A Dance With the White Lady
Updated: Jul 18, 2020
This story was originally published on Medium, March 3rd, 2017.
My 2011 summit of Mount Adams was hugely significant for me, not just as an athletic accomplishment that pushed me to reconsider what I was capable of physically and mentally, but also as a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience that taught me a lot about the existential and metaphysical value of challenge, solitude, and extremity. I’d already understood the importance of those things academically thanks to fifteen years of reading Thoreau, Abbey, Muir, Krakauer, and the like. But reading about mountaineering and actually being way Out There and way up there, on the rocks, in the snow, scrabbling crablike across a glacier while blowing ice and screaming winds tried to tear me off and pitch me out into the gray sky…well, suffice it to say that Mount Adams taught me the difference between reading and doing.
Experiencing that difference, challenging myself and then meeting that challenge, and most importantly seeing a kind of beauty that I’d never seen before — the kind of beauty you can really only see if you’re willing to throw yourself right into the teeth of wildness — well, I couldn’t just take a few pictures and walk away. The view from Adams’ summit, a sea of snow-heavy clouds stretching out beneath my feet, penetrated only by the twin masts of Mount Hood to the south and Mount Rainier to the north, both inspired and haunted me. I wanted there to be more places like that. I wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment again, but I also needed to, in some hungry, primal way.
So, over the next three years I started walking more, ran two half marathons, rode my bike fifty miles in one day, and most importantly, summited forty-five mountains, mostly across the Pacific Northwest. Getting Out There regularly, whether it was by clinging like a lizard to the side of a cliff, by riding a road bike through a sandstorm, or by trying to bushwhack a new walking route to work, became the best way for me to make sense of life, to slow things down, to learn to better appreciate silence, to reflect on my priorities, and to remind myself of how small I am when so many people are so intent on pretending to be big.
Wildness of all kinds is my temple. Not a temple where I go to have my particular view of the world and my values affirmed above those of all those misdirected infidels, but a temple where I experience what Rudolph Otto, writing in The Idea of the Holy, called “the numinous,” where I bow down before something much bigger than I am and thank whatever that thing is for the fleeting glimpses of it that I’m lucky enough to catch when I step out my door and onto the road.
There are lots of ways to this temple for me, but for the last six years the primary way has led through the mountains. I often find Muir’s writings to be over-the-top because he’s so persistently overawed by everything; in a lot of ways, he’s too guileless in his affection for nature for my more cynical postmodern sensibilities. But the way he feels about mountains is the way I feel about mountains. When he writes that “One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books,” I believe him, avid reader that I am. My wife Lindsey will tell you that seeing a peak in the misty distance out the Outback’s side window during a road trip will, without fail, lead to a frenzied search of the atlas and, later, the internet to find out what it’s called, what’s fascinating about it (there’s always something), and how people get to the top. Often, I will be at the top shortly thereafter.
Let’s flash back for a moment to the morning of my job interview here in Klamath Falls in the spring of 2013. The search committee chair picks me up at my hotel and takes me for a spin around town to show me some of the neighborhoods I might potentially be living in come fall (one of which I am, in fact, living in as I write this). In the midst of this tour, I notice the hazy outline of a white spike stabbing into the sky in the distance. It looks to be at least fifty miles away, but it’s huge, easily on the order of a Mount Adams or maybe even a Mount Rainier.* Since this drive is tacitly part of my job interview, I suppress my first urge, which is to shout “Whoa! What the fuck!?” in my excitement and instead I ask politely: “What mountain is that out there?”. It’s my first view of Mount Shasta from Klamath Falls, and even from fifty miles away, it makes for an arresting sight.
These days, I can see Shasta from my front window on any clear day, and I’ve grown as used to the view as one can. But seeing it that first time, I couldn’t help imagining, immediately, what my crampon points would feel like biting into its icy face, what it would feel like to scramble up snow and rocks at the cruising altitude of a small plane, what it would feel like to turn and look back down the slope of the mountain behind me and see it rushing away precipitously into the forest far below. I wondered if there might be an opportunity for a long glissade or two on the way back down to camp from the summit.
Well, on July 12th, 2014, after almost a year of maintaining a bike-run-and-walk fitness regimen that I hoped made up for its lack of rigor with sheer quantity, after taking much of my precious weekend time during my first year as an assistant professor to crisscross Oregon in search of new peaks to scale, and after a nearly disastrous test-run summit of Shastina a few weeks earlier, I set out to tackle Mount Shasta.
Spending a year daydreaming about climbing a mountain with as many routes to the summit as Shasta leaves you with a lot of options to consider and a lot of time to consider them. At first, I’d intended to ascend via the tried-and-true Avalanche Gulch route. Then, I changed my mind based on the many trip reports that said that that route was “boring” — who wants to just walk straight up a huge hill on such a beautiful and topographically varied peak? — and started reading up on the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge route instead. Then it was back to Avalanche Gulch for awhile when I began to think (in error) that my only goal should be to reach the summit along the easiest, fastest route regardless of the quality of the experience as a whole. A potential climbing partner backed me up on this plan, but then a week later he dropped out, leaving me to decide if I should focus on the journey or the destination. Ultimately, the weather made the decision for me.
By the time June rolled around, it became clear to me (thanks to NOAA.gov) that the snow depth on the mountain was far lower than its yearly average and that many of the traditional routes were already dangerously melted out as a result. I couldn’t make time for the climb until late June, thanks to spring term at the university winding up late, and by then those routes would be extremely dangerous, if not impossible, to use.
I confirmed my fear firsthand during my late-June summit of Shastina: Avalanche Gulch looked like a disaster waiting to happen as I studied it from Horse Camp through a pair of borrowed binoculars. So, as a last-ditch option, I started researching the Clear Creek route. It is one of the least steep routes on the mountain and it’s one of the few that are still usable in the later, drier part of summer.
In the end, I prepared my gear and map for the Clear Creek route. En route to the mountain, looking up at the west face through my windshield while southbound on I-5 between Weed and Mount Shasta city, I considered the West Face Gully route instead: I already knew the trail to Hidden Valley, just below the gully, from my summit of Shastina, so why not? Well, I didn’t have any maps of the west face with me, for one. The itinerary I’d left with Lindsey said “CLEAR CREEK TRAIL” followed by the ranger station’s phone number, for another.
So that’s how I ended up at the Clear Creek trailhead, for better or worse. The drive in tested my nerves and my car’s suspension, and the trailhead itself was primitive compared to Bunny Flat, the popular parking area on the south face of the mountain: it was so small there was barely room for my car, and the entire parking area smelled like (human) shit thanks to a centrally-located and actively-ventilating outhouse.
I spent a few minutes eating lunch — a minor feat while sitting in a miasma of shit-smell — and talking to a few hikers who’d just finished the climb and were so excited to tell me how goddamn difficult it had been. I was already nervous about soloing the mountain, even via the Clear Creek route, and their impromptu review didn’t help matters. However, they freely admitted that they were from Colorado, where summiting a fourteener is often a 2–3 hour affair on a well graded path stemming from an easily-reachable parking lot. Shasta was a bit “wild” (their word) compared to their typical climbing experience. They also warned me that a large REI-guided group was headed up the route currently and that my camping options at the end of the Clear Creek Trail might be limited as a result. I decided to take their warnings with a grain of salt and assume that what had been surprising for them was what I had been training for.
Then I was off, taking my ice ax with me against the climbers’ advice because I was going to glissade at some point, dammit. Even if I didn’t summit.
The first few miles of the Clear Creek route follow the appropriately-named Clear Creek Trail, a beautiful day-hiker’s path that leads up through a dense pine forest with views off the cliff to the left into the enormous Mud Creek Canyon before turning toward the foot of the mountain proper, where it dead-ends into a few small stands of krummholz trees, the last large flora to be found on the southeast face of Shasta if you’re headed up. From there, it’s all map-and-compass shit, as they (read: “I”) say.
The initial leg of my hike on the Clear Creek Trail was hastened quite a bit by the fact that I’d only gotten about a quarter-mile from the car before crossing paths with a baby brown bear. Fortunately, he fled in the opposite direction of the trail when he heard me, leading me to hope that his mother was in that direction, too. Regardless, the next mile was one of the fastest I’ve ever walked, including all the times that I haven’t been headed up a steep grade with 30 pounds strapped to my back.
This bear-induced pace really began to take its toll when, after about a mile, the forest opened up and I found myself hiking up a dusty ridge toward the base of the mountain in direct eighty-degree sunlight. The idea had been to avoid spending unnecessary energy getting to base camp that afternoon so that I’d have more endurance in the morning for the remaining 5,500 feet of ascent. But now I hadn’t even climbed 1,000 feet yet and I felt beat. I was forced to make a decision between slowing down but extending the amount of time I spent in the sun or continuing at my brisk pace at the cost of my quads and calves.
There are a lot of choices in mountaineering that you have to make in the moment with the knowledge that you just won’t know if you chose correctly or not until hours or days later. This was one of those. I chose to maintain my pace and scurried up the rest of the Trail, hoping that I’d be able to recoup any lost energy with a big dinner and lots of sleep. Shortly after, the Trail offered up its first view of the mountain proper.
Seeing a mountain like Shasta in the distance as I’m hiking toward it is always a mixed blessing. On one hand, it’s hard not to be taken by the majesty of the mountain, vindicated in my Holy Endeavor To Summit by the sight of its lofty peak poking into the sky in the distance. On the other hand, there’s always a part of me that only sees the elevation gain and the route ahead and thinks “Oh, fuck this.”
Once my brain had adjusted to the size of the titan crouching on the horizon, the rest of the first day’s hike was pretty uneventful. I trudged up the remainder of the Clear Creek Trail, pulled by Shasta’s magnetism.** I passed a group of five younger guys on their way up the trail, and then when I stopped for a break, they passed me. We continued to leapfrog each other in the companionable-at-first-but-eventually-awkward way that most mountaineers are familiar with. We chatted a bit, at intervals. They were taking the same route all the way to the summit. I suspected I’d see them again in the morning, if not before then. Eventually I took a permanent lead on them as the trail wandered off to the west a bit, and the “basecamp” area of krummholz trees slowly came into view.
In addition to the cover and windbreak that the trees provide, the area also contains a natural spring, one of the very few sources of water on the mountain when there’s little or no snow to melt.
The krummholz grove was a lot more extensive than it had looked from a distance, but despite its size, all of the best camping spots had already been taken by the REI group and a few others. Even with only a few hours of hiking under my (hip)belt, I was tired enough that it was hard to care. I just needed somewhere to flop down in the shade for awhile. I climbed another hundred feet or so above the most thickly clustered groups of tents and then decisively, gratefully, dropped my pack on the ground. The spot I’d chosen wasn’t exactly flat, and would require me to sleep on top of a few roots, but I was eager to be done walking for the night. I sat there in silence for a few minutes, catching my breath and watching the shadow of the sunset stretch across the flank of the mountain below me.
After a brief respite, I had stored up enough energy to neurotically second-guess my campsite choice, so I pushed myself back up onto aching legs and climbed another two hundred feet up the hill to the north end of the krummholz grove in search of a flatter, softer spot. No dice. I was disappointed at not finding a more comfortable campsite, but happy to not have to lug my gear further up the mountain before dinner and a good night’s sleep. I plodded back down the hill to where my blue Deuter pack stood out against the browns and greens of the grove and got to work settling in in earnest.
After a quick snack that included an encounter with a German couple who were trying to find their way back down the mountain (which I showed them) and an awkward-but-friendly chat with the Korean man who took over their camping spot after they left, I set about getting water from the spring. With my back to the spring itself, facing south, I could see a small strip of vegetation on each side of the creeklet, made possible by the water trickling down the mountain. Slowly but surely, the rhythm of pumping water through my filter lulled me into a stupor, and by the time I’d refilled all my bottles, the sun had fallen completely behind the mountain and the temperature was plummeting. The forecasted low temperature at that elevation — 8,400 feet, give or take — wasn’t particularly dire, but the wind was supposed to pick up after sunset, so I wanted to have shelter before that happened. I shook off my stupor and scrambled back to camp.
Despite the unevenness of the ground, the camp spot I’d chosen was closed in on all sides but the south by krummholz trees, and once I’d set up the tent it felt positively cozy. So cozy, in fact, that three friendly chipmunks decided to join me for dinner. As a result, while my stove rehydrated black beans I scrambled around my tent in a circle frantically hanging all my chewable equipment from tree branches at chipmunk-proof angles.
After wolfing down dinner, and planning on the pending food coma knocking me out for the rest of the evening, I climbed into my bivy sack and set my alarm for 2am. Unfortunately, I didn’t fall asleep instantly, and when I finally did, it wasn’t for long. I first got into my bivy just after 8pm and nodded off briefly at some point after 9pm, only to wake back up a bit before 10pm with the full moon staring at me.
As it often does, a full moon in the wilderness energized me. Combined with peaking nervousness about my impending summit bid, that energy blasted away my grogginess and made it nearly impossible to sleep. As such, the majority of the next three hours were consumed by me reading Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in its entirety and marveling at the stars, which would ooze out occasionally from behind the mostly heavy cloud cover like splashes of spilled milk. I slept in short bursts, and didn’t really zonk out until about 1am. Fortunately, earlier in the night, I’d had the presence of mind to bump my alarm back to 3am; still, when it finally went off, I’d gotten maybe two hours of decent sleep…and then it was time to embark on the hardest physical challenge of my life so far.
Dragging your exhausted-ass self out of your sleeping bag into the freezing cold air in the middle of the night to make shitty instant oatmeal and then ram it down your throat is not necessarily the most enjoyable part of any summit attempt, but I’ve done it often enough that I went through the motions this time more or less on autopilot. I’d already taken everything I wasn’t going to need to get to the summit out of my pack while I was chipmunk-proofing the campsite, so after my “breakfast” it was a simple matter to grab the pack — likely weighing more like 10–15 pounds instead of the 30–35 pounds it had weighed on the first leg of the climb — and start marching uphill.
Even lit by the moon alone, the summit of the mountain was visible from base camp as the blue-purple silhouette of a giant’s fist, so to start I just pointed myself at the top of it and went. At first, there was a pretty clear use trail to follow, leading out of camp and up, but in the meager light provided by the moon and my headlamp, I eventually lost track of it. I’d managed to climb up to about 8,800 feet, a difficult struggle off-trail on gravel-like scree embedded in sandy dirt that was more than happy to slide me back a foot for every two feet I walked forward, when I saw a headlamp moving down the slope toward me. Odd.
I guessed that this could be one of two things: a climber that had somehow summited around midnight and was already headed down, or a climber that had been stuck at high altitude unexpectedly all night long and was just now stumbling back down to camp. Basically, it was likely that this person was either the most invincible motherfucker ever or someone who was going to need my help. For the next few minutes we walked toward each other, me nervous about my lack of first aid knowledge, and he (the gait marked him as a “he” eventually) stumbling more and more frequently as he got closer.
We met up in the dull silver glow of our headlamps. “Good luck!” was all he said as he pushed past me, not making eye contact, still swaying.
“Thanks,” I said over my shoulder. “You okay?” I had to ask.
He stopped for a moment. “Yeah,” he replied, weak-sounding. “Got up to 10,000 feet and couldn’t keep my breakfast down. It’s tough to breathe up there.” He shuffled away, pretty obviously disoriented but to my eyes fine to make the relatively easy hike back down to base camp a few hundred feet below.
After he’d passed, his predicament reawakened in me what had been my greatest fear pre-climb. I’d only climbed above 10,000 feet twice in my life before, and in both cases the altitude had effected me intensely, making both ascents extremely difficult and, at points, potentially dangerous. On Shasta, even with a 4am start, I could only realistically take ten or so hours to summit if I expected to get back down the mountain before dark fell again. Ascending nearly six thousand more feet in the next ten hours meant that I’d have to push myself hard for the entire climb, and if I struggled with the altitude above 10,000 feet this time, I’d have to swallow my disappointment and turn around below the summit. Running into someone who had barfed their guts out less than an hour into their hike was a wake-up call of sorts. I needed a plan of attack that would get me up the mountain but would also give me time to adjust to the altitude as I ascended and not burn out early. I mulled over this problem — one that I probably should have tackled at camp or even at home days or weeks ago — as I continued up the mountain.
This part of the climb was exciting in a spooky way, like exploring the basement at night with a flashlight when you were a kid. The moon was bathing the lava rocks in a weird silver-purple glow, the use trail was fading in and out at intervals, and nothing ever felt totally certain except which way was uphill and which way was downhill. It was hypnotic and exhilarating all at once. It was also disorienting, and I began to worry after awhile that it was too disorienting…
Until, finally, the sun broke the plane of the slope to the east.
In the new sunlight, the old trickster use trail suddenly became much easier to see. It visibly spooled up to the top of the next rise, in the general direction of the summit, providing a way to bypass the deepest and most frustrating of the scree-sand fields that I’d been struggling through in the dark. As a quiet celebration, I sat down and ate a few handfuls of nuts and raisins from my pack while the sunlight heated up my chilly, sweat-soaked clothes. Suddenly, I was actually glad I’d “slept in,” because otherwise I might well have spent two or three more hours in the dark struggling up the mountain in sand-and-scree, just to the right or left of the established trail as it remained unseen. Time would tell if my delay would ultimately cost me the summit of the mountain, but so far, it seemed likely to work to my advantage.
At this point I was at 9,500 feet, which meant I’d climbed 1,100 feet in the hour since I’d left camp. With a moment to rest in relative comfort, I used that information to form my Plan. To me at least, a Plan is necessary for these sorts of endeavors. When putting yourself in any situation where extreme exhaustion, dehydration, heatstroke, and/or altitude sickness might be affecting your brain function at any time, you have to assume from the get-go that you’ll be operating at less than your usual level of intelligence after a few hours of activity. To compensate for that, it helps immensely to make a Plan while you’re still sane — say, at 9,500 feet after only hiking for an hour, for example — and then stick to it. This Plan should have three elements:
A turn-around time
An ideal (i.e. fastest) pace
Allowances for stupidity
Having a turn-around time is crucial. I won’t say that this should be non-negotiable, because I’ve summited mountains an hour or two after my turn-around time before and have always been fine. But, in each of those cases, I sat down and took a long, hard look at my options before my turn-around time and decided to continue on in the end. Had I felt mentally incapable of judging my situation rationally, I would have turned around instead.
Generally, you’re going to want the turn-around time to be thirty to sixty minutes before the last possible time during the day that you think you can summit and still have time to make it back down to a safe altitude, whether it be your camp, your car, or just a particularly flat part of the mountain. If you pass your turn-around time on the way to the summit, you should be prepared to abort your climb in the name of safety. Too often, climbers — me included — will burn themselves out on the ascent, not thinking in their excitement to budget energy for the climb back down, which is just as long as the way up and often more physically and mentally draining.
Long-distance running becomes infinitely easier when you learn to set a pace; however, learning and maintaining the habit can be a tough mental challenge. Mountaineering is no different. When I really get into a climb, I tend to want to “tough it out” and put off water breaks, food breaks, and even short rest breaks in the name of getting a little further. Then a little further still. And still a little further. Until, eventually, I’ve hiked halfway up the mountain and my tongue is swollen from thirst and I’m so hungry I don’t know up from left anymore. In the middle of a hike, fixing these lacks is not just a simple matter of sitting down and drinking a liter of water and a sandwich, because eating or drinking large amounts at once is going to slow you down in the long run as your body diverts energy to digesting that entire sandwich, or processing all of that water, which means you’ll hike more slowly overall and end up in danger of missing your turn-around time. So, to help myself keep a reasonable pace while staying hydrated and fed, I like to create artificial deadlines regarding food and rest that I “have to” meet. Then, even if I’m too stubborn or too stupid from the altitude to realize I need them intuitively, my watch still reminds me.
Finally, if you’re climbing a mountain you’ve never climbed before, you’re going to learn things about the mountain, about the route, and quite possibly about yourself, as you’re climbing. These things can change your turn-around time or your pace, but you should pay attention to your state of mind when you’re deciding on said changes. The whole point of having a Plan is that you need a defense from getting stupid when you’re at high altitude; if you change The Plan at high altitude and you change it to something stupid…well, that’s just counterproductive.
Anyway, my nuts-and-raisins-fueled Plan for tackling the rest of Shasta was this: my turn-around time would be 1pm, based on the fact that beginning a descent by that time would give me plenty of time to get back to camp by dark. Ideally, I wanted to get all the way back to the car and then home by bedtime because I hadn’t packed food for a second night on the mountain, but I was prepared to pass a hungry night in my bivy if that was the only way I could safely achieve the summit. Turning around by 1pm left either option open to me.
Based on my first hour of hiking, I decided that I would take a break every time I gained 500 feet of elevation or 30 minutes went by, whichever happened first. At every break, I’d force myself to drink, and at every other break — at least — I’d force myself to eat. Hunger and thirst start to operate weirdly above 10,000 feet despite the fact that your body still needs food and water to function, so forcing myself to eat at regular intervals was the safest approach.
With this Plan in mind, I started off again, and quickly topped a rise to find a snowfield stretching out in front of me, with a group of five climbers shuffling up it. These five, I guessed at a distance, were the five I’d talked to the day before en route to base camp. They must have gotten an earlier start than me, though I was gaining on them quickly. While there was plenty of room to skirt the snowfield on either side, I was already sick of shuffling through scree-and-sand and was itching for an excuse to break out my crampons.
Objectively, it was a waste of time and energy to stop, strap on my crampons, and stomp to the top of the two-hundred-foot snowfield only to have to stop again to remove my crampons, but I made the choice for the sake of morale, not for the sake of practicality. Subjectively, there’s something immensely satisfying to me about using crampons to climb a mountain. There’s a feeling of invulnerability, of mastery about it that makes me feel a bit more in control of my destiny in a situation where I’m prone to feeling out of my element.
Granted, as I said above, the draw of climbing a mountain like Shasta to begin with is the opportunity to feel out of one’s element; however, there are constructive levels of discomfort and destructive levels of discomfort. Alone above 10,000 feet, with nearly a mile of climbing left between me in the summit, falling behind schedule and facing a stiff headwind, I felt like I would benefit from mixing a little comfort into my wilderness experience. So I did. By stomping my crampon points into the face of the mountain, as I’d imagined doing so many times before.
I topped out on the snowfield just behind the group of five, and then passed their slowest member almost immediately after. I wouldn’t see this guy again until I was back at base camp, and I suspect he just ran out of juice at some point because he was already seriously struggling when I passed him. The others continued, barely ahead of me, and then gained a lot of distance and disappeared over a rise during one of my preordained breaks.
As is often the case, a lot of the middle of the climb just runs together in my memory. I stuck to the Plan, managing to cover something like 500 feet of elevation every half hour with those climbing periods broken up by five-or-so minute breaks — long enough to catch my breath but not so long that my muscles cooled off. I definitely got tireder as I went, but never really to the point that I doubted my ability to make it the rest of the way. The hardest time I had below 12,500 feet had actually been scrabbling through the sand-and-scree just above camp in the dark before sunrise.
The Plan kept me going well above the point that hunger disappeared and I had to force myself to drink and eat, well above the point that dizziness and nausea became a fact of life, and well above the point where the wind decided to kick up to a shrieking gale that, at one point, gusted so hard it blew one of my pack straps around to whip against my face and leave a stinging red line on my cheek.
This entire time, the terrain never varied: since sunrise, I’d followed a clear use trail that made up a series of long switchbacks toward the summit that seemed like it would never end.
The wind was quite literally howling as I reached UFO Rock at 12,800 feet, passing the party of five (now reduced to four) that I’d been tailing all day in the process. I sought momentary shelter from the gale under a small rock outcropping to catch my breath as the party of four lunched just below me.
With only about 1,000 feet to go until the summit plateau and 1,400 feet or so to the summit proper, I was struggling, both in terms of energy and in terms of morale. It can be incredibly dispiriting to hike up a mountain, on difficult terrain, at the edge of your endurance, while being shoved sideways endlessly by a wind that’s also biting at your exposed skin and hissing so loudly in your ears that hearing anything else becomes impossible. If you’ve been there, you know. If you haven’t, well, it’s a unique form of torture. I later learned that this part of the mountain is known as Misery Hill, and it’s definitely an appropriate name.
When the Korean guy I’d met the previous afternoon passed me on his way down from the summit just above UFO Rock, we had to communicate by cupping our hands around our mouths and actually screaming directly into each others’ ears. The upshot of this was that he showed me a route to the summit that was slightly longer but also less steep than the more direct line that I’d been following. Rather than following the use trail directly, it traversed up and to the right through some scree to the base of a bowl that was currently filled by a large snowfield.
Happy to get out of the wind and off the rocks, even temporarily, I scampered off the use trail and crossed to the snowfield. Leaving the trail even briefly this high up, disoriented as I was by the wind and exhaustion and the altitude, could have done more harm than good. But the only stupid thing I did was leave my ice axe stuck in the snow halfway up the snowfield when I realized that I could just kick steps and ascend without it. I marked its location on my GPS and, assuming I’d be descending the same way, simply planned to grab it on the way back down. This ended up being a dumb idea, but not a fatally dumb idea.
My climb up the snow-filled bowl ended abruptly at the summit plateau, and with nothing left to block it, the wind started back up in earnest. As I stopped to catch my breath and take in what little remained of the route, I was passed by a few climbers on their way back down the mountain. Having just summited themselves, they gave me some rote-sounding-but-heartfelt encouragement before glissading down the field while giggling like lunatics. I couldn’t blame them for their excitement.
The group leader’s hearty “You’re almost there!” was both true and an exaggeration. Shasta’s summit plateau isn’t really a plateau in the sense that it’s flat, but it is a hell of a lot flatter than the mile of elevation gain that has come before it. The “plateau” starts at around 13,800 feet, and its relative flatness is frankly an eerie thing to encounter when you’re up that high and have been climbing for that long. Ahead, the route snaked toward the summit block. Behind, the mountain’s flank fell 6,000 feet down to the forest, and I could see the glaciers to the west that I’d bypassed by taking the Clear Creek route.
By this point in the climb, I was absolutely toast. With just under 400 feet to go to the summit, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it or not. The stubborn part of me couldn’t imagine turning around when I was so close, but the legs part of me couldn’t imagine walking uphill ever again. I hiked up this last bit in a stupor, following the trail the obvious trail in the above picture. It eventually wound around the back (relative to the picture) of the summit block, necessitating the crossing of a melted-out snowfield.
5,000 feet ago this snowfield wouldn’t have caused me any trouble. Here, though, I slid and stumbled and sunk across the entire thing like I’d just learned to walk that morning. At one point I wedged a trekking pole three or so feet into a semi-solid snowbank and had to dig it out using my hands. This seemed like it was the worst goddamn thing that had ever happened to me and I almost started bawling like a little kid right there on the trail. The altitude was clearly becoming a serious problem. After a few deep breaths, though, I managed to reclaim my pole and pull my shit together, then I followed the trail around to the base of the summit block.
Here at the end the trail was obvious and gradual; it would have made for a good warm-up jog on a normal day but at this point in the climb I felt like it was actively murdering me. While checking my GPS to make sure I was climbing the true summit and not the false one in my altitude-induced confusion, I caught a whiff of rotten eggs. Slowly but surely my hypoxic brain stumbled its way to the realization that what I was smelling was sulfuric gas coming from volcanic vents in the false summit’s cone. I’d climbed active volcanoes before, but never one that was so obviously active. I appreciated the moment in some abstract way, but as is often the case with my brain at high altitudes, I understood academically that I should feel something, but was unable to actually grasp any particular emotion.
I continued on, my brain transitioning into a pleasant-seeming haze. I was groggy and warm in the sunlight, somewhat detached from my circumstances, but convinced that I could bring myself to put one foot in front of the other a few more times. And then a few more times. And then a few more times. In this way, I eventually topped out on the summit block, with only a fifteen foot scramble separating me from the summit proper. It was a pretty gnarly-looking fifteen feet, an appropriate final challenge for such a sublime mountain.
Despite my disorientation and my exhaustion, having the end in sight helped me to focus. It turned what might have been an impossible obstacle into a simple, three-move scramble.
Then I was there.
It bears mentioning that reaching the summit of high-altitude peak is often anticlimactic. By the time you reach the top, you’re exhausted, altitude sickness has destroyed your ability to feel human emotions, and it hits you for the first time for real that you still have to hike all the way back down the way you came up before you can rest. For example, while I can say unironically that climbing Mount Adams was a transformative experience for me, by the time I’d reached the top I’d been so disassociated from my circumstances emotionally that I just couldn’t be bothered to replace the batteries on my camera, so there are no pictures of me at the summit. Later that day, back down at a reasonable altitude, I’d been heartbroken when I’d realized how easy it would have been to swap those batteries. At the summit, though, I hadn’t experienced a moment of triumph; rather, all I’d wanted was to get back down the mountain so that I could sleep.
Summiting Shasta was halfway between that same drained, empty feeling and a bone-shattering excitement. I was so happy in a fuzzy-headed way to have finally made it to the summit after daydreaming about the moment for over a year, but I also had half of the hike left and it was nearly an hour past my turn-around time.*** Nonetheless, I somehow had the summit all to myself on a very busy day on the mountain, so this time I forced myself to stay still for a few minutes to take pictures and soak in the moment as much as I could.
Then the brief party was over and it was time for the descent.
As usual, turning around and heading back down the mountain was much less eventful than going up had been. As you descend from that kind of altitude, your awareness of mundane things like pain, suffering, thirst, and hunger reawakens. This is objectively good but often feels bad in the moment. Plus, ascending 5,500 feet in one day is the equivalent of taking the stairs from the ground floor all the way to the top of the Empire State Building five and a half times; imagine doing that and then having to turn around and climb back down all those stairs, too. It can be…unpleasant.
Fortunately for my legs, there were a few shortcuts to be had. The first was a long glissade from the tip of the summit plateau which helped me descend nearly 2,000 feet in one long slide on my butt. Such a long glissade after a tough climb is a dream come true, as you shed in 2–3 minutes the altitude that it took you 2–3 hours to gain while descending into significantly more oxygen-rich air as you go. This shortcut was negated slightly by the fact that I had to do some traversing across Misery Hill to get back to where I’d left my ice axe (told you that would factor in later!), but it was still a significant help.
In the midst of my descent, I passed the group of four (once five) hikers that I’d been leapfrogging the day before and earlier that morning. They were visibly struggling now and wanted to know how much further it was to the top. I told them, and encouraged them to keep going, but only if they had headlamps and were prepared to descend to base camp at dusk. I’m not sure what became of them after, as I was packed up and gone before I ever saw them coming back down. I hope they reached the summit, but I doubt it.
After the first glissade, there was a lot of slipping and sliding back down the mountain on shitty sand-and-scree, and with dwindling water and food, I was only taking a break every hour instead of every thirty minutes. My knees did not approve of this strategy.
After what seemed like an eternity of staggering downhill through piles of loose rocks, I reached the snowfield I’d climbed with my crampons that morning and glissaded down that one as well. After about thirty seconds of improvised sledding I came to a stop at the feet of another solo climber. We chatted for a few minutes as I sat there in the sun, on the snow. It turned out that he wasn’t attempting an ill-advised late-afternoon summit as I’d feared at first; instead, he was scouting the Clear Creek route for a planned ascent the next weekend. My knees and I convalesced a bit as we talked, and then I wished him good luck and pounded out the rest of the descent to base camp.
One of my least favorite things in the whole damn universe is getting back to base camp, being completely thrashed, and having to break camp nonetheless. Breaking camp is exhausting after a normal day of hiking, including as it does activities like rolling up a sleeping pad with hands that are too tired to grip surely, stuffing a sleeping bag into its sack with arms that feel like noodles, undoing tight knots with fingernails that are bent or torn, and so on. After the climb I’d just done, it was even more excruciating than usual. But, having succeeded at summiting the mountain, I was determined to celebrate at home that night and then sleep in a real bed, so I forced my hands and arms and fingers into action and forty-five minutes after getting back to camp, there was no more camp and I was moving again.
Hiking away from that base camp was a surprisingly poignant moment. I guess when you live moment-to-moment in a place for two days, taking in every detail as potentially important for your survival and success, it causes you to get extremely attached to said place in a short amount of time. Maybe it was just the fact that I was breathing oxygen-rich air for the first time in almost sixteen hours, but as I turned my back on the spring and the groves of krummholz it felt like I was walking out of a memory I would never forget and back into normal life, leaving behind experiences and emotions that I might never feel again. I sat down for a moment in the middle of the Clear Creek Trail, looking back up at the mountain I’d just descended through a haze of tears as campers milled around me.
Happily, my hike back on the Trail didn’t involve any baby bear encounters. I did, however, catch back up to the Korean guy who’d camped near me just as he met his entire family in the woods by the parking lot so they could congratulate him. In addition to making me a little sad that I hadn’t scheduled my own post-summit party, this moment put my accomplishment in perspective.
Shasta was the tallest mountain I’d yet climbed by far, and I’d soloed it, no less. Even if I had used the relatively easy Clear Creek route to do so, it had still been an incredible challenge for me, and it remains a landmark in my mountaineering career. I’ve since summited mountains that were more technically challenging, like Mount Hood. I’ve also summited taller mountains, including Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. But, Mount Shasta was my first fourteener and for that my first summit of it will always be one of my most memorable climbs.
It’s been three years since I’ve stood on the summit of Shasta now, and as the Klamath Falls winter clears out and makes way for spring again, most mornings I can see the sun glinting off its snow-clad flanks from my front window — a perspective nearly identical to that first view of the mountain way back in 2013. She doesn’t care a whit for me, I’m sure, but I imagine I can feel her beckoning anyway.
There are tentative plans for a group of us to try the Avalanche Gulch ascent this spring. I’d like to complete a traverse from Shastina up to the summit via the West Face Gully route someday. And then there’s the Whitney-Bolam route, which climbs up the north face, but is a glacier-free line that would be safe enough for me to solo without specialized gear. I’m not sure I can let another summer go by without going back. When I climb up to the top of the ridge behind my house with the dogs at the end of a long day to watch the sun set, the White Lady looms to the south. I look out across the valley in the fading light and mentally apologize to my quads, because I know it’s only a matter of time.
If my Mount Adams climb was my Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment, summiting Mount Shasta for the first time was my “Wind-storm in the Forest” moment. In climbing Shasta, I jumped wholeheartedly into a familiar milieu to revel in the extremity just for the sheer joy and challenge of it, and looking back at the photos of the climb as I plan a second summit attempt, I think of Muir, who once asked: “Who wouldn’t be a mountaineer? Up here all the world’s prizes seem nothing.”
* Mount Shasta is in fact the most voluminous volcano in the Cascades, though Rainier beats it out for the title of tallest by a mere 300 feet.
** Or maybe the Lemurians? I bet it was the Lemurians.
*** As I said before, I don’t normally recommend ignoring your own turn-around time, but the snowfields I’d stumbled across on the way up had convinced me that I could cut at least an hour off the descent by glissading, so I pushed back my turn-around time from 1pm to 2pm to give myself a better shot at the summit.