Mt. Adams, Washington

Inspiration on Mt. Adams - 1998

There were a few last-minute trips to close out the ’98 climbing season. I managed to lead two more climbing teams up Mt. Adams this season, the mountain that Clay and I climbed the previous summer for my first glaciated summit. The first group ascended the mountain quickly in the early morning hours, leaving the parking lot at 1 AM and returning back to the truck by noon. We were cruising and had a great day until the top of the false summit where I was having so much trouble with my knee that I had to stop. I pointed out the rest of the route for them to finish, which they did without issue. It was tough to take these guys up and then not be able to complete the climb. It did not sit well with me (and, it was my only unsuccessful summit bid of the summer). So, a week later I turned around and took three co-workers back with me. None of these co-workers had ever climbed before but they were eager to give it a try.

Mt. Adams is a big mountain and is actually three times more massive than Mt. Rainier, which is one of the tallest peaks in the continental U.S. Most people climb Mt. Adams in a two-day push, which is the way that Clay and I did it the previous year. Time was tight for this climb with the Hewlett-Packard guys though, so I decided to use the same one-day strategy as I had the previous weekend, which would be tough given this team’s limited experience. One guy is former special ops and rides 30 miles everyday, while another guy mountain bikes regularly. I found this to be reassuring and was confident that we would all make it in relatively good form. That is until the manager of our group at HP caught wind of our plans the day before we were going to climb and wanted to join us. He was not in very good shape, but when the boss wants in what can you do except let him give it a try? So, the special ops guy, the mountain biker, the boss-man, and I headed up to the mountain together on a Friday after work to give it our best effort.

We started at midnight, knowing that it was going to be a long day. We made good time on the lower portions of the mountain and everyone was hanging in there. By sunrise, we reached the lunch counter, which is a prominent bench that separates the upper-mountain from the lower-mountain. This is where most people spend the night on two-day climbs. The boss-man could not have agreed with this strategy more, as he ran out of gas here and could not continue higher. We exchanged him with a lethargic climbing party, taking their only motivated member with us and leaving boss-man behind in that crew member’s tent and sleeping bag. So, then it was the new guy, special ops guy, mountain biker and me on our way to the summit.

From the lunch counter at 8,500’ to over 11,200’ at the top of the false summit is a sustained 45-50 degree snow slope, which corresponds with where the increased altitude start to affect you. We forged onward as the sun rose over us and warmed the slopes dramatically. It was an exceptionally clear day with a strong breeze, providing long views in all directions. As we approached the top of the false summit, the mountain biker had just about had it. He was completely wiped out and thought that the mountain had beaten him after he had come so far and fought so long. The special ops guy and I left him there to rest and re-energize or wait for our descent. As we continued up, the mountain biker, after a liter of water, a candy bar, and a few tears, managed to muster enough energy to continue and he soon joined us at the top of the false summit. We rested for about 20 minutes and then decided to make the final steep 1,000-foot push together to the true summit (12,267’).

We all managed to make it. It was a glorious day and I could see the satisfaction and exhaustion in their faces, which was my day’s reward. Upon our descent the special ops guy, who has been through every form of military training known to man, has an artificial hip from a faulty parachute jump, has suffered through frostbite as well as jungle training (where insects were his main sustenance), turned to me and said “This is easily one of the top three toughest things that I have done in my life!” Now that made an impression on me. Here is this iron man of sorts telling me how it made him feel and how exhausted and exhilarated he felt. That was what I will remember most about this trip. Watching others dig deep and break through those mental and physical barriers up there in the land of snow and ice was a remarkable experience and I cherish those memories.

This brutally long, eighteen-hour climbing day took place exactly three days before I was to go in for a knee arthroscopy. So, with my face sunburned into raccoon eyes from my glacier goggles, I went in for the operation, where my doctor asked me what I had been doing to create such a look. I told him that I had climbed Mt. Adams over the weekend, which led to a most-disapproving glance from he and the anesthesiologist alike. I simply replied with, “Why do you think I’m here?” We all laughed as the anesthesiologist lowered the mask over my face and all faded to black as the surgeon cut away.

Surprisingly, about a year after this climb and after I had moved from Portland back to Chicago, I received a letter in the mail from the special ops guy. He wrote to explain to me that he had been suffering from liver cancer the year previous to our climb and had even had his last rights read to him while in the hospital. He then revealed that one morning, on the verge of death, he awakened to a wintry day with a spectacular four-mountain view from his Portland hospital bed. It is rare to have a view of the mountains at all in Portland in the winter, when it is completely socked-in with clouds and rain, let alone have a four-mountain view of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson, all covered in fresh snow and glistening like freshly polished diamonds in the intense morning sun. He said it was right then and there that he not only decided that he was going to live, but also that he was going to climb all four of those mountains.

Amazingly, this climb of Mt. Adams was the first real physical activity he had undertaken since recently finishing his chemotherapy treatments. His body depleted, he told me in his letter that he drew great inspiration from me that day as he watched me limp up and down that mountain for eighteen hours on essentially one good leg. I am extraordinarily pleased to say that this previously not- interested-in-climbing special ops guy did climb all four peaks, and is, in fact, now a member of Portland’s renowned mountain rescue team, often saving lives on Mt. Hood and elsewhere. Additionally, he is well past the crucial, five-year cancer survival benchmark and is thriving, even making it to my wedding 18 years after our climb together. I may have inspired him on that particular day, but he has since inspired me for my lifetime.