The Old Man of the Mountains paws his grizzled beard and frowns into the heat. He has left the West he loves for the sunny South he hates "The farther north I go," he says, "the happier I get." He wears a string tie and a Stetson, his galluses are red. Ansel Adams, 77, has flown south on a mission. Or a set of missions. His schedule is full.

At 12:10 he will lunch with the Secretary of the Interior. Adams, who has known them all since Harold Ickes, says that Cecil Andrus "is one of the good ones. Perhaps the second best." Once the lunch is over, the Old Man of the Mountains will begin to stalk the Hill. At 2:30 he will meet with Rep. Phillip Burton [D-Calif.]. They have met before.

The Old Man of the Mountains has, for half a century, been stroking politicians. Adams can bear many things -- cold and rain and fame and fog -- but he cannot stand smokers. The Burtons spent last Easter as Ansel Adams' house guests. For days the men discussed sea and sky and beauty until, through a mixed haze of spiritual enlightenment and nicotine withdrawal, Burton pledged to fight to save the coastline of Big Sur.

"You should see him lobby," said his aide-de-camp. Bill Turnage worked for seven years as Adams' business manager. Now Adams is a millionaire, and Turnage is the head of the Wildnerness Society. "We run this Abbott and Costello act," says Turnage. "I let Ansel start. He speaks about the spirit, then I hit them with the details."

"Turnage should be president," Ansel Adams says.

While walking from the shuttle, a stranger approached Adams. "I saw you this morning on the 'Today' show," said the stranger. "I think your photographs are wonderful. "I'd like to shake you hand."

Adams, a few years ago, was accosted on a New York street by a man who said "It can't be, but it is! You've got to be Hoot Gibson!" Adams wears a Stetson still, but no one laughs today.

This year is the year of Ansel Adams' apotheosis. It sometimes seems that the price dealers get for Ansel Adams' photographs doubles every month. Adams' face appears on the cover of Time magazine; people on the street ask him for his autograph; a retrospective of his work, "Ansel Adams and the West," went on view last week at the Museum of Modern Art and from there will tour the country through 1981. The Old Man of the Mountains is suddenly a pop star.

"They say I'm being lionized. I feel I'm being mastodonized," he said.

Most pop stars rise to fame on the wave of something new. Adams, an exception, represents the timeless -- or at least the old.

The art of Ansel Adams -- elegant, unpeopled, technically impeccable -- marks the close, the culmination of an old tradition. In his New York retrospective, as in the smaller exhibition, "Yosemite and the Range of Light," which goes on view this afternoon at Harry Lunn's in Georgetown, are not one but many views, made in many lights and atmospheres and seasons, of the mountain called El Capitan.

Grand photographs of that grand rock were made from the same vantage point -- by C. L. Weed, C. E. Watkins, E. J. Muybridge and other men of daring -- more than a century ago.

Few of those explorers, hauling their glass plates, their lenses, their carboys of acid, high into the mountains saw themselves as artists. The photographs they've left us are in spirit just as hard as were the men themselves. The landscape painters of their day, the Beirstadts and Morans, loved to fill their canvases with boiling clouds and tiny deer and suns of molten gold.

Their paintings aren't believable. They're too gaudy, too dramatic. The hard-headed photographers who first photographed Yosemite in the 1860s made documents, hard records. Adams in his own way has turned all that around.

While the painters of the 1960s were using strips of masking tape to repress the dramatic, Adams was outside, photographing moons and mists and mirror lakes, ice and boiling clouds. He often speaks of spirit, of "emotional dimension." His art attempts to awe.

The prints at Harry Lunn's, 3243 P St. NW, are selling for between $1,500 and $4,000 apiece.

"The Adams portfolios I was selling in 1970 for $1,200 would cost $20,000 now. At that time I was retailing 'Moonrise, Hernandez' for $150," Lunn said.

"Selling one of those images for $10,000 would be easy now. In 1977, 'Moonrise' brought $2,500 at auction. Early this summer you could still buy 'Moonrose' for $8,000. One sold last week in San Francisco for $14,000 and there is a dealer in Cleveland now asking $25,000 for a 20-by-24 'Moonrise.' I expect he'll get it, too."

There are 21 Adams prints hanging on Lunn's walls. Stacked beside his stairs are 600 copies of the photographer's new book. They sell for $75 apiece. Lunn has stashed away 300 Adams photographs, of which a batch of 75 have been "released for sale" during the current show.

"Harry Lunn?" said Adams. "Harry Lunn is a lion."

A dinner in New York at the restaurant "21" left Adams with what he describes as "a suspicion of a hangover." He says that he "threw out" his back signing, in an hour and a half, 450 copies of his $75 book. Another signing session, another massive meal, have been scheduled for this weekend. He is a busy man.

In 1871, the photographer William Henry Jackson was sent into the wilds by the U.S. Geological Survey to make images of Yellowstone. Volumes of his photographs were then passed from hand to hand in the halls of Congress. Yellowstone became the country's first National Park in 1872.

"Ansel Adams has done as much for the cause of conservation as any man I know," said Secretary Andrus.

"Not everyone trusts paintings, but people believe photographs," Ansel Adams said.