“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Climbing Mt Shasta

There are easy ways and hard ways to climb Mount Shasta. Never ones to miss out on a chance to up the ante, my friend Ed and I opted for the hard way. Our mistake.

North California’s Mount Shasta, at 14,179 feet, is the fifth highest peak in California. The mountain’s massive peak dominates the surrounding countryside and we could see it looming in our windshield from 100 miles away as we drove into the Cascades. It was imposing, its broad slopes glowing in the September sun.

Shasta is a popular destination for climbers and on a summer weekend 200 people or more may attempt the summit. By far the most popular routes are on the south and west slopes. Over 80% of climbers attempt these two approaches, with most of them taking the Avalanche Gulch route. These approaches are non-technical climbs, just requiring long and steady slogs up Shasta’s demanding slopes.

The north and east slopes are more challenging and are dominated by four large glaciers that complicate the climb, demanding advanced climbing skills and the ability to use ropes, ice axes and crampons. We elected to climb Shasta from the northeast side, across the long snowfields of the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers, laced with steep snow, ice and loose talus. By September, the snowfields were crusty and streaked with crevasses, further complicating our summit attempt. This approach was what we wanted, something far more challenging than the traditional south and west slopes.

We stood with Tony, our British mountain guide, in the valley below and surveyed the mountain, tracing our route up the alpine meadows, across the glaciers and to the summit. It looked intimidating. We would accomplish the trip in two days, making an overnight base camp at about 10,500 feet. This would give us time to acclimate to the altitude. We would make camp before dark, get a short night’s sleep and then strike out the last 3600 feet to the summit before sunrise the next day.

Our climb began uneventfully in a high alpine meadow near the base of the mountain. We spent the day slogging relentlessly uphill, huffing up unrelenting slopes, the sunny day perfect for a warm and pleasant climb. We climbed all morning and all afternoon, the green meadows gradually turning to rocky talus, then to boulder fields, then to snowfields and finally to icy glacial sheets laced with rotten ice and wide crevasses. We made base camp at 4 PM and immediately grabbed crampons and axes and set out across the glacier to get the feel of the ice before attempting the summit the next morning.

Ominously, the skies clouded up as we traipsed back to base camp and we remarked on the deteriorating conditions while we made hot tea and dinner. We had no idea what the mountain was about to hand us. We awoke a couple of hours later to the sound of our tent flapping furiously in the wind. A full scale gale had blown in and was whipping up the mountain, bringing with it cold temperatures and a furious blizzard. Peering out into the darkness we could barely see our guide’s tent a mere twenty feet away. The storm raged all night, the temperature dipping precipitously and the snow bringing near whiteout conditions.

When we hopped out of our tents at 3AM conditions were bleak for a summit attempt but we decided to give it a go anyway. The climbing was slow and miserable, fog and snow limiting our ability to pick our path up the mountain. The slopes were becoming even icier and we quickly fell behind schedule. The three of us were roped together as we struggled up the glacier and we stopped frequently to recon our route. We were slowly running out of steam, cold and unable to see much more than thirty feet.

Then I heard something falling above me and jerked my head upward to see Tony sliding down the mountain towards us. I braced against the ice face, anchoring my crampons and axe in the ice. We were roped together and being jerked from the side of the mountain by a falling body would be a disaster. I watched in horror as he skated down the slope and suddenly—miraculously—he slid onto a narrow shelf, no more than two feet wide but enough to break his fall. We rushed over to see if he was okay and we discovered that the shelf that had broken his fall had also wrenched his knee. That injury ended our summit attempt.

I was crushed but the approach we had elected was a difficult one—our guide had only successfully led two of eight teams to the top by this route. And the two days on the mountain were exciting and beautiful, the views above the clouds from base camp were breathtaking. We didn’t reach the summit but it’s not always the summit that you remember anyway.

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