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Climbing Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta


Topped by snow and glaciers, Mount Shasta rose up above everything else. We were coming south from Oregon, after crossing the country from Michigan. A detour to northern California before heading home seemed like a good idea.

"I wonder if we could climb it?" I asked. John just nodded his head quietly. I checked the map and found that the peak of Mount Shasta is 14,162 feet above sea level. I liked the idea of climbing that high.

"Have you ever climbed a mountain Steve," John asked me. I thought about it for a while before answering, "Not really."

Mount Shasta City

"Oh yes," the old lady at the visitor's center told us, "there are people climbing Mount Shasta all the time." John pointed at the glaciers on the map she had given us. "Oh yes, well, did you bring crampons and ice axes?" John looked at me, and I told him, "I've heard of these things."

We did have backpacks, sleeping bags, and a tent. John had good hiking boots, but mine were more like high-top shoes. Neither of us had ever used crampons or an ice axe before. We went the few blocks across town to see what the guy at the climbing store had to say.

"Have you done any climbing before?" he asked.

"A little," I answered, remembering all the buildings we used to climb on as teenagers, and the rocks we had recently scrambled up in Oregon.

"Well, you can't put crampons on those boots," he said to John, "and you sure can't put them on those," he told me, shaking his head at my shoes. Crampons need rigid boots - our mountaineering lesson of the day. We could rent the crampons, but only if we rented mountaineering boots too. "And you'll need ice axes, of course." I felt a pain in my wallet.

A speeding ticket in North Dakota had strained the budget, and Mount Shasta was already a detour from the route and the budget. We could, of course, hike up the mountain and camp. Still, I had to ask, "Do people climb Shasta without gear?" The store owner realized the sale was lost.

"It's been done," he answered impatiently.

"It's been done," I reminded John as we drove up the road to Mount Shasta. He didn't say anything, which I took as a good sign. I watched the Pine forest and absentmindedly poked a finger through a hole in my shoe.

"Old Ski Bowl Trailhead," John said. I looked over at the sign. "7,900 feet." We were at the trailhead, along with about forty other cars, and it was still early enough to begin hiking.

Poop Bags

We read the sign and looked at the registration forms. We had a decision to make. There was a $10 fee if we were going to hike above "Horse Camp," at 8,400 feet. John pointed to a bin full of paper bags, inside plastic bags. There was a handful of cat litter in each. These were for carrying excrement off the mountain, a requirement above 10,000 feet. That clinched it. We put $20 in the envelope and dropped it in the slot. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to poop in a bag. I took two for myself, in case of good luck.

An easy trail leads to Horse Camp, where there is a hut and a spring. We filled our water bottles. The dayhikers looked up at the mountain through their cameras, and inside the hut the climbers cooked noodles and discussed the weather report. They looked at my shoes and smiled at each other when I mentioned that we might be climbing Mount Shasta in the morning. We started up the trail, which was now getting steeper and rockier. The trees ended at about 8,500 feet.

Wind and Rain at Helen Lake

There is no lake. For that matter, there is no trail. It gets lost somewhere in the rocks just before the steep climb up to the "lake," which is a more-or-less level area of snow and ice. At the edge, overlooking Horse Camp far below, there are clearings in the rocks where climbers camp. We found an empty one and set up camp. The wind was howling. We were at 10,440 feet.

About the time it began to rain, I realized that it may have been a bad idea to talk John into bringing only a tarp, instead of the tent. The edges pulled loose in the wind again and again, until we gave up and left one side pinned down by heavy rocks, while we wrapped the other side around us. Dust blew in and covered us, despite the tight wrap and rain. I was enjoying the night more than John, so I talked until he fell asleep.

Climbing Mount Shasta

"Apparently they start climbing very early," John grumbled. It was dark, but there were lights and noise from the other tents. I got up and saw lights on the mountain a thousand feet higher. It was 5:30 a.m. Hmm...climbers start early. With that new insight, we packed up our day packs, hid the big backpacks in some rocks, and stepped onto the ice. Helen Lake was a mile of ups and downs, through sun-dished ice. Then we reached the loose rock at the base of a steep slope, in Avalanche Gully. We started up. A short time later, we quit.

"I can't do it," John gasped. "Can't get enough air." We were at about 11,000 feet. We knew that there was less oxygen up high, but this was the first time John had actually been this high. I had driven higher in Colorado, but apparently that wasn't strenuous enough activity to notice the thinner air. I noticed it here. We sat down and I rested for a minute.

"Are you sure," I asked. He was. I wasn't. It was light now, and John didn't see any problem hiking down the four hours to the car alone. I would go to the summit, and then come back down to the road by evening. I had to continue climbing. Mount Shasta was my first mountain, and I hadn't even used the poop bag yet.

Altitude Sickness

The "Red Bank" is a long line of broken cliffs above avalanche gully. I scrambled, climbed, and eventually found a way up and over. Then there were long steep slopes covered in loose rock, with a few bamboo sticks marking the way. This is where my route converged with that of the other climbers, who had all gone up the snow-slope route with crampons and ice axes.

Finally I made it to the top, which was called Misery hill, because it isn't actually the top of Mount Shasta. It just seems like it should be. There was still a mile of snow to cross, and then more rocks. The snow field had three feet high peaks covering it, like a huge meringue pie. I rested a moment, and listened to a new sound.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! It was the inside of my head, which had never been so loud before. Interesting. I got used to the noise and pain after an hour or so. Then I got used to the smell of sulfur. Mount Shasta, it turns out, is a volcano. When John Muir climbed it more than a hundred years earlier, he had to huddle next to the hot sulfur gas vents to survive a night near the peak. He was alternately freezing and burning.

At the Top

"So this is the top?" I commented lamely to the guy who had just told me the John Muir story. Clouds, and smoke from forest fires, obscured the view in every direction. Nonetheless, it felt good to be so high, and I saw my first glacier, a few hundred feet below.

"You can put your name in the register over there," the guy told me, pointing to something in the rocks. There are guest books on top of mountains? Another lesson for the day. I signed in and headed down.

Sun cups, or whatever they call those bowls in the snow, fill with water in the warm afternoon sun. Another discovery. Climb out of one ten-feet-wide bowl and slide into the water in the bottom of the next. This was the routine until I reached the ankle-twisting mile of rocks piled up below Helen Lake. Climbing down, I realized, is more difficult than climbing up. But I was soon on the easy trail.

My headache disappeared, and by evening we were driving towards Michigan. Mount Shasta was hidden in the clouds and smoke. Oh, and yes, I had used the poop bag. Somewhere around 11,500 feet, I believe. I remembered this when I was looking through my pack. I told John to pull over at the nearest garbage can.


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