Background

This spring has been fickle and required the ability to be at the right place at the right time. It’s been drippy, with small weather windows that don’t quite look ‘splitter’. To date, my life has been structured in such a way that I can adapt to such conditions and fickleness. I have a job that allows me ample flexibility in work schedule; I have friends that are available on weekdays; and I have a support network that encourages me to go after my goals and ambitions when the time is right. I’m very fortunate.

Lane and I were up high on Mt. Baker on Wednesday this week and had great conditions on the North Ridge. It got us thinking that high volcanoes were quite fat for this time of year. In the Cascades, naturally a steep skier’s mind drifts to three steep skiing lines that demand attention: the Coleman Glacier Headwall on Mt. Baker, the Mowich Face on Mt. Rainier, and the NFNWR (North Face of Northwest Ridge) on Mt. Adams.

I’d seen a photo on Facebook a week prior taken from Tahklahk Lake of the north side of Adams. It looked pretty fat; the pixelated image didn’t give a certainty that the NFNWR went, but it looked good enough to try. The NFNWR has dramatically changed due to glacial recession. In prior years the line was uninterrupted until the cross-over to the Adams Glacier; now there is a rock band in the middle that becomes the ‘crux’ and can become quite icy and shut down skiers. It may go ‘out’ within my lifetime, kind of crazy to think of.

The NFNWR itself is massive; Jason Hummel writes about it feeling like ‘the edge of the earth’. It’s over 3,000′ from top to bottom, with ~2,000′ of sustained 40-45 degrees. Business time. The upper 1000′ is pretty mellow but the line rolls over to 45 degrees and doesn’t back off until the cross to the Adams Glacier.

Michael, Lane, and I hatched a plan to take advantage of a final day of good weather before another storm rolled in. We drove out towards Killen Creek late on Friday and prepared for little sleep and tired legs.

Trip Report

Michael and I headed out to meet Lane in Puyallup around 630 PM. Traffic sucked, we faffed around in Puyallup getting food, and realized that we wouldn’t get to the trailhead until 10:30 PM when we plugged it into Google Maps. Ouch! We’d texted rough itineraries but hadn’t nailed one down yet, packed and ready for whatever we decided. On the drive we assessed stoke and vibes: everyone was up for a big day, unsure if the NFNWR would be on the ‘menu’ but we’d go and see what we found. Our rough plan was to climb up the NW Ridge, drop the south side, come back up, then drop a north side line. We were anticipating corn so an 11AM or so drop off the south side and a ~3PM drop off the north side was our rough plan. We agreed to climb the NW Ridge, as opposed to the disgustingly chossy North Ridge. We couldn’t quite make it all the way to Killen Creek due to snow, so instead we stopped at Trail Divide Camp and pitched tents quickly.

It turns out that Trail Divide is a much better approach for the NW Ridge than Killen. Less traversing, easier exit…I’m never going to Killen again for the north side of Adams, to be frank. We set our alarms for 3AM, were moving by 330AM. We found patchy snow for the first mile or so then consistent snow from there. SHOCKINGLY, no mosquitoes. Like seriously, holy shit no mosquitoes?!?!? In my previous experiences the north side of Adams has been the worst mosquito hell ever. I packed bug spray and bug spray in anticipation but there wasn’t one to be found. Huh…

The morning light was stellar over Adams and the surrounding peaks. There were some patchy clouds and clearly wind up high which made us think that corn o’ clock might be a bit later than anticipated. The forecast called for it to clear up and heat up, though, so it wouldn’t be the worst to be early and wait a bit. On our approach we surveyed the north side: the Adams Glacier looked skiable, the northwest ridge looked like good consistent snow, and the NFNWR looked ~maybe~ skiable through the rock pinch. Always hard to tell scale on such a massive face. We’d get a better look at it as we got closer on the NW Ridge.

Lane and Michael skin with the NFNWR above them.

We saw a lone mountaineer man heading up the NW Ridge ahead of us…more on this later (lolz and not lolz at the same time).

We were able to skin all the way to 9k’ on the NW Ridge. Real talk, if you’re comfortable with some steep snow climbing the NW Ridge is WAAAAY better than the N Ridge. You get an up-close view of the NFNWR, avoid all the BS choss; I’m not doing the N Ridge again. We ski cramponed to 9k’, transitioned to boots, and began up the NW Ridge. It’s fairly mellow to start, but then ramps to 40-45 degrees at points. It would actually be a wonderful ski line for those not set on the NFNWR. It was quite windy and the skis on our backs made for an awkward sail effect. We frontpointed quite a few sections where the snow was very very firm and a tip or fall would likely be lethal. I kinda wished I had two tools…noted for next time.

Lane’s pic of me front pointing on the NW Ridge.

Near the upper NW Ridge we met up with the mountaineer we’d seen tracks from. He, curiously, seemed to be finding the most possibly difficult way up the ridge and was smashing his hiking pole and boots into the snice. We began to be worried that we’d witness a lethal fall. It didn’t appear he had crampons on. Lane traversed over to him and chatted, asking if he needed help. He was better equipped than we thought, he even had a second ice tool in his pack that he wasn’t using?!?! He got it out, we scratched our heads, and continued up.

We had predicted topping out in 6 hours but topped out in 7 due to the firm conditions on the NW Ridge. The winds had taken some energy out of us and we felt a bit more beat down than we’d hoped for a double Adams day. It was ~10:30 AM by the time we summited for the first time. We didn’t wait, pretty much at all, and just launched off to the south side. In my past experiences, the Avalanche Headwall and SW Chutes aren’t really ready until 1130AM-1230 PM but we had the climb back up and the north side to consider too. We couldn’t optimize for all the situations and had to just launch off and get what we got. I led us off the summit towards Avalanche. We’d waffled on whether to ski SW Chutes or Avalanche; neither Lane nor Michael had skied either but Lane was more stoked on the lesser traveled Avalanche Headwall.

We skied Avalanche Headwall in some pretty firm conditions, smooth but very firm. Good practice for getting the edges in! And a nice warm up for what NFNWR might be later. I found a nice perch for some photos of Lane and Michael as they tried to style their way down in some scratchy conditions.

Lane turning down the Avalanche Headwall, with the Pinnacle above him.

Slightly bummed that we hadn’t waited long enough, we opted to flip at 8,600′ on the ridge separating the Avalanche Headwall zone from the SW Chutes. In the past I’d climbed back up from the base of the SW Chutes to the South Climb and was able to skin the whole way. But we saw a good ridge above us that looked easily bootable and it’d save us ~800′ of climbing. Plus we’d be out of the gong show of people. We took a nice break on this ridge, drank a Red Bull and ate some snacks.

After ~30 mins of lounging, we headed up. The snow was now ripe corn. Doh! It was only extremely painful to boot up legitimately perfect ripper corn on such a beautiful side of the mountain. We saw over 2 dozen people dropping the SW Chutes. I took mental notes of the lines in the Avalanche Headwall zone I’d like to go back to and tried to forget how silly not waiting just a little longer for corn was. We were just prioritizing the NFNWR I told myself….hopefully.

The climb back up to the summit was such a silly slog. In classic volcano slog fashion, it felt like we were getting nowhere. But we were. Before long enough we were back on the summit plateau heading over to the Pinnacle for the second time. We sighted two skiers heading over from the North Ridge, seemingly coming over to the NFNWR too. By this time of the day we were feeling confident on dropping NFNWR. We had gotten good pics and views of the rock pinch from our climb and it looked wide enough for skis. And the sun had come out in full force and seemed to be softening things. The stars seemed to be aligning.

We were on top of the Pinnacle right around 3PM to drop the NFNWR and this feels like a good time to aim for. 2-3:30 PM maybe, at least in mid June. Mic check, toes locked…ready to rock. We pushed off the Pinnacle ready to go find the edge of the earth.

Lane, Michael, and I grouped at the roll-over. I went down first to the first rock band. It’s an interesting feeling, knowing you are skiing on a huge hanging face with cliffs all around. I felt intense focus lock in, everything else faded away. No urge to get out my camera, no desire to think about what food I want on the way home. Just focusing on tiling my body down the fall line, pressuring that downhill ski…in the fucking zone. For me, that’s what steep skiing is about…feeling the tune of every neuron firing together.

Obligatory ski selfie.

The conditions on the face were damn near perfect. 1-2 inches of soft corn on an edgeable base that caught the skis nicely. Some sluff management was required in spots but nothing too bad. I radioed up to Michael and Lane that this was a go, that we were in it. I continued on down, having sight of the entire face down to the rock pinch. We ensured that none of us were skiing on top of each other, as small sluffs would rush over the huge cliffs down to the Adams Glacier. I let Michael and Lane come down to me just before the next pitch to the rock pinch, then away I went again.

Lane and Michael on the upper NFNWR. It’s really hard to capture scale here, the face is so damn big.

I sighted the rock pinch, it looked plenty wide. I made cautious turns to assess the snow; not too icy! A few jump turns down to where it pinched to ski width, then a quick slip through and I was through! My cheeks began to pinch and form a smile. I still had plenty of exposure below me but the crux was done. I radioed to Michael and Lane and they began down. Michael was first after me, shushed his way through. Then Lane, who in classic Lane fashion straighlined through the pinch. Lolz.

Michael sliding through the pinch.
Lane approaching the choke.
Lane dumping speed after straight lining the choke.

I took out my camera for some photos of the pinch but aside from that wasn’t really motivated to capture many moments on the upper face. Focus was just all-consuming. We can’t all be Jason Hummel.

Lane led us towards the Adams Glacier, sighted some funky cracks, and radioed back. I saw another way to skier’s left of Lane, went down, and called back to Michael and Lane that it went. The snow was much wetter and grabbier than up on the face so we all unlocked our toes at this point and cautiously prayed for our -CL ligaments. We radioed back up to the two skiers back up on the Pinnacle that were waiting for us to give them the go ahead, ‘all yours’.

We took a few long gazes back at the face out of the hazard now. Wow, what a line. It truly does feel like the end of the earth. Sustained, more route-findy and complex than the Coleman Headwall yet similar in pitch. A true plum line.

Looking back up at the NFNWR from the bottom.

Before long, back at the shoes, hiking out, back at the car. Some mosquitoes as we packed up the car but overall not bad.

Quite grateful for this day. I fully realize that I have many more opportunities than many of my friends to do things in the mountains like this. There are moments where this makes me feel guilty, feel fearful of jealousy and FOMO from others. I’m still just a kid from Florida that likes sliding down snow. And I’ll always be that.