50 years after Wilderness Act, Mount Adams still attracts a crowd

On a clear day, Mount Adams looms to the southwest, clearly visible across most of the Yakima Valley. But the familiar, ice-covered face remains a challenge to reach. It’s more remote than Mount Rainier, where visitors can drive on paved roads to high mountain meadows and to snowfields. And there are far fewer trails.

Although half of Mount Adams sits in Yakima County, local hikers and climbers have a roughly 150-mile drive to reach public access points on the south or west sides of the mountain. The remoteness has a positive side for those seeking solitude and scenery. Its officially designated 47,000-acre wilderness area surrounding the summit is one of the three oldest in the state — created when the Wilderness Act was approved by Congress 50 years ago this September. Next weekend, the Friends of Mount Adams group is hosting a conference in Trout Lake to celebrate the legacy of the Wilderness Act and discuss the best ways to manage and protect wild places for the future.

Climbers congregate on the 12,276-foot summit of Mount Adams in July 1995. The remains of a cabin at the summit jut from the snow. The Mount Adams Wilderness Area was created 50 years ago this September. (Photo by Gordon King)

At 12,276 feet, Adams is the second tallest peak in Washington, after Rainier, though it draws a far smaller crowd. But for locals, it’s both a beloved wilderness and a changing one. The original wilderness area was a bit smaller, and then in 1972, President Richard Nixon signed an executive order returning 21,000 acres of the National Forest on the east side of the mountain, including part of the wilderness area and the summit, to the Yakama Nation. The original map from the tribe’s Treaty of 1855 had included this area, but erroneous surveys afterward had excluded it.

Referred to as Pahto by the Yakamas, the mountain has always been seen as a sacred site by tribal members. The area that Nixon returned to the tribe is open to public recreation in the summer and managed as a reserve to protect the resources, explained Steve Andringa, manager of the Yakama Nation’s Tribal Forestry Program. “On the Yakama side, we don’t have designated wilderness, but we have a strong interest in protecting that sacred and sensitive area,” Andringa said. In 1984, Congress added another 14,420 acres to the Mount Adams Wilderness, bringing it up to its current size.

Washington has 31 wilderness areas, but photographer and wilderness advocate Darryl Lloyd calls Mount Adams his favorite — he’s been exploring the mountain since first learning how to walk. In those nearly 70 years, Lloyd said, a lot has changed. There are more hikers charging for the summit on the popular south route and less permanent snow and ice. Sheep no longer graze in the alpine meadows. Forests have grown dense and more fire-prone, and once common pika and marmot are now a rare sight.

“The story for me is time and change,” Lloyd said. He’s writing a book about Mount Adams, and he and his twin brother, Darvel, used to lead wilderness trips in the area in the 1970s. They closed the business after Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980, and the Forest Service closed Mount Adams to the public for almost two years. Today, the Lloyds, who founded the group Friends of Mount Adams, still hike in the wilderness — seeking out favorite places that are off the main trails. They grew up just south of the mountain, but both now live in Oregon.

Darvel told the Herald-Republic about one of their favorite places, but Darryl asked us not to print specifics about the place his brother called “a shangri-la in this country” other than that it’s a challenge to get to. “That’s one reason we go there is for solitude,” Darryl Lloyd said. They tend to avoid the south side, he said. A vast majority of about 10,000 visitors every year take the south route to the summit, according to Justin Ewer, the Mount Adams Wilderness Manager for the Forest Service. Last year was particularly busy, with 14,000 total visitors. “Most people aren’t there for the wilderness experience. They just want to summit,” Darryl Lloyd said. While not technically challenging, the southern route is a long slog up rock and snow that requires some physical conditioning.

Photo taken just below the summit by Seattle PI photographer Dave Potts in 1967 of Yakima Chamber of Commerce organized first mass climb to the summit of Mount Adams. 432 people reached the peak.

Starting in the late 1960s, the Yakima Chamber of Commerce organized massive hikes — taking groups of 400 to 500 people to the summit every summer. Former Yakima mayor and mountain rescue volunteer Lynn Buchanan led many of those trips. “A lot of people look at Mount Adams and they think, gee, it must be different up there and they’d like to climb it, but they don’t know how,” Buchanan said.

The chamber hikes made the mountain more accessible to everybody, he said. Prior to the event, there would be classes and workouts, climbing the hill in Franklin Park over and over to prepare. A local Jeep club would shuttle the hikers up a rutted road, now closed, to the timberline campground.

They took everyone who wanted to go, Buchanan said. The record was 480 who made it to the summit out of 511 who started out. “Some of them got up a ways and thought, ‘This is ridiculous,’ and went back down, but most of them made it,” he said. Upon reaching the summit, and depending on the snowfall that year, climbers could sometime catch a glimpse of a cabin used by sulphur miners in the 1930s. The ore was poor quality and the unprofitable operation was quickly abandoned.

In the mid-1970s, the Forest Service changed its rules, limiting the size of hiking groups in wilderness areas. “The group size limits try to provide the opportunity for solitude that the Wilderness Act mentions,” Ewer said. “But certainly, crowding on the mountain is an issue we still struggle with.” Buchanan said they met the regulation by dividing the group into teams of 20. Though popular, the climbs never resumed after the St. Helens eruption. Lloyd thinks the eruption pushed more climbers towards Adams, which had been less popular because it was more remote.

Despite leading hundreds to the summit, Buchanan said he misses the old days when the wilderness area was less popular and before the Forest Service marked the trails and charged fees. “It used to be a lot more fun climbing the mountain, because there weren’t all the marked trails,” Buchanan said. “Used to be, you went to a wilderness area, it was left alone.” Today, striking out for the peak on the most popular route, which climbs 6,700 vertical feet across rock and snow, requires a Northwest Forest Pass and a climbing permit. In 2013, almost 10,000 people took that route toward the summit, compared to typically less than 2,000 during the 1980s, Ewer said. But, the popularity isn’t the only thing that’s changing.

Outdoor recreation itself has changed. There’s emerging uses, from mountain bikes to snow-kiting to video camera drones, Ewer said, that no one had considered in 1964 when the wilderness law was written. “Every time something new comes along, you have to ask, is this consistent with the Wilderness Act?” Ewer said. The 1964 Wilderness Act sought to protect natural landscapes as places where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The law establishes protected areas and encourages recreation but limits motorized vehicles and other human influences that would damage the “wilderness character” of the area. Today, there is cellphone reception on the peak. “It changes the way people interact with wilderness,” Ewer said. “To a degree, it might reduce people’s self-reliance to have help only a phone call away.”

Andringa said the Yakama Nation is concerned about trespassing snowmobilers during the winter, when the recreation area is closed. But the changes go deeper than people with high-tech toys. Like much of the eastern Cascades, the forests themselves are changing — more prone to wildfire and disease. Several large fires have burned in the area recently, Ewer said, including a 2012 fire that burned the whole southwest portion of the wilderness. Around the region, forest managers are looking to active management practices, like thinning and controlled burns, to reduce risks for large, destructive wildfires and to improve forest health.

The Yakamas do a lot of active management on the lower slopes of the mountain, Andringa said, along with sustainable timber harvest. But, active management is rarely done in wilderness areas — which are designated to be left natural. Whether or not active restoration should be done in wilderness remains under debate at the national level, Ewer said.

What wilderness should be and how we should protect it remains an ongoing question, even 50 years after the act was signed. Lots of things are changing in wilderness around the country and at Mount Adams, but Ewer said he’s also surprised by how much has remained the same. “You go back and look at old ranger reports from 1972 or ’73 and they were concerned about poor campfire practices, poor waste management practices,” Ewer said. “Just like our rangers today.”

Reprinted from an article by Kate Prengaman / Yakima Herald-Republic

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