Courtesy of Benjamin Korn
To 14,179 feet and back: climbing Mount Shasta
May 8, 2018
Three very snow-burned boys were struggling to stay awake as they shoveled plates of eggs, bacon, and pancakes into their mouths. They were now safely back in the town of Shasta, California, taking deep breaths of fully oxygenated air. But just eight hours ago, they were standing on top of Mount Shasta at an elevation of 14,179 feet. Their story starts days earlier, before hours of climbing, two days on the mountain, and one shot at its summit.
I was two weeks into a four-week backpacking trip around California with two friends, eagerly anticipating the next step, a three-day climb up Mount Shasta. It would be, without a doubt, the most challenging part of our trip both physically and mentally. My partners and I had ample experience hiking at higher altitudes and on snow, but there is a distinct difference between simply hiking on a mountain and actually summiting its peak. So, like many climbers of peaks over 14,000 feet, we had contracted a guide service to provide the route and specialized gear. Our climb began at 6,940 feet. I watched as our guides applied copious amounts of sunscreen on every exposed part of their body, including inside their nose and on their eyelids. My naivety made me think “that’s strange” as I only applied a small amount of sunscreen to my cheeks-a decision-I would later regret. The first two miles of hiking were relatively easy. Still in the trees and following a well traversed trail, we made good time. Once we hit the snow line, at about 8,200 feet, we pulled out sunglasses. Snow reflects the sun’s rays, so climbers face the damaging rays reflected back up off the snow. As long as the sun was in the sky for the next 48 hours, the sunglasses would be a constant presence on our face.
Our destination for the first day was Lake Helen at 10,443 feet, which, due to altitude and below-freezing temperatures, has no actual water. Once we arrived we immediately began setting up our base camp. We pitched tents and dug out a “kitchen,” a trench in the snow to protect us from the rapidly increasing winds. Dinner was a minestrone soup mix – enough to provide the much needed calories, but not nearly enough to fill my appetite. Water freezes at basecamp, so we boiled snow in the same pot as we prepared dinner in, and soon our drinking water carried the taste of the soup, a disgusting flavor that stuck with us.
We ended the evening with a discussion of how the summit attempt would go and a warning that above base camp, our guide’s word was to be considered law to ensure our safety. We all piled into our tents by 5 p.m. and attempted to get as much sleep as possible. The tent, sitting under the powerful sun for the past two hours, was a sauna. Even stripped down to our long underwear, we were still sweating. That is until, the sun dipped below the mountains ridge. Within the course of 5 minutes the temperature dropped in the tent from a balmy 85 degrees, to a frigid 35. Suffice to say that hunger, cold, and stress did not make for a good night’s sleep.
We were up 15 minutes before our arranged wake-up time, 12:15 a.m. We pulled ourselves out of sleeping bags, wiped the crust out of our eyes, and stepped out into the frigid mountain air. We all met at the kitchen, huddled together to conserve warmth as we strapped on “crampons,” metal attachments for our mountaineering boots with spikes that increase traction on snow. We donned helmets to protect from falling debris. And we carried a sharp pointed ice pick to help with the steep climb. Finally, our guides split us into two groups and tied safety ropes between us. Whereas the climb to basecamp had been an individual endeavor, the majority of the climb to the summit would be a team effort due to the dark and steep terrain ahead. As we left basecamp early on July 3, we might have looked the part of experienced mountaineers, but I was sufficiently nervous.
The next four hours were, as every climber hopes, were relatively uneventful. We stayed within inches of the climber in front of us, placing our crampon directly in their footprint. The snow was icy, making the steep climb slippery. We stopped every 30 minutes to drink gag-inducing water with the melted snow minestrone soup mixture from the night before, and to force a few cliff bars down. (High altitude makes one lose their appetite, a dangerous combination with the high-exertion of climbing. Over the course of the climb I ate no less than 11 Cliff Bars, and consumed 2,500 calories, which was on the low end of my peers.
We were not the only climbers on the mountain, and we could see groups both ahead of us and behind us. But at around 6 a.m., we passed a solo climber slowly trudging his way up. Not only was he seemingly climbing the mountain alone, a rare and unrecommended feat, but he was without ropes or an ice pick. He feebly called out to our group asking if we were with a guide. Our guide responded and we worked our way over to the man. He had left base camp a few hours earlier with a larger group of friends. He was clearly a novice climber and after a few hours he couldn’t keep up. Strangely, he told his friends to keep going and, even stranger, they did, leaving him alone to climb the mountain. By the time we talked to him he was complaining of a headache and of difficulty breathing, both symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS.) AMS is a side effect of high altitudes and is caused by exposure to low amounts of oxygen. Guides on Mount Shasta are bound by an unwritten rule to help all climbers in need, regardless of whether they are a member of their group. So, for safety reasons, our guide was obliged to escort the man down to the next guide, where the next guide would escort him down to the next guide, and so on until he reached base camp. We anchored ourselves into the snow – were told to watch for falling debris from higher climbers – and to wait for our guide’s return. For now, our climb had stopped and our chances of reaching the summit, so promising as we were making good time just a few minutes earlier, were in doubt.
Now stopped, I realized how brutally cold it was at that high elevation. The sun was on the opposite side of the mountain so we sat in the dark, shivering. To make matters worse, we were only increasing our time in the thin air. And, the climbers above us had decided to climb over an exposed rock patch. Climbing over rock is easier than snow, but rocks are inevitably nudged lose. Experienced and guided climbers know to stay as far away from exposed rocks as possible, but we watched helplessly as the climber’s nudged debris lose thousands of feet above us. And once lose, the rocks come barreling down the mountain. They rapidly pick up speed and bounce unpredictably like footballs. Luckily, most passed by about a hundred feet away, but we watched as a rock above us took an awkward bounce. This one looked like it was coming too close for comfort. Another bounce and it was seemingly barreling towards us. We all went prone, covering our heads and hoping that our plastic helmets would protect us. I said a prayer and watched as the rock bounced a mere five feet way.
Ultimately, we sat there for approximately for 40 minutes. As we waited for our guide’s return, we sat motionless as precious climbing time ticked away.
Finally, we were back on our way, but our previously blistering pace had disappeared. We were cold and tired from sitting in the thin air and we struggled to make it up the mountain. To make matters worse, we were reaching the steepest part of the climb. Soon we were climbing almost vertically, using our ice picks to pull our way up. This part of the climb has the highest probability for a fall so we reviewed what we would do in case anyone of us was to slip. If we felt a strong tugging on the rope holding us together, we would immediately drop to our knees, a more secure position, dig our ice picks into the snow and hope that the domino effect, where one person pulls the others down the mountain did not occur. I have always felt I could trust my long-time summer camping mates with my life, but there’s a difference between believing it and living it. It was slow, stressful going and simply put, I was scared. Not the nerves one feels before a test or on a free-throw line in a big game, but true prolonged ‘fear for your life’ fear. It’s a feeling I had never felt before, and one I don’t hope to feel again.
After making it through the red banks, we detached ourselves from each other as the final portion of the climb was to be done individually. It was here where we could first see the summit and where we would take a break before making the final push. By this point the sun had risen and every piece of exposed skin was brutally burned. As I gingerly touched my flaking skin, I mentally kicked myself for not applying enough sun paste to begin with and neglecting to reapply. It was not the worst case our guide had seen, but it was bad enough that I was forced to fashion a makeshift mask out of a spare shirt. This extra barrier made the already thin air harder to breath, but there weren’t really any other options. After collecting my breath, I set off for the aptly named Misery Hill.
Imagine walking up Fort Reno. You might be slightly winded by the top, but you’ve made it in 2 minutes. Now imagine it taking you a full hour and a half. You have to stop every 30 seconds to catch your breath and your intestines are staging a full on revolt. This is the task of climbing Misery Hill. For the first time on the whole trip, the summit was now in sight, but each step was exhausting and it felt like the hill was never ending. Finally we made it the top of the hill, where we faced our final climb to the summit. After a short scramble, and 11 consecutive hours of climbing, we stood at 14,179 feet. The sky was astoundingly blue and we could see for miles. It was truly amazing.
We snapped a few pictures and relished the view, but in total we spent less than 10 minutes on the summit. The air was thinnest and the sun was strongest there, so we spent as little time as possible atop our goal. We now had to get down to basecamp, and we were ready. The past two hours had been sufficiently miserable. In addition to the physical exertion, the high altitude had taken its toll on each of us. I, of course was brutally snow-burned. One of my partners was mentally drained and unable to hold a conversation. The other’s intestinal system was a wreck and had been unable to keep any food in.
Luckily, descending is exponentially easier than climbing up it. We employed a method called “glacading” which involves sliding down the mountain on your backs and we flew by the steep snow fields that we had struggled to climb hours earlier. The ascent of the mountain took a little over 11 hours. The descent to base camp took a mere three. That night, over a meal of anything and everything (other than minestrone water and protein bars) I could only take pride in our achievement. We had climbed to over 14,000 feet and, more importantly, made it back down safely.
When I look back on climbing Mt. Shasa, long after the snow burn has healed and the fatigue subsided, I can say without hesitation that climbing the mountain was not an enjoyable experience. Each hour on the mountain was a battle against forces that were not on your side. Snow and ice made it so that for every two steps forward you went one step back. The freezing temperatures and blazing sun ensured that you are both shivering and sweating within a matter of minutes. The high altitude and thin air clouds your judgement and decision making ability. Careless climbers impair your own attempts at mitigating the natural risk. So no, in short, climbing Mt. Shasta was not fun. Then why subject yourself to ridiculous conditions to climb mountains? In the words of George Mallory, one of the first humans to attempt to climb Mt. Everest, “because it’s there.” There is no doubt an undeniable feeling of accomplishment after summiting a mountain. Maybe that’s the reason. Maybe there is no reason at all.