State's second-highest peak challenges the experts with arduous loop
Special to the Seattle Times
NEAR THE BASE OF MOUNT ADAMS — It wasn't the solution I expected.
"Here's what we're going to do," Mike Woodmansee said, correctly appraising that the situation (yet another seemingly impassable flume of raging glacial runoff) and my body language (slumped shoulders, disconsolate sighs running deep with fatigue) called for decisive action.
"I'm going over there," Woodmansee said, gesturing to a rock that appeared to be beyond the reach of any mere-mortal hop, skip or jump, "and you're going to throw me our packs."
My response: a silent look of dumbfounded acquiescence. You're going where? I'm doing what? And somehow I'm going to follow along? "Well," I said, hands on once-proud hips, "all right, if you think so."
Woodmansee, an expert climber (twice coming within 2,000 feet of the summit during a year 2000 attempt on Mount Everest), a marathoner and ultra-marathoner, a four-time participant in Ironman Triathlons (including the elite Hawaii Ironman) and hands-down the fastest, most efficient backcountry traveler with whom I have ever trod trail, hit me with another of his well-reasoned wilderness bromides.
"You have to think just the right amount," he told me. "If you overthink a decision, even a good decision, you can talk yourself out of it. I take the approach of assess and go for it. Assess and go for it. Just keep moving."
A Mount Vernon resident and former Skagit County administrator (who was a finalist for Bellevue city manager three years ago), Woodmansee recently added guidebook author to his list of credentials. It was his description of the "(Truly) Round-the-Mountain Trail" around Mount Adams (found in his book "Trekking Washington," released in July by The Mountaineers Books) that brought me to this place: a trailless, inhospitable jumble of rocks on Adams' eastern slope, beneath an unrelenting midsummer sun.
Mount Rainier has the Wonderland Trail, an unbroken 95-mile (or so) ring of trail that clearly guides hikers around and over its grand, oscillating ridgelines.
Adams, Washington's second-highest peak (12,276 feet, to Rainier's 14,411), can also be circumnavigated via its Highline Trail/Round-the-Mountain route, only with one enormous caveat: An inhospitable five-mile trailless section awaits on Adams' east side.
It is a place where eons of perpetual bulldozing by the Mazama and Klickitat glaciers (and the likelihood of annual bridge washouts) defies, at least on a financial basis, the establishment of a permanent trail.
Yet Woodmansee, whose book presents a treasure trove of fascinating trip possibilities for highly athletic ultralight adventurers (such as a dizzying 10-day, 242-mile traverse involving the North Cascades and Pasayten Wilderness), proposes that properly equipped, properly experienced, properly determined people take a properly educated shot at connecting the dots on Adams' trailless east side.
"It's doable, though certainly not easy," says Woodmansee, 47. "It reminds me of something that I learned early in my hiking experience: Energy plus bad judgment equals adventure."
As such, I — a no-slouch hiker who once traveled the 75 miles from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail in three days — discover adventure aplenty in this arduous five-mile stretch.
A true test
It begins at a beautiful viewpoint above Hellroaring Meadow (a little beyond lovely Bird Creek Meadows) on land belonging to the Yakama Indian Reservation. Woodmansee and I survey the basin below, traverse below a wall with four hanging waterfalls, curve around the basin without descending too far, then, once past some cliffs, march straight up steep, long, often brushy slopes.
As strong a hiker as I like to imagine myself, Woodmansee's off-trail experience and uncommon conditioning open some distance between us. As the trip progresses, Woodmansee emerges as sort of a movable human cairn, keeping me on a path that does not exist, though it does in his imagination, even though it has been six years since he last passed through.
We reach a new high point, a gorgeous ridgetop view known as the Ridge of Wonders. We chat, slurp water and then begin a steep descent down what I call the Mound of China, a slope where no rock, regardless of size, can be trusted to be anchored and stable. At times everything moves, and it sounds as if I'm briefly surfing down a mountain of dinner plates that slap together with each step.
Woodmansee waits for me (a regular occurrence now) at a small stream below imposing Battlement Ridge and we head off to face our biggest anticipated challenge of the trip, finding a safe place to cross a notorious glacial gusher known as Big Muddy. We cross paths with five mature, impressive elk as we go, the first life forms we have encountered since leaving the Cold Springs Campground trailhead a little after dawn.
My slow, deliberate, don't-twist-a-knee pace has put us on the lip of high-velocity Big Muddy at midafternoon, when Woodmansee says its volume on a hot day is at its highest. We march uphill on unstable rock for perhaps a quarter-mile before finding a place where we can cross.
Big Muddy, to Woodmansee's surprise, has split into four forks during this unusually hot, sunny summer. Each one poses a new time- and energy-consuming challenge.
We persist and succeed each time (ultimately climbing high and crossing over ice on the snout of the Klickitat Glacier), though I'm becoming gassed and annoyed by the unstable footing. Uphill climbs on shifting rocks and sand often take seven steps in a space where three should be plenty.
Rusk Creek also has four forks, and it is the third fork where we now stand, me dispirited by the frequency of serious challenges. Yet somehow I'm ready to "think the right amount" and start heaving packs across a rampaging, 7-foot-wide mean streak of water.
A positive attitude
Woodmansee, with his 30-inch inseam, makes a heroic standing long jump across the flume and barely gets his heels wet. I chuck him his pack, then my water bottle, then my pack. He's Gold Glove all the way. Then he extends my lone trekking pole (the one he recommended that I bring) and tells me to grab it as I dance across a pair of barely visible rocks. He pulls me forward as I do the Rusk Creek two-step, smooth and safe.
"We're going to beat this thing," Woodmansee says with a backslap.
I dig the encouragement, and need to hear more of it as we clear the last fork, then climb to reach the edge of Avalanche Valley. Though we entered the valley at a higher elevation than Woodmansee did six years earlier, he still locates the resumption of the trail north of the trailless breach. Due to my careful pace, we spent more than five hours in that section.
We camp earlier than we expected to, then rise before dawn and watch the sun illuminate Adams as we reach Devils Garden. Rainier is aglow in the distance, and we lose the trail periodically as we crest and descend. The path is clear and refreshingly level from this point, and we encounter loads of impressive views as we skirt Adams' north flank.
The scenery and some surprisingly fragrant lupine fields are rejuvenating and the rises and falls of the trail are modest to the point of being almost negligible, by Cascade standards at least. We travel hard and fast, covering 16 miles by noon, yet still find time to pause for numerous photo stops.
The views taper off some on the west side of the mountain, pick up again on the southern slopes, where I'm done in by stiffer elevation gains and once again become the tortoise to Woodmansee's hare. After 23.7 miles, I finally catch up to Woodmansee at the trailhead; a little before 3 p.m. I tell him I'm glad I did it, but I'll probably never do it again. He thinks I might.
"Perseverance is knowing deep within you that you can stay the course, keep moving until you reach your required or desired destination," he tells me later. "Perseverance is the unwillingness to say, 'I can't.' "
Free-lance writer Terry Wood, a catalog editor/gear tester at REI, lives in Covington. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company