Sent: Monday, June 22, 1998 2:47 PM
Subject: TR: Mt. Shasta Summit (or not)
(see all the photos).
Or, "I drove 700 miles and all I got was this stupid sunburn".
I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to age gracefully; I was
gonna go kicking and screaming. To that end, I decided that I'd
celebrate my 40th year by trying to climb Shasta, an idea I'd gotten
stuck in the back of my mind some years ago while taking a cross country
skiing course at Alpine Skills' Donner "hut".
This trip was going to be several "firsts" - first winter backpacking
trip, first time sleeping above 7000 feet, first time above 9000 feet,
first time with an ice axe and crampons ... so there was clearly a lot
to learn. I had no illusions of doing this myself, so I booked on ASI's
"Introduction to High-Altitude Mountaineering" course. My first choice
weekend was already booked, so I chose a date two weeks earlier.
Terse version: I had a great time and learned a lot. Also, I bailed at
10,500 feet on summit morning, overheated and exhausted.
Miserable traffic was only part of the fun
Longer version: car trouble and traffic annoyances (it took the better part
of 8 hours to get from my house to the trailhead, a trip I expected to
take at most seven and have done in more like five) aside, I had an
uneventful trip, camped at the Bunny Flats parking lot (I pitched a
tent since I didn't know if "scattered showers" would turn into wet or
not) and had an enjoyable evening - an almost full moon bright enough
to see colors by. A number of people were stretched out in bivvy sacks
in the parking lot, trying to avoid the melt runoff.
Weather in Shasta this year is running "about a month behind normal",
which means that there are about 10 feet of snow around the parking lot
at the trailhead. More recently, they've been having regular rain/snow
and warm weather and avalanche danger is moderate to high.
It wasn't an auspicious start when the ASI guides showed up without my
rental pack. Without any of the rental packs. So the three of us drove
down to the Fifth Season to rent some.
This was a mixed blessing, since I had just tried on the boots I'd
rented (Koflachs) and decided that they were at least half a size too
small (no toe room). So I tried on boots, and got very happy feet in a
pair of Scarpa Invernos. I walked out with those, crampons to match, and
a Bora pack that fit reasonably well (unloaded, at least - Pedro, I must
admit that I neglected to round up four gallons of water).
On your back, headfirst...
By the time we got back to the trailhead, things were running late, of
course, so we were hustled along - grab some group gear, figure out how
to pack this pack I'd never seen, put on shell and rental boots I'd
worn once, and hike over to "snow school", already in progress at a
hill near you.
We got quick lessons in walking with ice axe, self belay, self arrest,
glissade. I think I actually got to practice each of the four self
arrest positions with the axe in each hand, but just. Everyone was
waiting, and the snow was already getting soft.
So we (10 clients, 3 guides) started humping. Since avalanche danger is
high, we did the Green Butte route rather than the traditional Avalanche
Gulch. Our camp was to be around 9400, summit route goes up to meet
Sargent's Ridge and continues on across the Red Banks.
My first bad gear choice quickly became evident - I was told that I
didn't "need" full side zip Goretex pants. Bull. My shell pants
wouldn't come off over my boots, so I did the first hour of slogging in
them, and got *way* too hot. This was an omen, though I didn't
recognize it at the time. I stripped down to a sleeveless polypro shirt
on top, which helped.
Now, I've been humping a 40 pound pack four mornings a week up some
reasonably steep hills, getting about 1050 feet gain in an hour, and
feeling pretty good about it. My cardiovascular index was "excellent",
according to the Harvard Step Test that ASI uses (they recommended
being in at least "very good" shape).
Despite that, I was woefully unprepared for this. I was too hot, the
guides just didn't stop (an hour at a stretch, minimum), the hill was
fairly steep and the steps were high because of the soft snow. And the
pack made my hips hurt. I was used to being able to stop for a minute
or so every 15, and drinking a lot of water. I think that my old
dichotomy of sprint vs. endurance athletics was rearing its ugly head
again ... and I hadn't any training much more than four hours long.
Exposure has a way of focusing the mind
Anyway, we made it to a plateau around 9100' after about 3 hours, where
a lot of camps were already set. Our guides weren't happy with any of
the remaining sites, so we were going to go on. No one was particularly
happy to hear this. Especially when we saw what "go on" meant - a
single file traverse across a narrow ridge. The head guide said "get out
your ice axes and helmets - it's an easy traverse, but ... you can't
Traverse we did. Now I have a better sense of what "exposure" means.
We dug out a camp, set up tents, and started to relax. Dinner was at 6,
and tasted pretty darned good. I got out my down jacket and felt
luxurious and enjoyed the view. We went to bed early...
We awoke (no, can't really say awoke when you're not sure you slept
... that tent flapped a lot); the day broke (well, no, it's was 1:30
so there was no breaking dawn); anyway, we got up at 1:30, made
breakfast, figured out harnesses, repacked summit packs, checked
avalanche beacons and roped up. I was on the "slow" rope - I was next
to last in yesterday's slog, so I wasn't surprised or bothered by
We left camp around 2:30. Again, bad gear choices quickly became
obvious; I was still dressed for standing around, with shell pants over
heavy tights, and parka over two layers of polypro *and* a fleece
jacket. But there just wasn't an opportunity to stop. "We're not going
to stop, we're just going to move slowly until we get to the top.
Otherwise we'll never make it. Don't let any slack get into the rope.
Let's go." I felt not unlike herded livestock at this point - the pack
was light, but I just had my head down looking at the rope, the track,
and my feet.
About an hour in, I realized that I couldn't do this for another five
hours. I have no idea what my pulse rate was, but my respiration was
going at about 120 (the pace of a Sousa march - what I "normally" use
as a *step* pace!). I fought my internal battle, trying to break
through the mental block, and realized that I needed to get down while
I still could do so safely - for myself and the other three on the
I stopped. The rope got taut. I yelled up "I can't do this". We went on
a little more and met the next group; I unclipped, got led half way
down by one of the guides, and found my way back to the tent. I put on
my down coat and tried to deal with the disappointment. I looked at the
map and figured I'd made it to 10,500'.
I wasn't the only one to bail - three others did as well. One shortly
after I did, and two after getting past the spires at the top of
Sargent's, before Thumb Rock.
It was a long wait. I was back to camp by 4:15. I slept, ate, repacked,
enjoyed the view of Mt. Lassen, noticed the variation in sky color (it
was almost black directly above me, something I've never seen before),
and pondered. The six that made the summit ("cold, windy, miserable,
we stayed 5 minutes") got back around 11:45. We pounded some water,
took a (for them) short rest, broke camp and hiked out - back to the
parking lot by 2:30.
Then it was just a question of dumping my gear, getting a beer (ah, but
that might have been the high point of the weekend - I got carded!) and
some food, and starting the long, very hot drive home ... all in all, a
long and disconcerting weekend.
No worries. I'll be back. I had a great time, and I learned a lot. One
lesson I learned is that my clothing insticts from biking and XC skiing
are about right - and that I need different shell gear for
mountaineering than wandering around in the rain.
And I need to do more endurance training. How *do* you practice
dehydration? (I know, I know, wrong question...)
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