With an elevation of 12,281 ft. (3,743 m), Mount Adams is the second tallest peak in Washington State and the third tallest in the entire Cascades Range.
Not only is Mount Adams tall, it’s also massive and highly prominent. Of all the Cascades volcanoes, only Mount Shasta takes up more space– i.e. has a greater volume– than Mount Adams.
Adams stands out starkly against the much lower and flatter landscape that surrounds it. ’Prominence‘ is the technical term that describes this way of looking at a mountain’s topography. Mount Adams is one of only about 1,500 mountains in the world that qualifies as an ‘ultra prominent peak.’ Ten other Cascades peaks are also on the ultra prominent list.
Despite these claims to fame, Mount Adams is the least-visited of the three snow-clad volcanoes that loom near the Columbia River Gorge. Compared to Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, Mount Adams is hard to access and it’s far away from major urban areas. The entire east side of the mountain is within the Yakama Nation Indian Reservation– entry by non-tribal members requires a permit, issued by the Tribe.
Several different volcanic cones merged together to form Mount Adams. This is why it doesn’t have a single, distinct peak like Mount Hood. The part of the mountain that rises above the forest was formed by lava flows between 30,000 and 12,000 years ago.
No eruptions have disturbed Mount Adams in the last 1,000 years. But this volcano is not extinct. Geologists think that it is only dormant and may erupt again someday. A big enough eruption could be disastrous for the communities of Trout Lake and the White Salmon River valley. These areas were devastated 6,000 years ago when an eruption released a massive mud and debris flow (called a lahar) that roared down the mountain and flowed for over 25 miles downstream.
Native American tribes in the area have their own stories for the origin of Mount Adams. An abbreviated version of one story goes like this: Two brothers, Klickitat and Wy’east, were both in love with a beautiful girl named Loo-wit. Their quarrel over her angered the Great Spirit and he turned all three of the people into mountains. Loo-wit became the symmetrical, lovely Mount St. Helens. Proud Wy’east was turned into Mount Hood, with his head held high. Mount Adams is Klickitat, who hangs his head in sorrow.
I was lucky to get a chance to climb to the summit of Mount Adams recently. I went with my friends Sam (in the photo above) and Matt. We joined over 100 other people on the slopes of the mountain that weekend in August. Even though Adams is relatively remote, it’s still a popular peak for climbers. A permit is required to go up the mountain.
Even novice mountaineers like me and my friends can make it to the top, since the climb isn’t very technical. That said, it’s hard work and can be very dangerous. People have died on Mount Adams.
We did the trip as a backpacking overnighter, which is the common way to do it. We set our tents up among dozens of others on the ‘Lunch Counter,’ a very rocky but relatively flat area a little above 9,000 ft.
The second day, we started up the icy slope at dawn, wearing crampons and wielding ice axes. It was a surreal experience for me, to be up so high, on a very steep and icy slope, surrounded by so many other climbers. I normally prefer solitude in the wilderness, but I really liked the camaraderie of the crowd there on Mount Adams. It took us four hours to cover the 3 miles between our camp and the summit.
We got lucky with the weather: it was clear and sunny. I heard that it’s often windy and cloudy on the peak. We had a great view of Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens. Smoke from multiple forest fires limited what we could see beyond that.
Mount Adams is a spectacular mountain and I look forward to getting to know it better. I’ve been to the summit, but that only makes me keen to explore the rest of this huge, lonely volcano.