Joined: Thu Apr 26, 2007 11:42 am Posts: 521 Location: Oakland, CA
Date: June 16-18, 2012
Location: Mount Shasta, CA
Weather: Warm under the radiant sun, with only soft freezes overnight
Conditions: Smooth frozen yogurt
Wishing we were Sponsored By:
Riding Giants (Day 1)
Part 1 Music: Depeche Mode - Dream On
"When I first caught sight of Mt. Shasta, over the braided folds of the Sacramento Valley, I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since." - John Muir, 1874
(From a drive-by in March 2012)
I’d only stood here once before, but the familiarity of this spot wrapped me like the warm feeling of visiting an old friend – the kind of friend who, no matter how long the gap between visits, makes it feel like you’ve never skipped a beat in each other’s lives. Andrew kneeled down to lift the thick hinged steel lid encasing the summit register while I tasted the sweet, frothy beer from my can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I gazed out to the north and imagined the rest of the family of volcanic giants I could not see, those that live for hundreds of miles beyond the sharp snow-striped cone of Mount McLoughlin. Just an hour prior I wasn’t sure I’d be standing up here again, at the top of the world, or at least the top of the most massive of the extant Cascade volcanoes.
We embarked from the trailhead in habit so inculcated that it was practically automatic: empty the entire contents of my multi-colored Subaru onto the ground of the parking lot, and repack the necessary items in our bags, in a way inspired by Ray Jardine and good friend Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. We focused only on the most essential, lightweight, multipurpose gear to carry seven-thousand feet up the big mountain: Canon 7D SLR camera with 200mm zoom lens, bottle of Hennessy cognac, cans of beer, and fat-waisted skis.
A week before, cars and trucks were thwarted from making it all the way to the Brewer Creek trailhead by impassable snow drifts on the rough dirt road, but a few days of hot sun and no overnight freezing made this road completely clear for our trip. The volcanic sediments and ash that form the base of the mountain can drain water so swiftly and easily that there was no evidence near the trailhead of the foot of snow covering the ground just days before. The approach was too dry to warrant getting on skins until we had gained 500 feet in elevation. Still, the forested terrain was fairly open and easily passable on foot until we switched to skis.
As we rose toward treeline, mature stout pines gave way to younger smaller trees that attemped to reclaim earth devastated by snow, rock, and ice avalanches. The trees and ice on the mountain have been playing a cyclical game of advance and retreat throughout the millenia, as the glaciers have advanced and retreated down and back up the mountain. One of Shasta’s two sibling neighbors, Mount McLoughlin, appeared as we rolled out of the forest – and then we gained our first unobstructed view of the big mountain. In the mountains of Switzerland, Alaska, and even the Pacific Northwest, the sight of giant serac-riddled glaciers sprawled for thousands of feet overhead may be commonplace, but it is a rarity within the state of California. We stared at the house-sized square blocks of ice that pimpled the face of the Hotlum glacier, the largest glacier in the state. While our planned route headed up directly between the Wintun and Hotlum glaciers, we decided that the next time we toured this side of the mountain we should travel along the edge of the Hotlum to get a more intimate experience with its blocked and cleaved features.
It was nearly 6 PM and we had been traveling for just about three hours, when we had an omen of good fortune. The gray blanket over the peak gave way to blue sky and a ladybug joined us in company, hitching on one of my skis for a short ride uphill. Fifteen minutes later, we found a sheltered camp spot on a medial moraine. It was nestled into a perfect 90-degree cleft fractured out of a large boulder complex. The spot had been improved by previous mountaineers into a perfect mid-mountain campsite: it was infilled with small till and gravel to form a graded level base, and fortified with a stacked rock wall on the south-eastern flank to form a tent-sized 3-sided wind shelter. This was the highest protected flat spot along the main route, making a simple straight shot of the next morning’s 4,000 foot elevation bootpack to the top.
We cooked dinner and settled into the evening, watching the sharply peaked shadow of the mountain slowly consume the patchy forest clearcuts and gentle buttes of the McCloud River Valley. The shadow surged up in a last gasping effort to pierce the dusk-pink sky before disappearing in darkness. A glint of northern light continued to reflect off of the Hotlum’s high seracs late into the warm June night. We finally set to bed when the last glimmer on Shasta’s peak faded at 10 PM and the stars completely took over the night sky.
Riding Giants (Day 2 & 3)
Part 2 Music: Phantogram - Turn it Off
The soft beeps from my watch were drowned by the flapping of my tent’s nylon doors in the buffeting wind, so we slept in later than our planned wakeup and arose just after 5 AM with the day’s first light. I reached my hand outside the tent to feel the eerily warm wind – warmer than when we had set to bed, warmer than the air above the rocks and snow. Crap.
We were already late to get going, and warm air would only cut our timing window even shorter. The rising sun had yet to even glance upon the mountain, and the snow was already a fudgy soft consistency that could turn to mush within hours. We just forfeited any chance for great skiing conditions, no matter how quickly we got our gear together and ran up the mountain. While we finished breakfast, the rising sun set the lingering overnight clouds on fire – burning them away for a day of pure deep blue.
Andrew and I set out as other parties from lower camps and the base trailhead started to come up to our part of the mountain. They dotted the white face of the route with groups of two, three, and four, spread throughout the route from mid-mountain to bottom. The upper portion of our route allowed a view of Shasta's other neighboring Cascade volcano, Mount Lassen, directly opposite from the view of McLoughlin. The walking was easy in the supportable yet soft snow – it was probably even doable without crampons or an axe, though it would have been silly to go without; we would have had marginal weight savings in return for the risk of an unarrestable fall down the several-thousand foot long snowfield. We steadily marched up our route, surprised to see scant signs of overhead rockfall or icefall hazard. This was a stark contrast to the head’s up traveling we undertook the previous July on Shasta's West Face - where fist-sized chunks of ice and rock whizzed by our heads at 80 miles per hour every ten or fifteen minutes.
The route steepened at a south traverse to the snowfield above the Wintun glacier, at the exact place where it became completely sheltered from cool moving air, while the sun radiated remorselessly into our backs. The climbing, though about as technically challenging as walking on sand with a sharp pointed cane, had become Sysiphean at 13,000 feet in elevation. I opened my chest to draw atmosphere into my lungs, but they felt empty no matter how deeply I inhaled. Empty of substance, air, life.
I’d not spent much time at elevation this year, having been above 10,000 feet for only an hour previously this season - on top of Shasta's sibling Cascade Mt. Lassen just a few weeks before. It was such a poor and barely existent seasonal snowpack in the Eastern Sierra that I couldn’t justify the long drive or time off work for high-elevation spring skiing trips; I therefore hadn’t conditioned my weak asthmatic lungs, and the rest of my body, to intense anaerobic efforts under the hot sun, as I typically would have by this time of year. My thoughts turned to acute mountain sickness, AMS.
I’d been victim to AMS on a hot day in the mountains several years before, hallucinating about how much of my boots and legs were buried in the snow while being barely able to stand up straight due to dizziness. In its mildest form, effects such as lightheadedness and nausea are simply annoyances that can be managed. As the condition worsens, it becomes physically and mentally debilitating, with simple tasks such as lifting a foot off the ground or forming a complex sentence becoming more challenging than multivariable math problems. Untreated, the condition could even lead to serious pulmonary complications. Of course, I knew intimately about serious pulmonary complications as well, from when one of my lungs completely spontaneously “popped” and collapsed two years before.
I plunged the spike of my axe through the snow and completely buried the shaft, leaving just an exposed handle that I could grab as I dropped my heavy knees into the slope and stopped completely. At this point of the climb, I could only take 11 or 12 steps at a time before the acid choking my legs would not allow any more. The time it took me to rest and recover between efforts grew longer than I could give to the efforts themselves. By now Andrew was well ahead of me, unaware of my struggles to breathe and climb. I halted for ten minutes to take in food, water, ibuprofen, albuterol sulfate, and an inhaled powder steroid in hope of warding off full-blown AMS. As long as I could keep from getting dizzy and losing balance, the first key critical symptom to be concerned with, I could push on slowly and make the summit – at least that’s what I told myself. At the first sign of dizziness, I would need to turn around and descend immediately. I dropped my elbows to the snow and cradled my head in my hands. I closed my eyes and sucked in air as deeply as I could, and resolved to not get dizzy. I then stood up and continued, slowing my pace to a crawl that my lifeless arms and legs could sustain.
Thankfully, the tactics worked out and over an hour later I met Andrew just below the summit block in an exalted high five. I immediately threw my pack, with its skis, clothes, first aid and rescue supplies, food, and heavy camera, to the ground. Now that we were up top, I only needed two important items with me – my can of summit beer and my digital SLR camera. With no weight on my back and the chance to rest, my strength was buoyed by the elation of being back on the mountain's top.
We simultaneously cracked each of our beers open and clunked cans together in a toast. Andrew and I were amused by the culture clash of us, brash backcountry skiers, against guided mountaineers with no experience. While a guide was offering foot placement advice to a cautious rope team of four harnessed climbers making the last steps to the summit, Andrew and I swiftly walked around the group and up to the highest rock, without axe, crampons or supporting use of our hands. We giggled with our beers and cameras in each of our hands as the cautious mountain fledglings gazed over at us. I lamented the long walk they would soon be taking down steep snowy faces, knowing that we would be making fast gliding turns and beat them back to camp by a couple of hours. At least they could have, should have, carried beers with them to sweeten the reward of a full day of walking.
We soaked in as much of the joyous feeling that we could – standing upon a 14,180 foot tall volcano on a clear warm day, with visible landscape stretching for nearly a hundred miles in each direction – before clicking into our Dynafit bindings for the long ski down to camp. The snow was heavy, wet, and required effort to turn through, but it was very smooth, untracked, and wide open. We started by descending an untracked northeast facing chute below the summit before traversing out to a massive 35-degree steep snowfield above the Wintun glacier. At this elevation, making turns in heavy snow, with a slight beer buzz, was exhausting. My legs and lungs couldn’t handle more than a dozen or so turns at a time. I even tomahawked twice, but it was a fantastically fun ski of the longest sustained steep run I’ve ever ridden on skis or boards.
Okay - a little splitboard stoke. Anyone recognize this guy? He dropped in while we were nearing the top
We had plenty of time left in the day to gather camp and ski out to the car, but our mid-mountain perch was so beautiful and well-protected that we decided to spend another night on the majestic volcano. However, there was eight hours of daylight left and nothing much to do besides napping, and even that was difficult. Under the summer sun, in stagnant air, the temperature inside the tent was over 80 degrees. The heat fueled a horde of black flies that found our camp, convinced by the foul odor that my socks really were the same thing as rotting meat. I laid my sleeping pad out on a flat pile of till and fashioned a more breeze-exposed miniature sun shelter for my head, using my poles, a boulder, and jacket shell, while Andrew found a cool shady spot between boulders to crawl into. We daydreamed and philosophized under the heat, escaping the frenetic pace of our regular lives, for at least a few hours. Despite being baked and parched by the sun, it was a rejuvenating experience to abandon any strict agenda for the day, other than needing to melt snow for water and pass bowel movements. Eventually the air cooled as the sun settled, so we sipped our cognac and watched the day disappear one more time over the green McCloud River Valley.
The next morning we skied out early and drove straight to the gear outfitter in town. I was immediately surprised by the willing helpfulness of the local shop employees, who gave us written directions to the local crags along the Sacramento River. Andrew and I had also packed our rock climbing gear on the trip, hoping to find information about top-rope routes in the Castle Crags area or elsewhere. While the backcountry skiing and outdoor climbing communities have cultivated a sense of helpfulness to other members of the tribe, it’s also commonplace to shield information about local powder stashes or hidden crags within only trusted compatriots, for fear of “word getting out” and “the goods being spoiled.” We followed the directions of the short drive, walked out onto the approach trail, and were amazed.
The trail follows the shore of the Sacramento River through a gorge formed on both sides by cleanly fractured granitic cliffs. The climbing routes were short, but the clean rock sat in one of the most beautiful settings that we had ever seen for local “backyard” crags. I watched flyfishers cast for Rainbow Trout in the river while Andrew set up the rope anchor atop the cliff above. We each climbed three times, enjoying the tranquil murmur of California’s most vital artery at its modest headwaters.
Once finished, we each drank a cold beer alongside the river, letting the calming sound of running water and refreshing taste of bittersweet ale top off the magnificence of our second trip to Mount Shasta. We interruped the long drive back to Berkeley and Oakland with a stop in Red Bluff for succulent seafood and carne asada burritos, fresh guacamole, and cold Mexican sodas. To anyone ever driving down the I-5 through Northern California, I strongly recommend Los Mariachis Mexican Diner for the quality of food in an otherwise dearth of options between Ashland and Sacramento. But even more so, I recommend planning a trip to walk up to the great summit of Mount Shasta, and ski, or walk, if you must, down its snowy faces. You won’t regret doing either, especially if done together.
Joined: Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:56 pm Posts: 442 Location: Meyers, CA
That would be me splitting. I remember climbing the last couple hundred feet with your partner.
It looks like you guys pulled off a great trip. If you're camping on the mountain it's great to chill the day after the summit climb. Don't know if you tried this but putting your sleeping bag on top of the tent makes it much cooler in there during the hot part of the day (it really reduces the greenhouse effect inside the tent). That crag you visited is on my list of great Shasta chill spots.
Thanks for sharing your TR. You put me to shame, I think I only took one pic that day.