Alan, EJ and I climbed to the top of Mt. Shasta yesterday, and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
We drove up on Friday night and got to the Bunny Flat parking area a little after midnight. We had to park about 1/4 mile away from the trailhead, as there were about 60 cars all over the place. We tried to sleep for a few hours in my tent on the shoulder of the road, but with cars driving by all night and an obnoxious group of people right next to us, we didn't get much sleep.
We got up at 4:30 am and started hiking by 6:00 am. We were in our plastic climbing boots, one layer of Polypro with a shell, and we started off using our trekking poles. The trail to Horse Camp was pretty well travelled and we arrived at the Sierra Club cabin around 7:00 am. At this point we made the decision to try the much more difficult Casaval Ridge route.
Most people go up Avalanche Gulch and stay at Helen Lake (10,400') which is basically a long hike up an open snow field. Our decision to go up Casaval was based on several things: Lots of cars and good weather meant a ton of people at Helen Lake and a logjam at some of the bottlenecks, great snow/ice conditions, other people we talked to heard good things about the route, Alan had done the route before, and we just felt good about it.
Here is a DESCRIPTION OF CASAVAL RIDGE ROUTE straight from "The Mt. Shasta Book" (Selters & Zanger):
-Difficulty 3: "Similar to 5th Class. Difficult ice and snow or rock requiring specialized equipment and advanced technique. The glaciers may have steep icefalls, many crevasses and difficult route finding."
-Description: "Casaval Ridge is the striking, cockscomb-like ridge north of Avalanche Gulch. Worldly mountaineers compare this to famous classics of the Alps. The route offers an excellent winter ascent and an airy, stimulating spring and early summer climb. After early summer the route is not recommended due to lack of snow and much loose rock."
Our plan was to go as far as we could on Saturday, so we could have an easy summit day on Sunday. We started with some moderate slopes, but soon found ourselves on some steep terrain. At one point the snow became so hard that we switched to using our ice axe instead of the poles. By 11:00 am we had reached about 9,500'. By then, the winds had picked up quite a bit, and while we ate lunch, the gusts kept increasing. There were times where we had to bend way over and brace ourselves on our poles or else we would have been blown over. Taking steps in this wind was almost amusing; each step I would almost pivot on one foot while trying to swing the other foot around in front of me. A couple of gusts would have literally blown me over had I not been hanging on to a rock. On a very somber note, we heard that some climber actually was blown off the same ridge and they were looking for his body on Sunday. (note: This was how we heard about it at the time. It turns out a man from Orinda got separated from his group and to my knowledge they never found him.)
Eventually, we reached a spot on a saddle overlooking Avalance Gulch and met up with a couple of climbers who had to turn back that morning (a lot of people don't make the summit; I think the success rate is something like 25%) They said the winds were just screaming and the ice-spray was hammering them. Supposedly two people near us made the summit earlier that day, which is amazing considering the wind. By now the sun had warmed up the snow quite a bit, and moving along was quite laborious.
Even though it was only 12:00 noon, we decided to pitch our tent and hope for better weather in the morning. The ridge where we stayed was about 400' down from Casaval Ridge proper. The saddle where we were along the ridge had several "campsites" or areas dug into the snow with a small snow barrier on the windward side. There were also a couple of snow caves which were occupied. All in all there were about 4 or 5 groups in our immediate area. We had Alan's bomber tent up quickly and we basically just rested for a while. Eventually the wind calmed a little bit and we could walk around outside. We had our traditional Noodle-Roni staple for dinner and a miscellaneous assortment of calorie-rich food. Great thing about hiking, especially in the winter, you can eat all you want and the more you eat the better. So, after a good dinner and nice sunset (not to mention several rounds of Liar's Dice), we went to bed around 9:00 pm. I was in the tent already when Alan saw a couple of climbers coming down Casaval - without headlamps. By the time they reached their shelter near us, it was dark. I still don't know where/when they came from, but it seemed pretty risky.
SUNDAY AT DAWN
After a few hours of rest (I wouldn't exactly call it sleep) our alarms went off at 4:30 am. Coincidentally, the wind started blowing hard right about then as well. During the night, it was fairly calm with a few gusts here and there. As we were laying in our bags, I started thinking about what we would do if we were one of the 75% who try but fail to make the summit. But as we started getting things ready, the wind died down and it started looking good. After powering down some pop-tarts, cool-aid and granola bars, we got dressed and prepared our summit packs. Alan had a small backpack with a couple quarts of water, and his extra clothes. EJ carried more water and food. I wore EJ's internal frame backpack, and it had a camelpack with 2 liters of water, 2 Nalgenes of water, food (cold pizza, granola and power bars, cookies, peanuts, apples), and some extra layers. We all had helmets on (mine was a simple bike helmet) and we decided to go without headlamps as it was getting light. We grabbed our ice axes and stepped into our crampons.
If you've never worn crampons before (like me), it's pretty weird. The first few steps weren't anything special, as we were on a flat saddle. But as we hit our first hill to join up with Casaval Ridge, I found I could just motor up the steep ice almost like I was on stairs. The crampons stick very easily into the ice and when the slope is moderate, you can just duck walk up it. When I say ice, it is not the slick, clear blue glacier ice you may think of. It is mainly frozen corn snow that is pretty rough but solid. When it gets steeper, you traverse back and forth using the uphill side of the crampon points. Ideally, you're supposed to plant the whole foot flat, so that all the points stick in. I found myself just using the uphill side of the points and going more up than over with each step.The ice axe has a strap around the wrist with about a 2' long tether. You hold the top of the ice axe with the pick facing back and the adze facing forward (at least when you are right handed and the slope is on your right.) Each step you plant the point of the handle in the ice.
After our first short uphill to join Casaval Ridge, we dropped down a rockly slope to the base of the knife-edged ridge. Seeing four or five climbers ahead of us and the line they were on reminded me very much of some National Geographic scenes I have watched. We were walking right next to some huge, steep rocks and the slope we were on was fairly steep. Fortunately, the climbers ahead of us had made a good trail and we moved along really well. One section right before our brunch break was pretty hairy. After climbing around the rocks, we had to go up about a 60 foot wall to a small rest area. It truly wasn't a 90 degree wall, but it was the steepest section so far. I could easily reach out and touch the slope ahead of me. At one point, I abandoned the side-step method of digging the crampons in and I toe-picked the last 20 feet. I used the pick of the axe to get a hold above my head then I would kick a little step in with my toe. Looking down at Alan below me and the rocks below him, you could say I was fairly focused on not slipping. About 8:30 am we met up with a couple from Davis. They are both still students and they both work at Outdoor Adventures on campus (small world; that's were Alan and EJ both worked while at Davis). In addition to Rick and Rachel, a guy named Dan whose partner turned back earlier, joined us. All six of us were huddled on a ledge that was about two feet wide and 20 feet long, with a very small area on one end big enough for two people to sort of squat/sit. We ate some cold pizza (ham and pineapple, of course) and took a couple of pictures. From our vantage point, we could look down on the Avalanche Gulch route. I counted about 70 people making their way up the Gulch toward Red Banks.
After our little break, the next section wasn't too technical. We came upon the "Second Window" into Avalance Gulch. This opening into the Avalanche Gulch area could be used to slide down into the main trail in the middle of Avalanche Gulch. It was about 9:15 am and we were around 11,800'. This small saddle is where Alan and his buddy, Brian, camped once before. We saw the sun for the first time and donned our sunglasses. The next section took us to one of the most difficult parts of the climb, the Headwall. This stretch of ice is very steep and at the top, it almost seems vertical. By kicking steps into the ice, we managed to climb up and over the Headwall. Thinking back now, I'm really glad we could keep going forward, because going down what we had just ascended would have been nearly impossible.
We then traversed a large band of rocks. At this point, we enjoyed the view of Shastina and rested for a few minutes and ate some more grub. After traversing through some more rock bands, we came to the last part of Casaval Ridge. This section was basically a long, steep uphill stretch that ended at large cornice. This wall of snow marks the very top of Casaval Ridge. After making it over the wall we had our first view of the summit. It was 11:00 am, we were at 13,500', the wind was pretty calm and the air temperature was probably around 50 degrees. The four of us (Alan, EJ, Dan and I) rested and drank a little bit of water. Looking back now, we should have packed a lot more water. We started with what seemed like a lot of water, but it is amazing how much water you drink at altitude in the sun while pushing hard.
From our vantage point, you could barely see the true summit above the imposing Misery Hill. This long, steep hill looks like the summit in most photos, but it isn't. We crossed just south of Whitney Glacier, and arrived at the base of Misery Hill around 11:30 am. Fortunately, the snow was still firm enough to walk on and not post-hole (don't worry, I'll cover post-holing later, as we did a lot of it.) Misery hill took about 40 minutes to ascend, mainly due to lack of oxygen. I paced myself by counting out 40 steps, then resting for 10 big breaths. Once we reached the top of Misery Hill, there was a perfect saddle to rest in. Even though it was a saddle between the top of Misery Hill and the small plateau leading to the summit peak, there was absolutely no wind. It got downright hot sitting there. We talked with a fun group of middle-aged ski bums from Sun Valley, Idaho. The rogue leader of this pack was a woman named Shelly who planned out their road trip to Baja with a slight detour to the summit of Mt. Shasta. During our rest break, we got passed up by an 81 year-old climber on his 25th climb.
From the saddle, we crossed a broad plain about the size of 5 football fields. The very last section of the summit is up a moderate slope with a couple of switchbacks. Once atop the slope, there is an area where about 20 people could stand around, then around a boulder is the area of the true summit. There is a metal box with the register, and two small little outcroppings where everyone takes their pictures. As I approached the top of the slope leading to the summit, I didn't really think about it too much. I was thinking on a practical level, like "Wow, what a view" and "Wow, look at all the people on the summit", and other basic things. But when I reached the very top, and turned to look down at Misery Hill and the top of Casaval Ridge, I pictured what Alan, EJ and I had gone through to get here. Fatigue from hauling all our gear, the decision to take the more difficult Casaval Ridge route, climbing at an altitude which my body had never experienced, no sleep for two nights, winds that almost blew us off the mountain and steep sections of ice that would have meant serious injury, if not death, in the case of a mistake. And then the emotional rush hit me. I could feel my tears beginning to well up and then I just started grinning. I looked around at everyone on the summit and just kept smiling. Alan came up behind me and I gave him a huge High Five. Then EJ arrived and our triumverate was complete. It was 1:15 in the afternoon of May 23rd, 1999 and we had just climbed Mt. Shasta.
We rested for a couple of minutes, then we walked over to the register. It was a sturdy metal box, with a heavy lid and it was cemented into a barren rock. The actual register book was a simple plain white notebook. We signed our names then found the names of EJ's friends who had summitted around 9:15 am. We took several pictures of the summit, of the views, of Lake Siskiyou (where I had spent many summers camping with the Johnstons and the Lopes), and of each other. The 81-year old man, complete with wool pants and old leather boots & crampons, congratulated us and we applauded him on what he called his 8th and final successful summit. All in all, we were on top for about 30 minutes.
THE RIDE DOWN
After hiking back down to the summit above Misery Hill, we rested again then decided to remove our crampons. We took the most practical and fun route down Misery Hill, the glissade. This fancy word describes the basic, child-like instinct to sit and slide on your butt. By now the snow had become quite soft and slushy, so as we slid we would gather up quite a large quantity of snow between our legs. The first ride to the top of the Red Banks was pretty basic and not too steep. The section from the Red Banks (the strip of rocks at the very top of Avalanche Gulch) down to where we cut over to get back to our gear on Casaval, was quite a ride. If you didn't stop your momentum by self-arresting with your ice axe, you could very easily get out of control. So, we slid down quite a ways then had to traverse. We tried to stay high, so that we could drop down to our stuff. By now it was 2:30 pm and the snow was very soft. Every other step we sank up to our thighs in the snow. The resulting hole, once you pull yourself out, resembles a post-hole, hence the name. We took turns leading and finally got to our tent around 4:30 pm. As soon as we got there, we guzzled a lot of water and laid down to rest. After about 30 minutes (any longer and we really would not have wanted to get back up), we packed all our gear and everything we had. By everything, I mean everything. There are no toilets on Mt. Shasta and any kind of waste, other than liquid, must be packed out. Let's leave it at that. Once we packed and strapped everything on, we took a long glissade down the best-named chute on the mountain, Giddy Giddy Gulch. What took us four hours to get up on Saturday, took us about four minutes to get down on Sunday. We then hiked down to Horse camp and out to the parking lot. We reached the truck right around 7:00 pm. After one pitstop to refuel and satiate our hunger for a real meal (Burger King worked just fine) we made it to EJ's in Berkeley by 1:30 am. I got home by 2:00 am and went to bed around 2:30 am. After three hours of rest, again not true sleep, I was up and getting ready for work.
It's now 9:05 pm and I am still at work. I started this little project as my afternoon was winding down and I just kept going. What the hell, it's not every day you climb Mt. Shasta - at least for the first time ;-) You can stop reading now, I am finished. I am going home to bed. I'll start thinking about the Memorial Day trip to Half-Dome later.
I hope this story finds you and your loved ones in good health. Enjoy life every possible way you can.