“All mountain landscapes hold stories: the ones we read, the ones we dream, and the ones we create.”― Michael Kennedy
If Whitney is King of California, Shasta is Queen.
The weekend before last I made the acquaintance of another member of California’s high court- her majesty Mt. Shasta. And I for one think we should call her lady ship by her native name- Uytaahkhoo (bestowed upon her by the local Karuk Indians and meaning “White Mountain”). She is only the fifth highest peak in the Golden State, but the clear sovereign of Northern California.
I’ve since come down to sea level, but I’ve still got my head in the clouds. I will try to share with you some of the glow of magical adventure that I am still basking in.
It all started at 5 p.m. on Friday the 17th of May at Outdoor Adventures, UC Davis’s outdoor recreation group. We had a stellar team of 5 positive and encouraging people, all guides of varying skills and experience for OA. Our head guide was Dan, who clearly has years of mountaineering experience. Jorgen, Sasha, Izzy, and I followed his lead.
Our first view of the solitary monarch of the North came to us as a starlit surprise- and oh! What a surprise! A great mass of glowing white dominating the skyscape. It was mythical!
We arrived to the trail-head at Bunny Flat (elevation 6,950 feet) around 10 p.m. and headed straight to a forest floor bed- beneath the stars of course! Something I have been missing so dearly since last summer.
We woke up under Shasta’s glorious and cloud concealed head. After heading back into town for some breakfast and to pick up some rental equipment it was time to get all the gear loaded and start our way up the hill! I learned how gear intensive mountaineering and snow camping are- not only do you need basic backpacking gear, but additionally: extra layers + an avalanche probe and a beacon + a shovel + crampons + an ice axe + snowshoes or skis + a helmet, etc. That’s a lot of extra-weight!
We started hiking around 10:30 a.m. and were quickly met by a bit of rain. We took our time and plenty of breaks- either to eat and snack or solve gear or blister issues. Izzy, Jorgen, and I headed up on foot and by snowshoe while Sasha and Dan skinned up with skis. The weather all day was variable- going from sunny to cloudy to snowing to windy amidst the mountain’s milder mood swings.
The views on the way up were phenomenal – the crevices and smooths of the mountain, the enduring rocks and fleeting snow, the views of mountains fading into mountains, silhouetted one after the other in a great blue expanse. The spires, the chutes, the crests, the ridges, the cracks, the curves.
Shasta is deep and immense- a voluminous mountain (we argued about whether that was a word in the car, turns out it is!)
We set up Camp at home sweet Helen Lake adding to the palette of tents already there. It was a bit crowded, but a beautiful platform from which to gaze upon the earth. We were in and out of shadow and clouds until bedtime. Oddly enough this was my first experience snow-camping, all other attempts having been cancelled or forgo-ed. I learned that time is primarily consumed melting snow for water. There’s also some fun digging involved and quite a bit of moving around to stay warm (at least for me).
We went to bed at 8:21 p.m. (very precise, according to Izzy). The wind howled the first part of the night, but when we woke up at 2 a.m. for our alpine start it was clear and still outside. It is only on this sort of crisp altitude morning where the stars and milky way are at their most resplendent that you really begin to grasp, despite all the darkness, how much light is truly present in this universe.
I put on all my layers before heading outside as well as hand warmers in my gloves and toe warmers in my boots. I have Raynaud’s syndrome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raynaud%27s_phenomenon), a condition where one has poor circulation in one’s hands and feet. I have learned that the best thing I can do in cold environments is to be pro-active about staying warm. That means layering up before I get cold, and helping my hands and feet produce some extra heat before they are nearly devoid of that ability. This also means I benefit from short quick breaks and continuous movement. Once I get cold, it can be very hard to warm up again, and generally takes a lot of arm shaking, jumping jacks, and other vigorous movements on my part.
We started hiking up towards the Heart (a rock formation on the mountain shaped like a… can you guess?) at 3 a.m by the light of our headlamps and the crunch of our crampons. Slow and steady, taking water/snack breaks every 30 minutes as directed by Dan. The glow of day was gradually arriving and with it the triangular shadow of Shasta cast upon the world.
Who knew what the sun, rising on the other side of the mountain had in store for us that day, but we absolutely had to keep climbing to meet it. We followed the John Muir Route going to the right of the Heart and veering left above it to head up one of the Red Banks chutes. This was the steepest part, and definitely challenging, but a lot of fun too. We stopped at the top of Red Banks because Sasha’s boots were trying to kill his feet. Lucky for him, he was able to replace the murderous liners by wrapping odds and ends of extra clothing around his feet.
Unfortunately, at the base of Misery Hill, where the wind was really starting to blast, I desperately had to take a poop (too much information? Perhaps, but it’s all part of the adventure). Pooping at 13,000 feet is not easy, let alone when your bare bottom is being blasted by ice and wind. It was quite the chilling experience!
It was now time to head up Misery Hill. The last big ascent before the summit plateau. Due to the previous two breaks and the wind, I was starting to get miserably cold. My fingers no longer had a good grip on my trekking pole or my ice axe- they were getting stiffer and number by the minute. But, you know what? Things were still beautiful.
At the top of Misery Hill is where the wind really got serious. We took a quick break here to re-group and then headed onto the flat ridge before the final incline up to the summit block.
“We’ll stomp to the top with the wind in our teeth.”– George Mallory
The wind stung our faces with ice and cold, reaching through the cracks where the face mask Sasha let me borrow didn’t reach (so glad I had that though- thanks Sasha!). At this point I realized that I might not be able to walk in this wind and that I was simply getting colder and colder and starting to feel the onset of nausea. I was confident that I could reach the summit and I still really wanted to, but I began to realize that if I did, I might jeopardize my descent and become a liability for my teammates on the descent if I got too cold to function properly. And this being my first true mountaineering venture I was wary of pushing the limits of inexperience. So, I told Dan that I wanted to head back. I think it was a smart evaluation of risk- I based my decision on the risk I was posing myself and those in my group.
“Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”– Ed Viesturs
Jorgen and Sasha crossed the exposed ridge safely, but Izzy stumbled to the edge, almost getting blown off the ridge. I got really scared, and so did Dan who tried to yell to her, but the wind carried his voice elsewhere. Since it was impossible to communicate to the others through the wind we headed into the furious gale together to meet up with the others. Dan held on to my shoulder strap as we stumbled through the gusts so I would not get literally blown off the mountain. I have never experienced such a wind and such difficulty walking in the elements. My parents looked up forecast the day of on the Shasta avalanche site (http://shastaavalanche.org/) and cited predictions of 70-80 mph (73+ is what is known as hurricane force). Dan estimated that some of the gusts were up to 100mph. Whatever the true numbers… it was strong.
We crossed the ridge safely and arrived to the plateau about 300 feet from the summit where we were a little sheltered from the wind. Here we paused again, I tried to throw blood back into my hands but it was not working. I had given up on my toes at that point. I was starting to shiver underneath all my layers. But, the summit was so tantalizingly close. So I followed the rest of our group and started to walk the final steps to the summit. But after a couple steps back into the blasting wind, I thought “Johanne this is stupid, you’ve been cold for a long time, you’re starting to shiver, and going further is not going to improve your condition. It can only make it worse.” So I turned around and told Dan that I didn’t want to go further. Thanks for waiting with me Dan! Sasha, Jorgen, and Izzy forged ahead, but they did not get far either before Jorgen noticed Sasha’s nose was showing signs of frost-nip. With the wind still raging, it was a wise choice to turn around at their high point of 13,967 feet (recorded via Sasha’s SPOT GPS). We re-grouped and then it was time to head back across the ridge of wild wind. Sasha, Jorgen, and Izzy went ahead and Dan held me on the mountain again, shielding me from the wind with his body as we walked. Thank you for that Dan, I might not have made it without you! Jorgen said that at one point the wind lifted him off both of his feet. It was nuts!!
I was still cold as we went down but started to warm up at the base of Misery hill with the help of some spirited arm shaking, Dan’s armpit, and that delightfully radiant star we call our Sun. I would like to say that I am so grateful to my friends for helping me with tasks like getting my water bottle out as we neared the summit when my hands were too cold to be useful.
The cold is definitely what got to me, I don’t feel like I was pushing my limits in regards to physical exhaustion- my lungs felt great and I’ve definitely done more tiring things in my life. Not that it wasn’t tiring or challenging, it was and I was a little sore the next day. But, other things like the trail marathon I did earlier this year were more exhausting. But then again, you can’t really compare them, the efforts and conditions are very different..
I definitely wasn’t moving very fast (my uphill skills are not that great… ), but in regards to the altitude I was surprised at how good I felt considering the rapid ascent and how my body has reacted in the past. I did lose my appetite and I did get a little nauseous towards the summit plateau. Between waking up at 2 a.m. and getting back to my apartment in Davis at 8 p.m. I ate a cliff bar, half a cliff bar, a handful of trail mix, and half a piece of bread. Not the appetite you would expect for so much exercise… Overall I think hydrating well the whole week leading up to the trip and during the trip helped me out the most in dealing with the altitude.
The descent was much faster and easier than I expected with more sliding, soft snow, and the delight of glissading!! Like sledding on clouds!! And very unlike the joint-pounding joys of hiking down a rocky trail.
We got back to camp at Lake Helen, rested a little, and packed up. Sasha and Dan skied down, while Jorgen, Izzy, and I hiked and glissaded. Snow much fun! We arrived at the parking lot around 2 p.m.- very parched and a little sun-burned, but no worse for the wear.
I am so happy to have had this experience. I can’t stop looking through my pictures and I spent about 3 hours relating the tale to my parents on Skype. Now sitting at a computer part of me wishes I had gone further or even summited, but in the moment I think my decision was smart (does this mean I’m mature now?), and I’m happy about how I evaluated the situation in that circumstance. It’s so easy to think that here in the heat of Davis- removed from the cold and wind and altitude. And it’s so funny how when you don’t summit you deal with all the “what ifs”, but when you do summit, you don’t worry about that at all. In either case you are the mercy of the mountain’s caprice. I’d say we were incredibly lucky to get to where we got and to feel as we did feel.
I want to go back, not only because I’d like to summit, but because I feel there is so much more to this mountain- new routes, new views, new secrets. Uytaahkhoo is so massive, so dominating, and so captivating. She is surrounded by legend and mystery and unpredictability. I am entranced!
It was everything I wanted in a first mountaineering experience and I am so eager for more! I just have to stay WARM! May be I can use the help of some hot springs like John Muir did haha…if you have the time, I highly recommend reading his account of surviving a snow storm on Mt. Shasta: http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/snow_storm_on_mount_shasta.aspx
I can’t express how satisfied I am with how the trip went- I felt so happy and immersed in the mountain the whole time. This is an adventure with friends I will never forget. The intensity of the enterprise as a whole – in the sun, the wind, and the cold, and in the landscape and the effort all shared with fellow human beings- is the beauty of life. Shasta showed us her Heart openly and unabashed, I only hope that I have been able to do the same…