Friday, June 15, 2007

Mountaineering Story #3 Mt. Shasta , Revisited

"Lonely as God and white as a winter moon"
... Joaquin Miller on Shasta, late 1800's

Even with the failed summit on Mt. Shasta, I was pretty well hooked on snow and ice mountaineering. A few months later I called my son-in-law, Joe, in Montana to talk about climbing Mt. Rainier in Washington, also a 14'er but more difficult. No, he said, first I had to do a successful summit on Shasta. Essentially, you have to pay your dues.

So, back to Shasta the following June. Spring and early summer are the best climbing months, when winter storms have passed but snow still covers the scree (volcanic rock).

Weather and conditions looked good when we arrived in Shasta, the small town at the foot of the mountain, and we made plans to take the Avalanche Gulch route up the mountain. Wouldn't you think it could've been named something else? Like Sublime Climb or Piece of Cake? Where are those ski run namers when you need them? The Avalanche Gulch route is a class 3 on the American rating system, that is, a moderate climb requiring ice axe and crampons, but no ropes.

On the way to the trail head at Bunny Flat, Joe and I calibrated our new altimeter based on a road sign giving the altitude. This would turn out to be a significant issue later in the day. The first few hours on foot up the mountain from Bunny Flat at 7000' to Horse Camp at 7900'-- named so in early days before roads were built, because the the first part of the climb was on horseback up to Horse Camp where the horses were left to graze--were easy through cool forest trails up to tree line. From here the mountain grew steeper and in the sun temperatures grew hotter. Above tree line, walking onto the open snow was like being on a reflecting mirror. More than once I caught up with Joe stripped naked to the waist, cooling off.

The plan was to reach Helen Lake at 10,443' and set up camp, overnight, and head out for the summit early morning. Helen Lake is more like a small pond and not easy to find in the vast snow field of lower Avalanche Gulch. I checked the altimeter regularly for 10,443. No Helen Lake. We kept climbing. No Helen Lake. At about 11,000' we stopped for a rest and to confer. Could we have set the altimeter wrong? Was the thing not working? We scanned the mountain for Helen Lake. There, about 600' below we could see several climbers setting up tents by what must be Helen Lake. I told Joe there was no way I would descend 600' just to camp at Helen Lake. These were a hard-fought-for 600'.

We scraped our tent platform, set up camp and enjoyed a beautiful, private panoramic view. By late afternoon, the headache started, the kind where you just want to clutch your head - a "don't touch me, don't anybody bother me, I'm just going to lie here in my sleeping bag" kind of headache. I was feeling the effects of altitude, full on with the weakness where you can hardly put one foot in front of the other to walk out the tent. Joe set up the stove and started cooking soup because you have to drink, drink, drink. Drink until you pee clear, that's a rule of the mountain. I worried I wouldn't be able to get up and go in the morning. "You'll be fine," Joe said.

We set out at 4:00 AM to take advantage of the crusty snow from low night time temperatures and to have enough time to summit and descend. Joe packed up his skis to ski down from the summit; he is truly a man's man. In these early morning hours we climbed a steep 2000' snowfield that steepened to 35 degrees at the top, heading then to a saddle between two glaciers. We stopped for a snack, sitting with our legs dangling into a crevasse, my first contact with a glacier. From here we had less than a thousand vertical feet to the summit, but ahead was Misery Hill, long, somewhat steep, and from the bottom it would appear the top of Misery Hill is the summit. Unfortunately, it is a false summit and the climber gets to the top of Misery Hill only to find the summit is some distance off.

Top of Misery Hill

Given our 600' mistake, we were ahead of other climbers and the first to summit for the day. The summit is a small snow and rock ridge, and I was perfectly content to say I had summited having reached the top of the ridge. According to Joe, however, the true summit is a crag reached only by a narrow snow and ice ridge, with a steep drop off, several thousand feet on one side and enough on the other it didn't make any difference. An ice axe wouldn't save you if you slipped here in either direction. Joe crossed to the true summit, man's man that he is. I thought, "I really don't need to do this," but after watching Joe I thought, "I CAN do this".

Carefully, telling myself I didn't really have a fear of heights, choosing every step placement, and making sure my crampon had a good grip, I crossed over the the true summit. A panoramic view. Truly the feeling of being on top of the world. All fatigue is forgotten, the worries and fears become distant memories, nature's high.

Coming down we began to meet other ascending climbers, and one offered to take our picture just below the summit.

Joe put on his skis in order to ski the entire descent of Shasta.

The snow had softened too much for smooth skiing and Joe wanted to wait it out at higher altitude for the snow to crisp up, taking a nap in the meantime.

I complained about having to wait, so Joe rigged up a snow "lounge chair" to stop my complaining.

Summit completed! Yeah! Dues are paid! Rainier, here I come!

Blogger Neurosis

I can relate to this....

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Mountaineering Story #2 Failed Summit, Mt. Shasta , 14,162 ft.

Over the year after climbing Mt. Whitney, I was happy climbing around on southern California mountains. For whatever reason, though, it felt like it was time to climb another, bigger mountain, perhaps one of the Colorado 14'ers. I called my Montana son-in-law, Joe, to see if he was up for a mountain. Ricardo and Jonathan were content with their Whitney experience.

Joe was interested but no, not a Colorado mountain, Mt. Shasta should be next. Joe was a mountain climber, and had climbed Shasta in high school. What did I know? "I'm up for it." This one took a little more training. Shasta is about the same altitude as Whitney, but steeper. Whitney is 11 miles in about 6000' elevation gain, Shasta is about 7.5 miles with 7000' gain on the traditional Avalanche Gulch route. Another difference, the last five to six thousand feet of Shasta are snow and ice. Joe taught me the basics of snow and ice climbing, how to use the crampons, how to save yourself with the ice axe. No ropes were needed because we wouldn't be traveling on any of Shasta's glaciers.

Eric, Joe's friend from high school wanted to come along. I give credit to these young men - at 28 years old they were willing to have a 52 year old along. The three of us met in Shasta the day before the climb. First stop was the ranger station to check out the mountain conditions and routes was not encouraging. There was high avalanche risk on the main route; several groups were "hunkered down" at Helen Lake (10,400') waiting for conditions to clear. We had allowed two days for the climb, and didn't have time to wait out weather conditions. Next stop, the outdoor store to pick up some equipment -- I took the opportunity to read about avalanches. A little scary! Just in case we decided to go, I picked up a pair of snowshoes as the weather conditions had left deep snow.

Joe and Eric studied the maps in the evening and showed up at my room the next morning with "we're going", but instead of the usual Avalanche Gulch route we were going around to the southeast face of the mountain and up R14, Wintun Ridge. Before we left the room, Joe went through my pack and took out almost half my stuff. Thank God for that!

Another complication arose fairly quickly. When we tried to drive to the Wintun Ridge trailhead, we found a tree had fallen across the road at 5600' elevation. If we were going to climb this route we had to leave the car behind and continue on foot. It was also becoming clear no one else was using this route. In the only other vehicle parked in the area was a young man who had been waiting several days for his buddy to show up!

Even with Joe "lightening" my pack, I had a fair amount of stuff to haul up the mountain, pretty typical of snow climbing. Once we reached the snow line, climbing became harder. Joe put "skins" on his cross country skis and ascended. Eric attempted to climb with his skis but the going was too difficult and he abandoned them. The deep snow required snowshoes, but on steeper ascents we had to take off the snowshoes and simply "post hole", sometimes in snow above the knee. With steeper slopes it was postholing and pulling yourself up on all fours using the ice axe.

By late afternoon the weather was closing in, visibility was poor and about 5:00 o'clock we had to call a halt for the day. Joe had hoped to reach 10,000' to put us in good position to reach the summit the next day, but with all our effort we had only made it to 9000'. We set up camp on a little scraped off spot on the ridge. I made a mental note to watch my footing if I had to get up in the night. Among all the miseries of high altitude climbing, getting up in the night for the bathroom is the worst. It's cold, and you have to watch where you're stepping. It wouldn't be hard here to walk off the edge of the ridge. Well, maybe worse is a sloping pod scraped off for the tent and you keep rolling downhill onto your buddy during the night.

We got up early the next morning -- no time wasted with breakfast, all we had was gorp. It was too cold to get the stove started, the chocolate pudding and my bagel were frozen.

The day was beautiful and we could see Mt. Lassen just to the southwest. Soon we were into the snow fields, alternating with some rocks and some hairy places.

Joe is an extraordinarily strong climber. He was often far enough ahead of me and Eric that we would see him telemark skiing down some couloir. We climbed for several hours. The summit was clear and beautiful, it seemed to be just ahead.

As we kept climbing, clouds covered the summit. Visibility was getting worse, but more worrisome were the dark clouds moving up from below. Eric and I called Joe for a "summit" meeting. It looked like just a couple hours to the summit. No, according to Joe we had another four hours of climbing. Summits always look closer that they really are. What to do? Possibly we could make the summit, but we had a long descent, down some steep and snowy places, and the weather below could be moving up toward the summit. Mountains make their own weather.

Joe looked up toward the summit, then down at the dark clouds. In his wise and quiet way he said, "it's been a good trip," and with that we headed back down, no regrets.

I read a week later a climber died on this route.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Mountaineering Story #1 Mt. Whitney, 14,494 ft. and 22 miles

"You need more will than skill"...Muhammed Ali

What is it about the half century mark that gives us irrational ideas and, worse still, in the delirium of denial we put all reason aside and believe we should act on them?

This was my condition in the summer of turning 50 when, needing to make some kind of statement, I decided to climb the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. Forget that my only backpacking experience was an overnight trip to the desert, flat terrain, and even then I managed to run out of water. I had to look up what was the highest mountain -- voila! Mt. Whitney, right here in California! Must be I was meant to go!

I called two buddies who also had no outdoor experience to come along. “Hey, I’m going to climb Mt. Whitney, want to go?” I heard some foot dragging. “I can go with you, or I can go without you”. So we started training on local San Diego mountains, I read up on basic mountaineering, and come August we were ready.
My buddies were Jonathan, age 43, Jewish, from the Bronx, and Ricardo, age 38, Mexican-American. Mostly we hung out eating, dancing, and going to concerts. This outdoor stuff was new to all of us. During our training climbs, Ricardo was pretty strong, like a mountain goat going uphill, but I worried about Jonathan. He seemed to lag behind sometimes.

Mt. Whitney is 11 miles uphill, 22 miles roundtrip, and not an exceptionally beautiful mountain. Its popularity comes from being the highest by a few feet in the lower 48. One of the 14'ers.

The usual game plan is drive to Lone Pine in the valley, overnight in a motel, drive up to Whitney Portal trailhead at 8,360' early the morning of the climb, ascend six miles to Trail Camp at 12,000’, overnight in tent, and start climbing early the next morning to bag the summit at 14,000’ and enough time to descend to the trailhead. The first problem here is going from San Diego sea level to 12,000’ in less than two days, and 14,000’ on the third day -- the rule of thumb for ascending is 1,000' a day for acclimatization. The second is the total mileage on the second climbing day was 16 mountain miles. Nevertheless, we were up for it.

We discovered the first problem getting on our backpacks. As novices we didn't realize how heavy these suckers could be, especially if you pack things like fresh peaches for dinner, blue jeans to change into for camp lounging, extra shoes, etc.

We had a sunny day, and about a mile up the trail we entered the John Muir Wilderness -- and the switchbacks, which came to be an s- word for us. Still everything was beautiful, forests of pine trees, mountain streams, and more switchbacks.

At about 4 miles we approached Outpost Camp, 10,360', where many hikers spend the first night, taking three days to finish the mountain instead of the two we had planned. We had two more long miles up, but Ricardo and I learned at Outpost Camp how to take a nap without taking off our backpacks.

We left the forests behind at tree line, and we were feeling the effects of altitude and our backpacks. At about 11,500, Ricardo sat down. He wasn't sure he could go on. Jonathan went ahead to set up camp. I counseled Ricardo -- "it's not much farther, camp will be ready and you can lie down, you're doing a good job...", all the while wondering what are the choices in this situation. (Click on photo to see close up of "counseling with a view"; Ricardo and I are the two figures to the right). To his credit, Ricardo did get up and made it to Trail Camp at 12,000'.

Our energy returned fairly quickly. We hung our food out of reach of the marmots, purified some water from the lake, pitched the tent, and started dinner. Jonathan's main course contribution was an inedible gruel from Amway -- yes, believe it or not, from Amway. I thought of the Korean prisoner of war story I used to tell the children to get them to eat, but at 12,000' there's not much appetite for anything. Thank God for those peaches!

Nigthtime in the mountains is incredibly beautiful as the sky turns navy, the moon comes out, and the Milky Way is completely visible across the sky. From our tent we could see the row of Palisades and at the very end, the Whitney summit. Tomorrow we would be climbing to the top of the Palisades and crossing near the top on the backside over to the summit.

Sleep doesn't come easily at higher altitudes, not enough oxygen to the brain, and this night was no exception. Early the next morning, I set out with Jonathan, hungry, tired, and cramping from my period that started during the night. Ricardo decided to stay back at camp as he was still feeling the effects of altitude. Ahead of us lay ninety six grueling switchbacks leading up to the crest. We took a rest halfway up, and I ate some crackers to settle the nausea, and put my head between my knees. Jonathan was still going strong. My pre-trip worries about him were clearly unfounded.

We reached the palisades ridge in good time, the point where the trail enters Sequoia National Park. Now only about two and a half miles, nearly a straight shot over to the Whitney summit. The route ahead was on the crest of the palisades, narrow at some points, and on the left nearly straight down a couple thousand feet - not a place you want to lose your footing. At some points, the trail narrows to a bridge like place, and a couple thousand feet down on either side. I learned here about Jonathan's fear of heights, and he wasn't sure he could cross these little bridge like places. Again some coaxing, and he crossed on all fours. Whatever it takes, I thought.

The views were becoming more spectacular, and I realized the only people who get to see this are those who come on foot.

Finally, the summit. Those who ask why do we climb have never climbed themselves. At this point, I was not a climber. I had set a goal based on a psychological need at the time but there was no identity as a mountaineer. That would come later.

As Jonathan and I descended to Trail Camp, we could see camp and the tent was still up. Jonathan was furious, it was getting late, why hadn't Ricardo packed up to be ready to move out quickly? This was the beginning of what we called "Jonathan on the edge". We had six more rugged downhill miles and it was almost five o'clock.

I took the lead and moved quickly. We didn't want to still be on the mountain at night. Ricardo brought up the rear, asking several times how much further and each time I responded, "two miles". In reality, I had no idea, but I knew we didn't have time to stop for a rest. It was getting dusk when we reached Outpost Camp, and Ricardo asked again. Jonathan hissed back, "she said it was two miles". We knew then Jonathan was really "on the edge". Darkness came, and we had some distance to go. Jonathan had slowed considerably, he was exhausted, and his hands were very swollen. I sent Ricardo ahead to bring the car up to the trail head. We had to physically load Jonathan into the car, but we were all back safe.

I thought to myself, good trip but I don't have to ever do this again...