I climbed Mount Adams for the first time in 1957, when I was a year old. I had help. My parents corralled all six youngsters and, in caravan with my grandparents, they drove the axle-shattering dirt roads to Bird Creek Meadows, just below snowline on the shoulders of the great peak. As proof of this visit, I offer the following pose, the portrait of an outdoors man as a very young man.
Although my current home lies much closer to Mount Baker, old Mount Adams has always held a dearer place in my heart. It’s prominence is due to the overwhelming presence it has in Glenwood, where my family arrived in 1882 as a band of uprooted Germans. My great-grandfather cleared a forested meadow and planted hay. His farm prospered and he gained prominence in his community, holding a position as Klickitat County engineer, which allowed him to lay out a new road to provide access from the Columbia River to the isolated community he lived in. Outdoor photographs taken in the Glenwood Valley almost invariably pose a group of humans in front of Mount Adams.
Mount Adams has always seemed a bit more isolated than Washington’s other volcanic peaks, with the exception of Glacier Peak. Although it can be seen from the Yakima Valley, it takes a drive of about 150 miles for Yakima residents to reach the public trailheads on the south and west slopes of the peak. Nonetheless, it has been the focus of climbs since the 1850s.
In 1917 Edmund Meany wrote a history of the Mount Adams-Saint Helens region for the publication The Mountaineer. He cited an earlier publication (1907) in which George H. Himes related a personal conversation he had with a man who claimed to have scaled Mount Adams with two others in 1853, during the railroad survey under George McClellan. Himes also described a climb of at least four men and three women in 1864 and another of 1867 that included at least five men and two women.
This latter climb included Edwin Eells, the son of pioneer missionary Cushing Eells, who worked with Marcus Whitman for ten years. Another member of the party was Malcolm A. Moody, whose political career rose to the summit of serving two terms as U.S. senator, representing Oregon. Curiously, A. R. Booth also participated. He was the operator of the ferry at White Bluffs. Another member of the group was Samuel L. Brooks, whose family crossed the plains to Oregon in 1850. The city of Brooks, Oregon, is named after them. Samuel became a revenue collector and he was associated with the Portland & Astoria Navigation Company.
One of the women who climbed in 1867 was Julia Johnson of The Dalles, and it’s quite possible this was her second ascent of the peak. A Julia A. Johnson of Oregon City was also listed in the 1864 party. This earlier climb included Nathaniel and Henry C. Coe. Nathaniel was a 76-year-old veteran of the War of 1812. His son Henry was a founder of the Oregon Steamship and Navigation Company, one of the most important capitalists in the Northwest in his day. A Mr. Phelps in this party was likely A. C. Phelps, who was an engineer on the O. W. R. N. railroad, which had a line on the south bank of the Columbia that ended up as part of Coe’s company. Phelps was married to the former Julia Stillwell, who had worked for Mrs. Coe. Her brother W. D. Stillwell, postmaster at Hood River, was also on the climb.
The curious mix of a train engineer, a ferryman, a postmaster, a future senator and a nascent capitalist makes me wonder how much business was discussed on these pioneering climbs of 12,276 foot Mount Adams in the 1860s. It’s remarkable, too, that the composition of these early climbs was inclusive of women and an old man.
Fifty years ago congress approved the Wilderness Act, and the area around Mount Adams was one of the three first Wilderness areas designated for Washington State. President Nixon enlarged the original Wilderness area by decree in 1972, and he pared off a slice of the eastern slopes and the summit to be returned to the Yakama Nation. Thus he corrected surveying errors that had withheld the area from the Yakama Reservation after their 1855 treaty was approved. The peak they called Pahto was at least partially Indian country again.
Growing up in Yakima, William O. Douglas was familiar with the profile of Mount Adams’ eastern face. He spent many days wandering the wilderness around the peak, and in 1958 he built a very nice log home two lots away from the acre I inherited from my mother north of Glenwood. His home is now a beautiful bed and breakfast. Douglas loved the country around Mount Adams, and he loved being a part of the community at Glenwood. My father treasured his copy of Of Men and Mountains, signed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
I loved the spot my mother left me. It was ditched over with irrigation from the Hell Roaring project, named after a creek that plunges from the glaciers on the east side of Mount Adams. Boards nailed to ponderosa pines recall the milking shed that once stood on this acre. I loved it enough to convince my fiancee that we should get married there, beneath the looming peak. So we used the mountain as a backdrop to a small wedding party with a few human and several bovine guests.
In 1976 I finally completed the ascent of Mount Adams myself. But I wasn’t alone. Since the 1960s the Yakima Chamber of Commerce had organized group hikes to the summit of Mount Adams. Hundreds of climbers followed the guides to the top of the peak, laboriously stepping up the Mazama Glacier for three miles, a process that took hours with so many people in a line. The bicentennial climb was to be the last of these group climbs, as the Forest Service changed their group climb policies to require no more than 20 participants per group.
I made sure to leave work on time that Friday afternoon, July 2. I was twenty years old, strong and athletic, as you would have to be if you spent your days shoveling wheat, climbing long ladders and clambering over warehouses to fix leaks in the roof. That was my summer work. I drove to Yakima directly from the job, stopping at my cousin’s house to join him. The two of us drove to Trout Lake where we were assigned a campsite. There was no need for it, really, as we spent most of the night talking. The trail call came early, and we were hiking up the mountain to treeline in the dark.
One of the enduring memories I have of that hike is when we left the woods behind us and dawn was just breaking on the eve of the Fourth of July. Looking left, we saw the perfect symmetry of Mount Saint Helens glowing in raspberry-colored light. The day was cloudless and the views were spectacular.
But there was a lot of climbing left to do. The list of required equipment included crampons, which we now strapped onto our hiking boots. My cousin Dale had brought a bona-fide ice axe, but I came equipped with a silly wooden shaft that had a short brass hook on one end. It was a staff that was used to flip high-voltage switches at the Taunton sub-station on the Milwaukee Railroad. I’d picked it up in the weeds on a hike near the railroad as a kid. It worked just fine as we climbed up the Mazama glacier, a three-mile ascent, at least forty-five degrees. We passed the false summit, and we struggled to the top to find a helicopter descending to extract a climber with altitude sickness.
The view was impossibly clear. We could see out into the Pacific to the west. South, into the peaks of central Oregon, with Mount Hood standing proud at the front of the line. North, we saw Rainier, Glacier Peak, Mount Baker and Canadian peaks beyond. Our view was 800 miles or more. Buried beneath the weight of the snows at the summit were the ruins of a wooden hut, which I assumed was a fire lookout from the early days of the Forest Service. Later I was told it had served as the shelter for sulpher miners, who had failed to extract enough of the mineral to make a profit.
My wristwatch failed. In a ludicrous gesture, I peeled it off my arm and hurled it towards Mount Saint Helens. Somewhere on that glacier is a ruined Timex.
When it was time to descend I discovered the true purpose of the ice axe, and exactly why my stick was so poorly considered. At the top of the Mazama Glacier, we were instructed to tuck our ice axe under our armpit with the blade dug into the snow behind us. We would be sliding down the glacier in a controlled slide, using the axe to slow us down. In the event of an emergency, we were instructed to flip onto our bellies and bury the head of the ice axe in the snow to stop our descent. Not far into my slide, something ripped my staff out of my hands. It went skittering down the slope, faster than I was going. I was in free-fall with no way to control my descent. Luckily somebody posted on the slide snatched the staff as it slid past them. When I flailed past, they returned it to my outstretched hands. I never let go again.
It had taken fifteen hours to climb to the top; we were at base camp again in three hours. Samuel L. Brooks descended the glacier in an hour and a half in 1867, clutching a tin plate under his rear. I don’t think his slide was controlled.
Dale and I drove back to Yakima, arriving in the evening. I told his wife I would be fine, but she insisted that I would spend the night at their house. That was probably lucky for me. I had been awake for fifty-two hours by that time. After a refreshing night in Yakima, I headed back to Othello to get ready for another week in wheat warehouse.