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For 30 years I have traveled I-5 from the Northwest to Northern California, having done the trip probably 100 times. This is a beautiful drive, the highlight of which is definitely the 100 or so miles you spend in the shadow of Mt Shasta. Shasta is a massive volcano and absolutely gorgeous. Its beauty does not come from its symmetry like Mt Fuji or its dramatic spires and cliffs like Mt Whitney but from its huge and complex form. It has numerous ridgelines, valleys, false summits, and glaciers forming a constantly changing perspective for travelers. I have spent an awful lot of time over the years staring at the mountain and always wondered what it was like up on its peaks. I finally got the chance to find out by climbing Mt Shasta in August 2007.
It was dark by the time I reached the Shasta area on my drive up so my first view of the summit was in the morning on the way to meet my guides and fellow climbers in Mt Shasta City. From Shasta City the peak is a massive presence, looming a full 2 miles above the town. When I stepped out of my hotel room and looked up (and up and up) at it, I immediately got a knot in the pit of my stomach. All I could think was that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
I met my guides and fellow climbers at The Fifth Season, a local climbing and sporting goods store in town. After introductions and a gear check, we loaded up and carpooled to the trailhead. My fellow climbers were Mike, a cop from LA; Keith, a dentist also from LA; Pat, a podiatrist from San Diego; Adam, a real estate guy from Berkeley; and Brant, a computer guy from Chicago. Mike, Keith, and Brant were family but the rest of us had never met each other. Our guides introduced themselves as JP, a graduate student from San Francisco and Kajsa, a ski patroller from Jackson, Wyoming. I’ve done quite a few of these guided wilderness trips and I’m always a little apprehensive when meeting the group. You never quite know who you’re going to end up with and the other people in your group can make or break the trip. I would find out, though, that I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to climb with. Everyone got along very well, never complained despite sometimes trying conditions, and had a great time. Our guides, especially, were excellent.
The trailhead we used for the trip was the Northgate Trailhead, about an hour from Shasta City. From the trailhead, the summit looked a little closer than from town but not much. We had been scheduled to go up a route called Avalanche Gulch, John Muir’s favored route to the summit, but it had been a dry winter and Avalanche Gulch was completely melted out by the time of our early August trip. Rockfalls are apparently quite common in Av Gulch when the snow melts so the itinerary was changed. Instead, we took the Hotlum/Bolam Ridge route on the Northeast side of the mountain. Our approach hike to base camp was a 4 or 5 mile walk with a vertical climb of about 2,900 feet. The hike started with a gentle ascent through a beautiful mixed conifer forest. Despite our 40 pound packs (probably more for the guides, seeing how well they fed us), we chatted and got to know each other while walking this part of the trail. About half way to base camp, though, we passed above tree line, the trail steepened, and the trail surface became loose volcanic sand and rock, forcing us to focus on walking and breathing rather than yakking at each other.
Eventually we reached the site of our base camp, a rare somewhat flat spot on the side of the mountain at about 9,800 feet with stunning 50 – 100 mile vistas to the north. We set up the tents and prepped our gear for the climb. Before dinner, JP led us over to a nearby patch of snow for a few much appreciated snow skill lessons. We covered various techniques for walking with crampons and how to use an ice ax for self arrest in case of a fall. Then it was back to camp for an excellent dinner of home made macaroni and cheese and split pea soup. Our camp had an excellent view of the route we were to climb in the morning so after dinner we sat around talking while watching the sun go down on the mountain and our climb to the top the next day. We all turned in well before dark to get a little sleep before getting up at 3am for the climb.
Unfortunately, sleep was not easy in coming because a rather unwelcome 20 – 30 mph wind kicked up about midnight. If you’ve never been in a tent in high wind, trust me, it isn’t easy to sleep. It’s kind of like trying to sleep inside a drum set at a jazz fest. Being a smart backpacker, I brought ear plugs for just such an eventuality but, being an idiot, I left them outside in my backpack. I was too lazy to go get them and so got very little sleep, just like everyone else.
We all felt pretty good, though at 3am when JP woke us up. We put on our boots, ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal and granola, grabbed our gear, and took off. I had never climbed in the dark before and it was a pretty surreal experience. There was about half a moon so I could just make out the outline of the mountain around and above us as we walked. We each wore headlamps and as the faster climbers began to separate from me, I could see little lights bobbing up the hill like fireflies swarming above my head. First light and sunrise found us working our way up the Hotlum/Bolam Ridge. This ridge is a moraine between the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers and is easily the most difficult surface I have ever walked on. The ground consisted of volcanic sand covered in very loosely packed rocks of all shapes and sizes, and the slope was 30 – 40 degrees. Every step involved either a slide backwards or a stumble over a loose rock. Often when stepping forward I would kick a loose rock forward just far enough to stumble on it when I put my foot back down. I didn’t get much chance to enjoy the scenery as dawn broke because I was busy staring at my feet to keep from stumbling.
After 2 hours or so of walking up the moraine, we stopped to prepare for our trek out onto Hotlum Glacier. Hotlum Glacier is the large glacier on the north flank of the mountain visible from just about anywhere to the north of Mt Shasta. I was so happy to be off the moraine I forgot to be nervous about my first experience with glacier travel while putting on my crampons. We roped up in 2 teams with JP leading the fast group and Kajsa leading us slower climbers. The fast team pulled away quickly as we slowly worked our way up the glacier, one careful step at a time.
The lower part of the glacier we were on at the time wasn’t too horribly steep (maybe 30 degrees) and the snow was in pretty good condition. That changed as we moved higher, though. The slope gradually steepened to 40 degrees or so and the ice took on a whole new character. In places it was hard packed ice like a skating rink. In places it had become what Kajsa called “cocktail ice.” Cocktail ice is shiny, easily fragmented and broken ice that makes a beautiful but very disconcerting tinkling sound as it dislodges and falls down the slope. I grew very quickly to dislike that sound because it is very difficult to maintain good footing on cocktail ice, even with crampons.
At this point it was Mike, Kajsa, and I on the rope. The fast team had moved quite a distance ahead of us and was out of sight. Mike finally decided he had had enough of glacier travel (maybe because he got tired of tripping over the rope when I left too much slack). We worked our way back over to the moraine and, after some radio calls to JP and discussions amongst ourselves, Kajsa decided to show Mike the way down the moraine back to camp. I stayed put as she showed him the way down then came back up to get me. Mike’s decision worked out great for me because I now had a personal guide all to myself. For the next two or three hours I got to play on the side of Mt Shasta with a great guide showing me how to move, where to step, and what to look for in a route as we moved higher up the glacier.
Near the top of the glacier, the route we were following takes a hard left to pass above a large crevasse called the Bergschrund. The glacier here was at its steepest and was at this point very slick. Just as we started to make our way left, I slipped. I called out “falling” as I had been taught to do and both Kajsa and I immediately went into self arrest position, burying our axes into the ice. I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do at this point, hanging by my ice axe and the rope to my guide at the top of a very long and steep glacier. I wasn’t able to get any footing on the very hard ice here. I did see a nice foothold about a foot below me so Kajsa did a great job of lowering me down a foot to the foothold. At this point she decided maybe we shouldn’t be moving across a glacier in these conditions above a large crevasse. She made the decision to move to the right over to a rocky portion of the slope and belay me across the ice to the rock. Once she got set in a good belay position on good rock, I managed to move off the glacier without slipping again. It was nice to know the rope was there, though.
Once off the glacier we moved slowly up the rock slope another few hundred feet before I finally gave out. My slip on the ice, the continued heavy wind in our face, the altitude, and the difficulty of moving up very loose sand and rock all took their toll. I told Kajsa I was done going up. I was disappointed to give up my goal of getting to the summit but I made 12,300 feet. I didn’t want to be one of those climbers who falls victim to “summit fever.” I knew I had reached my limit and was content.
Good thing, too, because the descent proved to be just as physically demanding as the ascent, if not more so. We descended a few hundred feet through some very cool rock formations, Kajsa belaying me through a small chute at one point. At this point we had a choice of either descending through rock or going back out on the glacier. I think my guide wanted to stay on the rock but, since we had passed the steepest part of the glacier, I managed to convince her to take me back out on the ice. I got some invaluable crampon practice descending the next several hundred feet on some very tricky and slick ice. I worked on different stepping techniques and how to point my toes slightly downhill to get the maximum number of crampon points on the ice. Finally we moved off the glacier for good, took off our crampons, stowed our ice axes, dug out our trekking polls, and descended the rest of the way to camp down the same exceedingly loose slope we had ascended that morning. After an hour or so we reached camp. I was exhausted but exhilarated from my first try at glacier travel.
From camp we could see the fast group coming down from the summit. We watched them descend (and napped a little) until they got back to camp a few hours after we did. Congratulations to Pat, Adam, and Keith for making the summit. Dinner that night was, like the night before, quite excellent and the pint of Yukon Jack hauled up by our guides was most appreciated. As the sun went down the wind finally died so we all turned in and got a good night’s sleep.
Next morning I got up in time to watch a spectacular sunrise over the low ridges to the east of Mt Shasta. Unfortunately, as the sun rose so did the wind, this time worse than ever. I was forced to go back into my tent and put on every piece of clothing I had with me to stay warm. Needless to say, breakfast and packing up were done pretty quickly. Everybody wanted out of that wind. Despite some seriously sore thighs, I made the descent back to the cars in just a couple hours with no trouble. Waiting for us at the trailhead was someone from Shasta Mountain Guides with a cooler full of ice cold soda and beer. This was a very nice touch and greatly appreciated by all of us. We loaded up the cars and headed back to town for a celebratory lunch before parting ways and heading home.
I’d like to thank everybody on this trip for making it such a great one for me. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to climb with. A special thank you to Kajsa for taking such good care of me on the mountain during the summit attempt and helping me gain some mountaineering skills. I can also say Shasta Mountain Guides, the company that guided my trip, did an excellent job. I had an absolute blast on this trip and can’t wait to go back to try again for the summit. Next year I plan to be in much better physical condition and hope to get some more practice on crampons before giving it another shot.