Mount Adams
South Spur, Gifford Pinchot National Forest - October 16-17 2010

The air was easy in the parking lot. Shauna, Kevin, and Vanessa and I were out on the what might be the last good weather weekend in the Pacific Northwest, and mostly likely the last weekend for me before responsibilities shift. Mount Adams had been on my list of things to do for a long time. But there had always been something easier to do. Something closer. Something less tiring. After more than six years of living in Washington, I was now at the base of the state's second highest peak, second only to Mount Rainier.

In the beginning the Great Spirit had two sons named Wy'east and Klickitat. Wy'east ruled the southern mountains on the far side of the Columbia. Klickitat was the overlord of the lands to the north of the Columbia. The two sons vied for the attention of Loowit, a beautiful maiden. The rivalry turned to open war between the brothers. The fighting caused the earth to rumble and split open and spew forth the innards of the land.

Klickitat was the bigger and stronger of the two, and eventually won the heart of Loowit, who joined him north of the Columbia. But Wy'east would not maintain the truce. One night he danced across the river and struck Klickitat in the head so hard that he caved the entire crown of his head in. The Great Spirit had had enough and turned the three into mountains. Wy'east would become Mount Hood. Loowit became St. Helens. And Klickitat, with his flat head, became known as Mount Adams.

The legend changes depending on who tells it and what tribe they are from, but I like the above version the best. Mount Adams is a massive mountain that in any other state would dominate the skyline and puts nearly every other state high point to shame. But it is almost 1800 feet lower than Mount Rainier, a testament more to the bulk of the Big Fatty more than a slight upon Klickitat. We were here to climb the easiest route on the mountain, the South Spur, which was also the ascent route for many donkeys and miners bent on extracting sulfur from the top of Klickitat's 12,276 foot head.

We hiked up the south climb trail and crossed the PCT before heading into the high, open country. There were climbers coming down who recognized Shauna from various videos and from PCT days in Cascade Locks in September. Of course, no one recognized me. They had finished the PCT nearly a month ago and, like every other thruhiker, seemed glad to be done but not ready to go home. Virginia. Texas. Georgia. The beards were trimmed and the scruff washed off. But they were pure Hiker. I loved them for it. We ascended to around 9400 feet to an area called the Lunch Counter, where we set up camp next to a scenic overlook and settled in for a cold, cold night.

There are few places in the world more special than high on the flanks of a big mountain in a wilderness with the world at your feet and pure air all around you. Unlike a prime season climb, we were the only ones here. We sat around the glowing stoves melting snow for water for tonight and for the climb the next day. The sun and the clouds provided all the entertainment necessary. We giggled and laughed and exclaimed and were amazed at the show that the sun was putting on for us as it descended over the Pacific, just out of sight.

The red volcanic rock around us took on a strong glow of orange and pink and red. Not a subtle display at all. Kevin and Vanessa, standing, were bathed in a gaudy light that seemed projected onto them by spot lights. Happiness and joy were not forced from without. Rather, they were the mode of cognition of the moment. Emotions are crude things. This was different. Rather than experiencing a chemical reaction in the brain, it was as if the thoughts of a God had flung themselves down from on high and brought the world out of darkness and into the light. This was what Beethoven experienced as he wrote the 9th Symphony. It is what Pablo Casals felt when he played Bach's cello suite. It is what any artist, or any human being, experiences at the moment of conception.

The frigid air couldn't dampen it. We all felt it and if we could possibly bottle it and bring it back to the rest of the world we would be able to cure things such as depression, robbery, suicide, hated, bigotry, and Glen Beck. But it can't be bottled. Only experienced. And that was what we were here for. We were here to experience it for free, on my land. My land and Shauna's land and Kevin's land and Vanessa's land, and even the Gremlin's land. Our land.

You can't read a self help book to get the same feeling. You can't take a seminar or go to a lecture or watch a movie. Either create, or go to the land and see for yourself. I'm not a creative person and so I go to the source of it, rather than trying to recreate it in myself through the act of art. It is simple to do. You don't even have to climb a mountain or go somewhere fancy. Take a walk and find yourself a place away from a road and from the distractions of your daily life. Watch the sun go down and walk back through the dark woods without a flashlight or head lamp. Feel the land around you.

As the sun neared the horizon next to Loowit's south shoulder, we all stared in rapt attention, waiting for the green flash that is supposed to accompany the setting of the sun. The cold was biting. And still we sat there and watched, the only sounds come from the hiss of the stoves. The sky light up even more, turning a nuclear orange. And then it was over. The sun was rising in Japan as I was watching it set here in Washington. I did not feel the loss of something now that it was over. My joy had been for the time and it was not a sad thing that it was over. It would come back again. Of that I was sure. The Buddhists were wrong on that one.

The cold of the night was intense, but it gave way to the warming sun and the dawn of a new day. We assembled gear and started up the mountain, heading through the remaining snow fingers that covered the loose, volcanic rock. The massive bulk of Klickitat cast a long, menacing shadow over the fertile valleys and plains far, far below us.

The solid ice and frozen snow made a satisfying crunch from the points of our crampons as we ascended one snow field for another. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Not the sound of a fat oaf treading through a pile of dry leaves, but rather a slim, slender crunch. A precise sound, rather than a flabby one.

Buddhists believe that life, by its very nature, is suffering. Life is unsatisfactory precisely because it is transitory. Impermanent. Just as Klickitat stands here now, so will it be gone in the future. The people we love will grow old, get sick, and die. Every day I'm a little dumber, fatter, and uglier. This, they say, points to the suffering of life. Joy is little more than cessation of pain. Even joy is to be avoided, for it is transitory and once it passes we will suffer due to the lack of its presence.

While much of this is true, it seems to apply only to those who live in the past, rather than in the present. In the omnipresent. If you live based solely on your memories, then life is suffering. You will never be able to be happy if your past determines your present. If you are cognizant of the preciousness of each moment, then when it has passed there is no sorrow, no regret, no loss. You experienced everything you could while you could. I experienced a lot of leg tiredness and lung stress on my way up to the top of the false summit, known as Pikers Peak.

But is it is not wise to live in the past, then what about the future? That is what my culture does best. As Shauna would say later in the day, how many people do not do, do not act, out of an excess of concern of safety. But this is not the real issue. It is not concern of safety that causes people to insulate themselves from the world around them, to hide in suburbs and closed off homes, to sit in single cars on a concrete expanse rather than on public transit. It isn't a concern over safety that causes a lack of activity. Rather, it is the lack of activity that spawns the excuse of danger.

People, at least when in their quiet places, know if they are happy or not, regardless of if they're willing to admit it to themselves let alone to other people. To find excuses as natural a human expression as to search for meaning. People find an excuse, just as they do a meaning, for everything in their lives. Citing an excess of danger is one of those things. Mount Adams is not a dangerous place to be assuming you have good judgment, are physically fit, and have the right gear. And have some luck. But it is too easy to write it off as too dangerous. Too unpredictable. Too much. The true summit lay just above us, another 800 foot climb.

We dropped down slightly and then began the final climb to the summit. Sweat flowed off of me heavily. I looked down at Shauna, just below me, from time to time and thought about how much I truly believed what I thought I believed. I realized that I didn't want to find out. I never want to. Ever.

Perhaps the numbness of tranquility would be more appealing after having suffered a great deal. That tranquility, the lotus root of metaphysics, might be an appropriate goal for those buried in pain. But I was fortunate enough not to be in that place. And for that I was thankful.

Just past noon we topped out on the mountain and looked out over the northlands that had been hidden from us. The Goat Rocks and Mount Rainier dominated the skyline, though a curious line of haze was the most striking feature. We were unsure of what caused it, though Kevin suggested a plausible explanation of wood stoves being turned on for the first truly cold weekend of the year. The broken timberlands between Adams and Rainier no longer saddened me. They stood as a testament to what we shouldn't do.

We were alone on the summit, just the four of us and the rest of the world. Klickitat sat in a propitious setting, with Rainier to the north, Wy'east to the south, and Loowit to the west. The Sound lay in the distance and the green fields of Trout Lake and White Salmon spread out below us. The dry lands of the Eastside were in sight. Indeed, we could see most of the state and approximately two or three weeks of travel on the Pacific Crest Trail.

The summit treats came out and we raced around snapping photos and exclaiming over the smallest of things. We were high on ourselves and the world around us, just like John Denver once sang about.

We were joined by two men from Seattle on the summit, making a summit population of six people. In the summer it might be sixty at a time. Would it be any less special with the crowds? I'm not sure. But an empty Wal-mart is just as bad as a crowded one.

The view north and south along the PCT was a forceful one. Looking back through the mists to Wy'east, and Jefferson behind it, and the Three Sisters behind that, I remembered a time in my life when I was a different person. Not different in what I was looking for. Not different in the things I was trying to excuse or give meaning to, but rather different in how I understood them and approached them. I had learned a lot in the last seven years, and would no doubt learn a lot in the next seven. Hopefully without any pain, or at least a minimum of it.

Just as we were preparing to leave the summit and begin the long descent to the parking lot, Kevin was struck with a fit of epilepsy and began a strange contortion of his body, flapping and flopping around like some rube infused with the holy spirit at a tent revival in Liberal, Kansas. This had happened to him on the summits of Hood and Rainier. Perhaps it had something to do with the thin air.

The descent would not be pleasant for me. There would be several hours of constant, excruciating pain, a whack on the foot for every step downward. And there would be more than six miles of such pain. But for now all was joy and happiness once more. We set off for camp with the sun warm on our faces and with the knowledge inside of us that the mountain would be here again in the future. Klickitat would be here when we wanted it to be, and that was a gift that our country has given to ourselves and to the world. It is something special.


To get to the start of the South Climb, drive south of I-5 to I-205, and take that to SR14 (or I-84 for a faster drive). Drive east on SR14 to SR114 Alt, and take that north to the junction with SR14 to Trout Lake. If you drive the I-84 route, you'll cross the Columbia at Hood River and drive through White Salmon on your way to Trout Lake. From Trout Lake follow the signs up to the South Climb trailhead. The last 7 miles is unpaved, but my Civic had absolutely no problems with it. Check road conditions before you set out. From the parking lot follow the trail up onto the mountain. You gain approximately 4000 feet to the Lunch Counter,where there is ample camping, but no running water. Make sure to purify your melted snow. The summit is about 3000 feet above you. Other than usual mountain craft, make sure you have crampons and an ice axe, and know how to use them. The route is mostly over snow and you should have an easy go of it as long as the weather is clear. Don't try to climb if the weather is even a little iffy. The grade never gets worse than about 30-33 degrees. We took about 4 hours with breaks to make it to the summit from camp. On the way back, it is MANDATORY to stop in White Salmon at Everybody's Brewing pub. This is one of the best brewpubs I've been to and replaces The Pacific Crest Pub and Hostel in Cascade Locks as my favorite pub in the area.