Well, it's finally arrived. The legendary summer weather of the Pacific Northwest is here at long last and now it is our clear duty to enjoy and utilize it for all it's worth. This past weekend was the first honest to goodness hot July weather and I was sure to take advantage, along with what seemed like every able bodied hiker, climber, and runner in the area. On Saturday I experienced one extreme of the population spectrum: I found myself among vast crowds, following paths thoroughly tracked and trodden, gazing in awe at the innumerable dots of climbers above me, dwarfed by the immense scale of Mt. Adams. It was a slightly jarring to be around so many folks out there, although the natural world was irrepressibly alive and captivating regardless.
Many people loath being around crowds in the outdoors and yes, it can be a little bothersome at times when we want to be in the quiet of nature, but I find it impossible not to feel some admiration for people taking the initiative to get out there and get active in the relative wild. The usage of outdoor recreation space is a complex matter given our population size; the idea of "loving nature to death" is something that is imperative to consider and we must strive for sustainability and zero impact on the land we use. That said, it is a truly great thing to see people getting out there--climbing, running, hiking--and it is trend that does far more good than harm to our collective psyche. Besides, this is the Pacific Northwest after all; we got to go for it while the weather's good even if that means sharing the some of our favorite spots.
It all started Friday evening. My friend and personal training/coaching client Vatik met me in NW Portland, and we went to REI to buy him an ice ax and crampons. He's a fledging mountaineer and we'd done some smaller mountains in the Gorge in the winter time but now wanted to get him up a real volcano before the season was over. His training had faltered due to a tough work schedule so I wanted a route that was safe and straightforward, one that he could make it up even with a lack of training. He's 19 years old and works construction tirelessly like a beast though so I knew he'd be ok to get to the summit. With his new gear in tow we hit the road, later than we'd hoped, and headed for Trout Lake, WA. In Trout Lake we self-registered for the climb, then continued north toward the Cold Springs trailhead. We pulled off before that at the Morrison Creek Campground and through our sleeping bags out in the dirt. We got to bed by 12:45 am and got up at 3:45 so, I must say, we weren't extremely well rested.
We drove on up the trailhead and soon began seeing countless cars parked along the shoulder of the narrow dirt road. We kept driving, stunned at the number of vehicles, and finally pulled off and parked. Shouldering our packs, I glanced at my watch: 4:55 am. Later than I'd hoped but we needed that sleep. Our feet hit snow just minutes after beginning and the ascent was on and we began the long grind upward. The day was perfect and the air warm even at that early hour; we could tell it was going to be hot. The mountain loomed above, massive and hulking with a proud and extensive mantle of glistening snow, enticing us onward. Every step drew us with ecstatic energy higher into the thinner air and onto the mountain's body. As we climbed up its humped back the land surrounding opened up to us and our view roamed without boundary over the vast country, awash in morning light. Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens hung out across the way, bantering back and forth in the cloudless day, volcanic siblings of our Mt. Adams. On our way up to the Lunch Counter at 9,400 ft., we saw a dozen or so other climbers but we had no idea how many more we'd be seeing farther up. Once we reached the Lunch Counter proper we began to get a sense of the crowds: there were countless tents scattered around the area, nestled into tent pads among the rocks, like islands in the snow. The Suksdorf Ridge above the Lunch Counter was literally covered with black dots, people ascending the massive face up to Piker's Peak, the false summit at 11,657 ft. As we rested in the shade and ate and drank, I counted climbers on the face. I tallied 80 or so people on just that one section. I overheard someone say that 250 people had been permitted to climb Adams that day.
Vatik was struggling upwards admirably, keeping a slow, steady pace although wishing he'd trained more. I would go ahead at times and then sit and wait and people watch and look out at the ocean of views all around while he caught up. I realized the crowd issue is like most things in life, like the glass half empty or half full. I could be bummed because this wasn't the wilderness experience I wanted or I could love it regardless and look at it like a big joyous party, a celebration of people of different ages and backgrounds and abilities going for it, doing something they won't forget. I mean, they could be at home, watching TV. Besides what did I expect? If I really had a problem with being around the "masses" then I wouldn't go up there on a Saturday in the middle of summer.
We hit the false summit and I urged Vatik on, encouraging him as he pushed through the last section, moving understandably slow after ascending almost 7,000 ft. on a few hours of sleep and a hard day's construction work. I congratulated him once on the top, knowing how hard he'd worked and how excited he'd been to begin doing awesome things like that. We sat in the snow and put some layers on to cut the chilly wind. Vatik had been a co-worker of mine at a deck-building company and it was awhile ago that he'd mentioned being interested in getting up a mountain. We done some training together and had gone up Mt. Defiance in winter but it didn't seem like a bigger mountain was going to work out with our differing schedules. But there we were, on top, after thinking and talking and scheming and dreaming. I'd seen the spark of excitement of being in the wild ignite in him, saw how it affected something inside, something basic and wonderful. We looked out at Mt. Rainier to the north and Helens and Hood and even Jefferson way beyond to the south, vague in the hazy air. The big, open country out to the east appeared flat and dry and vast like the moon. I noticed neat looking valleys and smaller peaks here and there that I made note to explore some day. We were way up there in the sky at 12,276 ft., sitting there with at least two dozen other people and it was ok. There were skiers and snowboarders getting ready for their thrilling descents, people taking pictures, posing in funny outfits, telling stories, feeling good, happy, and accomplished. It is a crazy feeling sitting up in the sky like that; sort of like a out-of-body experience, it's hard to reconcile normal life on flat ground from all the way up there. It feels like it's worlds away.
As often happens, we talked of future adventures on the descent. Vatik glissaded thousand-foot chutes and I mostly boot skied and ran down the huge face. We both knew there was more to come, more mountains to be climbed and trails to be hiked and run. Some of those peaks and valleys would be deserted, with only our human feet and the other animals moving on the land; other times we'd be in crowds, in lines, sharing nature, possibly even watching a climber make her way up a steep slope in a bumble bee costume.
The bottom line is: it's summer, so crowds or not, you better get a move on.