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!


Pat said...

That Joe - what a hunky boy, hm?

Your photos look like postcards. I can just feel the chill in the air.

I still think you're a nut to climb mountains, though.

Anonymous said...

Mom, I'm really enjoying your Mtn. Series. Keep 'em coming...

Sonnjea B said...

Wow, Kathie, your climbing series is great! Congrats on summiting Shasta - we drive past Mt. Shasta on our way to Oregon a couple times a year and even from the car, you think the top is "right there" - and then you come around another bend and it's still not there!

On another, much sadder note - I was so sorry to hear about the tragedy in Charleston. I hope it didn't directly affect any of your family or loved ones. My dad is a retired firefighter, and stories like that one just hurt to read.

Kappa no He said...


I didn't know that about drinking and peeing clear. I actually refused to drink because the toilets were so bad on Mt. Fuji...makes sense though.

The true summit looks terrifying. What a great picture though!

Pat said...

Hi Sonnjea,

The firefighter tragedy has really affected the whole community. It happened right up the street from where Kelly and I live; I drove by it this evening on my way home from the grocery store and couldn't believe the magnitude and devastation. There's a little makeshift memorial to the firefighters out there right by the street.

We don't know any of the firefighters directly, but know people who did.

Mind numbingly sad.

Katharine said...

Mamadama, I'm glad you like them because I'm counting on an heiress to start a dynasty. Isabella, you and I are going to climb the M again next trip... we'll leave your mother in the dust.

Sonnjea, You have had a few mountain contacts yourself. I have a few more stories, I get to about one a week, then a surprise at the end.

Kappa nh, Yeah, you kinda get used to the toilet situation. Most all toilets in Nepal are a hole in the floor of the outhouse, and many of our male colleagues have poor aim. I remember one where the hole looked straight down several hundred feet on the edge of a cliff. No slipping allowed there.

Pat said...

What kind of dynasty are you expecting your heiress to start? Sherpesses?

Katharine said...

Yep, except they're called sherpani.

Kelly said...

Hahaha good ol' Joey! Great pictures A.K!!