Mount Adams, Elevation 12,276ft
The North Face of Mount Adams from camp. The North Ridge ascent route is in green and our ski descent is in red. The Adams Glacier is in the center and the NFNWR is to the right.
The North Face of Mount Adams has some of the best ski lines in the state. The most obvious is a face known as the North Face of the Northwest Ridge (NFNWR). A long name for a long ski. With over 4000 vertical feet of 40 to 45 degree skiing and a giant bergschrud at its base, this face is not for the timid. If you manage to stay in control during the first 4000 vertical, you're committed to a sketchy traverse onto the Adams Glacier where you must navigate another 1000 vertical of crevase fields. The final 1000 vertical back to camp gives you a chance to look back at what you got away with. I'd say there's a ten percent probability that you'll get caught somewhere in-between.
I knew the odds, having climbed the Adams Glacier a few years back. This was one of many hikes that my parents took me on as a kid. We always stopped below the steep faces. One year my brother and I convinced my dad to climb the Adams Glacier with us. This may have been the start of my mountaineering career. Falling in crevases and dodging rockfall became my qualifications. Charlie had never been to this side of the mountain. He relied on my experience and the somewhat intimidating descriptions that the guidebooks had to offer.
No photograph can relate the beauty that one encounters here. It's surprising that there are no crowds up here despite the relatively short approach. This is probably because the easiest route to the top (the North Ridge) is usually a jumble of loose volcanic rock. Most people prefer climbing the gentle snow slopes on the South Spur.
Gentle slopes were not what we had in mind. Charlie and I left town with the hope of skiing the NFNWR. It's about a 2 hour drive from Yakima to the trailhead so I had plenty of time to calm Charlie's fears. Our plan was to climb the North Ridge the following day and ski the NFNWR if it looked good. We had no idea what to expect but we knew that we'd find out soon enough.
The trailhead is at 4,600ft so the road is often covered in snow until late spring. We lucked out and made it all the way without getting stuck. We started the 5 mile approach in tennis shoes and ended up with wet feet.
Charlie making his way through the clouds just below camp.
The sky cleared as we reached camp. Charlie began to realize what I had been talking about. All eyes were on the NFNWR. I knew that I wasn't man enough to ski it and I think Charlie felt the same way. I began to look for an alternative. We ditched our overnight gear and took a short hike to the base of the North Ridge. I noticed a diamond shape slope coming off the North Ridge that looked like a great ski. I couldn't tell where it started but it would be worth checking out. We took a few photos before skiing several miles back to camp.
We couldn't help but notice how calm it was. The weather was perfect. Most of our attention was focused on the mountain. We knew we would make it to the top via the North Ridge but we had no idea as to how we would get down. This thought made for a restless night.
Looking west towards camp.
We got an early start the next morning. I had never climbed the North Ridge so I wasn't sure how long it would take. Charlie started off in tennis shoes which was probably a mistake. We ended up on the east side of the ridge which provided some unnecessary exposure. It would have been better to stay on top of the ridge, which is where we eventually returned.
Charlie returns to the ridge after some unnecessary exposure on the east side.
Putting on the boots while enjoying the warmth of the sunny rocks.
Charlie put his boots on around 10,000ft and we continued up the ridge. It wasn't very long before we reached the summit plateau -- a broad flat snowfield that must be crossed in order to reach the true summit. We had a numerous good looks at the NFNWR by this time and we finally agreed to bail. Firm snow and exposure were two excuses but intimidation was probably the main reason we called it off.
Charlie on the summit plateau. The NFNWR begins from the West Peak and follows the skyline towards Mount Saint Helens. Intimidation?
We were on top in less than an hour. The total climb from camp to summit took around 5 hours. We encountered the usual swarms from the South Spur. It felt pretty good to take off towards Mount Rainier on skis. Some people looked jealous, others confused. We were about to pioneer a first descent and they were left to wonder. We skied the plateau in less than 5 minutes and were soon staring down the West Face of the North Ridge. We decided to drop in there and traverse right until we hit the diamond slope that we had scouted the day before. It looked as though we could ski nonstop and that is all that mattered.
The firm snow and exposure that we had hoped to avoid began to haunt us. The first few turns were scary. We ended up skiing back to the ridge where we waited for the snow to soften. The face was in the shade and we soon realized that it wasn't getting any softer. We decided to go for it.
Charlie dropping in on the West Face of the North Ridge.
We slid our way down to what looked like a good spot to traverse. There were two problems with this traverse. One, the rocks that were falling from the cliff above us. Two, the rocks that had fallen and littered the snow beneath us. We managed to dodge our way across the slope and a short scramble led us to the top of the diamond. We did end up taking our skis off but we didn't mind at that point. We knew that the difficulties would be over once we reached the diamond so that became our priority.
The skiing on the diamond was very nice. 2000 vertical feet of 30 degree corn snow that led to another 2000 vertical foot cruise back to camp. We kept an eye on the NFNWR the entire time but we were glad to avoid whatever risks that it might have entailed.
Excellent skiing near the top of the diamond.
We made it back to camp safely. Our initial goal had scared us away but we ended up skiing a worthy line of the top. We both agreed that we would return the following year and try and convince ourselves again. Perhaps better prepared, now that we both knew what we were dealing with. Looking forward is better than not being able to look back.
Charlie and I looking forward. The diamond is seen in the upper center of the photo.