... 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!