Mt Adams: The Summit is Only Halfway

by bnna

june - 2016
mt adams, washington

  • ascent route: the south spur

  • descent route: the southwest chutes

  • difficulty: moderate snow, 12.28 miles, 7181 ft vertical gain

  • date: 4.3.2016

  • time on route: 12 hours 30 minutes

Below is a video of our ascent of Mt Adams. However, this blog post is about what happened after the summit. I felt it was important to document a time when Bran and I learned some valuable lessons in the backcountry. Side note: both Bran and I are perfectly fine with no injuries except maybe a couple bruises to the body and ego. 


Once we reached the summit I was overjoyed, ate a Snickers bar and took in the view. I could tell I was very fatigued and a bit dehydrated. This had been a 7,000 foot ascent over 6 miles and we started at 4am. It was a very big day, only made a little harder by the the intensity of the sun. Also I had never done a day on skis over 4,000 feet.  But all the hard work was done and our reward was a 7,000 foot descent on skis!

As we began the first part of the descent (roughly 1000 feet), I fell twice - nothing bad, just literally fell over. My legs were hurting. We reached a bit of a plateau and Bran and I switched into cross country mode on our skis. Before we started our next big 2,500 foot descent I sat down to rest. Unfortunately as I went to stand back up my ski released from my boot  (my brakes were released from being in touring mode). My one ski flew down a chute on the volcano at a rapid speed. This chute was originally the line we were going to descend from the summit of Mt Adams. However earlier in the day, after scoping it out, I decided we would descend the climbing route instead. So here I sat, elevation 11,200 feet and only one ski. I started to cry, literally weep. Luckily, Bran recognized I was simply exhausted and calmed me down.

heading down the steep chute. the missing ski is a few thousand vertical feet down.

We made the first decision to plunge-step (the typical way a mountaineer descends without skis) down this 40 degree chute that was 4,000 feet long to try and retrieve my ski. About 250 feet into the descent I lost my footing and began to slide. For those who do not know, sliding 4000 feet down a steep slope can result in serious injury, if not death. However, I was fortunate enough to be well versed in self arrest and was able to use my ice axe to stop my fall. I slid only about 50 feet and managed to regain my footing. Bran, whose heart had stopped at this point, reminded me to go slow, steady and keep a good grip on my ice axe. We spotted my ski about 2,500 feet down the slope and Bran put skis on to go check it out. I continued, cautiously, plunge stepping to the ski.

Well, not surprisingly, the ski tip was completely busted but still skiable for the remainder of the decent. Of course, by the time I reached Bran, I was physically, emotionally and mentally fried. Bran helped me sit down and gave me plenty of food and water. We rested for a couple of minutes and Bran helped me get back into the skis. Unfortunately as he was helping me, he knocked my pack down the slope. My pack contained all of my layers including a base layer, puffy, face buff, hardshell, ski goggles, two sets of gloves and my food and water. More importantly it contained my shovel and probe, two essential items to have in the back country incase of avalanches. This was not good. We watched it tumble down the slope. We still had to ski about 1,500 feet to get to the base of this chute. Bran skied first and I followed skiing very conservatively. We made it to the bottom with no backpack in site. 

At this point we made a second decision to go ahead and leave the backpack. It was getting very hot outside and we were on a steep slushy white slope. Also as we started to look for the pack it became apparent that it not only was exhausting but increased our chances of having an accident. It was more important that we use what energy we had left to get out of the mountains and safely back to our car.

Bran had his phone that contained our GPS routes, topo maps and compass. This was an incredible tool and no doubt was how we managed to get back to our trail. We ended up having to traverse the mountain for several miles on foot in steep snow. As if the day could not get any harder, I had one more fall down a steep slope. I managed to hit a tree with my hip and was very lucky that I could still walk. It could have easily been a broken ankle, leg or arm. Once again Bran, whose heart had stopped, stayed closer to me and together we found the easiest, safest terrain to the trail.  At around 3pm we found the trail and made it back to camp within the hour.  

Bran and I later reflected on the day and determined there was a couple of lessons:

  1. Gear, no matter how expensive, is not worth retrieving if the consequences outway getting back the equipment. In this situation my one ski was not worth the descent of the steep slope. It was more than likely going to be broken and we also wouldn't have lost a much more valuable backpack full of gear and equipment.

  2. We have to be able to have enough energy to get back to the car or camp safely. As Bran and I reflected on the day there were plenty of signs that I was pushing myself too hard in order to summit and get down safely. I was slow, tired and overall complaining about my body hurting. We should have taken it as a sign to retreat and attempt to climb on another day.

  3. It is VERY important to have the tools and knowledge of how to keep yourself safe in the mountains. In this scenario, if I had not had an ice axe or the knowledge of how to use it - the consequences would have been severe. Other tools such as GPS, topo map, compass and the skills use them also prevented our epic from becoming an emergency situation.