“Just west of the Klickitat, the White Salmon River also drops in chasms and waterfalls. Drawn by curiosity and the little river’s perfect beauty, I’ve traveled up that valley, stopped to peer into its slippery canyons, then hiked to the headwaters on the snowy flank of Mount Adams, which rises like a white ramp to the sky.” -Tim Palmer, The Columbia: Sustaining a Modern Resource

Jair and Nick ascend the first snowfield near the Lunch Counter. Piker’s Peak visible in the background. -Photo by Max Posner

To many, the word pilgrimage conjures imagery of the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, or of the Kaaba at the center of the Al-Harām Mosque in Mecca. In the world of whitewater, the White Salmon River so too attracts its pious pilgrims. With reliable year-round flows and phenomenal class ll-V whitewater, the White Salmon has emerged as the preeminent whitewater training ground in the United States. Wet Planet provides excitement on the White Salmon by taking guests rafting over Husum Falls, on half-day and full-day trips, helping paddlers perfect whitewater kayaking technique with a variety of courses and advanced clinics, and taking the lucky few to breath in the spectacular gorges below the site of the removed Condit Dam. Hoping to experience the White Salmon Watershed in its entirety, me and two other Wet Planet Guides; Jair Cruikshank and Nick Gilbert undertook our own pilgrimage to experience the White Salmon watershed.

Various signs and cairns mark the trail along the South Climb of Mount Adams. -Photo by Max Posner

Monday, July 30th, 9:18pm, 5,556’ above sea level. Jair, Nick and I set out on the Mount Adams South Climb trail No. 183. With hastily packed packs, borrowed climbing gear and Cascade Volcano Passes obtained at the Mount Adams Ranger Station, we began our ascent. At 12,276’ above sea level, Mount Adams holds a place of prominence as the third tallest peak in the Cascade Range, behind Shasta and Rainier respectively. Of the 12 glaciers present on Mount Adams, the aptly name White Salmon Glacier combines with the Avalanche Glacier to provide water in the White Salmon River. Making camp at the junction of the South Climb and Round Mountain Trails, we enjoyed a dinner of beans, rice, and fresh vegetables before our intended 4am start.

Tuesday, July 31st, 6:00am, 6,200’ above sea level. We slept through our 4am alarms. An hour behind schedule, we skipped cooking, hid our camping gear, and donned our summit packs to rejoin the trail on the way to The Lunch Counter, the preferred basecamp for the South Climb. A brisk pace and sense of time stress embodied the morning as we crossed Morrison Creek, the last water source before the meat of the climb. During the approach we made out the tiny forms of humans thousands of feet higher as they ascended snow fields towards the false summit of Pikers Peak at 11,657’. We were in for it. Reaching the end of the trail and the first snow field, we donned crampons and micro-spikes. Then, we began a climb that can only be described as taking the struggle bus to the suffer fest. We were climbing a stair master made of soft snow and loose scree, where the rhythm is one step forward, and a half step back. The sun radiated from every direction, sweat emerging from every pore, zinc running down every face.

Jair and Max ascending snow fields towards the summit of Mount Adams. -Photo by Nick Gilbert

12:00pm, 12,276’ above sea level. We made it to the summit. In total, the ascent had taken us roughly six and a half hours. Nick completed the climb in style, not taking breaks to keel over and contemplate quitting like Jair and me. We split a can of lemon lime sparkling water while enjoying the views. Out of nowhere the wind picked up, subtly suggesting that we descend towards our next objective: paddling roughly 20 miles of whitewater on the White Salmon River. We then made our way towards the glissade chutes for our descent, which had garnered the most excitement while planning the climb. Between semi-controlled glissades and boot skiing our way down, we descended the tortuous slopes in a mere hour and a half, hooting and hollering in the characteristic call of whitewater paddlers having fun.

Nick enters the first glissade chute on the way down Mount Adams. -Photo by Max Posner

3:15pm, 5,556’ above sea level. We made it back to the van, changed out of our sweat and dirt-ridden clothes, piling in with our kayaks for a bumpy ride down to our river put in. The White Salmon’s headwaters occur at the confluence of Cascade Creek and the White Salmon on the southwestern slope of Mount Adams. Continuing down to the boundary of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, this upper section was designated as Wild and Scenic in 2005. To truly experience the entire watershed, we would have to paddle this “Mount Adams Section.” However, according to A Guide to the Rivers of Washington by Jeff and Tonya Bennett, this section is typically only runnable in late April and May. With the river running at low flows, we skipped this section as well as The Farmlands section, putting on at The Green Truss Bridge.

Photo by Dave Farkas

4:30pm, 1,238’ above sea level. At the Green Truss put in, we met two friends from the East Coast, Sam and Cody. Since they had never run the Truss before, we opted to show them the lines, because that is what you do for paddling friends. We made quick work of the shallow warm-up rapids, passing through the exciting rapids, Bob’s Falls and The Meatball before we all portaged Big Brother. At 1.9’ on the Husum water-level gauge, Big Brother is more of a 25’ seal launch than a safe waterfall to run. We continued through Little Brother, Double Drop, and Karen’s, finding a rhythm. We stopped to fill our water bottles in the springs that spill from the gorge walls. Hydrating with this cool, fresh water that traveled from the slopes of Mount Adams, there was a sense of everything coming full circle. Sam had a swim in a juicy rapid. The cleanup slowed us down, forcing us to wait on continuing towards the confluence with the Columbia River. We said farewell to Sam and Cody at BZ Falls, where our White Salmon rafting trips portage and guests get to do a cliff jump. Nick and I each ran BZ Falls for our first time. As we settled into a pace of non-stop paddling through the Middle White Salmon, we made our way through rapids that many Wet Planet guests had rafted throughout the day. We re-grouped below Husum Falls, knowing it was smooth sailing down class ll and lll to the Columbia. Spring Chinook and Steelhead making their annual pilgrimage to spawn upriver, we paddled downriver toward the site of the former Condit Dam. With plenty of light in the gorge, we portaged Steelhead Falls, making our final push to the point where the river turns to cobble bars and flat-water just as Wet Planet’s Full-Day trip had done three hours before.

Jair and Max finishing ~20 miles of paddling on The White Salmon River at its confluence with the Columbia in Underwood, WA. -Photo by Nick Gilbert

8:30pm, 62’ above sea level. At the confluence of the Columbia and White Salmon rivers, we celebrated with Flavor Blasted Goldfish. However, our day wasn’t done. Although not totally necessary to experience the White Salmon watershed, Jair and I opted to swim across the Columbia River, crossing state lines to Hood River, OR. Nick graciously kayaked to provide support. We started swimming at 8:55pm, a gentle breeze of 5mph coming from the north. On our way across, we enjoyed warm water and views of the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge as we swam into the advancing dusk.

9:20pm, 62’ above sea level. Jair and I emerged onto the sandbar near the Hood River Event Site. 24 hours and 2 minutes after our start at the South Climb Trailhead, we finished our mission. Getting picked up by friends, we enjoyed pizza and beers at Double Mountain Brewery and Taproom. At this point it was hunger, fatigue, and a sense of accomplishment on our minds. As the days go on, the pain of ascending Mount Adams and the fatigue fade in memory, replaced by the fulfillment that comes with pushing your body to its limits, and experiencing a place in its entirety.

Want to start or further your whitewater journey? Wet Planet offers a wide variety of options for every type of person and every skill level. You can raft with us on day trips and multi-days, take our guide school or rowing school, or check out any of our beginner, intermediate, or private kayaking lessons, and more advanced skills clinics in creeking and boofing for more experienced paddlers.

Author Max Posner is from Richmond, Virginia and has enjoyed whitewater as a passion since he started kayaking around age 13. As a kayak instructor and raft guide with Wet Planet, he helps people from different walks of life interact with the river and enjoy its simultaneous calm and challenge. Join him for a kayaking class or rafting trip!