The Shasta Story: Successes, Failures, Surprises, Lessons Learned

This is not quite the story I’d imagined writing prior to the climb.

The trip, the mountain, as kids say, was awesome (video below). The pre-hikes to get acclimated to altitude, despite a few blisters, went well. Perhaps the very best part of the trip was spending time with the support team—Cara, Adam, Patrick, Zach, and Tom, and with many of their friends. All are young, impressive; many are striving hard to establish creative businesses while simultaneously working in the tourist industries around Tahoe—bar tenders, valets, a tour boat captain—and also teaching mountaineering skills at local university extensions or in Spain, or Argentina, or teaching OSHA classes on how to rescue people from collapsed buildings… on and on. Smart, philosophical, driven by ideals, driving themselves—as Zach puts it, “If I’m not disciplined enough, I feel I’m not living the existence I want, or reaching the potential I seek.” It was a delight and inspiring to spend time with them, but more so it was reassuring that the younger generations is not all fragile snowflakes of all-too-typical media projections. On top of that, they took pretty good care of the old guy.

There were successes, but also failures (see attached photos).  Isn’t that the way much of life goes? We’ll always have them as individuals, as families, as towns, states or nations. If we were guaranteed success on every challenge, then they really wouldn’t be challenges at all, would they?

We arrived in the Town of Mt Shasta mid-afternoon on Friday. Unloaded (stayed at an Airbnb condo), began breaking down gear, went out to the local sports shop where I rented alpine touring skis/boots/poles, plus we picked up an extra avalanche beacon, probe and shovel so everyone would have that equipment. Back to the condo, continued working on gear, began drinking extra water to pre-hydrate. Drank more the next morning, and filled up my Camelback from the kitchen tap just before we left for the trailhead… about 7 or 7:30 in the morning.

Summit Pass.JPG

After getting summit passes we were on the mountain by 8:30. Not a big rush as we knew we’d be stopping at a mid-camp at 10,400 feet (starting about 6,900’), so there was plenty of time to get to where we wanted to be. Hiked for less than half a mile when we hit the snow; I switched over to the touring skis with skins to ski up/climb that way. The younger climbers all used split boards (snow boards cut to be able to use each side for climbing, but clasped back together for boarding down).

The route up is known as Avalanche Gulch, but at least for the first part of the climb, there’s little to worry about. The weather is amazing, hot, absolutely clear. I’m in a tee-shirt, Cara is climbing in shorts. We’ve all slathered ourselves with sunblock, lip protection. I wear a hat with a long bill; dark, polarized sunglasses. Patrick uses a sun hoodie, a light weight hoodie with an SPF factor someplace off the charts. A few climbers in other groups have full face masks and goggles.

The elevation gain is deceptive. Even where the trail appears horizontal, you’re climbing. And climbing. I work myself into a rhythm, and as the pitch steepens I begin counting steps. Every 100 steps I take a short break, five deep breaths with forced full exhalation to blow off as much C02 as possible, then a few relaxed breaths and the next 100 steps up.

Can’t say the climbing was easy. At least not for me. Pack weighed 35+/- pounds after the skis were off… so it was a matter of carrying that weight up 3500 vertical feet. Still that wasn’t the problem. That’s what I’d been training to do. It wasn’t necessary to go quickly. I simply wanted to keep a consistent pace, and enjoy the grandeur of the mountain.  If you’ve glanced at the attached photos you’ve likely guessed what’s coming. All that hydrating, and all the water in the Camelback, unbeknownst to us, was contaminated with E. coli. Probably not too much of a concentration as the young’uns didn’t have this trouble, but me, with my compromised guts… well, it wasn’t pretty. An hour in and I headed for the woods; then again the next hour. Pretty soon we were above the treeline and the places to get off the trail were rock outcroppings. At this point I had no idea what had set it off (the announcement wasn’t made in town until two or three hours after we’d left for the trailhead). And, of course, I’m doing my best to stay hydrated, slugging down gulps from my Camelback, knowing dehydration is the fastest way to become fatigued.

Along with my guts, my mind was churning as it always does on hikes or climbs. “Why climb? Why go to these extremes?” I’m thinking. “No one lives atop Shasta or Rainier or Baker or Red Lake Peak, or any of these high mountains. It’s not a matter of them being National Parks or National Forest Land. No one has ever established permanent residence up there. Peaks are inhospitable. They tend to be arid, wind-swept, subject to massive and unpredictable weather swings. They’re difficult to supply, difficult to sustain life. So what magic do they hold?” I’m having these thoughts amidst counting steps and now doing my best to do a mind-over-matter meditation to stay in control. “Why climb? It certainly is more than the physical challenge, more than the amazing vista. Why climb? What do the mountains tell us, or show us, that we can’t see, or simply don’t notice, from lower elevations. Perhaps it is a matter that as one ascends the clutter and cluster of lower environs dissipates allowing for clarity of internal and external views.” The external were magnificent.

At 9800’ one of the young guys took my pack. They could tell I was hurting. To me it was pretty embarrassing not to be shouldering my weight, but I was again off into the outcroppings… and now I was running out of supplies for this kind of thing. Good grief! We weren’t even halfway through the first day—at least time-wise. Without the pack the last 600 or so vertical feet wasn’t bad. Adam went on ahead, set up our tent and campsite.

Numerous climbers dotted the mountain. Shasta gets about 5000 people a year attempting to summit, and most of them try from early-June to mid-July (depending upon the year). Later in the season as the high snows melt back, chunks of ice and rocks tend to break loose causing hazardous conditions for those below. On this day most of the climbing parties (and all of the guided climbing groups) set up well below us. Looking down a number of tiny, colorful tent cities dotted white crests, and about us on our little knoll there are perhaps two dozen tents.

Fast forward: I was up at 11, and 1, and 2, and 3… ugh! Except that the night sky was incredibly beautiful. The constellations were so clear you could reach out and grab Draco by the tail, or maybe grasp a dipper and use it to melt some snow over Patrick’s camp stove. Amidst the stars the Milky Way carpeted a swath about the globe, the tiny lights making a fabric flowing off into the deep universe. Here I’m grumbling to myself about being out of the tent, heading down to the ice privy, and simultaneously looking up in awe. Starlight reflecting off the glacier silhouetted the entire mountain. The soft snow of the day had crusted over and was every so slick in the middle of the night, forcing one look down; then, looking down into the valley the Town of Mt. Shasta was a flickering square patch of light in a rolling terrain of dark grays and black.

The guided groups began their ascent between 2 and 2:30. By 3 the climbers ascending the side of the bowl above our mid-camp, each having a headlamp, looked like a line of technologically-advanced ants. We had planned on an alpine start at 4 or 4:30, so we were all up at 3:30 getting light packs ready, but with the way I was feeling I had to tell them I didn’t think I should even attempt it. Bless these guys, they did their best to talk me into it saying they’d pull me up, and if I was still feeling bad that they’d come back down with me. Still what I was thinking about was no place off the trail the higher up you go! I climbed back into the tent, into my sleeping bag, angry at myself, at my guts, but sure I’d made the right decision. Cara stayed in camp with me. By about 8:30 we’d packed up, gotten our skis on (in her case snowboard) and began the ski down.

I was tired and this was the first time I’d ever skied with a 30+ pound pack on my back—that throws off your weight transfer when you’re trying to turn, so it requires extra concentration. But it was great skiing, and my guts seemed to be, if not settled, at least cooperating! It wasn’t until Sunday evening, after cleaning up and then going to dinner that we found out about the E. coli contamination in the town’s water supply. Damn!

A side note: Adam and Patrick didn’t get started until 5:30. Adam set his Strava GPS app as they left camp. On the way up they passed all the guided climbers, many of whom had started out 3 ½ hours earlier. They summited, Patrick with his summit monkey (see video), and were back at our mid-camp by 10:30. Of all the people (about 150) who had taken that route and registered it on Strava, they were the second fastest climbers.  These guys are amazing.

So… that’s the Shasta story. Not quite the one I’d expected to tell. For the prior several weeks I’d been thinking about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property (that was the original phrase from the Articles of Association of 1774), about the pursuit of property being the basis for so many of our freedoms; then also about Congress banning the slave trade to America in 1807 while it was still going strong in Europe, South and Central America and the Middle East; about defeating tyranny and resisting the lure of establishing an empire... about all the good this nation has done, so much of which seems to be lost as our daily consciousness is bombarded with continuous negatives. I had sketched out an essay to be titled Lest We Forget, and on the mountain the thoughts about Why Climb? and Uncluttered Clarity were pieces to be added, but these thoughts are going to have to wait for a future post.

Lessons Learned:  Did you know, when you’re on a glacier on a bright sunny day in late June—just about the day of the year when the sun is the most intense and the angle of reflection off the snow is nearly vertical—chemical sunblock barely works, and even if you put it on the bottom of your nose, the reflected sun actually goes up your nostrils and gives you a sunburn inside?! Or that a short beard doesn’t protect your face, and you need to rub sunblock into your stubble?! Or wear a face mask. A sun hoodie might be an essential piece of gear. Other lessons: Need more practice with the GoPro camera; Adam got some terrific footage; mine, just so-so. It needs to be instinctive, which means practice. Cara’s Wild Perspective Photography shots captured the magnificence of Shasta in a way GoPros just can’t. They’re essential as we begin to assemble elements for the Peaking At 70 documentary. When climbing one plans for all sorts of contingencies from avalanches to freak storms—always attempting to strike a balance between potential need and weight carried—but how do you plan for tap water contamination? Life throws curve balls. I'm not sure there was any way to predict or avoid what happened. The important thing is to always be striving for the best.

Next up: Mt. Baker. “Mount Baker, also known as Koma Kulshan or simply Kulshan, is an active glaciated andesitic stratovolcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc and the North Cascades of Washington state...” (Wikipedia)  At 10,781’ it is not as high as Shasta but the elevation gain of the climb is nearly identical. This mountain received, in one year (1998), more snow than any other location in America ever received—122 feet! So much snow that early that winter it topped the ski lifts at the one resort, and the resort had to close. These snows, and the crevasses created, make this “iciest” mountain a challenge. No skiing up. Depending upon our route we may need to rope up.

Hopefully going into this one a bit wiser!

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