Photo contributions from Todd Martin and Rick Rubio © 2017
Over the last couple of years I have been working on my goal to summit all the California mountains over 14,000' tall. Last year I made some major progress, mainly with the Thunderbolt to Mt. Sill Traverse. This year, in 2017, we've had an insane snowfall. The result is great for the drought, but will also be pushing back the high sierra alpine climbing season.
This year I joined the Southern California Mountaineer's Association (SCMA), primarily a multi-pitch rock climbing club. However, upon joining, the SCMA is reviving some true mountaineering experiences, with an early spring trip to Mount Shasta as the first of this kind.
I was thrilled for the opportunity, as Shasta is not only an outstanding mountain on my list, it's also what I felt to be the most challenging of the remaining. I thought it might be the last one I would summit, primarily because it's proximity from Los Angeles is extremely far, but also because the weather in the Cascades can be wildly unpredictable, so travel and weather windows to buffer the experience all make it a time conscious effort.
Just a couple weeks prior while I was in Bend climbing the Marsupials Traverse, I snapped this photo of Mt. Shasta from the window of my flight from Los Angeles to Portland. My eyes were as big as pies. I couldn't imagine standing on the top of this structure.
On May 6th, 2017, we left Los Angeles at 5am. We drove 600 miles in 8.5 hours and arrived at our meeting place, a motel in the town of Shasta. With the rest of the team, there would be eight of us total. We ran through a quick gear check, matching all shared items; stoves, tents, etc. Then we headed to the Fifth Season mountain supply shop to secure our summit passes. From there we all headed to the Black Bear Diner for a big dinner. It was over cast but when we stepped outside after the meal, we all caught the first close up glance of our objective. It was humbling. I think there was a healthy mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety looking at the great white volcano.
We went back to the motel to catch some sleep. We checked out at 8am, and headed to the Bunny Flat trail head on Sunday morning. Bunny Flat sits just under 7000' above sea level. At this station you self-issue your wilderness permit. Which is free, however, those heading above 10,000' are required to purchase a "summit pass," which we got the day before.
We suited up boots, gaiters, snow shoes (which we never ended up using), packs, and a couple gear sleds that half the team was using for Mt. Denali system training. My pack was solid, it was just shy of 50 pounds! The idea of pulling a sled, similar to heading to Alaska, sounded pretty torturous to me, I wasn't sheepish to opt out on that, ha!
I have plenty of backpacking experience, but when you bring all the gear required for snow camping, all the extra warm clothes, and then all the climbing gear we needed for the experience and coupled with the large amount of food required for the length of our trip, there was no easy way to shave weight. Such is life in this mini-expedition style adventure.
We took one "before" group photo and headed above the treeline.
There was plenty of trial and error with the sleds over the trip.
I can't remember what time we arrived at base camp. I think it was about a 4 hour hike, with a little under 3000' gain. We opted to camp at 5050 flats, approximately 9500' elevation. It's often popular to use Helen Lake as a base camp, which sits closer to 10,000' but it had been hit earlier in the season by an avalanche, so why take the chance?
Just as we arrived, a guiding outfitter and their clients were packing up and heading off the mountain. It was Sunday evening, so it made sense that many of the weekend warriors would be heading down. A perfect time for us to be hiking in! I chatted with them briefly, the majority of their team did not make the summit. The wind up top was too powerful, this was a theme we heard from many climbers coming down the mountain.
We waited til they left and took over their tent platforms. There were many snow walls to block wind already constructed for our use.
There was also a kitchen and two bathrooms dug out, this was great. We leisurely pitched our tents, made our beds, and started cooking dinner. We spent a huge amount of time sitting on these snow benches. We endlessly boiled snow for drinking and cooking water here. We also used this area as our living room and dining room. This was our common place to candidly discuss mountain strategies, make jokes, have late night debates, and boil more and more snow. It was our "oval office" at base camp.
We woke up Monday to a beautiful day. There was little-to-no wind at base camp and temperatures were very comfortable, even HOT sometimes. The next two days were spent learning and refreshing snow skills. Day one we reviewed self-arrest techniques (one can never practice this too much or too often), crampon travel technique (French vs. German vs. American), running belays and roped travel techniques using the Casaval Ridge.
Day two we studied snow anchors and protection. We placed pickets in typical fashion but also "sierra placement" and "dead man" placements. We worked on crevasse rescue pulley systems, and snow rappelling. We built a large snow bollard anchor, it was really cool. We weight tested the strength, it held FIVE bodies securely. Pretty amazing.
At this point, storms and high winds looked to be heading our way. We had a flexible itinerary and departure date, but it looked like the window for a successful summit bid was closing in. We agreed to head up for an extra extra early alpine start on Tuesday May 9th. We wrapped up skills training early to, yes, boil more snow, relax, pack our summit gear, and eat an early dinner. Like dinner at 4pm!
When I say "EXTRA EARLY ALPINE START" I'm not kidding. Alpine Start always implies in the dark, and usually around 3am. We would start our ascent at midnight. This meant waking up at 11pm for "breakfast," suiting up our crampons and packs and starting the climb at the strike of midnight. Everyone was challenging their internal clocks but the excitement was overwhelming. I tried to go to sleep around 5pm, it doesn't get dark on the mountain til around 8:30pm, and the moon was huge every night we were out there. Below is the view from my tent before bed.
I don't think Todd or Josh were having any easier of a time falling asleep either.
Taking whatever rest was available, three hours? Everyone was up on time. Eating breakfast of granola or oatmeal or protein bars or Thom had a full on chicken dinner at 11:30pm. Everyone gloved up, checked their watches, and off we went.
First goal was just to get to Helen Lake, the higher trail camp. It was a fairly mellow start, get the blood going, get the body warmed up.
We opted for a sincere moonlight hike. The moon was so full and bright with a great reflection on the snow. We hiked up to Helen Lake with a great pace, arriving in 45 minutes. From there we headed up Avalanche Gulch. Up through the "heart" passed the "red banks" and up to "thumb rock" all are iconic way points along the giant snow bowl(see in the map below, courtesy of The Ocean Cloud).
This was a couple thousand feet climbing, maybe even three thousand to up to the thumb. The snow was perfect, hard but not icy, just enough purchase to feel secure and stiff enough to save some efforts.
Getting to the top of the bowl in the dark was great, probably took some edge off of the exposure. At this point, there was a fairly large crevasse that was really unsuspecting, I was still half asleep and thankfully Thom steered me away from stepping right into it, I swear I would not have even seen it.
It was probably around 3 am and we are at 12,600' above sea level. It was dark and cold. The wind was whipping hard. We stopped for a short break to adjust our outfits and eat a snack, hydrate. We all put on huge parkas to rest. We tried to sit near a snow wall to catch shelter from the wind, it turned out to be a bergschrund and collapsed causing one guy to topple over into it. The team acted quickly and he got up without incidence, but it was alarming. Moving forward we decided to continue travel with the headlamps ON.
I dressed every extra clothing layer I had in my backpack. I was wearing thermal underwear, softshell alpine pants and waterproof hardshell pants over them. On top I had on thermals, a fleece, a hardshell and a massive parka over everything. Two pairs of gloves, fleece liners with gore-tex mittens on top. One gentleman was having a wardrobe malfunction with his boots. He took them off to change his socks and upon inspection his toes were purple. He opted to head back to camp, our co-captain headed with him. We were still a couple thousand feet shy of the summit and there wasn't much expectation for the temperature to subside.
The sun was starting to rise as we hit "misery hill" one of the several false summits of Mt. Shasta.
While the sun was rising, the moon was still strong and present. The colors of the sky had everyone gaining a second wind. All we could do to stay warm was to keep moving. Wind was wild and one would imagine, hiking with all these layers, they would be over heating and sweating, but I was quite comfortable and thankful to have such equipment.
Below is a photo of Todd coming around to the summit plateau.
There is a palatial flat just before the final summit block, and it provided this bizarre windshield. We were so close to the top but so excited to just rest and fuel up. It was kind of "warm" or perhaps just the absence of howling winds made it feel that way. We joked the night before, repeating over and over about being at the summit for sunrise, but it was manifesting perfectly.
It felt like the sun was giving me energy, I would see, my toes were warming up, even at this altitude my breathing was stable and everything was coming together as planned. Sometimes these are mountain miracles.
Here you can see the remaining team members heading for the summit. In the middle of the photo, along that jagged ridge, the highest pinnacle is the true summit of Mount Shasta, just maybe 300' more feet of climbing to get there!
Here we go! Todd was amazing and sacrificed his fingers in the cold to capture so many fantastic photos and angles. Thank you Todd!
It was almost surreal at the top. We all sort of separated, enjoying different perspectives, taking tons of photos, celebrating.
Rick helped me take a cool summit pic. The summit itself was pretty hairy. It is large enough for 3 people maximum. Behind me is a shear cliff, and pretty exposed on the other sides too. With the wind, it was a little nerve racking standing tall on this thing. We've come so far, no need for an accident now!
After the photo shoot I headed to my favorite form of paperwork, signing the summit registry!
Must have been around 6 am. We all signed in, and took one group selfie from the summit. CHEESE!
Before our descent, we turned around to see this MASSIVE and overwhelming shadow of Mt. Shasta. It was creating a perfect triangle just looming over the landscape of the Cascades. AMAZING. Such a bizarre and wild sight to see in nature. It was awe inspiring.
Now time to get off this mountain and back to camp. The summit only means you are 50% done and many of the accidents happen on the way down. Easy does it. At least we can see now and the temperature was warming up.
Looking back at the summit, was really incredible, one of the coolest summits I've climbed.
We headed back down Misery Hill and over the ridge that was perhaps the most frigid part. It was great to see everything in the light. I was climbing in a very systematic fashion that didn't really include my eyes wandering much. Just careful footwork. What an amazing view everywhere. Time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
The ridge took us back to Thumb Rock and the top of the snow bowl. We could see the bergschrund now with full vision. There was quite a large and deep crevasse with a tiny snow bridge that passed from the top of the bowl to the continued line of travel.
Now to head down the bowl. Most people take the famous 3000' glissade (sledding on your butt), unfortunately the snow was still pretty bulletproof and it would be painful, fast and a dangerous glissade. We meticulously descended cutting our own switchbacks. My toes were just hammering into the front of my boots. This is not surprising on a steep descent of so many meters. The upside is, we caught the summit. If we headed up top later in the day, the snow might be softer on the way down for the descent, but it was a risk we didn't want to take.
We got back to base camp at 5050 Flats around 9 - 9:30am. It was so weird, our clocks all off kilter. Now super hungry. Had dinner at yesterday's lunch, then breakfast at 11:30pm and now what? Lunch for breakfast? Aye! just eat something anything. The group unanimously decided to clean up and get off the mountain. The temps were scorching and the sun was annihilating our skin. We had some grub, then packed our tents, loaded the sleds and hiked through extremely soft snow. We post-holed all the way back to Bunny Flat, perhaps arriving around 1 or 2pm.
I was worked. Lack of sleep, lots of gain, hot and cold, heavy baggage, but all outweighed by the satisfaction of accomplishment.
Team SCMA headed to Round Table Pizza where I unabashedly destroyed an extra large pizza with James. Then James, Josh and I drove all the way back to Los Angeles. What a long day. Was many a red bulls, drive sharing, and jokes to stay awake. We got home around 1 or 2am. Was like 30 hours and little sleep. A couple days recovery to boot.
Mount Shasta was amazing. I have never been so far north in California. I also think that was my first volcano climbed in the Cascades. It was a real experience. Most people will wait a couple months for some snow to melt before their summit bids. There was 40 FEET OF SNOW at our basecamp. It was a challenging and rewarding trip.
I am really grateful to Thom and Alex for planning such a heavy trip. I'm also very pleased to have completed my 10th California 14er. Only a few left, and the rest are relatively easy compared to the ones checked off.