. - Photo taken June 2016

Descending from the summit to the parking lot will take you approximately half the time it took you to summit. If you reached the summit in 10 hours it may take you 3-5 hours to get back. Descending is a challenge in and of itself. You will be tired, and using a whole new set of muscles. But gravity is on your side, and there will be far fewer breaks (perhaps just the one to take off your crampons). Generally you should descend the route that you came up.

Glissading down the mountain can be one of the quickest ways of descending, however it can be dangerous without the use of an ice ax to manage speed. Be aware of other people glissading in the same chute as you, both above and below. If you need to stop get out of the chute. If someone has stopped ahead of you then slow your speed or prepare to stop.

Photo taken August 2016 from Indian Heaven Trail #33.
Photo taken August 2016 from Indian Heaven Trail #33.

Mt. Adams can be climbed any time of year, depending on your chosen route. However, climbers using the south side routes should consider climbing from mid-May to mid-July, depending on route conditions. Earlier and there is a higher likelihood that the road is closed due to snow; any later and the climb becomes more of a rock/scree scramble. Weather and mountain conditions should be the ultimate indicator of when to climb.

Average Temperature (°F)

  • MAX
  • MIN

Average Precipitation (in.)

  • Rain
  • Snowfall
  • Snow Depth

Data was collected at the Mt. Adams Ranger Station (1,957′) in Trout Lake, Washington and reflects an average value from monthly observations for the period 6/01/1948 to 12/31/2005.

The actual values at higher elevations – such as Cold Springs Campground (5,570′), Lunch Counter (9,281′), and Mt. Adams summit (12,280′) – will have significantly cooler high and low temperatures and snow depth will be greater. Therefore, values should be approximated for higher elevations.

Mt. Adams is located within a wilderness area, and guiding permits are restricted to a handful of approved guiding operations. Here is a list of a few of the local guiding services:

Guided climbs are typically only offered during the peak climbing months between May and September.

Photo taken June 2015 at Lunch Counter.
Photo taken June 2015 at Lunch Counter.

Lodging

Mt. Adams is fairly remote in comparison to other mountains like Hood, St. Helens, or Rainier. However, there are some lodging options in the nearby town of Trout Lake, WA that are only a 45 minute drive from Cold Springs Campground and the South Climb trailhead. Even staying in the more distant Hood River / White Salmon area in the Columbia river Gorge only increases the drive time to 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Climbers often leave lodging in Vancouver, Portland, or the Columbia River Gorge at a time where they can arrive at the Cold Springs Campground trailhead in the morning (6 – 9am) with the intention of making it to Lunch Counter in the early afternoon (12 – 4pm) to setup camp.

Camping

Most climbers choose to drive from one of the nearby towns or cities, but if you’d prefer to camp a bit closer there are numerous options in the Mt. Adams Wilderness area. If you’re traveling in an RV you have several camping options, including (if you’re brave enough) parking your rig in the Cold Springs Campground parking area.

If you’d like a longer stay on Mt. Adams, you may also camp on the mountainside. If you choose to camp above timberline, be sure you away from areas prone to rock and ice fall, and know the avalanche conditions. The safest place to camp is Cold Springs Campground, but some climbers hike 1-2 hours up to Timberline Campground to camp the first night.

Lunch Counter is the most common place to setup a base camp on the mountain. This is where climbers rest up and prepare for a summit attempt the following morning. Camping gear and other items are usually stashed here for a light weight climb on the last section of the route.

The route below starts in Portland and ends at Cold Springs Campground. This is the popular trail head for the South Climb route.

  • The toll bridge crossing from Hood River, OR to White Salmon, WA requires a fee of $1.00. An alternative route to avoid this fee is to cross over the Columbia River on interstate 205 and take highway 14 on the Washington side.
  • 6-7 miles north of Trout Lake, WA the road will transition from pavement to gravel.
  • 3-4 miles after this transition you will reach Morrison Creek Campground, at this point there are only 2.8 miles to go.
  • The final 2.8 miles section is narrow and can become heavily rutted and rocky. It can become icy, muddy, and challenging to maneuver with low clearance, non-4×4 or AWD vehicles.

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Our required, recommended, and optional gear selections are based on a well-rounded approach to mountaineering on Mt. Adam’s south climb route. This gear strategy aims to minimize risk while maintaining minimal weight. Climbers should evaluate what gear to bring based on current conditions and individual risk comfort level.

Clothing

A miscalculated clothing strategy on Mt. Adams can mean-  at best, numb apendages; at worst, freezer burned feet.

The best approach for Mt. Adams, as with other 10,000’+ peaks, is the 4-layer system: Base-layer, mid-layer, shell, insulation. Do not wear cotton – All layers should be either synthetic, wool, or another breathable material.

Base-layer – Top and Bottom – This can best be defined as a long-sleeve compression shirt and synthetic leggings. Your base layer should allow for a great range of mobility, moisture wicking, fast-drying, and be ultra-warm.

Mid-layer – Top and Bottom – Also known as the soft shell layer, this is the layer you should be able to climb in under ideal weather conditions. Similar to the base layer these items should maintain optimal breath-ability, heat/moisture dissipation, and retain adequate warmth. For example, this might be a fleece jacket and hiking pants.

Shell – Top and Bottom – This is the layer you put over everything else. While it may not provide much insulation, it’s primary purpose is to keep wind, rain, sleet, snow, ice, and any other undesirable elements away from your underlying layers. An affordable shell layer might be the Adidas Outdoor Wandertag jacket and O’Neill Hammer snow pants. A shell layer with more advanced, light-weight, protective materials might be the Arc’teryx Beta AR jacket and Mountain Hardware Torsun pants.

Insulation – This is your deep cold layer. It comes in to play when conditions start getting chilly or you are not moving enough to maintain a comfortable body temperature. This is typically a down jacket (aka the puffy jacket). We personally like and have used the Black Diamond Cold Forge Parka and the Arc’teryx Thorium SV hoody.

Gloves / mittens – We recommend a fleece glove or liner paired with a deep cold mitten. In most conditions you will find that your hands retain quite a bit of warmth with a decent fleece glove and that the mittens function as a great backup for when the wind picks up or the weather degrades. Why mittens? Because by not separating your fingers from one another in a traditional glove they stay warmer by sharing their heat. The REI fleece grip gloves paired with the REI Deep Cold mittens are a fantastic combination in most conditions. A similar combo is offered by Outdoor Research with their fleece gloves and Meteor mitts.

Hats – Fact: The majority of heat loss occurs through the top of your head. A wide-bill trucker hat may give you “bro” points, but it retains minimal heat. Beanies or other insulated head gear is the recommended choice.

Balaclava – Not to be confused with the Greek dessert (baklava), a balaclava is like a ski mask which protects the exposed parts of your face to the elements. You would be surprised at how much of an improvement even an inexpensive balaclava will make in cold or windy conditions.

Socks – Arguably one of the most important selections behind boots. Your feet will be taking a beating while climbing Mt. Adams and ensuring that they stay warm, dry and comfortable is a primary factor in having a successful summit. Long wool socks are highly recommended. Bring a second pair in case the first gets soaked through from sweat and snow.

Boots – A quality pair of boots can make or break a successful summit attempt. Considering the amount of abuse that your feet will experience on this climb, selecting a boot that is both comfortable and supportive is crucial. You will also need a boot which is compatible with your chosen style of crampons. We really like the La Sportiva Trango S EVO GTX boot, but it is possible to make the summit with a great pair of insulated, water-proof hiking boots and shoe spikes under excellent weather conditions.

Overnight Gear

Photo taken June 2015 at Lunch Counter.
Photo taken June 2015 at Lunch Counter.

For most people planning a south climb of Mt. Adams proper overnight gear is a necessity.

Tent / Shelter – A four season tent is recommended at Lunch Counter, however in very good weather conditions a three season tent will pass.

Sleeping Bag – A 0 – 20 degree bag will work under most conditions.

Sleeping Pad – Having an insulated sleeping pad is required in order to get your sleeping bag and body from being in contact with the snow and ice. Do not expect the tent floor to be sufficient thermal insulation even in a four season tent.

Food

We try to throw in a couple ribeyes at any opportunity.
We try to throw in a couple ribeyes at any opportunity.

In short –
You will burn a tremendous amount of calories climbing Mt. Adams.

Eat before, during, and after the climb. Load up on fats and proteins before the climb as these metabolize more slowly and will give you energy for a longer period.

During the climb: A.B.E. (always be eating). Snack constantly on high carbohydrate foods as these metabolize faster and give you quick bursts of energy. Eating at least one or two snacks per hour avoids large spikes in energy and helps maintain smooth, consistent energy levels.

Keep in mind, roughly 50-100 calories can be burned every 15 minutes depending on your base metabolic rate, speed, grade, and air temperature. In the cold, the body will burn additional calories just to stay warm. For a 2 day climb we burned between 5500 – 6500 calories per day. That’s the equivalent of between 52 – 62 individual Reese’s Peanut Butter cups,
which apparently you can buy in bulk.

It’s also important to be aware that your taste buds may change as you gain elevation. Altitude sickness may actually suppress appetite. In other words, if you only sort of liked a food at base elevation you’re probably not going to like it at high elevation. So bring foods that you know you’ll enjoy. I like sour gummy worms for high elevation expeditions.

After the climb, have a burger, sandwich or something high in fats and protein which helps muscles recover from lots of exercise. Remember your metabolism keeps going for an hour or two after you stop, so that’s the time to binge a little.

Water

Filtering snow melt at Lunch Counter with a hand pump.
Filtering snow melt at Lunch Counter with a hand pump.

Science recommends 1 liter of water be consumed for every hour of high energy activity. For a south side climb that would be 8 – 12 liters (or 2 – 3 gallons), which is the equivalent of 27 – 40 pounds of weight on top of all the other gear you would be carrying.

Similar to food – we recommend the before/during/after strategy. Drink 2-4 liters of water a few hours before you start your climb to saturate your body and reach your muscles. For the actual climb, bring 2-4 liters of water to sip on constantly. Plan on having a water filter or a stove to melt snow to replenish your water supply at Lunch Counter. While a bladder makes constant hydration easier, we recommend Nalgene or Camelbak water bottles to avoid the scenario where your bladder hose freezes preventing you from drinking any water. If you do use a bladder, blow water back into the bladder to help prevent the hose from freezing or purchase a hose insulating layer. Another option would be to have a hybrid water bottle and bladder system in case either method fails. After the climb, have a gallon of water waiting in the car to replenish your reserves.

First Aid Kit

Each climber should carry a medical kit from which they can dispense first aid to themselves or another climber, but you should never depend on another climber to be able to patch you up. Adventure Medical sells a great, light-weight kit that we bring on every outdoor trip.

Climbers who plan their trips carefully get to enjoy Mt. Adams under clear, optimal conditions. However, weather can change rapidly and white out conditions can descend on the mountain much quicker than you can climb down. Having and knowing how to use a map, compass, and altimeter can keep you on course.

Waste Bags

Waste bags are provided for free at the Ranger Station check-in. They are used for solid waste disposal and are required for transporting waste off of the mountain.

Gaiters

Gaiters cover the vulnerable tops of your footwear to fully protect your feet and lower legs from the snow, water, dirt and rocks that have a way of sneaking into even the best boots. While not strictly required for Mt. Adams we would never choose to climb without them. Even a less expensive product like the Mountain Hardware High Gaiter offers superb protection in most conditions.

Trekking Poles

As we’ve lamented on other trips, trekking poles are extremely advantageous to have, especially on mountains. They do more than just provide stability. Trekking poles actually transfer load away from your legs. This is most noticeable on downhill sections where your knees are most likely to take a beating. An affordable pair of trekking poles will do the trick, however if you’re feeling the need to go ultra-light Black Diamond makes a carbon fiber trekking pole. We like and have used both, but the Black Diamond product is mind-bendingly light and strong.

Sun Protection

At elevation there is less atmosphere to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful radiation. Combine this with the reflective properties of snow and you can get a fairly severe sunburn without the proper protection. Having a strong sun screen (SPF 40+) or a hat that shades your neck, face, and ears can prevent this. It’s also easy to forget that your lips need protection too. Having lip balm with an SPF rating can go a long way to avoiding puffy, sun-burned lips. Wear sun glasses to protect your eyes as soon as the sun rises.

Mobile Device

Most people will be carrying their cell phones when they climb so that they can snap photos of their adventure, but these devices can also serve as locators for lost climbers. In the days prior to wireless phone technology it was common to purchase or rent an avalanche transceiver or mountain locator unit (MLU) which could be used to locate a person in the event of an avalanche. More advanced devices like RECCO reflectors, PLBs, and SPOTS are now available which use GPS and two-way satellite communication to provide emergency personnel with more accurate information about your location.

Additional information about the advantages and disadvantages of these devices is available here.

Stove

Because fires are not permitted above timberline, stoves are required for cooking warm meals, melting snow, and boiling water. There are many options available. We personally like the Jetboil Zip Cooking System, as it’s lightweight, stable, compact, and straight forward to operate. Be sure to bring enough fuel to handle the task of both melting snow for supplement water and boiling it for meals or hot drinks.

Ice Axe

Acquiring and carrying an ice axe is easy, but knowing how to use it requires skill, familiarity and practice in the art of self arrest. The South Side Route is not a technical snow / ice route, and so we recommend a straight (or slightly curved) handled axe.

When choosing the length of an axe, stand up straight and hold the axe by your side grasping its head between your fingers. The spike (bottom) of the axe should rest by your ankle. A longer axe might be nice as Mt. Adam’s south side is relatively low angle (30 degrees max angle). A shorter axe will require you to bend over to place it, a tiring endeavor. Also, a shorter axe may seem lighter but the difference is usually only an ounce or two. If using a shorter axe or ice tool look into a trekking pole for the other hand.

Your ice axe may come with a leash. This is important in case you do go in to a fall and the ice axe leaves your hand. A leash keeps the ice axe attached to your person either on your wrist or climbing harness allowing you to reel it in and perform a self arrest.

Crampons

Crampons allow you to grip into solid snow and ice providing stability and traction when you need it most. It is technically possible to reach the summit without full crampons when an established boot track is present. In fact, a significant and noticeable amount of traction can be had from a basic pair of Hillsound shoes spikes.

There are several types of crampons available on the market, but the key is matching the correct crampon binding system to your boot. In fact, REI has a great article describing how to choose the best crampons for your goals.

We highly recommend you pick your boot prior to selecting a crampon because at the end of the day a comfortable, supportive boot is preferable to ill-fitting footwear that you’ve attached some spikes to. One pairing that we’ve had a lot of success with is the La Sportiva Trango boot and Grivel G-12 new-matic crampons. Grivel’s new-matic system has a locking point in the rear and straps in the front to ensure a secure fit to this style of boot.

Shovel

The primary reason for packing a light-weight shovel on Mt. Adams is to dig out a spot to setup camp. However, if you have reason to be concerned about avalanche safety this may be a requirement. If someone in your party gets buried you only have a matter of minutes to find and dig them out before chances of survival plummet dramatically.

Another reason is to be able to dig yourself a snow cave in the even that bad weather moves in suddenly and you find yourself trapped on the side of the mountain and you do not have another method of creating shelter. Here is a great reasonably priced, durable, light-weight, component shovel which we use.

Helmet

A climbing helmet is recommended on Mt. Adams because of ice and rock fall danger higher on the climb. Your helmet should meet climbing certifications, meaning that it is rated for impact from above. Biking and ski helmets are not suitable substitutes as they are only rated for side impacts. Unlike Mt. Hood, this danger risk is not as high.

Headlamp

Most climbers on Mt. Adams are not climbing in the dark, however there are always a few early risers who want to catch the sunrise from the summit. Even if you aren’t it’s convenient to have a source of light for nighttime activities. A headlamp with fresh batteries is the best light source.

Climbing Gear

Climbing gear is optional on Mt. Adam’s south side route. The risk of crevasses, steep slopes, and falling are very low as compare with other routes on the mountain.

Climbing Harness – A climbing harness attaches around your waist and legs, becoming the attachment point for roping up to a team. It can also double as a gear carrying device. A climbing harness is required to rope up to a team.

Climbing Rope – Tied in to the climbing harness, the climbing rope should be chosen carefully as it is the connecting device between each climbers and is your safety net in the event of a fall. A 40 – 50 m dry rope with a diameter between 7.7 and 8.2 mm should be sufficient if you choose to rope up for Mt. Adams’ south side route.

Carabiners – A minimum of 1 locking pear-shaped carabiner for belaying and 2 non-locking carabiners for clipping anchors. We like to carry 3 locking carabiners and 2 non-locking clip carabiners for basic climbs.

Pickets – Ice or snow pickets are used as anchor points to rappel, belay, or perform a crevasse rescue from.

Ice Screws – These act as more secure anchor points that can be screwed into hard snow or ice when a picket cannot be placed reliably.

Avalanche Probe

Similar in design to a trekking or tent pole, an avalanche probe is used to poke the snow to discover where a buried climber or object might be. If the avalanche risk is high then it is recommended to carry one of these.

All climbers should have a plan in place for emergency situations. This includes a plan made with a friend or loved one who is NOT climbing, and a plan for the climber(s).

Friends/Family Plan: It is important that you leave an itinerary with a friend, family member or loved one who is not climbing. This way, should something happen and you are not able to initiate a search, rescuers will be alerted and a search will commence. This plan should include:

  • The specific route you will take
  • An alternate route in case of emergency
  • Timetable for your climb
  • A time when you will check in
  • A time to initiate a search
  • Contact information for Search and Rescue
  • Contact information for family members of each climber

With this information in place, the individual you leave it with will know when to expect a phone call, when to worry, who to call and what to tell them. We recommend you pick a time you will check in with your friend/family member that is 1-3 hours after you plan on returning to an area with cell service, typically this is Trout Lake, WA. This way you have flexibility for any delays. Your search initiation time should be 6-10 hours after you were suppose to check in. If you do use this kind of plan DO NOT FORGET TO CALL, even if you are off the mountain safely, call. If you are running late, call. If you blow off the climb and go to a bar in Hood River, call.

Climber(s) Plan: Within your team, or as a solo climber, you must have a plan in case of emergency. It is impossible for us to go through every scenario, but you must work through some common problems and agree on the solutions before you leave. Questions you should consider are:

  • What if a storm moves in?
  • What if we get lost?
  • What if we are behind schedule?
  • What if the route conditions are questionable?
  • What if someone is fatigued?
  • What if someone is injured?

It is vital that every member of your group agree on an answer to these questions. During a climb, ego and adrenaline are high and decisions can be rash. Discuss possible scenarios before you leave and come to a consensus. These are problems best solved in the parking lot, or better yet the drive up. Of course, there are a million things that can happen in a million different ways. You must be able to asses the situation and make good judgments, often on the fly.

At a glance

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Elevation - Summit (feet)
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Elevation - Gain (feet)
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Round trip distance (miles)
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Backpacking time (days)
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Summit Attempts (annually)
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First Summit (year)
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Glaciers

Permits & Fees

Wilderness Permit (free)

Cascades Volcano Pass (seasonal)

Climber Registration (free)

Northwest Forest Pass (seasonal)

When to go

Difficulty

*Shorter bars are better

**Note: Experience is not the sole determining factor for a successful summit.

Day Hiker 90%
Weekend Backpacker 75%
Week Long Backpacker 60%
Mountaineer - Level I (8,000' peaks) 35%
Mountaineer - Level II (10,000' peaks) 20%
Mountaineer - Level III (14,000' peaks) 10%

ADVERTISEMENTS

Mt. Adams (12,280′) is a bit of a unicorn for those living in the more densely populated regions of the Pacific Northwest. We don’t see it, we only hear stories and see pictures of its massive, lumpy, flat-top towering 8,000′ over the surrounding landscape. One might get the sense that the true nature of the mountain is remote, mysterious, and unrelatable. In a weird, loner kind of way – Adams has to remind you that it’s the second highest peak in Washington state. As a result, it leaves many questioning its attainability.

But even though it doesn’t have the same symbolic elegance of Mt. Hood or glaciated status of Mt. Rainier – all obstacles and risks considered, one could argue that the ease of access to the summit via the South Side route in terms of attainability is second only to Mt. St. Helens. That being said, mountaineers with a few summits under their belt will consider this an easy “hike”, but make no mistake this is a mountain and it can dish out pain with the best of them.

That’s why you will need to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible before making a summit attempt. We created this guide to be as simple and easy to absorb as possible. It was designed for both experienced and novice climbers; for the individual who wants to be equipped with a solid base of knowledge without having to sift through the disjointed granola crumbs of trip reports floating around on the internet.

This is the guide we wish we had before our first Mt. Adams climb.

Mt. St. Helens
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