Report: Mt. Adams to Mt. St. Helens Challenge

How it all began

Sometime in the Spring 2014, during or after climbing Mt. Adams (can’t remember the exact details), Kam suggested I could run to Mt. St. Helens and climb it as well. That sounded completely insane at that point, yet, once at home, I started to check maps and routes to see if this would actually be possible. After mapping things out on GoogleMaps, I knew it would be possible, yet undoubtedly very challenging. And, of course, that meant it had to be attempted!

I continued to carefully plan the adventure and then put things aside, thinking that I’d make an attempt next year. However, as we approached the  Jul 26/27, 2014, weekend, a nice weather window seem to open up and I had both time and felt sufficiently prepared. At that point, I had signed up for the 120mi Fat Dog ultra in Canada, so I thought this “short” 90mi adventure would be the perfect training. The only unsolved problem was the lack of permits for climbing Mt. St. Helens. For days I checked the online forums and finally got lucky: a very nice man from Washington was willing to sell me two permits for Sat, Jul 26, 2014, because some of his group members were not going to make it. That was the starting shot for an adventure that I will not forget anytime soon.

Here’s the preview I posted online at that point:

 

Climbing Mt. Adams

On Thu, Jul 24, 2014, we left Portland at around 3pm, drove to Troutlake, where we got the Mt. Adams climbing permits and had a tasty dinner. The weather was looking great. We drove up to the Cold Springs trailhead, which we reached before sunset. Camp was set up and I lay down for an hour or two before embracing the unknown.

At 10pm I headed out toward the Mt. Adams summit. I went as light as possible without making compromises regarding safety and comfort. For example, I packed a face mask because it tends to be windy up there and I get cold quickly. Not surprisingly, I ended up using it and being very glad I packed it. While I slowly made my way up to the Lunch Counter, where most people camp overnight, Ursina was enjoying a cozy night in the tent.

There was very little snow and I was able to move quite fast. I reached the lunch counter in 2h20min, faster than ever before. Now the real work began. I put on crampons and started the rather steep ascend to the false summit. For the first time I used only poles up to the summit. I had an ice axe with me, but moving with poles was simply more efficient.

At 3:25am, 5:h25min after I left the trailhead, I made it to the summit. It was terribly windy and cold. And of course dark. Yet, the night was beautiful and the sky amazing. I radioed to Ursina that I made it and turned around quickly. The descent was more painful than the ascent. The frozen surface and the steep incline made it hard to move fast and efficient. I tried to glissade once, but it was clearly too dangerous in these conditions.

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Running to Mt. St. Helens (Chocolate Falls)

At the Lunch Counter I radioed again so that Ursina could get ready to meet me at the junction with trail #9 (about 1.3mi from the Cold Springs TH), which would get me around Mt. St. Adams to the PCT. When I got there, I felt very exhausted, the feet hurt, and I could not imagine running for 24h/80mi. Ursina had coffee and broth with her and all the running gear I needed. I changed and she reminded me that it was time to leave. So I did. The first few miles were terrible. I was hurting, cold, and felt sick. What do you do in such situations. You move on! Eventually I got into a flow and was able to move like I’m used to, despite the fully loaded pack.

The views and the trails were amazing! Besides the Loowit trail, I had never run on any of the trails that I was going to be on during the day and night. That turned out to be an error. Or maybe it was a good thing? I’m still unsure.

For I while I was cruising on the PCT, then turned off on trail #64 (Riley Camp trail), which was all downhill until road 90. The Table Mt. trail #18 finally connected me to the Boundary trail #1, that would get me to Bear Meadow after endless 50mi or so. What I didn’t know, but discovered quickly, was that the Boundary trail #1, and most other trails around there, are open to motorcycles. Instead of a flat nice trail surface, I found a deeply rutted trail that made it very hard to run.

The trail would often look like this:

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I had a pace table with what I thought were realistic goals. But I quickly realized that they were not. By lunch time, I was literally several hours behind schedule. I started to seriously worry for two reasons: fuel and my crew. I planned the fuel based on the pace table, plus some margin for error, but not as much as I was behind. Second, my crew had instructions to come and search for me at a specific time then next morning if I would not show up at the Chocolate Falls “aid station” by then. At that point, I seriously doubted I was going to be able to make it by the agreed time. There was no way to communicate with them because neither they nor I had cell phone reception. I carried the SPORT transponder, but they were not able to check it up there. That turned out to be a weakness of our logistics.

Well, I had no other option than to continue. The only two people I saw on the entire run were two guys on motorcycles. After they passed me and left me in a cloud of dust, I wanted to check the map. But alas, it was not where it was supposed to be: stuck under my pack’s straps. Deeply worried, I backtracked. My fear was that the motorcycles either tore it to pieces or dug it into the dirt so that I would never find it again. I also had no clue where I had actually lost it. Needless to say that these are difficult moments when you are alone in the middle of freaking nowhere.

After about a mile, the miracle happened: the map was laying on the ground in front of me, unharmed. Lesson learned: never lose your map! I tucked it in differently from now on.

After long miles and hours, with beautiful views, meadows, streams, and forests, I finally reached Elk Pass, where road 25 intersects with the trail. By then I was hopelessly behind schedule, hurting badly, hungry, and terribly exhausted. I sat down by the side of the road and decided to see if a car would come by while I studied the map and estimated my arrival time at Mt. St. Helens. The sun was slowly setting by then and I knew I had at least another 12h before me.

No car came by, which was to be expected on this road and at that time. After 5min I bit the bullet and continued. For an unknown reason, I suddenly felt much better, the trail was either flat or downhill, and I cruised along quite pleasantly. To my big surprise, I reached Bear Meadow much quicker than anticipated. By then it was mostly dark. I had about 10mi of road running ahead of me until Windy Ridge. Having driven this road once in a car, I remembered it as mostly flat. These memories turned out to be quite wrong. It was one of the toughest stretches! Partly because it was dark and I was tired after more than 24h without sleep, partly because the road was often too steep for me to run with the energy I had left, but too flat to power-hike. It was mentally exhausting. I also almost ran out of water, but managed to climb down to some river eventually. I would have been in some trouble otherwise because there is no water until the Ape Canyon.

At some point I was followed by two glowing eyes for several miles. Whatever it was, I tried to chase it away with throwing rocks and making noise. It would not leave. At some point I was worried to the point that I decided to carry a heavy log. I wanted to be able to defend myself in case it was a cougar. When I finally reached Windy Pass late in the 2nd night, the eyes were gone. From there I knew my way well and didn’t need a map anymore. But I also knew it would take me hours to get to Chocolate Falls. The only positive and surprising thing was that I had caught up with my initial timeline. That gave me some new energy.

As expected, it was cold and windy over the Plains of Abraham.  After passing the Ape Canyon turn-off, I had to change headlamp batteries even though it was starting to dawn. That’s always a bit of a hassle. But moving through the sheer endless number of rocky canyons was way more tiresome. As always, the sunrise provided some welcome energy and warmth. By then, I slowly started to smell the barn. I ate my last food that I had carefully saved, but suddenly felt very sick. It was quite literally morning sickness. Somehow I managed not to throw up.

The final lava fields felt endless and the hallucinations were often a major distraction. Shortly after 5am, I finally reached Chocolate Falls, where Ursina and Kam had set up camp the evening before. I had serious difficulties finding the tent, however. Every time I thought I saw it and started moving toward it, it turned out to be a boulder. It was very unnerving. By then, I was convinced I was done and would never climb Mt. St. Helens. All I wanted was to sleep!

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Climbing Mt. St. Helens:

The crew was quickly awake when I finally showed up. Hot coffee, chocolate, broth, and a backpacker meal were ready. I wondered if it was all just a hallucination. After trying to sit somewhat comfortably, which turned out to be impossible, I lay down for a few minutes. Kam wasn’t super excited to climb Mt. St. Helens (long story, ha!) either, but somehow we got up within a few minutes. It’s unclear why I felt energized again suddenly. Maybe it was the warm drinks and food, maybe the sunshine, maybe the joy to see people. I changed shoes and gear and off we were!

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The conditions were gorgeous in every aspect! In no time we reached the summit and enjoyed the views. Seeing Mt. Adams in the distance was quite surreal and it was when I fully realized the craziness of this adventure.

I quickly descended, driven by the prospect of napping in camp. It was mid-day by then and quite hot. After 38h17min, 85.75mi, and 49,344ft of elevation change, I was done! Literally.

Kam took it easy and when she got back to camp I had napped for a while. We packed up and hiked down to Marble Mt. Snow Park. On the way home we stopped in Cougar for beer, pizza, and desert. It was amazing, even though we had to wait forever for the special dessert!

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Movie Clip (full report)

 

Suunto Movescount Route Fly-through

 

The Route
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Elevation Profile
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Food Consumed (while running)

  • 5 waffles = 1,000cal
  • 5 energy bites  = 300cal
  • 15 gels = 1,650cal
  • 6x200cal of Tailwind = 1,200cal
  • TOTAL: 4,150cal

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