18 Jul The Challenge of Shasta
“You should join us to climb Mt. Shasta.” said Lullaby over the phone. I had missed my friend from the Pacific Crest Trail. He had carried a Native American wood flute on the trail and would play a dark and sleepy tune each evening as the light went from the sky. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to hike with him again.
“I’ll be there,” was my immediate response.
Climbing mountains is active self improvement. In my mind, there are few better ways to find humility and test the edge of your capabilities. Your fears and fitness can’t remain hidden on the side of a mountain. You have no choice but to learn a bit more about yourself and juggle the physiological cocktail of exhaustion and panic. That is why I love it.
Mt. Shasta is a unique beast. It stands at 14,179ft and is the highest point in the territory known as the State of Jefferson. The State of Jefferson is a yet to be realized dream of splitting the counties of Southern Oregon and Northern California into a new US State. The area would include the Redwoods, the Trinity Alps, Mt. Lassen, and the mountain I was going to climb, Mt. Shasta. Shasta is surrounded by low lands and it stands 10,000 ft (3,000m) above the surrounding terrain. It is it a remarkable sight. It is a dormant volcano that historically erupts on average every 600 years. Its power is palpable and its mass humbling.
It’s a mountain that I know well but will never truly know. I’ve climbed it 4 times. Twice all the way to the summit. Once I was turned back by altitude sickness and once by losing my way on the blinding and baking glaciers. Each time the conditions make it a unique climb, a different mountain. The weather changes it, the snowfall, the various routes, your own state of mind, and your own fitness all make each attempt something truly new.
I accepted the invitation to climb without hesitation. I was house sitting in Ashland, OR at the time. Just 2 hours drive North of Mt. Shasta. For training, I’d hike each day in the area, I would climb until I could see Mt. Shasta calling me from afar. The guarantee of that mountain is that it will be a hard day, a real challenge. And so I trained for it, packing my back with 20 pounds of gear and racing up the Pacific Crest Trail towards Mt. Ashland or up Pilot Rock.
When the day came, I felt good: strong and fit. I drove South as the sun rose to meet my friends: Lullaby, Sailor Moon, and Leftovers. Together we had hiked 700 miles of desert on the Pacific Crest Trail. I hadn’t known them in the beginning but by the end of that stretch they had become great friends and guaranteed a place in my heart. They were hard folks and good hikers. The up-for-anything never-say-die type of outdoorsman.
We met up in the town of Mt. Shasta. After a gear check and a big breakfast we headed to the trailhead at Bunny Flats. It was Sailor Moon and Leftover’s first time on the mountain and first time mountaineering on a ice and snow of a significant grade. In short, they had never used crampons or ice axes before.
Collectively, we agreed to approach via the popular Avalanche Gulch route and split the trip into two days by spending a night at Helen Lake. It wasn’t until almost noon that we started out from the trailhead at Bunny Flats. We made sure we had some extra waste pack-out bags and begrudgingly secured out big boots, crampons, and ice axes to our packs. If we had it our way, we’d do the whole climb in our beloved trail runners. If we were lucky, our trail runners would get us at least half the way there.
And so we were off. The joy of being on the trail had us trotting up the hill. My Altra Lone Peaks on my feet leaving their distinct footprint along the dusty trail. It wasn’t long before we were having a late lunch and drinking from the fresh spring at Horse Camp. We signed the register and continued our ascent, excited to reach Helen Lake and feeling grateful to have beautiful blue skies above us.
The grade get’s a bit steeper here but we were unfazed. Hiking the PCT had taught all of us that there is joy in breathing hard, in burning calves and burning quads. Those physical indicators at one time would discourage me, tell me to stop, take a break, and to think that I was tired. However, after putting in 40 mile days and hiking from Mexico to Canada, I had retrained my mind and body. I looked forward to breathing hard and the burning muscles. Most importantly, I was so intimate with the physical process that I knew at what pace or level it could be maintained forever. And so I welcomed it and we charged up to Helen Lake stopping only to make friendly conversation with hikers descending or the folks we passed on ascent.
Reaching Helen Lake, we set up camp and began boiling water. It had taken us just under 3 hours including a 45 minute break at Horse Camp. I felt better than ever. In prior trips up Avalanche Gulch, I had been exhausted and already feeling the altitude at Helen Lake. I was encouraged by my new fitness. I knew the real challenge for me, though, would come early the next day.
Before first light, my wrist watch buzzed. The vibrating alarm let me know it was time. I woke and groggily found my screw-top tupperware and spoon. I opened it and, with crust still in my eyes and my hair astray, I ate the oatmeal I had set to hydrating the night before. The tent was full of terrible methane and nitrogen from a night of flatulence. For some reason, altitude has that effect on some people. Lullaby and I had shared a tent and it was now a dangerously suffocating coffin of fart. We unzipped the doors and immediately the crisp frozen breeze began to chill us. The fresh air was worth it.
From there it all happened quickly. We called out to the others, confirming they were awake. We checked our bags, now packed for a summit attempt with just the essentials and nothing more. I’d be leaving my trail runners here and making the rest of the trip with big boots and crampons. I laced up the thick frozen laces with frigid fingers. And then it came.
The rumbling. I was so happy to feel to it. The distinct sensation in my gut of having to go to the bathroom. The rest of the climb would be exposed and dangerous 30-45 degrees on ice or snow. I had been praying that the urge would come before the climb and not amidst a ghastly section. Additionally, if it happens on the side of a mountain, that’s a weight and a stink you have to carry up and back down the rest of the day.
I stole away from my friends and behind a big rock designated by Rangers for just this purpose. I took aim at a big paper target held down on each corner by rocks. Balancing on my big boots and crampons, I was rewarded and relieved to learn my aim was true. I was able to carefully fold the paper around my feces and secure it in multiple ziplocs. Returning to my friends, I put the package on ice behind our tent. It is such a simple human process, but in the wilderness it becomes an issue of logistics and safety. Your bodily functions can have a significant impact on your enjoyment.
I was ready. As always, it starts with one step. I looked up towards the rocky heart amidst the snow, picked my line and took my step. That’s the only way I was going to make it. One step at a time, up and up and up. Something you should know about me. I’m a bit terrified of heights. It’s something I fight to overcome and I challenge on a regular basis. It is a fear I’d like to manage better and is a big part of why climbing mountains is so rewarding for me. From Helen Lake, the climb becomes more steep. Then even more steep, Then even more steep. In truth, it never is greater than a 45 degree angle, and even that is a very short section. That said, I’m deep breathing away vertigo, even before that section and focusing solely on my steps. I step confidently and find my balance, shift my weight and make my next step, climbing the invisible staircase that I create up the hill. To stop is to make room for my fear, so I keep going. My friends are further and further behind but they don’t need me.
My fear of heights is a complex beast. When I was just 4 or 5, my grandfather was teaching me to ski. I was good and he wanted me to be even better. I’d have private lessons and ski slaloms. He wanted me to race, as he had before. I was excited at the prospect and let him push me. One day, however, everything went wrong. I made the 3 hour drive to Tahoe without sunglasses or sunscreen. As my face and eyes burnt painfully, my grandpa took me on my first black diamond run, a long stretch of steep ice is how I remember it. I was in pain and now petrified. He skied down without me and I froze. Even stopped, I felt out of control. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to stop from sliding down the ice, let along find enough of an edge to make a turn. And so in the pure panic of a 4 year old, trapped with absolutely no escape, fear consumed every cell of me and replayed my inevitable harrowing bloody bone-crunching death.
My grandfather was eventually able to talk me out of my panic enough for me to start stepping down the hill until I was on a more comfortable grade. But that memory and feeling is one of my most vivid from childhood.
There were years in between then and now when I felt free of that, but in the last ten years, the sensation, that creeping uncontrollable panic has begun to come back. It has accompanied my various leg injuries. With a reconstructed right knee and ankle, I’ve lost faith in my balance and I constantly battle atrophy around those joints.
So, as it always did, it would visit me on the side of Shasta that day. And my response to it was to look at my feet and focus on the next step. Step after step. Only on the firmest of ground would I look around at the view. Otherwise, I looked up to find my lines and in front of me to find my footing. I hardly stopped until I was up through the steepest section, the chimney of Red Banks. There, I took a load off. Sailor Moon and I waited for Lullaby and Leftovers. I congratulated myself. From there, it would be a cake walk.
And it was. Misery Hill, named for being a punishing climb and a cruel false summit was a fun workout as we loped up it. At the summit, we all felt great. Not exhausted, just accomplished. My legs still had life and I was looking forward to a long glissade down to camp.
For the first time on this mountain, the skies treated me to crystal clear blue expansive views of Mt. Lassen to the South and Oregon to the North. We took it in. I reminisced about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as I followed it with my eyes where it had climbed under Castle Crags and West towards the Trinity Alps. All of it in beautiful clarity. The weather could be your worst enemy on a mountain like this and it could change at any moment. So I was filled with thankfulness for the opportunity to enjoy it like this.
I wrote my name in the log book with some cowboy wisdom and the initials of those who have inspired me to climb and push myself. I included the initials of my grandfather. I hold nothing against him. He was a hard man and a lot of my courage is from my times with him. I’ll be eternally thankful.
We headed down the mountain. We weren’t careless or quick. But careful and steady. Making it up a mountain is just half of the trip. And so we plodding down. I slowly side-stepped through the chimney of red banks, again breathing deeply against the fear that wanted to take control. Below the chimney, a soft glissading chute was waiting after melting in the morning sun.
And so we slid down the mountain on our butts. Our ice axes as brakes, the wind in our faces and California stretching West to the coast in front of us. It’s a fantastic feeling after a big laborious climb. I was full of joy as I reached Helen Lake. We packed up gear, switched to our trusty trail runners, and, one by one, began our trot down the mountain.
When I turned on my phone next, it would be to the news that my grandfather was in the hospital clinging on to the last bits of life, circling the drain, with a torn aorta, his lungs filling with fluid. At his age, a battle he didn’t care to fight with expensive and dangerous surgery. Just 48 hours later, I’d be at his side to watch his sly smile as I told him of my ascent up Shasta and to hear him say he was proud of me.
He’s gone now. Perhaps with his help, I can continue to conquer and tame the demon within me that is that fear of heights. Either way, I won’t stop challenging myself to climb these mountains. There is truly nothing like it.
Video Courtesy of Lullaby: