How to Climb a Real Mountain in the Pacific Northwest

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Ever wanted to climb a real mountain? One that rises up out of a towering forest, that’s jumbled with glaciers and snow and has a soaring summit and forever views?

In the Pacific Northwest, you can.

Thanks to the wonders of geology, some of the biggest and boldest of the Cascade Mountains have formed and evolved in ways that allow them to be scaled by even mildly ambitious mountaineers. With some solid training, some wilderness know-how a bit of teamwork and a dose of good luck, big Cascade peaks like Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens and South Sister can all be climbed. Here’s how.

Join a club

One of the best ways to learn about mountaineering in the Northwest is to team up with one of the region’s renowned mountaineering clubs or companies. Many of them offer beginning climbing courses that unfold over a few weeks and cover everything from basic wilderness navigation to snow and glacier travel, rope handling and crevasse rescue. (Don’t worry, many of the big mountains in the Cascades have nontechnical routes that don’t cross glaciers or require ropes and harnesses.)

A few Northwest clubs and companies that offer introductory climbing courses include: The Mountaineers (multiple branches in Washington); Washington Alpine Club (Seattle); American Alpine Institute (Mt. Baker and the North Cascades); Spokane Mountaineers (Spokane); and the Mazamas (Portland).


Hit the trail

Though climbing clubs and their courses are great, prospective climbers also need to do a lot of the hard work that will get them up to the top and back down again.

For climbing the big Cascades, that means getting in good climbing shape. Running, biking and walking, particularly on trails or hills, are great for starters. You’ll also want to get your body used to long, hard hikes, as that’s what the standard routes on some of the local peaks are.

Start with light training hikes and gradually work your way up to longer, steeper ones. As you get in better shape, consider carrying a larger pack with more weight in it. A good way to do that is to carry extra water, which you can dump out for the hike down.


Get the gear

Many of the standard routes up mountains like South Sister in Oregon and Mt. St. Helens in Washington are non-technical and don’t require ropes, harnesses or other gear. When conditions are good, these climbs can be long, steep hikes. But you still need some gear.

Standard hiking and backpacking gear is a good place to start. Sturdy hiking boots, gaiters, synthetic pants and shirts, warm layers, a windbreaker, hats for warmth and sun protection and gloves are the basics. Some routes with late season snow or ice can also call for crampons and an ice axe. (Always check Forest Service and other websites for the latest on conditions and to find out what kind of permits are required).

Trekking poles come in handy when mountaineering, and you’ll want a good pack and plenty of food and water. Don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses, a first aid kit, GPS or compass and map and other supplies that backpackers often carry.

Don’t have what you need? Check your local outdoor retailers, who often rent gear.


Head for the hills

When you’re ready to take the alpine challenge, consider these classic trudges.

Mt. Adams, South Side ­­– Though you can tackle Mt. Adams in a single day, its 12 roundtrip miles and 6,700 feet of elevation make it more manageable as an overnighter. Climb up to the Lunch Counter to camp, summit the next morning and have a blast coming down this route’s legendary glissade run.

Mt. St. Helens, Monitor Ridge ­– You’ll climb 4,500 feet over about 5 miles, but when you get to the top of the Northwest’s most notorious volcano, you’ll appreciate every step. At the crater rim, you can gaze into the mountain’s steaming core and take in vistas across Spirit Lake up to Mt. Rainier.

South Sister, Climber TrailA beauty of a peak in Central Oregon, South Sister rises 10,358 feet and awards climbers with stunning views of nearby mountains, lakes and the dry side of the Cascades. The climb is about 13 miles roundtrip with close to 5,000 feet of elevation gain.

Image by benjamima75