Cascade Trifecta: Attempt #2

by Max on July 26, 2013

We both sat slumped in the snow, 2000 vertical feet from the summit of Mt Rainier, discussing our options. It was getting close to 2pm, late in the day for anyone heading up that high on the mountain. Both of us were exhausted as we’d just pushed to 19,000 feet of elevation gained in the last 24hrs. Up at 12,000ft above sea level the air thin enough to make each step labored in the soft mushy snow, we deliberated over what we should do. According to the guides we had just passed heading down there was weather moving in, possible thunderstorms, and they were reluctant to allow us to carry on but agreed only after we had roped up and put crampons on. Safety precautions that were quite reasonable. Brett was wavering whether he had enough in him to continue on and the guides advice about the weather may have just put the nail in the coffin, so to speak.

A little over two months earlier I ran into Brett Yost riding his “classic” pink and white Bridgestone 10 speed down the back alley on my way back from a run through Bend. I’d been thinking about our attempt the previous summer to scale the three highest peaks in the Cascade Mountain Range; Rainier, Adams, and Hood and how it would be nice to take another crack at it. We’d made it up Rainier so fast it gave Brett heat exhaustion, I made it most of the way up Adams solo but was turned around by darkness about 1000ft short of the summit because I’d never been up there before, and we never even made it to Hood. So, I asked Brett if he would be willing to give it another shot. He said yes, and so it began.
In preparation, I went about my daily training and dialing in my gear to make it more useful to going fast in the mountains and Brett began training in earnest, much harder and more specific than me, for a date to be determined in June to make our attempt.

Last year the biggest barrier to us getting out had been finding a window in my schedule that lined up with a good weather window. This year would be no different. Between races, watching the kids, work, the weather, and other commitments our window of opportunity was getting tighter and tighter until it was starting to look like we might just squeeze ourselves out of time. It came down to the third weekend in June. I had a free Fri/Sat, Brett was ready to go, but low-pressure weather was dragging out during the week and closing the window even tighter. As we approached Friday morning our plan was to leave that afternoon for Rainier, sleep in the parking lot that evening and start about 5am on Saturday. Looking at weather reports though, showed that another patch of bad weather was supposed to come in Saturday afternoon, about the time we would be starting on Adams. This was bad news. It was giving us a good weather window of 24hrs starting not on our schedule of 5am but instead on Friday afternoon. That is not what we had planned at all. But, even though we can scale mountains, we still can’t move them, Brett nor I was going to be able to change the weather. To make lemonade, we took our weather window, changed our plans and left Bend at 4pm Friday afternoon, not for Rainier, but for Hood.

I was stoked to be making a second attempt at the Trifecta, and through Brett’s quite demeanor, I could tell his nerves would only settle after we set foot on the snow at Timberline Lodge. I clicked my watch into action at 6:38pm and we set off on a gorgeous evening with sunset about 2.5hrs away.

The snow was soft but it had been at least coolish that day so wasn’t as slushy as it could have been. We found a bare ridgeline to travel on to near the top of the Cooper lift that made getting up a little easier where it would have been softest. With excitement and fresh legs we were going a bit harder than we had planned so we scaled it back to look at the big picture. Still, we reached the summit in 2:06 in good snow conditions, about 6min faster than our previous climb two weeks earlier in similar conditions. This got Brett a little worried, all too aware that a hot pace (and hot weather) got him into trouble last year. I assured him we were fine and we started down. The trip down was amazing. With the sun setting we were running down the side of an 11,000ft volcano with the sun setting on the horizon while falling downward with the glistening slope of snow. Words, of course, can’t do it justice but it was one of the most amazing sights of geometric planes in motion.

Mt Hood

Sunset on Mt Hood

Aside from a few face plants in the snow, we made it down without incident, back to the car with the watch split at 3:06, and on our way to Adams. Feeling good with one down. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had Pringles? Well, it’s been a long time, and I have to say they taste really good in between climbing mountains. A quick stop at the gas station helped satisfy that craving (and we got gas) and we were off through the night like Batman and Robin in the Batmobile, only it was a Honda Civic…and it was blue.

Prior to this trip we didn’t even know if climbing Adams was going to be a possibility this year. Near the end of last summer a raging wildfire swept through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and destroyed the Mt. Adams trailhead and much of the surrounding forest. It wasn’t until about June 1st that the trailhead finally opened allowing access to the mountain. In the dark of night we wound our way upwards toward the trailhead. The badly damaged dirt road had been repaired but due to erosion concerns huge water bars were constructed making it a herky-jerky ride. My struts may be shot but at least the oil pan came away with only a few dents and no holes.

We started up Adams at 12:30am amidst a sleeping campground. We quickly pushed past two other crazy climbers just starting out for a would-be camp halfway up the mountain. We moved quickly and quietly, the only sound our shoes crunching on the now ice crusted snow. We rose higher and higher up the mountain as the full moon rose with us in the sky. Adams is an easy slog until you get to the headwall. While still a hike it rises at about a 45 degree slope slowing travel and sapping your legs. To add insult to injury (or maybe just fatigue) the peak you stare at the whole way up is only the false summit, the real summit rises another 1000ft across a flat traverse. It was about this time that it definitely started getting colder. Hands started going numb, the feeling of toes in thin running shoes became an ache, and all available clothing was layered on. We topped out and though chilled I had to stop for a few minutes and take in the sight. A full moon illuminated the entire mountain and surrounding forests. We could see Hood River, Portland to the southwest and each of the mountains surrounding Adams. It was the second amazing sight I had seen that day. Brett was pretty cold and hurried down to find warmer air. Back down off the headwall the sun was beginning to rise and the air became warmer. We picked our way through the woods to intersect the climber’s trail and hiked down the rest of the bare trail to a parking lot starting to awaken. Already we had passed a few groups of climbers with skis on their backs and many more would follow within a few hours to get some turns on Adams perfect corn snow later in the day. But we were just finishing so away in the car we went. Adams down in 5hrs. It was now 6am Saturday morning.

Back down the waterbarred road, I pushed the civic as hard as she’d go. Brett was just starting to feel the accumulated fatigue of two mountains and no sleep. With a 3hr (hopefully) drive ahead, he managed to get a little sleep though with my rally driving I’m not sure how. I definitely drifted a few corners. Paved part of the way with 12 miles of dirt it was an exciting drive and the required concentration on not going off the road kept me wide awake. This is where we were able to really make up some time over he previous year. In a Vanagon this drive took us about 5hrs and while it was nice being able to lay down in the back and have our own personal driver, it was definitely worth driving ourselves for the extra 2hrs it gave us.

Brett took over the wheel about 45min outside the park so I could get a little sleep. We rolled into the parking lot to a blue-bird day with the temperatures quickly rising. After getting permits and gathering our gear, we were off, confident in the weather and in our success. We started at about 9:30am.

Already very soft snow conditions made the going slow and arduous and relegated us to the stomped in climbing trail fighting through the crowds of people heading to Muir Camp. Brett began to slow noticeably toward the top just before reaching the camp but with still plenty of time we could afford to slow down to insure success. We took a quick lunch break at Muir Camp before slogging forward to the Ingram Glacier and Disappointment Cleaver (DC). From now on we would see fewer people since most don’t go above Muir Camp. We roped together just before traversing the glacier but due to snow conditions with hardly a worry of slipping didn’t bother with crampons. Once on the DC at about 11,500ft both of us were feeling the fatigue of the day. During a sit down break high up the Cleaver was the first sign of cracking. It was here we met the Mt. Rainier climbing guides heading down the mountain. Showing obvious concern that we might be ill prepared they recommended crampons and ropes. And they showed concern for good reason. All day long Brett and I would pass climbers and summit wearing nothing but running shoes, tights and light shirt, and be carrying only a small pack. Most climbers would look at us funny and I would feel a little underdressed like I was at a black tie affair wearing my Hawaiian shirt, cut off jeans, and flip-flops. I don’t think they see runners all that often.

The guides left us to continue upwards but knowing only one more party was up above us didn’t give Brett a warm fuzzy feeling and he visibly started to look shattered. Don’t get me wrong. I was tired too. We decided to move on.

Up above the Cleaver the route deviated from its usual route by traversing underneath a headwall across the glacier to a ridgeline before continuing it’s upward rise to the summit. Just before this traverse, with another 2000ft of climbing Brett and I both sat down to take stock. Brett expressed concerns that he was not feeling too good, his exhaustion was starting to impair his coordination and while he thought he could make the summit, wasn’t sure he would be able to make it back down, obviously not a good thing. That’s the thing about mountains. Going up’s the hard part but even though down is the easy part, you still have to be able to make it. I was confident and feeling tired but ok, sure I could make it but we were in it together and I could only do it with him. We talked about options. Took a long break and deliberated over whether it was worth it or not. In the end, with the weather starting to turn, we decided to turn and head down. On a mountain, even though it may not be Everest or Denali, in a situation like this it’s tough to turn around so close to the top and I can see how you can get into trouble by pushing on even when it’s not the intelligent thing to do. Luckily it was just Rainier, I’d been up it before and even though we missed out on the Trifecta I still had an absolutely incredible and rewarding day in the mountains. It will still be there next year for another try at it if I so choose, as will every mountain that someone else fails to summit.

As we descended, I became aware just how exhausted Brett was and was glad we had decided to turn around. The snow was even softer now and we postholed down to our knees on every step making it that much harder on already exhausted legs. Glad to be back to the car after 7:25 on Rainier and over 22hrs of adventure, we took off our wet shoes, sweaty clothes, ate some food and geared down. I inspected a blister that started as a hot spot on Mt. Hood almost 24hrs

This is the End.

earlier that was now a flap of skin the size of a quarter. Ouch. That smarts. It was this drive back to Bend via Portland that was probably the hardest and most tedious part of the whole day. Brett got some sleep while I slapped myself to stay awake. After a stop at Chipotle in Gresham we switched places and I was able to get a bit of a nap before reaching Bend.

For me at least, this second attempt was a success. No, we didn’t quite complete the final goal we set out to do but for me it was always more about the adventure I think than anything. It was odd sitting in the snow knowing the summit was only two thousand feet away and yet we weren’t going to be making it. I didn’t feel as much disappointment as I expected. Looking back on the day we had climbed two mountains already and essentially a third, we got an awesome sunset on one, a moonlit experience on another, and a bluebird day on the third with some of the best northwest driving in between. By all accounts it was the adventure I was enjoying, not the summit I needed.

Video from the attempt is here.

Gear Used: I don’t always do this for a running race but a technical mountain climb with varying conditions warrants a gear list

Mt. Hood:

MHW Race Vest w/ hydroflask softflasks
MHW ¾ Tights
MHW Butterman ¼ zip
MHW Hydra EXT Glove
Swiftwick Aspire Twelve Socks
Montrail Bajada Outdry Shoes
Black Diamond Ultradistance Poles
Black Diamond 55cm Ice Axe
Katoola Crampons
MHW Ghost Whisperer Jacket
MHW Strapless Seta Gaiters
MHW Truckery Hat
Rudy Project Gaurdyan Glasses
Rudy Project Snow Helmet

Mt Adams:

MHW Race Vest Pack
MHW Effusion Tights
Swiftwick Merino Pursuit Twelve Socks
MHW Butterman ¼ zip
MHW Effusion Jacket
MHW Beta Power Beanie
MHW Hydra Pro Gloves
Rudy Project Rydon II Glasses
Everything else carry over.

Mt Rainier:

MHW Fluid 10 Pack
MHW Wicked Lite Tee
Everything else carry over


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