Mount Adams -12,276 Feet: Klickitat Headwall

June 26, 2010

Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject - the actual enemy is the unknown. ~Thomas Mann

PHOTOS AND STORY by Jason Hummel

Spring snow in 2010 took a long time to come into condition. Unconsolidated late season snowpack took weeks to settle. It was very frustrating! Yet, the accompanying cold weather didn’t mean spring was gone, just delayed. High country that was normally bereft of snow was 140% of normal by June. This happily offered me an attractive opportunity; a chance to return to my favorite mountain, Mount Adams, when it is usually melted out.

What I had come to visit was a route that had tormented me, even long before I had seen it in 2008 during a circumnavigation of Mount Adams. The goal of that adventure was to see every facet of the peak, all her cold-blue glaciers and crumbling rock, in a single day’s mad dash. Throughout, by trips end, there was one standout, the Klickitat Headwall. Few images detail this route or give it justice. They only manage to capture her melted, late-season state. It was eye-opener to see this jewel, plumped with snow. You could prick my excitement with a ski pole.

In 2009, friends and I returned to ski the Klickitat Headwall. We were met with poor, unstable snow conditions. We didn’t ski the route, but chose an easier option and descended the Mazama Glacier.

Joined by Adam Roberts and my twin brother Josh, 2010 we decided, was the year. After spending the night with hundreds of other climbers along the access road a few miles below the snowed in trailhead, I realized why I liked the north routes of Mount Adams so much better. In 12 years of exploring there, I’d never skied over another track. It’s a great example of the herd mentality of people, many of whom are unwilling to look beyond the cattle path and do something no one else is doing.

The climb is a familiar one for my twin brother and me. Memories of our first time up the mountain at age six fills us with nostalgia. The same long line of people lead out of sight and the same fields and rocks, resting places and plateaus offer respite. Just like our climb way back then, the South Rib offers quick access to the summit and back down. This time, unlike then, we had other ideas in mind.

At Piker’s Peak, the false summit, the three of us ventured toward the top of the Klickitat Headwall. I’d studied it long and hard and knew where to drop in. No matter my confidence, staring down the barrel of an entire side of a mountain is most disconcerting. I took the first turn. A cornice hangs over the right side and ribs of rock snake thousands of feet down, out of sight. The upper face is 50 degrees and the smooth snow glides perfectly under my edges. It is only then a smile forms. Reaching a hand into the slope, I look up at Adam and Josh and tell them, “The snow is f*&^ing rad!”

Adam goes next. I was worried how he’d do since he is new to ski mountaineering (although an accomplished skier). What concerns I had vanished the instant he dropped in. He skied into the face like a rock star, dancing turn into turn with confidence. “Damn, I am getting old” I thought. Risk retrained my wild turns of younger days and constrained me to short hop turns.

Josh was going to be skiing an AT set-up for the first time on steeps. Both of us have been telemark skiers our entire lives. But I broke all his skis, so he was relegated to the downhill set-up and was super nervous. He’d only gotten a dozen days on them in the past season. While learning downhill skiing is easier for telemark skiers than the other way around, it is still quite different. I stuck around to make sure he’d be okay before I descended over a bergschrund.

The central face isn’t as steep, around 40 degrees. Adams enthusiasm could be measured by his inability to pull up. He descended nearly out of sight before he realized he was halfway down the mountain! I felt like I was cheering him on under my breath, “Oh yeah. OH yeah. YEAH!” There was no way he could hear me. We were so thrilled. Conditions were everything I had dreamed of, perfect butter snow that glided smoothly under my skis.

The lower face is guarded by icefalls that can be skied around via any number of couloirs. It is steeper than the central face, around 50 degrees. This is made even more fantastic than above by the statues of crumbly rock which rise precariously from deteriorating ridges clasped in melting snow. We saw a huge wet slide sweep over sun-blasted slopes on Battlement Ridge and this convinced us to hurry through the rest of the route. Hoots and hollers ricocheted from massive rock walls.


A bergschrund appeared easily navigable, but this wasn’t the case. It stretched from one side to the other. Adam made the first crossing via a heart-wrenching crossing onto a wilting snow bridge. Neither Josh nor I thought he was going to cross it and were taken aback when he did. Unwilling to follow suit, we found another way that required airtime.

From the base of the route on the Klickitat Glacier, we sped away, snow flying into the air behind us. Breathless, we stopped in a safe zone and took in our descent. I felt proud. I remembered my best friend Ben talking about the Klickitat when we used to ski on Mount Adams together. I felt sad too that he couldn’t be here with me. In 2003 he passed away. Each time I return, I am reminded of the many adventures we’d shared. It was always our quest to ski every possible route on the mountain. After nearly 40 descents, I was so close now. That should excite me, but it didn’t. Finishing would be a mixture of emotion, that’s for sure. But for the moment, I was thrilled. The route had been everything I had imagined and more. It reminded me to have the presence of mind to forget the past and future, to focus on my ski tips and the taste of a successful day.

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Jason Hummel