I reach for my GPS watch to check on the time. 12:55am on Sunday, May 27 2012. While others down in the valley or pretty much anywhere else are either out partying or asleep, I am wrapped in a sleeping bag, next to two other folks, in a tent at 9,500 feet, with sub-zero temperatures outside.
I had about five minutes to ponder the question of why and how it exactly came about that I had decided to sign up for this adventure aka torture. Not much time though, since our guides will wake us up and then the frantic packing for the Mount Shasta summit attempt begins.
Mount Shasta at 14,179 feet is the fifth highest mountain in California, but unlike Mount Whitney, which can be hiked in the summer with regular hiking equipment and the guts to deal with the altitude, Mount Shasta requires a little bit more. Both in terms of equipment and stamina.
Never shy of a challenge, I signed up for a two day guided hike/climb up Shasta with seven other folks, who were co-workers and their friends. Reasonably fit, I felt I should be up for the test, however I did not fully know what I had committed myself to.
Before one commits him/herself to such an adventure, one question usually comes up: Why? Why do people climb mountains? A question that can even be extended to other, seemingly pointless, activities: Why run a marathon? Why do a triathlon? Why do an Ironman? All these activities have, arguably, no purpose, are pointless for that matter. Apart from burning a lot of calories and the general fitness aspect, nothing of significance is achieved by these undertakings. And yet, they cast a particular fascination to many.
George Mallory, the British mountaineer who put himself into the spotlight as the first to attempt to summit Mount Everest famously once answered the question asked by a reporter as to why he wants to attempt such a pointless endeavor with disarming wit and directness: “Because it is there.” Joe Simpson in his book This Game of Ghosts, after having just survived an avalanche on Les Courtes in France, hints that these activities might be our attempts to counter-balance values that our modern society holds in high regard:
We are encouraged to be careful, to avoid risk, to build secure safe lives, comfortingly backed up by pensions and life assurance and anything that would shield us from the reality. We are taught to look ahead to the future and work towards a perceived idea of what we want from life. We are rarely told to live for the present, to take what we want and give nothing back.
And further, when juxtaposing how much there is to lose when climbing dangerous and/or difficult routes and under difficult conditions with the “transitory pleasure of a summit, the thrill of the adventure, the fleeting satiation of an irrational desire”:
The fact that the desire can never be fully gratified is the addiction. Perhaps the desire is deeply rooted in the very absurdity of the undertaking. It is so wonderfully pointless and meaningless that it has to be done.
Renting some gear
The whole adventure started by heading up north from the South Bay to REI Berkeley to rent some Mountaineering boots and crampons for the Memorial Day weekend. Since that REI store is sort of on the way up to Shasta (and a couple of our friends were located in Berkeley) it felt logical to rent those pieces of equipment there. The prices with $30 for the whole weekend were reasonable and the experience at the store, as usual, smooth and without any hassle.
After that, we set out on the five hour drive up Hwy 5 and arrived in the town of Mount Shasta after nightfall, where we met up with our friends to set up camp for the night at McBride Springs campground. We wanted to get a good night sleep before meeting up with our guides of SWS Mountain Guides Saturday morning for the pre-climb briefing and gear check.
Breakfast. Gear check. Go.
Saturday morning we packed up camp and headed to Seven Suns Coffee & Beans, the only place in town open at 7am, for a hearty breakfast. And then, at 8am sharp, we made it around the corner to SWS to meet our guides, rent additional gear and divide up cargo between folks to carry up the mountain.
Both Courtney (Coke) and Christopher (Crit) seemed to be very knowledgeable, skilled, but also forthcoming when it came to the dangers that await everyone attempting to hike/climb up a 14,000 feet mountain in snow and icy conditions. Once we got all the admin and gear organization out of the way, we carpooled up to the Bunny Flat trailhead at 6,900 feet, the real starting point for the whole adventure. Time for a last group photo and off we went.
The goal for the first day (Saturday) was to reach a spot around 9,500 feet to set up our base camp from which we would start out summit assault the following night. After we had started hiking, it became obvious that the temperatures close to the trailhead did not really warrant wearing too many layers, especially with carrying packs that varied in weight between 35 and 45 pounds. My upper body clothing consisted only of my base layer top for most of the time. Even though we incorporated a couple of breaks, we made it to the spot where we would eventually set up camp in great time, only taking us a bit over 3 hours.
Most folks that camp on the mountain do so at Helen Lake, which is about 1,000 vertical feet higher up. However, our guides decided against setting up camp there, as it can get pretty crowded and the, well, sanitary conditions can get a bit nasty when people leave their solid human waste out in the open vs. using the carry-out bags provided at the trailhead.
After digging wind shelters for our tents and setting them up, it was time for some fun with the ice axe. Not for creating ice sculptures but rather how to save yourself, and your fellow climbers, should you slip on the icy terrain, despite crampons and start sliding down the mountain. So we practiced proper handling of the ice axe when ascending and simulated falls and slides down the mountain and self-arresting.
Soon thereafter, it was time for dinner and as soon as the sun set, we made our way into the tents and prepped for a short night.
Summit Day: 1am
For various reasons, probably taking into account the weather situation and the time it usually takes to get clients to the summit and back down, our guides opted for waking us up at 1am, for a 2am start. There is quite a few things to consider in the morning: how many layers to put on, making sure you already apply sunscreen for when the sun comes out later in the day, making sure your crampons fit nice and tight, making sure you carry your sunglasses for later, so the sun (in conjunction with the snowy ground which reflects the UV rays) does not burn out your eyes. And, of course, make sure you got enough water and food for the 6 to 8 hour ordeal up to the summit.
For myself, I did think of everything. Almost everything. And that little “almost” turned out to be the difference maker later on. But we will get to that. After we had everything ready and we were ready to go, I had noticed that the water in the hose of my CamelBak had frozen, making it impossible to get any liquid out of the reservoir. Not good. So the only water source I had to begin with was my 1 litre Nalgene bottle. I had that filled up to the brim, which I thought would be enough and, at the same time, hoping that the sun would turn the ice in the CamelBak hose into water later in the day.
First Stop: Helen Lake
Our first stop on the way up was Helen Lake, which we reached after about 20 minutes. Crit and Coke then divided the group up into 2, with 4 clients plus 1 guide each and also tying us together with ropes. We then proceeded up the steep slope of Avalanche Gulch, doing switchbacks, as opposed to going straight up, to make the ascent slightly easier. As easy as it can get when you are faced with 30 to 40 percent grade. I felt pretty good at this point, surprisingly not feeling any major effects of the altitude, like headaches, despite being at over 10,000 feet. At that time I felt pretty optimistic and was also able to cope well with the reasonable, i.e. slow, pace Crit set out.
Dude, this is steep
After about 2 hours, we were about half way up Avalanche Gulch, but the ridge of the Red Banks did not seem to come any closer and, at the same time, every single step became more tedious. Slowly, but surely I began to feel the effects of this adventure. We took breaks about every hour, but for various reasons I could not recover enough in those breaks and instead got weaker the higher we went. Remember that I did not have enough water? Anyhow, I battled through it and we finally made it up to the Red Banks, at which time the sun was beginning to shine its light on the route ahead and we took a bit of a longer break on top of the ridge.
Time to Evaluate
By that time, I was pretty much spent. The altitude seemed to get to me, the lack of sleep as well as the lack of proper food (I had a bunch of energy bars and trail mix, but somehow that did not seem to be enough). The most crucial factor though was the lack of water. I was able to drink periodically from the bottle, while the hose of the CamelBak was still frozen, but that turned out to be far from sufficient. Eventually, at the bottom of Misery Hill, and about 900 vertical feet from the summit, I decided it is time to throw in the towel.
I felt really tired, a bit dizzy and I could not have guaranteed the safety of myself and my other climb-mates had I continued on, since getting to the summit is only half way. So I turned around and headed back down to Base Camp with Courtney and Michael, who also was not feeling hundred percent. Of course I was disappointed by not making it to the summit, but also proud that I was able to listen to and make the best decision for myself with the info at hand and not being influenced by peer pressure and outside expectations.
As expected, I felt much better going down than going up. In fact, I felt much better with every step going down, and as the weather was holding up nicely, we actually made good time on the downhill. Because we also got introduced to the art of glissading down a mountain (see an example on youtube) by Courtney, we made it down even faster. Back at Base Camp, the temperature had increased a lot (it felt like in the 60s or 70s at least) plus the clouds that had rolled in had trapped the UV rays which heated up the air even more. I essentially unzipped our tent and fell into oblivion for about an hour.
I was woken up by two things: first, the group of five brave souls (plus Christopher) who made it back into camp after successfully summiting (congrats fellas!) and the fact that I had a huge headache. I crawled out of the tent and then, very slowly, everyone started getting all their stuff together for the descent. We packed up our gear, took down the tents and then hiked back down the mountain and reached the parking lot at Bunny Flat in the late afternoon. We then loaded our cars with the gear and headed back to SWS HQ to give back our rentals and say good bye to our guides.
What I would have done differently
As I mentioned above, I was a bit bummed for not summiting, however would I do it again? Yes, absolutely. Despite all the strenuous activity, it was still a great adventure and experience that you carry with you for years and years to come. Some things that I would do differently next time:
- Do not bring CamelBaks. I am not sure our guides thought about this, but essentially the risk of having your CamelBak hose frozen (despite any precautions you might take) and not having enough water is just too high. Instead of CamelBaks, rather bring 3 separate 1 liter water bottles.
- Insulate your water sources. On summit day, if you are starting as early as we did, make sure you minimize the risk of having your water frozen. One idea would be to wrap each bottle in not needed clothing layers for insulation and put them in your backpack for less exposure to wind and cold.
- Don’t be stingy when it comes to food. I had energy bars (mostly Clif Bars) and Trail mix. However, you might need something more substantial as well, like bread with salami and cheese. To give you a burst of energy, consider a chocolate-based snack like a Snickers bar or two.
Other Tips and Recommenations
Here are some general tips with regards to the Shasta Climb, based on my experience:
- Food in Mt Shasta. If you (have to) get up early, nothing beats Seven Suns Coffee & Cafe. Another option for having breakfast later in the day is Yaks Koffee Shop & Cafe. After the climb, we ventured to Black Bear Diner for old-fashioned (and gigantic in a few cases) burgers and delicious milk shakes.
- Motels. If you do not want to go the cheap route of staying at a campground the first night when you get to Shasta, you can opt for one of the motels in the area. We stayed for one night at Finlandia Motel & Lodge (now LOGE Mt. Shasta) after coming back from the mountain, which served us well. To be honest, the most important thing was to have real bed to rest our tired bodies on.
- Bring the proper equipment and know how to use it. Even though I did not summit, at least I took away the knowledge of how to use crampons and an ice axe. This is really essential for doing an entry level mountaineering climb like Mount Shasta. In addition to those, you will need mountaineering boots, a helmet (to prevent injuries from falling rocks or pieces of ice) and a climbing harness.
- Last but not least: Don’t eat yellow snow.
A word on SWS Mountain Guides
I would like to point out that, in terms of technical ability, strength and knowing their way around the mountain, Courtney and Cristopher were top-notch. It felt to me that, no matter what issue related to the technical part of the ascend would have come up during the climb, they would have been able to handle it. However when it came to social skills and the ability to work with clients, that is a different story.
While Courtney showed a lot of empathy during the length of the trip, always asking the members of her climbing group while on the ascent how they are doing and encouraging and supporting them, I did not necessarily get the same vibe from Crit. In certain instances, he seemed to represent more the macho-hot-shot-climber/mountaineer guy than the responsible guide looking out for the safety and (reasonable) comfort of his clients. He seemed to be quite pushy in certain cases (e.g. strictly cutting breaks to 10 minutes max, which I understand is necessary, but especially on top of the Red Banks, we could have easily taken a longer break than the allotted 15 minutes) and in some situations I got the impression that getting up the mountain fast was more important than any concerns of his clients.
One incident that describes this best happened when one of my fellow climbers mentioned during one of the breaks that he couldn’t feel his toes any more and described some numbness in this area of his feet. While responding concerned initially, Christopher refused to give out his toe warmers under the argument that he “would like to save it for a real emergency”. Granted, not every cold feeling in the toes needs to result in frostbite, but if there is a client lamenting about numbness, that sounds like an emergency to me. Especially because we were probably at the coldest spot of the climb and the sun was supposed to come up in a few hours. It seemed borderline reckless to me denying the client toe warmers.
While I agree that pushing clients to get beyond their comfort zone is reasonable and, sometimes, necessary, I don’t think our group and the group dynamics really warranted such pushy behavior. We were making good time and having more substantial breaks and/or giving out toe warmers would not have slowed us down much. To the contrary, this would have earned our guides sympathy points and motivated us more to carry on.
In any case, that might have been an unfortunate chain of events, but in general, if I am paying for such services rendered, I would assume to be treated as a recreational climber, and not being pushed up to mountain just to beat some fictional record that some guide may or may not have set for himself.
Anyhow, despite all the blood, sweat and (frozen) tears, it was still a great, grandiosely pointless adventure. And I already know that I will be back for another try.