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St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier, Washington

7/24 - 8/2/2000

Author and Climber: Martin Staley


  • St. Helens 8,365 ft. / 2550m
  • Adams 12,276 ft. / 3742m
  • Rainier 14,411 ft. / 4392m

Having spent those lazy days of summer as a kid at my granddaddy's house in Washington state, I consider the Cascades to be perhaps the best range in the known galaxy. Rising from the hills near sea level, these rugged mountains offer some of the finest in climbing, with great scenic vistas and lush flora to boot. While most of my hiking and climbing objectives have been in southern Arizona (where I grew up), Colorado and northern New Mexico (where I live now), and the great Canyon Country of Utah, the Cascades hold a special charm and I periodically make a point of getting myself to that neck of the woods.

July 24 (Monday) In the afternoon I arrived at Climbers Bivouac, on the south side of St. Helens. I spent the evening wandering around and snapping photos, and then settled in for a good night's rest to be ready for the summit on Tuesday.

July 25 (Tuesday) After a nice lazy start an hour or two after sunrise, I hiked through the woods to this mountain's low treeline. The entire upper portion of St. Helens is loose dirt and rock, probably due to the mountain's eruption in 1980, and this made the remaining climb somewhat unaesthetic. Views from the crater rim were fantastic, however. To the north lay the blasted-out side of the mountain, or rather what remained of it, spread out over the hills, valleys, and canyons below. The crater walls experienced nearly constant rockfall, and the lava dome below was an unusual sight. I spent quite a while on top before descending back to the trailhead, driving towards Mt. Adams, and camping in the boondocks that night.

Mount Rainier, from the rim of Mount St. Helens

In terms of altitude gain and general terrain, climbing St. Helens is much like climbing a Colorado 14er but at a much lower altitude. A highly recommended climb, mostly for the crater views. Views of other mountains are good as well: Rainier to the north, Adams to the east, and Hood, Jefferson, and the Three Sisters to the south.

July 26 (Wednesday) Today I stopped at the ranger station, got my permits for Adams, drove as far towards the trailhead as the car would allow, packed up my gear, and began hiking at midday for a high camp along the South Spur route. The high camp was just below snowline, where a few scraggly trees provided little shelter against the high winds. I got a good night's sleep in a nice warm tent, arose early the next morning, slapped on my gear, and set out to kick this mountain's butt.

The South Spur route is a long walk up the permanent snowfields of Adams' south ridge. There are no crevasses (unless hidden, that is, and ignorance is bliss). A few hours and several false summits after setting out from camp, I sat on the true summit, snapped photos of some nearby Cascade volcanoes, and got the obligatory summit shots.

Mount Adams

Descent on Adams was especially fun. Past climbers had left chutes on the steeper snowfields, and one could simply sit down and slip, slip, slide down the mountain! After reaching base camp and packing things up, I descended back to the car, drove for a while, and found a nice warm motel with a nice warm bed---a welcome respite after several days of scrounging around.

July 27 (Thursday) I drove to Auburn to visit my sister, planning to head to Rainier the next morning.

July 28 (Friday) Rangers at the White River campground said all the permits for Rainier had been issued for the day, so I left the park and drove southeast to visit some old stomping grounds where I'd lurked as a kid. Reservations were available for Sunday, so I snatched one up and looked forward to the climb.

July 29 (Saturday) The next day I returned to Rainier. The campground was full, so I camped in the boondocks just outside the park.

July 30 (Sunday) After a nice alpine start at about mid-day (hey, I needed some supplies, and stores are sparse in this neck of the woods), me and a ton of gear arrived at the Inter Glacier at mid-afternoon. Rangers had advised against doing this seemingly mellow glacier by oneself, as in it lurk hidden crevasses. I was just by myself and ignored the advice, especially after noticing that the other teams generally weren't roping up. Near the top of this glacier, one can reach Camp Schurman by crossing a short portion of the Emmons Glacier just below and to the left of camp, or by shortcutting directly over Steamboat Prow with a mild 5th-class downclimb on rotten rock. I chose the latter route, pitched my tent on the glacier, and admired the views.

Camp Schurman's climbing rangers were mortified at the idea of somebody climbing solo above camp. Apparently, climbing this puppy by oneself requires advance permission from the Park Service. Why climb solo? It's somewhat less safe, and usually less interesting. If you have to ask, you'll never understand! Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait pas.

Climbing with others would be fun, so I planned to remain at camp on Monday and attempt to meet up with another team.

July 31 (Monday) I spent this morning relaxing, admiring the views, and BS-ing with the rangers.

At about midday I met up with Kathleen "Kat" Michaud and her brother Frederic, who were here from Quebec to climb mountains. I'd run into them the previous day at the snout of the Inter Glacier. They were speaking French, so I figured they MUST be good mountaineers!!

Fred was new to mountaineering but was clearly a "natural." Rainier is quite a peak to do as your first real climb. And Kat was no dog, having already spanked Denali (Mt. McKinley), Aconcagua, and similar objectives. We practiced our rope work, to be sure we were all on the same wavelength, before settling into our tents for a largely-unsuccessful attempt at getting some sleep before our early start the next morning.

August 1 (Tuesday) We left Camp Schurman at about midnight, anxious to reach our lofty goal. Temperatures during previous nights had barely reached below freezing, and Camp Schurman had been darn near a sauna on Monday, but as luck would have it we picked the coldest night for ascending this thing. What kind of luck? Take your pick:

The Good: snow bridges would be sturdier and the glacier safer.

The Bad: it was C-O-L-D with a capital "K," with the wind howling across the glacier and constantly threatening to knock us over. Kat found it colder than Denali or Aconcagua---which surprised me, given the reputations of those mountains.

The Ugly: not even a mile into our trek, the route crossed a very steep slope which dropped off ominously below. With the wind howling straight down the mountain, we had to practically get down and crawl to avoid being blown by the wind down into the abyss. A fall here would have resulted, at best, in a very nasty pendulum. I kept thinking, "what am I doing in a place like this?"

What was I doing in a place like this? The answer, of course, lay in the sunrise a few hours later. Now THAT'S why I climb these things. The orange glow of the morning slipping slowly down the mountain, the stars disappearing one by one, and a sea of fluffy clouds far below. What a sight! Fred said he'd be climbing more mountains.

Further up the glacier we encountered what may have been the climax of our climb, perhaps even greater than reaching the summit. The route avoided a crevasse by snaking waaaaay down and around, but Kat, an avid ice-climber, looked at the crevasse and at the higher, icy wall on its upper side, and said, "why not?" We had only regular axes and crampons, not ice-climbing gear, but hey what the heck. With a boot-axe belay from her brother, Kat approached the lip, got her axe into the ice as high as possible, and pulled herself over the gaping crack and up the other side. Fred and I followed, and we all wore large grins after completing the climb. Everybody and his dog climbs Rainier, but not everybody and his Kat climbs crevasse walls to get there. Perhaps this is only because I've never climbed ice before, but this was for me the finest of the fine, the funnest of the fun; the grandest of the grand, and the gnarliest of the gnarly. Stepping over the crevasse, climbing the opposite wall, and upstaging all the walk-around bozos: definitely a great part of a great day on a great mountain.

The wind had calmed down after sunrise, and our remaining hike to Columbia Crest was pleasant and scenic.

Kat and Fred Michaud, and Martin Staley (behind the camera), on the Emmons Glacier

The top was as cold as a witch's teat, with the wind howling again. We took refuge a bit below the summit, ate some breakfast, congratulated each other, and admired the views. After returning briefly to the tippy top for our summit shots, we high-tailed it down the glacier and back to Camp Schurman, where the Michauds and I traded e-mail addresses so we could keep in touch for future gnarly mountain climbs.

I wasn't in a hurry, and the views from camp were spectacular, so I decided to remain on the mountain for another day.

August 2 (Wednesday) Today I packed my gear, scrambled back up the upper end of Steamboat Prow, and descended the Inter Glacier, making several diversions to get around those big pesky cracks. After reaching White River campground, I drove back to Auburn and later went to the coast.

So there you have it: one day spanking Washington's finest mountain, the next day relaxing at the beach. And best of all, meeting two great people in the process.


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