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.

1 comment:

Pat said...

One word - "Yikes!"