I posted this story on usenet Jun 17 1997
This past weekend (6-14&15) I went north to climb MT Shasta. I hope you find it interesting. I very much enjoyed the trip. It was a tough trip though which at times made it difficult to realize that I was having fun. In this report I’m stressing mostly the things I learned.
From the beginning, this trip was bound to be slow. It wasn’t clear until a week before who was going, where we’d be staying (Bunny, Sierra hut, or lake Helen), and we didn’t finalize on the source of specialty gear like crampons til a day or two before.
– lesson 1: your more likely to be able to borrow stuff if you ask more that a day or two in advance.
In the end there were two or us. We got up at 6 on Sat morning to make the drive up. We stopped in Berkeley for breakfast then later in Shasta City for lunch, then we kinda putsed around Bunny Flat (6900ft) before starting the hike to lake Helen (10200) at about 3.
– lesson 2: you don’t need to be in a group to be slow.
I made it to Lake Helen at about 6:40 about 20min ahead or my partner John who was attempting to xcrountry ski up the mountain. The snow level pretty much starts at the Sierra Hut.
– lesson 3: skiing up a steep slope can be slow and frustrating.
I got to camp pulled out the shovel and dug the small trench in the snow. that would be the “kitchen”. I mention this trick because I find it very useful but haven’t seen anyone else do it besides the guy that I learned it from. Essentially, it just dig a 3ft deep trench about 4ft long and level the surface on either side. One side serves as a sitting spot the other is where cooking happens. You can use the dug snow you dig up to form a small wind break. No stooping, or crouching required.
By the time John made it to Helen, I’d gotten the water going and started on the tent location. While I worked on cooking dinner, he set up the tent and setup the sleeping bags and all that stuff.
– lesson 4: a thermos can be very useful in the snow.
While cooking I first boiled some water and poured it into the thermos. This would service as the water for the Ramen. I then worked on the main course of dried black beans and cheese on tortillas. The beans were purchased at Whole Foods market. If you have one (or some other health food type store) you should check it out. Good cheap dried foods.
– lesson 5: beans for dinner and sleeping in a tent don’t mix.
Before going to bed I melted some more snow for the summit and replenished the hot water in the thermos for hot cider in the morning.
– lesson 6: snow gets cold quickly. Water should be melted before the sun goes down. The snow got hard pretty quickly and it (the air) wasn’t even that cold.
It was very nice for have a hot morning drink yet not have to fire up the stove. The night was pretty toasty though (probably close to freezing) so this wasn’t a serious issue.
We got up at 5am after a restless night and managed to start our climb just before 6. It quickly became obvious that footwear is the name of the game. John had on his Nordic ski boots and I wore my regular backpacking boots.
– lesson 7: stiff, insulated boots are key. – THIS WAS THE TOP LESSON OF THE TRIP.
I had rented plastic mountaineering boot the first time I attempted Shasta and stiffness makes a BIG difference. In the plastic boots I felt more like I was simply climbing a long set of stairs. In my hiking boots my calves and feet had to do alot more work. (This difference is more pronounced than my shoes for my mountain bike) Also, my toes were cold the whole day. Anyone out there got a pair of size 13 mountaineering boots you want to get rid of?
After climbing for awhile the climbing techniques I read about (in “Freedom of the Hills”; awesome book) began to make much more sense.
– lesson 8: mountains are windy, so tie it down.
Before we started I decided to take advantage of the loops on my gloves and my jacket and this made it way easier to do stuff on breaks. Not having to worry about losing them was nice. In hind sight, I would also tie my ice axe and my backpack to a harness.
About a third of the way to Red Banks I witnessed the only mishap I know of on Sunday. A guy slid from a couple hundred feet above me pretty much down to Lake Helen. He almost smashed into John and was pretty much in reaching distance of him. His ice axe followed him down but I managed to snag it. At this point everyone in the general area stopped semi stunned. Another climber at the based went over to him to help but I never saw him get up. The previous day two people fell from Red Banks to Helen and had to be airlifted off. I handed the axe to his partner, and kept climbing. I looked down periodically but never saw him get up.
If it were to happen again and I were harnessed to my ice axe I probably could have slammed the axe fully into the snow and grabbed him as he came by. He didn’t seem to be going that fast. Anyone have any opinions on this?
We made it to Red Banks (12900ft) at just after 9am. The view from up there is stunning. This was the one thing that made the trip most worthwhile. Shasta is a lone mountain. If you drive 20 miles away from it you are in boring farm country. I’m generally not big on melodramatic views but the vistas never wore off. Whenever I needed a pickup, I would lift my eyes from where my feet were and just look in the distance.
Though it took 3 hours to climb 3000ft it would take another 3 to climb the remaining 1000 to the top. I was lucky enough not to get altitude sickness but I did experience altitude short-of-breathless.
Looking at the map, I had expected to next section of the mountain to be shallower after Red Banks. Fat chance. The next section seemed just as steep. I’m not sure if this was part of Misery Hill (I need to look at my map again) but it was pretty tough.
I had a number of friends that have made it to the top of Shasta. I’ve seen pictures. My attitude has always, “that doesn’t seem so tough”. I definitely had to work to keep going. Maybe I’m just a wimp. 😉
Just before the last short ascent there’s a flat ridge. The word “windy” can’t really describe it. Walking in a straight line was definitely a challenge. The wind was stronger than anything I’d experience. Luckily, it wasn’t that cold.
– lesson 9: drink water until you can’t drink anymore…. Then drink some more.
It was at this point that I started to feel the affects of dehydration. I drank a good amount of water the night before hoping it would help curb the affects of altitude. Altitude was not my problem. In anticipation of the cold and wind, I dressed warmly but the day was really nice so it was overkill. As a result I sweated alot. Very seldom did I have my jacket zipped or the hood up. I lost more water than I could have carried.
At this point John and I are both very tired and starting to get a headache. We spoke for a few minutes and decided that John would wait at one of the less exposed parts of the small clearing before the summit and I would run up and back. There were still a couple parties trickling to the top so we figured this would be a problem. At 12:05 I reached the top (14162ft – 4316.5meters). The last push was surprisingly easy and being at the top was almost a surprise. It was a little windy but I couldn’t imagine it being any nicer in that location. I asked two other guys on the top to take a picture of me and then just kinda hung out for a couple minutes. Being one of the latter parties to get to the top, there wasn’t any crowding. I had a couple minutes on the top to myself.
– lesson 10: small mechanical cameras are the way to go.
On the way up I tried to take lots of pictures. On a number of occasions I had to hug my camera to warm it up. Cold has adverse affects on batteries and it wasn’t even cold. A camera that didn’t “need” batteries would have been nice. My handheld light meter worked fine. Also, it would have been nice to have some thing a little more pocket sized; getting it out of my pack was a pain.
One the way down from the summit one of the first things I noticed was a congregation of people around where I had left John. I worried a little at first but then saw everyone dispersing. It turned out that a mountaineering class noticed him laying there and was checking that he was OK.
Down we go. Going up was tough but at first when we started our descent, we were surprised how steep it was. I had a perpetual fear of tripping and faceplanting on the snow. (ice would almost be a better word) It had been recommended that we not try glissading (sliding) until Red Banks, so we walked down that section. When I got to Red Banks I was still wary of the idea because it was so steep. (I think 45 degrees is a fair estimate) I kneeled over and planted my ice axe in the snow to see what kind of arrest it gave me. I slid a little and stopped. Then a little faster and stopped again. I gained confidence in my ability to self-arrest and before long I was looking for ways to go faster. It probably took only 5 or 10 minutes to go from Red Banks to Lake Helen (it had taken 3 hours to climb)
lesson 11: have water ready when you get back.
In spite of worrying about altitude sickness it was only AFTER the summit that we started to feel less than perky. By the time we got to Lake Helen John and I both had big headaches. We both wanted to get out of there and almost just threw everything in our packs and continue down. We decided that it would be smarted to melt some water first. While John worked on packing up our junk I melted a couple quarts/liters of water most of which we finished at Helen.
Sliding down wet snow is not a much fun as sliding down soft snow. The trip from Lake Helen wasn’t as quick as from Red Bank. This was mostly because my feet acted more like a snowplow.
It seemed like we were pretty much the last people off the mountain. (which is tough given the number of people there) I really enjoyed the trip. The views were great. The challenge was nice to overcome. I learned alot.
Would I do it again. Yes! Just give me a couple weeks to forget about the hard parts. I would probably want to take another route though. A more technical, multi-day experience would probably be more rewarding. At times it felt like I was just kinda trudging along. I don’t find trudging that enjoyable. An extended stay would give me more time to enjoy the climb.
“get to the summit because you climbed. don’t climb to get to the summit” is what I really learned this weekend.