100 Peaks #5: Klickitat in Winter; Failure is Fun

I’m writing about 100 mountains that are rad. The whole list is here.

You might know this mountain as Mt. Adams, but its native names are Pahto and Klickitat. I like this one best, and it means “beyond,” which is just a really great name for a big snowy thing, right?

I have been to the top of this mountain before (which means I’m allowed to write about it according to my own arbitrary rules), but I don’t really want to write about that time. I did the normal route at the normal time in summer and had a great time with my friends, but it was really nothing essay-worthy. Approximately half a year later, I could still see the rings of sunburn on my calves, and Mr. K had become something way more my speed than a popular and accessible summer peakbagging objective. According to people I mentioned it to, Adams-in-a-day was now “why would you do that in winter? The approach is way too long.” The road was snowed out, and there was now an extra 8-ish miles each way. But by the end of winter, not having hiked many long days was a palpable empty space in my torso somewhere. And I had Saturday to hang out with Westy. We both thought we should probably use the day to go to Mt. Hood, but over beers a couple of days before, we gradually decided that being reasonable and successful was no fun and that Hood would be there later (and a better trip to include other people).

We drove out the night before, after I got some stares running to catch the train to Kent in my heavy boots and a pack with all of my sharp metal things strapped to the outside. When we got to the forest road around 10, we realized some of the road to the parking lot we had intended to start at was closed. We went to sleep an extra (extra) couple of miles from the mountain at Snow King Sno-Park in the back of the car under a clear starry sky.

We woke up objectively probably too late for what we were trying to do, but the still-early light in the woods was soft and warm-colored as we walked down the road. Sometimes, a bit of sun would come through the trees and make a little wedge of glowing sparkly snow that stood out the still-dullish morning. We passed our intended starting point, the trees slowly got more dead, and we stopped sticking to roads the whole time. The standard southern route was right in front of us, so navigation once the trees were sparse was essentially “go towards the mountain.” We were going to follow a big lava bed marked by sparse tree cover, which incredibly is thousands of years old despite looking very recent.

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Klickitat/Pahto is part of many native legends explaining the volatile histories of these southern volcanoes. In one story, Pahto is a jealous wife, one of the sun’s five wives and the third he greets every day. Her fiery temper is evident as she attacks the first two wives, steals everything she can, and faces punishment at the hands of Wy’east (Hood). However, this story never really fit how I imagined the mountain’s personality. We spent a while during the climb talking about how difficult it was to imagine the personality of Pahto, though we agreed that Wy’east was clearly the cooler guy with his fancy, pointy peak. Another story, published in an old Mountaineers publication, has Pahto and Wy’east as two competing suitors for a beautiful lady mountain. She really loved Wy’east, but wanted to toy with the feelings of “the big, good-natured Pahto.” Pahto eventually won the hand of the lady-mountain in a series of quarrels, and she was so distressed about being separated from Wy’east that she fell asleep forever at his feet. The flattish shape between Piker’s Peak and the true summit of Adams is due to Pahto bowing his head in shame at having hurt the object of his affection in this way. This strange and tragic story fits the gentle, sedate image I have of this mountain compared to the other volcanoes.

We stopped for cans of coffee near where some snowmobilers passed us (the only people we saw all day) and then continued as the climb and the snow got more interesting. I was jealous of skis because Westy seemed to be having a much easier time staying on top of the snow than I was. In the distance, the false summit was a uniform, flat shape against the uniformly blue sky. No rocks interrupted the snowfield from this angle, and it looked surreally geometric.

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As we continued on, we saw many interesting types of wind-affected snow. There was surface after unique surface of snow forming alien-looking ridges in jagged clumps or flatter contours that looked like walking on a topo map with a super impractical scale. Sometimes, the snow was wet and sticky and a sickly, unnatural sheen covered the sculpted surface. At one point, we were sweating in our t-shirts as we traversed what looked like especially white desert dunes. Only recently, I learned that these little wind-made ridges are called sastrugi, which is an especially charming mountain word (maybe because it is Russian instead of the usual Western European origin). I was overwhelmed both by these textures and by the views of Mt. Hood in the distance, a little point peeking out above some of the few, low clouds. What I had remembered as “just a lot of snowfields” was actually changing character rapidly as we continued, as the clouds also changed the view and cast different moving shadows on the blank ground.

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Later, we found a little hole under the snow, where I sat on some rocks and ate a snack while admiring some frost crystals. We decided we had to turn around in about an hour in order for me to even get a few hours of sleep before work the next day. During that time, especially since I managed to drop my phone and go back for it, we didn’t get all that much farther. We made it to just below the “lunch counter” and above the clouds, and turned around. Some part of me was a bit happy because my inner thigh had started to hurt hours ago, but I still really didn’t want to go home.

On the way down, it was fun to watch someone ski the beautiful slopes in front of me. The playfulness and ease of the movement made me enjoy my own walking more and put me at ease despite my leg. I would have loved to run more recklessly back down, but I was having an increasingly difficult time lifting my leg. By the time we got back to the “approach” near the sno-parks, I was taking a longer route by the roads instead of our shortcut, because lifting my leg out of deep snow required using my arms to pick it up.

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But it didn’t matter as we chatted happily and got back to the second sno-park a couple miles from our car just as it got dark. We barely had to hike without light, and then it was time for ice cream and home. And the night hiking was pretty pleasant– the stars were out sooner than I expected, and we ended the trip with them as it started. We had gotten in a lot of hours of hiking, and even though we “didn’t make our objective,” I was happy we had chosen the impractical trip and felt like I had an actual connection to Klickitat for the first time.

I’m not the only one who thought of  this peak as an afterthought. The name Adams originated during a campaign where Hood was supposed to receive the name and St. Helens was set to become yet another Mt. Washington (thank goodness we dodged that bullet). Somehow mapmakers forgot about this third peak, wrote the name Adams where they thought Hood was, and found that while it was the wrong location, there happened to be a mountain there to receive the name. I was distressed that before this trip I had been similarly dismissive of Klickitat, and my favorite thing about it was the other mountains you could see from the top. Not anymore, as now it brings to mind endless, dreamlike fields of strange white undulating shapes.

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