(A Solo Climb of Mt. Shasta)
By: Ron Reil
This is a long narrative, so if you are short on time skip down to "The Climb - Day One", or save this narrative to your disk to read it off line. There is much in the "Preface" that is important to the story later on, so include it if you can.
For reasons that are not completely clear to me, and certainly less so to my family, I have a deep need for adventure that goes all the way back to my childhood. I started life on a Connecticut "farm", a small piece of land cut out of my Grandfather's much larger property. For my first five years my only companion was a beautiful German shepherd named Major. Major would lead me through the Connecticut woods near our home on outings that were rich in nature and independence. One of my early memories is of being lost in the woods and sitting down to wait for my father to find me. I never had any fear during this early crises in my life.
My early childhood, remote from other children, set me up for failure when I was introduced to school and other children for the first time in St. Johns, Newfoundland. My father had been recalled into the Air Force, and his first assignment was to this beautifully rugged island. I did not fit in with the other kids, wishing only to be out roaming the hills with my dog, Major. Unfortunately, Major had to be given away when we moved from Connecticut. I never really got over the loss, and I believe much of my later troubles in school carried back to that event.
As I matured, the deep love for the independence and quiet solitude of the wild country never left me. Although I had finally figured out that to resist society was futile, I never lost the desire for adventure that had become part of my character. Wherever I made my home for the next thirty years I always sought out the wild and remote country. Sometimes this was in the mountains, on or under the sea, or deep underground in subterranean cave systems. Whatever resource was available in the location I found myself in, I would quickly adopt as my own.
Living in the Pacific Northwest has been wonderful for me. I have been involved with everything from gentle backpacking, I still am, to climbing high angle rock, and scaling local mountain peaks. I was involved with Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue for many years where I learned to do things the "right way". I owe them a great debt for the wonderful training and experiences I had as a member.
When the opportunity presented itself, I would be off on extended solo backpacking or snow camping trips into the Idaho high country. Some of my trips would be for a duration of up to two weeks, which certainly placed a high degree of stress on my family. I am very fortunate that my wife, Gretchen, has always understood my need for this "quiet time". It also allowed her to have some time away from me to pursue some of her own interests without my interruptions. It wasn't until I was on one of my extended solo trips into the Big Horn Crags, when Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue phoned about an "unfortunate accident in the mountains", that things changed. The caller was not clear about who the victim was, so Gretchen thought it was me. There was talk of body recovery, etc., and the result was that all was not well when I returned home, safe and sound, a week later.
Luck was with me though, as my daughter Kimberly, and soon my brother Walt and his daughter Wendy, started joining me for my trips into the wilds. This was good from the standpoint of others, but it was not the same as my solo activities. I enjoy these trips very much, but the need for the adventure and challenge of the solo experience is still very strong.
A few years ago I started solo climbing some of the easier High Cascade volcanoes during our summer trips to Oregon to visit family. I was totally captivated with these great piles of volcanic rock. Being a geologist, this high world of ice and fire fascinated me beyond measure. I knew that I would have to climb the 14,000 footers sooner or later, and I finally gave in to the lure of these majestic peaks during the summer of 1994. Mt. Shasta would be my first solo climb above 14,000 feet!
Sometime during the summer of 1993 I made the mental commitment to climb a big peak the following year. I knew enough about climbing the big peaks to rule out Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier. I will climb them someday, but not solo. If I didn't have a family that might be different.
I did all my homework, and finally settled on Mt. Shasta as the ideal first high peak to attempt. I had already climbed the South Sister, and some other peaks in that class, but this presented a bigger challenge. Instead of a single day on the mountain, it would require more time and more commitment. After studying all the routes in the guide books, I finally settled on a little climbed route up the west side to the summit of Shastina, and then on up to the summit of Mt. Shasta. I would come down by the "tourist route" of Avalanche Gulch.
I didn't fool myself about my physical condition. At 48, I knew that I would not be running up the mountain. I allowed four days for the climb. My route would take me up the tourist trail to Horse Camp, then I would leave the trail and bush whack to the north to reach my first night's camp in Hidden Valley at 10,000 foot elevation. I would then proceed up the valley formed by the junction of Shastina and Mt. Shasta to the col between the two mountains. I would camp there for the second night, and then climb the1000 ft. ice face above the col to reach the base of Misery Hill. I would leave my pack there and, hopefully, climb to the summit of Mt. Shasta. It would then be down hill into Avalanche Gulch for my last night, then back to Horse Camp, and down to the trail head at Bunny Flat.
Once the plan had been settled, I started preparing for the challenge. The thing that sets solo adventure apart from other adventures in life is the mental challenge. The mountain had to be climbable in my mind first, before I could hope to realize success in the actual climb. I knew that there would be obstacles that I would have to overcome mentally first, if I were to overcome them during the climb.
As time passed I prepared myself physically through a daily routine of climbing to the top of Table Rock via the Old Penitentiary trail on the east side of Boise. When I could, I would do the loop twice a day with a pack on. I also prepared myself mentally. I determined that I would be coming back, no matter what happened on the mountain. I accepted the possible loss of toes or fingers during the climb as a potential cost that would not deter me from getting back down should conditions on the mountain demand such sacrifices. Little did I know how prophetic these thoughts would later prove to be.
I organized all my equipment, sorting, discarding, adding and discarding all my critical items again and again throughout the winter. Equipment is always the hardest part to plan for me. There are so many wonderful pieces of technology that could be of great use in various situations, that to carry them all, would require a pack train. In the end, it all boils down to technique and judgment on the mountain. If a person has all the "right" equipment, but not the skill and knowledge to use it properly, it will not help him at all, he will become a casualty of the mountain.
Finally the long days of planning and climbing the peak in my mind came to a close. School ended and summer vacation started. Scheduling conflicts with activities my family were engaged in set my climb back to the first week of July! This was of great concern to me, as I wanted the mountain snow covered for the climb. I was afraid that the snow would become a bottomless slog in the heat of the July sun, or that I would end up climbing the impossibly soft ash or loose rocks of the mountain, exposed by the melting snow.
Climbing the big volcanoes depends on many things, but timing is one of the most important. If you go too early the snow is soft powder, and snowshoes or other equipment is required. If you hit it just right, the snow has consolidated to a solid climbing surface, but has not become too soft during the daily melt. With such a late start I had to prepare myself for the possibility that I would have to abandon the climb right at the start.
The day was finally at hand. My pack was loaded into the truck, and there was nothing more to do but kiss my family good-bye. I felt a strange hollowness as I climbed in to drive to Mt. Shasta, California. I wondered if I would return to see my family again. What would they do if I didn't come back? Was I kidding myself, after all I was 48 years old!
I spent one night camped in a wooded spot off the road on my drive down. I crossed the border into California, and the guard at the boarder fruit check station talked with me for sometime about climbing Mt. Shasta. He was impressed that I was going to climb it solo, or thought secretly that I was nuts. He was nice to talk with, and then it was back on the road south.
My first glimpse of the mountain brought my heart right up into my throat, and got all the butterflies up and moving again in my stomach. It was soooo big! I had seen it many times in the past, but I had never really looked closely at it before. It was white from top to bottom. It looked like none of the winter snow had melted yet. I could clearly see the col where I would be camping between Mt. Shasta and Shastina. It seemed impossibly high for me to attempt. All of my mental conditioning seemed to have evaporated once I was in sight of the beautiful peak. I was filled with doubts and fears that I had bitten off more than I could handle.
After arriving in the little town of Mt. Shasta, I checked in with the authorities and obtained my climbing permit. No one questioned my sanity, so perhaps I hadn't gone round the bend after all. I found a restaurant for breakfast and settled in for a big meal. I sure made a bad choice, as it turned out the pretty little place was a high class French establishment, and their idea of food was a tiny waffle with a little fluff of whipped cream on top. I could have eaten ten of them. I made the best of some toast, using most of the jam and jelly in the place, and then departed for the mountain.
A few minutes later I was driving up the beautiful access road to the mountain. It felt good to be leaving civilization behind. I arrived at Bunny Flat and parked the rig in a spot I thought might be safe for the next four days.
The heavy double mountaineering boots felt good as I laced them up. My clothes changed, I was now ready for the adventure. The time had come. I shouldered my 75 pound pack and started up the trail. The adventure was underway.
The Climb - Day One
With butterflies on the rampage in my stomach, I climbed the gentle trail through the alpine meadows and woods heading for Horse Camp. I have always been competitive on the trail, and I attempted to stay ahead of the day hikers going up to Horse Camp. Only one small group got passed me, but I paid a price with the heavy pack on my back. I almost passed out, and had to sit beside the trail to regain my balance and strength. If I couldn't make it to Horse Camp without passing out, how was I going to climb the huge peak looming white far above?
I came to a beautiful alpine meadow with a spectacular view of Mt. Shasta. I had to stop and take a picture, like countless thousands of tourists before me. I sat on a rock and thought about what I was about to do, wondering if I would ever see this beautiful view again. What would be my condition when, and if, I returned to this place?
The three miles went by quickly, and I settled down for a short rest at the rustic stone cabin that was Horse Camp. The summer caretaker and his beautiful girlfriend were in residence. They greeted me, and asked me to sign the guest log. I stayed for about 30 minutes enjoying their conversation, and then asked if there was a trail going in my direction. They walked a short distance with me, starting me out on a trail that quickly vanished as I crested the first of many steep slopes that lay ahead.
Having left all signs of civilization behind, including the trail, I stopped at the top of the first ridge to plan my route to Hidden Valley. I was walking on loose dry ash, but farther up the canyon I could see snow and easier climbing. I headed up the steep valley and finally crossed on to the first of the snow I would be living on for the rest of the climb.
A quick compass bearing put me on the correct route toward the north. I decided it would be easier to detour to the east, climbing a steep snow filled gully to gain elevation and a ridge crest that traversed to the north. If I could get to the ridge it might be easy going to the night's camp in Hidden Valley.
An hour of very steep climbing brought me to the desired jump off point for my traverse to the north. I stopped for a while to regain my strength, and to paste on another layer of sun block. I was back off the snow again with nothing but a field of basalt and andesite boulders ahead. Things went well for another hour when I saw an abrupt ridge ahead that I took to be the final ridge before my drop into Hidden Valley. I was beginning to get quite tired, and the 10,000+ foot elevation was having an affect on me. I leaned on my ice ax for a final breather before pushing on to the ridge crest.
When I crested the ridge I was dumbfounded to see, not Hidden Valley, but another series of very steep ridges and valleys ahead. To make matters worse, the way ahead was choked with alpine fir and other dwarf trees in an almost impenetrable green mass. Luckily there was a rock right there to receive me as I dropped down on it to think. The sun was still high so I had time, but I wasn't sure I had the strength left. The 75 pounds on my back was rapidly wearing me down. I had already climbed over 3000 vertical feet and hiked many miles horizontally, plus driven down from Oregon that morning, it was time for a rest.
I stopped for a long rest break, and had a snack and a relaxed drink while I studied the 45 degree slope ahead for the best route through the tangled mass of vegetation. I had not expected vegetation at this elevation, and it was a jolt to my confidence that I was having such difficulty right at the beginning of the climb.
Usually there is one route through places like this which clearly stands out as the best way, but not this time. There was no weakness in the mountain's defenses that I could detect. I knew that dropping down to try to do an end run was out of the question, and going up was equally beyond my strength. I had no choice but to push ahead into the horrible tangle. The boulders I was climbing on were four to eight feet in diameter, and many times I would have to retreat to find an alternate path when my first choice proved impossible. The pack was a misery as it snagged on all the limbs I would try to climb under or past.
The slopes seemed endless, and I was beginning to get concerned that I would be caught by nightfall in the morass of tangled branches and boulders. Finally, I came to a small gully that was free of vegetation, but the reason soon became apparent when I started to cross. It was horribly unstable and everything would start moving each time I tried to move out on it. The grinding movement of the rocks would quickly propagate up the slope creating a very threatening grinding roar as the entire hillside threatened to let go. I backed off the loose slope to look things over and to prepare for a crossing. I slid my ice ax into the space between my pack and shoulders to free my hands.
I finally pushed off onto the precarious moving mass, and by spreading my weight between both hands and both feet, I found I could move gently across the slope without causing too great a disturbance. The exposure to rock fall from above was extreme, but the climbing helmet I wore gave a welcome allusion of protection and security. The distance across the gully was not great, but it seemed to take forever to cross. There was one big solidly anchored rock midway across that afforded some protection for a rest, and to calm my nerves. My legs were shaking, both from the stress of the four point "spider" walking, and also due to nerves.
The last twenty yards passed slowly by, and then it was behind me. I was once again on solid footing. The distance to the top of the crest next to the gully was quickly put behind me. I held my breath as I topped the ridge. What would I see beyond?
Suddenly the world of rocks and debris that was only a few feet from my nose opened up to reveal a beautiful valley below, and beyond the valley rose Shastina in grand splendor to its snowy summit. Mt. Shasta climbed steeply up to my right and was lost behind a jagged ridge. The valley floor offered numerous secure bivy sites for my night's camp. There was a beautiful snow melt stream pouring down the center of the valley for my water. I only had to get down to the valley floor and I would be home for the night. The stress of the previous few hours evaporated quickly with my destination in sight.
My elation was short lived, however, as I walked out on a snow field that dropped steeply to the valley far below. I was standing on an old cornice that was still impressively steep. I looked for alternative routes down, but the loose rock slopes at either end of the cornice were quickly eliminated as unsafe. I would have to down climb the steep face of the cornice. In the afternoon heat the snow had become soft, so keeping my feet planted securely became my highest priority. In addition to the ice ax I got out my ice hammer so that I could have as many points of penetration into the steep snow as possible.
After a last rest, and with the butterflies once again taking flight, I strapped on my pack and started over the lip of the cornice. The steepness and exposure to the black basalt boulders far below was impressive, but the footing proved to be better than I expected. I moved quickly down the almost vertical face toward my nights camp. I soon walked off the snow onto a warm sandy valley floor devoid of all vegetation. Scattered around the protected floor of the basin were numerous big boulders that had probably arrived uninvited from far above.
The floor of the valley was composed of soft andesitic ash and lapilli, a perfect foundation for my bivy sack and sleeping bag. I would sleep comfortably that night. I quickly picked my bivy site for the evening and set up my camp. The relief in getting off the pack, coupled with the safety of the valley quickly put me into a very mellow mood. I was even able to shed my boots and go bare foot for awhile in the soft ash. Unfortunately I soon discovered that the valley wasn't quite devoid of vegetation. There were tiny plants with sharp stickers, here and there, that made boots the more comfortable option.
I still had time to relax before the sun went down, so I took my mini binoculars and found a good rock to sit and relax on while I surveyed the route for the next day. Except for the immediate valley floor around me, everything was deeply buried in snow above. I would keep to the left side of the valley formed by the intersection of Shastina and Shasta. The route looked simple enough except for the very top where it became very steep, probably another worn down cornice. I knew it would be tough with the heavy pack, but I also felt that I could do it.
After my dinner of various powdered mixes and rice, I am not a fan of freeze dried foods, I set out my sleeping gear for the night. As soon as the sun set I was in the bag, as the temperature dropped rapidly with the loss of the sun. I felt very warm and safe as I went to sleep for the night.
I awoke at first light, even without an alarm of any kind. I was soon up and cooking breakfast. There was no relaxed, easy going, breakfast, as I was anxious to get underway while the cold still maintained its grip on the snow. I knew well what the conditions would deteriorate into in the afternoon heat. I was soon packed up and heading up the valley toward the crisp snow. After a short time on the snow I decided it was time to put on the crampons. The snow was frozen very hard, and my boots hardly marked it. The added security of the 12 one inch steel points on each boot were welcome, if not the added weight.
The climbing seemed almost too easy as I worked my way steadily up the valley. When I was about a third of the way up the sun broke over the summit of Shasta flooding my little valley with unwelcome warmth. The temperature soared from the teens to what seemed almost unbearable in a little under 30 minutes. The valley I was following up was filled with avalanche debris so that it had a smooth rounded "U" shape. This made for a perfect reflector oven, and before I had even thought about it my face was very badly sunburned. I had forgotten to put on my sun block in the rush of getting started that morning. I stopped to smear on a layer, but the burning, open, cracks in my skin told me that I was more than a little late.
The higher I climbed the steeper the valley became. The footing was starting to degrade as the snow warmed. I traversed back and forth across the narrow valley looking for the firmest footing. Occasionally I would plunge in to my knees, or deeper, but mostly I was able to stay on reasonably firm snow. I finally reached the base of the old cornice and stopped to examine the slope for alternatives to a frontal assault. After a short inspection it was apparent that the only option was right up the face. From my location at the bottom of the cornice the angle near the top looked almost vertical due to foreshortening from my point of view. I knew it was not that steep, but it was more than impressive. It was time to break out the ice hammer again.
I labored slowly up the steadily steepening slope. I wondered which would win this race, me or the sun. The sun was trying to melt the slope into an impossible morass as I inched up ever slower and slower. I was afraid to stop to rest for fear that the last solid footing would melt as I rested. The slope was also steep enough now that I was concerned about the soft slushy snow kicking out while I stood resting on it, so I didn't stop. Several times I became dizzy and had to slow down, but I never came to a halt.
Looking up again, I suddenly realized the slope was less steep above me. I was on the steepest part. I could just touch the snow while standing vertically with my arm outstretched in front of me. This was a long way from vertical, but it was steep enough to be a challenge with the current snow conditions. I knew then that I had it in the bag for that day's climb.
An hour later I reached the summit of the col between Shasta and Shastina. With a great feeling of relief I dropped my pack and laid down on some loose rocks for a short rest. My back was about broken, and the summit was a great relief. I had a drink and a snack, and then looked around at my surroundings for the first time.
My breath, what little I still had, was taken away as I took in everything around me. Immediately to my front left was a crater set into the side of Shastina, with perhaps two hundred feet of Shastina rising above to its summit. To my right was a flat area leading to the side of Shasta and an impressive face of hard blue ice that I would have to climb the next day. The ice face was a result of the winter snows melting and refreezing at night. It was perhaps a thousand feet high, without any break in its surface. It got steeper toward the top, and I knew it would be my biggest challenge of the climb. If disaster were to strike me, it would most likely be on that face.
With a short walk to the north I could look down on the upper portions of Whitney Glacier extending down the northwest side of Mt. Shasta. If disaster struck me on the ice face tomorrow I would end up somewhere down on that expanse of broken ice, an unwelcome thought. When I looked over into the crater to my left there was little Sisson Lake just starting to emerge from its winter hibernation. I could see several good places to bivy down in the crater next to the little lake. My nights camp was now secure so I could relax, the next real challenge would come soon enough.
I shouldered my pack one more time while my back and shoulders cried out their protests. I quickly down climbed into the crater, confidently negotiating a steep cornice guarding the protected basin. There were several stone circles constructed by previous climbers in which to camp. They had done a nice job in smoothing the inside of the little stone enclosures. I would spend another comfortable night on the mountain. I quietly thanked those who had come this way before.
With my bivy sack spread out, and my sleeping bag lofting inside it, I decided to take my camera and ice ax and climb to the summit of Shastina. I wanted to see what the inside of its crater looked like, and also get the view it would afford me of Mt. Shasta, above, and Whitney Glacier below. I was soon in an excellent location to look down upon Whitney Glacier.
Although it is in a state of decline, Whitney Glacier is still an impressive mass of ice and rock. There was an almost constant roar of rock fall from Mt. Shasta onto the glacier. I found it interesting that I rarely could see the rocks, even though they made a lot of noise. Every now and again a particularly big rock would break loose and I could watch it bounding down the face of the glacier. There was one fresh set of marks left by a huge rock that had loped down the glacier leaving a series of divots in the ice that were huge. That rock must have been the size of a small house!
Watching the falling rocks made me consider my route for the next day. The ice face was topped by a rock cliff that I would have to traverse around and beneath. I would be at the upper end of Whitney Glacier and there was almost certainly going to be a large bergshrund, a mote or crevasse, between the glacier and the mountain as well. I knew that I had to get by this area before the afternoon warmth arrived or I would face the daily bombardment from above that I was now observing. It gave me cause for concern as I watched the almost constant rain of rock from the flanks of Mt. Shasta above my route. I decided that a very early departure would be prudent the next morning.
I finished my ascent of Shastina as I slowly crested its crater rim. As I topped the lip of the crater I was met by an intense blast of heat that caused me to turn away as the radiation caused intense pain to my cracked and bleeding face. I shielded my burning face and looked to see a gigantic snow drift that rose up out of the crater, running clear across the closer end of the crater. It was huge, and I wondered how big it must have been before the spring melt had taken its toll. The huge drift was reflecting the sun directly into my face, and the curve of its surface was focusing it into an unbearable intensity.
I quickly walked along the rim toward the north to where the huge drift met the edge of the crater lip. I walked out on it for about a third of its length and planted my ice ax in the crest to give some scale for a picture. I finished my photography and continued my exploration of Shastina. I continued my walk partly around the rim but decided that the lowering sun dictated a retreat to camp for the night.
Returning back down the unstable side of Shastina turned out to be much more difficult than the climb up. Once again I was on a slope that wanted to slide at the slightest disturbance. With my heart in my throat I slowly negotiated the dangerous jumble of loose blocks until I reached the security of the snow at the base of the slope. After stepping over a couple of small crevasses, more like large cracks than crevasses, I was safely back in camp and ready to relax for the evening.
While I was bent over the stove, stirring my evening meal, a sudden swooshing noise above startled me. I looked up to see a beautiful sail plane passing over, no more than 100 feet above me. I sat back and watched him as he gracefully circled in the rising air currents. He rose steadily higher until he was circling the summit of Mt. Shasta. In 10 or 15 minutes he had climbed what would take me most of the next day to climb! I felt a touch of envy as I watched his effortless adventure.
I finished my preparation of dinner and took it to the east side of the crater to sit in the last of the days sun light while I ate it. The temperature was dropping rapidly as evening approached. I watched the sun slowly drop below the summit of Shastina as I finished my meal. I laid back to enjoy my surroundings, but only for a short time as the rapidly falling temperature caused me to think about the warmth of my sleeping bag and sped me back to camp.
As I was straightening up camp, before climbing in to my bag for the night, I was hit by several abrupt gusts of wind that I found surprising, being so far down inside the protection of the crater. They were the first of a series of events that would lead to a critical situation for me the next day.
I climbed into my bag and got everything zipped up and straightened up for the night. Since it was only 7:00 PM, I had several more hours of light before the real sundown occurred, so I relaxed in the warmth of the bag watching the sky and the summit of Shastina on my left, and the summit of Mt. Shasta to my right. As I lay there I was hit by more of the abrupt puffs of wind that seemed to be coming straight down out of the sky!
About 30 minutes later a little cloud suddenly puffed into existence overhead in an otherwise clear sky. A moment later another appeared, and then another and another. Within a few minutes the summit of Shasta was lost in a boiling blue-green sea of cloud. My heart sank as I watched the rapid development of the storm. I had never seen clouds form so fast, and it fascinated me as I watched the spectacle unfold above.
The temperature had continued to drop rapidly, and now was in the twenties, and still dropping. This was a drop of almost 40 degrees since dinner! A few moments later it started to rain, but not like any rain I had ever seen before. It was raining frozen bugs, and not just a few, but thousands of them. They were bouncing off my bivy sack and hitting my cooking pot with little "ting" noises. The rain was a mixture of beetles of various types, flies, and other bugs. If I warmed them in my hands they would come to life and crawl away. A couple of weeks later an entomologist would explain to me that this event was not uncommon where a single snowy mountain in a vast forested region acted like a beacon to lure insects from all over the area. When conditions were right they got caught up in strong updrafts, and froze when they reached the higher elevations.
As quickly as the turbulent cloud mass had collected it disappeared into the blue vault of the sky. The summit of Shasta was clear once again. All was not the same now however. The first hesitant puffs of wind that had surprised me earlier were replaced with the drone of steady winds across the summit of Shastina, and the increasing impacts of the "williwaws" that were coming down from the peak above. They were steadily gaining in intensity, so I gathered all of my loose possessions together and put them in the pack to prevent them from being blown away. I added a couple of rocks to insure that my gear would not take flight during the night.
The night passed slowly as the increasing ferocity of the wind kept battering my bivy sack driving away the little warmth I had collected within. By early morning I was very cold and uncomfortable. It was time to get on with the climb before I froze right where I was.
The Ice Face
When I got up I was amazed at how cold it was. I could only have my fingers exposed for a few moments before they lost all feeling and became inert lumps of freezing flesh. The winds were very strong, and I had to take great care to get my bivy sack and sleeping bag rolled and stowed before they were carried away by the wind. I was still amazed at how strong the winds were in the protection of the crater. The roar from the summit of Shastina gave evidence of what conditions were like outside of the crater.
Cooking anything was out of the question with the winds that were blasting my little bivy site. I quickly got the pack loaded and grabbed a snack that would have to serve for my morning meal. I put on almost all of my cold weather gear and shouldered my pack to start the climb up the blue ice face looming above. When I emerged from the crater I was struck by the full force of the wind. It took my breath away and made tears run down my cheeks, to be blown away if I turned into the wind. I quickly realized that my Swedish wool mitts were not nearly enough protection, as my fingers were rapidly losing feeling. I stopped to get out my only remaining defense against the winds, my gortex over-mitts. When I dug into my pack I was horrified to discover that I had left them on my desk at home. I could see them clearly in my mind resting there waiting to be packed, they never were.
I did have one set of Miller mitts that I put on under the heavy wool mitts. This helped somewhat, but the knuckle length fingers allowed too much cold to the ends of my fingers. I would have to keep stopping to warm them or I would freeze them for sure.
I looked at the great open face of the ice sheet above me and thought about what conditions would be like up there. I was still gaining a modicum of protection from the wind where I was, but up there I would be exposed to the full fury of the 10 degree blast. I considered what my alternatives were, I could abort the climb, but that could have even more costly consequences. The only escape route was the way I had come, and I would have to face directly into the wind to go that direction. I couldn't look into the wind for more than a few moments before my face started to freeze, so that didn't seem to be much of an option. Also Hidden Valley was exposed to the full fury of the wind, there would be no protection there.
Another option, was "digging in" to wait out the wind storm, but the area where I was located was mostly all ice. There just was not much available to dig into unless conditions got to the extreme. I could attempt it with the ice ax if need be, but I didn't want to resort to that yet.
The last alternative seemed the best. That was to climb the ice face to the protection of the cliff and rocks at the summit. Judging from the wind direction, I thought that the summit of the ice face would be in the lee of the cliff, and with the arrival of the sun might even provide a relatively warm and secure spot to recover in. Also, there would be ample deep snow for snow shelter construction, if necessary, up there. With that decision made there was nothing more to do but start climbing.
I started across the flat area of the col until the slope started to steepen near the side of Shasta. When I got near the ice face I stopped to strap on my crampons. I took great care with this operation, as it would not due to have them come loose part way up the expanse of ice high above. I would not be roped, so there was no second chances if I made a mistake. I had to do everything right the first time.
When I turned so the wind was directly from behind, the straps on my pack would slap me in the face in a very painful manner, especially when they hit in the burned areas, which was almost everywhere except where my glacier glasses covered. I made note to get the straps secured when I finished with the crampons.
After what seemed an eternity, and after numerous thawing of freezing fingers, I finally had the crampons securely strapped to my boots, and I also had the offending pack straps tucked in where possible. With my ice hammer in its holster, and my ice ax in hand I turned my total concentration to the ice face ahead. I started up the huge sheet of ice knowing that this was what it was all about. I would know more about myself, one way or another, when this was through. This was the crux of the climb, and to fail to overcome it would more than likely result in my death.
My route up the ice face took me in a gradual traverse toward the north, out over the broad expanse of Whitney Glacier far below. To look down gave me a hollow feeling in my stomach, and would alert the butterflies to action once again. The blue-gray ice was as hard as concrete and the crampon points hardly seemed to penetrate its surface. The climb seemed terribly slow, and I soon realized that, as the exposure to the wind became greater, the minimal protection afforded by my mitts was not enough. Further, my feet were starting to freeze too. I was almost half way up the face when it became apparent that I was going to have to take some action to restore circulation to my fingers and feet or I would lose them.
I stopped, and with a solid three point contact with the slope, rested on my ice ax while I thought about the situation. I could see only one recourse, and that was to anchor to the ice, and then, while suspended on my anchors, restore the circulation to my fingers by putting them inside my arm pits. Once they were restored I could take off one boot at a time and attempt to get the blood flowing in my toes and feet again. I had not brought along much in the way of hardware, having only three Lowe ice hooks, besides my hammer and ax. I sure wished I had at least one six inch ice screw, but wishing wouldn't help my situation. I would anchor all three hooks, the hammer and ax, then I could let go, and with that belay would be free to proceed with my task. I knew that the three hooks alone should be more than enough, but with the awesome exposure below, the extra protection helped my state of mind considerably.
With my anchors in place, I found myself sitting on the ice facing downhill toward the awesome exposure below while I warmed my fingers in my pits. There were little areas of white on them where the frost was getting a start. I was able to warm them with a considerable amount of pain involved. They came back fairly quickly which indicated that I had caught it in time, providing things didn't become more advanced during the remainder of the climb, they would survive. The toes were less certain.
Taking off my mitts while suspended over the abyss below was one thing, but the boots were all together a different matter. If I dropped a boot it wouldn't stop till it came to rest on Whitney Glacier 2000-3000 feet below. To drop a boot would insure death, and an ugly one too. Taking off my boots was a very frightening experience. I worked with only one at a time, instantly attaching them to a line when I pulled them off. With a boot dangling next to me I could work my feet to get the blood flowing once again. I had to stop to rewarm my fingers as I worked on my feet. I don't know how long this all took, it seemed an eternity, but finally I, once again, found myself standing up ready to resume my climb. My feet were still very cold, but the feeling was back, so was some considerable pain. In such a situation pain is very much welcome, it says that your toes are still alive.
The rest of the climb to the summit of the ridge went without incident. When I crested the ridge the protection of the rocks on the ridge, and the affect of the cliff face just upwind, afforded me a very protected place to stop and recover from my trials of the morning. I found a protected spot in some big basalt boulders and dumped the pack. The feeling of relief was immense. I knew I had conquered the mountain at that point. I only had to do the rest of the climbing and the summit would be mine. The sky was clear, and the sun was rapidly warming the intense wind of the morning. I would live to tell this tale, I would see my family again. The mountain had tested me and I had passed the test---Shasta was going to be mine!
After a very welcome rest, breakfast, and just general period to relax and unwind from the morning's experience, I shouldered my pack once again for my ascent. The view was spectacular, now that I could relax long enough to look at it. My bivy site of the previous night lay far below in miniature. The great drift across Shastina's crater looked like nothing more than a small white ripple. The rugged surface of Whitney Glacier, which but a few minutes earlier had posed such a potential threat, now looked subdued and harmless. And with a turn to my left I saw before me the last technical obstacle I would have to overcome in the climb, the basalt cliff and the bergshrund immediately below it.
Now that I was in the protection of the cliff, the wind had died away almost completely. The temperature had risen to a little above 30 degrees, and with the early morning sunlight reflecting off the snow, felt much warmer. Freezing toes and fingers would not be a problem again on the climb. I was still concerned about the winds I would face near the summit, but that was still hours away. It was now time to tackle the bergshrund.
The bergshrund was formed when the great bulk of the glacier pulled away from its uppermost contact with the mountain, creating a vertical cliff of ice on the upper and lower side. It formed a great, almost impassable, crevasse that typically can only be crossed by employing an end run around it, or finding a broken down section where its defenses had been breached. Bergshrunds exist in the world of climbers, few others ever see these monsters in there daily lives in the lowlands. As I stood near the upper edge of the great crevasse I felt privileged to be looking upon this great edifice of nature. I had to take several pictures of the frigid opening in the glacier before committing myself to the passage.
On the upper side of the bergshrund there was a narrow, steeply sloping, ice and snow ledge right at the base of the basalt cliff. For someone with a fear of heights the traverse across the narrow ledge would be terrifying, but in fact it presented little technical difficulty. A slip, or misstep, would have tragic consequences, but with care the traverse would be easy. I even stopped once midway across to take another picture. The danger that the warming rock above me posed was far greater, in my mind, than the drop below me. The cliff had been warming for several hours now, and melt water was plainly visible running down the rock in many places. The time for the daily artillery barrage was almost at hand.
It was imperative that I get out from under the cliff as quickly as possible, but equally imperative that I take my time and exercise great care in my footing as I negotiated the steeply sloping ledge above the bergshrund. It was like one of those nightmares where you must run but you can only crawl as the danger pursues from behind. It was still fairly early, but the muted dripping from the rocks above told the story.
I did my best to ignore the growing threat from above, and to concentrate on my safe progress along the lip of the great crevasse. Soon the space between the lip of the bergshrund widened from a few feet to tens of feet, then the danger was behind. Ahead lay a short traverse up and over the thick ice deposit at the upper end of Whitney Glacier. Technically this ice is not part of the glacier, being above the bergshrund, but it is all part of the same formation none the less. This zone should be fairly free of dangerous crevasses, but ahead I could plainly see, reflected through to the surface of the snow, the telltale outline of a significant crevasse lying directly across my route.
An end run around the structure was not feasible, as one end terminated at the bergshrund to my left, and the other at the base of the cliff which ran up the slope to my right. The decision was out of my hands, I had to cross it on the tenuous snow bridge that covered it. Crossing snow covered crevasses while unroped is fool's business, and I had little desire to do it, nor little choice to avoid if I was not interested in homesteading the location I was presently standing in. In planning my route I had felt pretty sure I would not run into any crevasse problems above the bergshrund, but here it was, blocking my path.
As I approached the hidden opening in the ice below I started probing with the shaft of my ice ax. The snow was still fairly firm, but it was softening rapidly in the warming conditions. Every moment of delay increased the risk of breaking through the delicate bridge and plunging into the black abyss below. The snow was thicker than my ax could probe so I detected no voids below, this was good. With my heart in my throat, I proceeded out on to the fragile bridge. One leg suddenly broke through up to my knee. My heart took a leap, but all was secure. I had broken through the deteriorating surface several times earlier, it was not the bridge giving way, just the softening surface. A few more careful, egg walking, steps and the danger was behind me.
I put a little more distance between me and the crevasse and then stopped to peel off some of the heavy weather gear I was wearing. I was sweating heavily now, and I didn't wish to soak all of my clothes for fear of wind chill later in the day. I was soon off and climbing again as fast as my legs could carry me upwards. I was getting very winded with the high elevation, a little over 13,000 feet now. This was the highest point I had ever attained while climbing. Every step set a new personal record for me.
I struggled up the remaining distance to the flat snow field at the base of Misery Hill. This was where I would reconnect with the main tourist route, and where I expected to run into other climbers. I was not disappointed in this observance, as I could soon see other climbers laboring up the slopes far below me. I had a good head start on the daily crowd headed for the top, and if I didn't give out too soon, would be on the summit far before them. For personal reasons I did not want to share my summit experience with other climbers. I was sorry to lose the feeling of being alone. I would soon just be one of the pack.
I stopped at the base of Misery Hill, the last steep climb before the final summit ridge, to select the items I would carry to the summit. I was concerned after the experience with the weather the previous day. I didn't like leaving the bulk of my equipment behind, but I clearly didn't have the strength remaining to shoulder the 70 pounds all the way to the summit. I would now trade the safety of my equipment for the safety of speed. If conditions showed indications of changing, I could retreat very quickly back to my gear and dig in if necessary. I packed my small summit pack with everything I could fit into it, and I also loaded my parka shell pockets. I felt the ice hammer would not be necessary, and sadly tucked it under the pack where it would not be immediately obvious to other climbers. Unfortunately the moral fiber of some climbers is not what it once was, and a $200 ice tool would be tempting for some people.
After one last big drink of water, and a look down to check the progress of the other climbers, I started up the aptly named Misery Hill. This is the last defense the mountain had guarding its summit. It has been more than enough to stop many other climbers in the past, and I hoped I would not be another. Without the heavy pack I seemed to almost float up the slope. It was wonderful how quickly I could climb now.
As I started my ascent of Misery Hill, the first of the day's glut of climbers reached the flat at the base of the slope I stood on. They were not acclimated at all to the elevation, and two of them were doubled over offering up their breakfasts to the mountain. The sounds of their agony were clearly evident. I was very pleased that I didn't even have a mild headache. I would accomplish my climb without any symptoms of mountain sickness at all. I climbed steadily while the climbers below worked through their problems. They were not making any more progress for the moment. Of all the climbers that attempt Mt. Shasta each year, over 80% never reach the summit. Many fail at the base of Misery Hill, so tantalizingly close to the summit, yet so great an effort away.
My elevation steadily increased, and so did the labor of my climb. My energy was rapidly waning, and it was now a race as to which would run out first, my energy, or the remaining elevation. I finally topped the crest of Misery Hill and there, for the first time, I could see the summit pinnacle less than a quarter mile away, and only a few hundred feet higher. Nothing could stop me now, it was almost mine!
I rested for a short time while looking at the fantastic view below. The great bergshrund was but a tiny crack in the snow far below. It hardly looked as though it could be of any danger to anyone. I was impressed with the elevation I had climbed so quickly. I also took quiet pleasure in the distress of the much younger climbers far below me as they continued their offering to the god of the mountain. My preparations had been thorough, and the results showed. My age, instead of being a detriment, was in fact an advantage with the greater knowledge and better judgment that comes with it. I shook myself free of my mental wanderings and started back on my final traverse to the summit.
There were many old wands sticking up out of the snow. They were left behind by previous climbers who had marked their trail going in so they could find it again during their descent in bad weather conditions. I had elected not to wand my route, relying instead on being able to retreat if conditions warranted, and not to advance in the face of deteriorating weather conditions. It was a good decision, but I was pleased to see the wands as they could serve me if conditions suddenly closed in, as they had the previous evening. I made mental notes on the various wands as I passed them.
Although the final summit ridge was little more than level, I could only proceed for twenty or thirty feet before I would have to stop and lean on my ice ax to regain my breath. It seemed as though I would never reach the summit pinnacle. After many stops, I finally reached the 200 foot pile of sulfur laden rocks that comprised the summit. There were two possible routes up the steep wall, one that was a trail of mixed rock and snow, and about 45 degree in angle, and the other a solid snow face that was perhaps 70 degrees, right up the face of it. Also to the left was a hot spring of sulfuric acid that had colored the snow a pale yellow with its sulfur emissions. I sat on a rock for a long time while I contemplated the route for the final short climb.
I looked back, and discovered I was still the only one on the summit ridge. I decided that if I were to enjoy the summit alone, I had better get moving without any more delay. With great difficulty I arose and chose the 70 degree climb. The snow was still firm enough to offer "easy" climbing so it was the clear choice. I had not noticed earlier, but there was no wind now! It was totally calm. I wondered it the winds were still blowing at lower elevations.
The final 200 feet went very quickly. The snow was finally behind me, and I was on rock with my crampons. I was too tired to take them off for the few yards I would have to climb on the rock to the summit. They made odd scratching and pinging noises as they ground their carefully sharpened points into the rock. And then it happened! There was no more up, everything was now below me. I stood on the summit of Mt. Shasta 14,162 feet above sea level! I stood there dumbfounded for a moment, and then the tears welled up in my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. They poured down my cheeks in streams and burned the cracked and bleeding skin of my face. I was thankful that I had the summit to myself for this emotional moment. I did not know it then but the emotion of that moment would not wane for two days.
I dried my eyes and attempted to survey the fantastic panorama laid out far below me. Every few moments my eyes would fill with water again and my view would be obscured. I finally spotted the Mazama box that I knew would be there. Having climbed other peaks and found them at their summits, and also being a member of the prestigious Portland climbing club, I expected to find it there. I opened the heavy steel box, most of them are aluminum now, and within I found numerous items left by other climbers to mark their summit moment. There was also a log book that I removed and signed with a brief comment about the climb. After looking at the precious contents of the box, I returned it as I had found it, with a heavy rock on top as added security against the extreme winds that often blast this exposed point. My duty was now complete. The summit was officially mine and recorded for the world of climbers to see.
I looked down the summit ridge to the west and there I saw the first of the Avalanche route climbers topping the ridge. It would still take them a fair time to reach my location if they were as beat as I was when I was there. I decided to sit down and quietly savor my remaining time alone on the summit. I wanted the arriving climbers to use my camera to take a summit photograph of me, and it seemed worth the wait. The weather showed no signs of changing so I occupied myself trying to commit the fantastic view to memory while they labored up the remaining quarter mile. I noticed that one of the climbers was being led by the others as if he couldn't guide himself. Forty five minutes later the reason became painfully apparent.
When they arrived they chose the same route up the summit pinnacle that I had. As they arrived I saw that the one climber was blindfolded and could not see anything. When I inquired about him I was told that he had tried to climb the peak without glacier glasses and that he was snow blind! Although painful, his condition would be temporary, but what a position to be in. He was at the summit of one of North America's greatest peaks stone blind! Such mistakes, and then the bad judgment to continue after discovering such a mistake, is what mountaineering tragedies are made of. These young people all had rented equipment from a shop in Mt. Shasta. None of them would have been able to take care of themselves if conditions deteriorated, let alone an incapacitated companion! On top of that several of them showed signs of being quite mountain sick themselves. I later observed that none of them knew how to use an ice ax either.
They were all noise and bluster, destroying the delicate world I had existed in for the last hour and a half. I quickly had them take my picture and then took one last long look at the panorama spread out below before I departed the summit. I quietly retreated the way I had come. The down climb was very rapid as far as my pack at the base of Misery Hill. I relaxed there for a while, drinking lots of water, and then shouldered the heavy pack for the down climb into Avalanche Gulch. I noticed that clouds were starting to form on the horizon to the west, the first I had seen there during the climb. They posed no threat, but I was glad to be going down. I was very glad that I possessed the summit too.
The pack hung heavily on my back as I headed down. I was surprised what a difference it made even going down. The snow was rapidly losing quality as it warmed up. I was beginning to break through on most of my steps. Occasionally I would post hole all the way to my hips and would have to lay back and sort of roll out of the trap. Speed was imperative now as the conditions for retreat worsened every minute. The "glut" of climbers was not a glut at all but a mere handful. There were a few more far below, but they would soon have to turn around as their late start doomed them to failure from the beginning. They were post holing at every step.
The route down was not at all apparent to me as I started out. In fact it was not clear that there was any one preferred route all the way down. There were old melted out tracks everywhere. I was deathly afraid of coming out on an impassable part of Red Cliffs, where I would have to up climb to try another route. I did not have the physical strength to do an up climb, so it was most important I choose the correct route through those upper obstacles the first time. The further I went the more committed I was, and the more unsure I was that the route would go.
In addition to the concern about the route down, I was beginning to hear the booming and roar of massive rock falls. This time the rocks were plainly visible as they slid down the snow of Avalanche Gulch throwing up huge plumes of snow like the bow wave of a ship. Some of the rocks were huge, and I would stand, fascinated, watching them plow by in their headword plunge down the mountain. Some of them passed quite close, but they were never a threat to me. I did keep a close watch above for any coming toward me though. None of these, massive ships of the snow, ever caused me any danger, but I found them almost hypnotic to watch.
I slowly lost elevation as conditions worsened. By moving over to one side of the gulch I was able to find a zone where the daily melt water had formed ice just under the snow. It was very wet but the solid ice six inches under the semi liquid snow was a welcome relief. I was able to down climb most of the rest of the way on this surface with only occasional problems. The returning climbers from above quickly passed me using a technique that I just couldn't talk myself into trying. They got out a plastic sheet, or put on rain pants, and sat down and slid down the face at great speed. It looked like great fun, and much easier than the way I was doing it. The loss of my friend Bob on a similar slope on Mt. Borah, and another friend Brett on Mt. Heyburn, both in Idaho, caused me to reconsider and to choose the slow but sure and controlled way down. The graveyards are full of climbers who chose the quick and fun way.
Late in the day I finally arrived at my final night's bivy on the mountain, tiny frozen Helen Lake. There were numerous stone shelter circles, and I chose one away from the collection of climbers there waiting to try the peak in the morning. I was lucky that I had one side all to myself. I was totally exhausted when I arrived. I dropped my pack and toured the available circles finally picking out a very nice one about twenty yards from my pack. I was so tired I couldn't lift the pack again, so brought things over piece by piece! I collected water, made my meal, and then collapsed into my sack for the night. There was still several hours of daylight remaining, but I didn't have the strength to remain up another minute.
I lay awake for sometime, too exhausted and too excited, to sleep. I thought about every phase of the day's climb, the situation on the ice face, the bergshrund, the crevasse, and finally the summit. As I went over these events my thoughts would be interrupted by the rumble of rock fall above me, but I was too tired to even look up. I trusted that my location would remain safe through the night. Finally darkness came, whether to my eyes or to the sky I don't remember, but whatever, my summit day passed quietly into history.
My last day on Mt. Shasta dawned clear and cold. I was up and moving at first light as I didn't want to have to do any more post holing in the soft afternoon snow. I made a quick breakfast, packed up, and said good bye to Helen Lake. A few of the other climbers were up and moving, most of the others were still on their tents. I hoped they were having sweet dreams, as they would not see the summit this day.
I passed quietly by their tents, saying nothing as I passed. I was still in a very reflective and withdrawn mood. I wanted no contact with anyone. The crisp morning snow crunched under my bare boots. I would have to strap on the crampons in just a few minutes when the slope steepened, but the chance to walk without them, even for a short time, was welcome. I made good time, although the pack hurt my shoulders today. It hurt to move my face and to try to talk. The skin was like potato chips. It felt dry and brittle, and the least movement caused it to crack and bleed. I didn't mind the pain, it was minor compared to what could have occurred on the mountain. It was a fair payment for the privilege of standing on the summit of this magnificent mountain. I would not complain about it.
The miles quickly passed beneath my crampons, and then there was the end of the snow and the beginning of Olberman's Causeway just ahead. This monumental construction, in natural stone, was the work of the first of the caretakers of Horse Camp many years ago. In his free time he had used horses to pull the massive stone slabs into place to build a long stone sidewalk from Horse Camp far up into Avalanche Gulch. It took him many years, but remains as a monument to his energy. The causeway acts as a protection to the environment today, and there are signs asking climbers and day hikers to remain on the walkway to protect the fragile ecosystem. I did my best to comply even though in some places it would have been easier to walk off to the side of the trail.
Soon Horse Camp came into view, and I was once again in the company of the young caretaker and his exceptionally beautiful companion. I was struck by her beauty. Such beauty is a rare thing, and even more so in the rugged high country. I shared some time with them, signing my return in their log book while I did so. I was a bit envious of the watermelon that they had cooling in the spring a few yards from the cabin. I was also aware of the work it had taken to carry it up there, so felt they deserved every bit of it. I made my good bye and once again was on the trail for the final leg to Bunny Flat.
The rest of the hike went without incident. I stopped again at the beautiful alpine meadow, sitting on the same rock as before, and taking the same picture as before, with but one major change. I was astounded to see the summit covered with an angry black mass of clouds. It was building as I watched. Using my binoculars could clearly see the high winds that were tearing the peak now. None of those climbers I left at Helen Lake would be summating that day, nor the next, the weather window had closed!
I finally arrived at the trail head, and my truck was where I had left it. I even discovered that I had left the back canopy door unlocked and unlatched with a lot of expensive gear sitting there for anyone to take. It was all there untouched, certainly a fine ending to a letter perfect climb.
I only drove as far as Mt. Shasta city where I checked in at the local KOA campground for the evening. It was a beautiful spot with lots of big trees. When the manager found out what I had just done he gave me a special place in a secluded spot far from the rest of the patrons. He seemed to sense my need for privacy at that time. I spent the afternoon sitting alone in a lawn chair watching the conditions on the mountain get steadily worse. I felt very warm and safe when I crawled into my sleeping bag that night.
The next day I drove to Keizer, Oregon to visit my father. I know I looked horrible when I arrived with my face in its state of destruction. I at least had been able to get a shower at the camp that morning so he was really pretty lucky. I had attempted, unsuccessfully to shave, so my face was even worse than if I had left it well enough alone. The visit went well, and then it was back on the road for my return to Boise and my family.
My summit day was history now, and the strange euphoric mood that persisted for several days after was also history. I felt sort of strange and hollow trying to explain my climb, I couldn't. Gretchen asked if my climb was fun! My answer of "yes, I enjoyed it" was probably one of the most insufficient statements I have ever made. How does a person communicate the emotions and experiences I had just experienced? It simply was not possible.
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