Climbing Mt Shasta
On day two of the seven day Cascade Expedition, Geoff and I pack up camp at Mt Lassen and drive north to Mt Shasta. It looms large over us for most of the drive. Mt Shasta is a single monolith over 14,000 feet tall rising 10,000 feet above the surrounding valley. It dominates the northern boundary of California. We roll into Mt Shasta City around noon and I stop at the local mountain shop to get a weather report and a better topo map which includes all climbing routes and detailed descriptions of each. I am planning to climb the traditional Avalanche Gulch route from Bunny Flat, but the shop keeper tells me that no one is climbing Avalanche Gulch right now due to lack of snow. Instead everyone is climbing from Clear Creek on the southeast side of the mountain. Clear Creek was my second choice, so it's a minor adjustment but not a huge surprise. I'm glad I checked with the locals first.
We drive east from town to a forest road, and head north toward the mountain. The road gets steeper and rougher as we drive, changing from gravel to packed dirt to loose dirt. There are many junctions on this dusty drive, but the route to Clear Creek is fairly well marked. After thirty minutes on the one lane forest road we arrive at a steep section of road that is comprised of deep loose sand. About half way through this section my rental car (a compact Chevy Cobalt) sinks and we bottom out. I reverse down the sand trap and try again. We bottom out a second time. Geoff and I start strategizing about how to get up the sand trap. I take it to the left. No good. Then I take it to the right. No good. Then I try tacking back and forth, switchbacking up the narrow road. Still no good. Each effort creates a dust storm that blinds us in a brown out. On our fifth or sixth try I am losing hope, but decide to gun it and stay to the very right on the uphill slope. I manage to grab a little traction and crawl up out of the trap. Around the corner is the Clear Creek trailhead at about 6500 feet.
As we begin gearing up for an overnight stay on the mountain, a ranger shows up. He is filling pot holes in the road, hauling out bio bags and trash from the remote outhouse at the trailhead, and checking permits. He asks us if we had trouble getting to the trailhead, and I tell him about the sand trap. He is genuinely concerned, and says he wants the trailhead to be as accessible as possible, but funding has been cut making road maintenance harder. The ranger gives us a lot of great advice. He tells us of a natural spring at about 9000 feet with some good level camping spots protected by scrub brush. He shows us the optimal route of ascent on the map. He describes most of the common route finding blunders people tend to make which get them lost. All of it is very helpful information, and corresponds to my research. He also checks the weather for us one last time on his radio. Partly cloudy.
Geoff and I begin the backpack up to 9000 feet. It's a long haul with all of our overnight gear, and we take it slow. The route is a well worn trail. As we break timberline at about 8000 feet we can see a patch of green one thousand feet above us. We continue heading toward it, and eventually reach the stream that's literally coming out of the ground and flowing down the mountainside, creating a small meadow of lush green grass in an otherwise barren rock strewn wasteland. Above the spring is a ridge with many clusters of brush. We find a nook protected from exposure and set up camp. Around dusk the wind starts picking up. I turn in early, as I plan to start climbing before dawn. Geoff is sitting out the final ascent.
All night the wind gets stronger. By midnight it's howling relentlessly, making it impossible to sleep. What little sleep I do get is infiltrated by strange dreams of spirits haunting this place, most likely sparked by the rich folklore and numerous legends surrounding this mountain that I read prior to coming here. There are rumors of vast networks of underground tunnels inside the mountain built by the Lemurians, a highly civilized race associated with the kingdom of Mu. Other subterranean civilizations are said to thrive inside the mountain, including the Secret Commonwealth. Many climbers have claimed to see divine beings high on the mountain in white robes. I also read that the Native Americans considered the mountain sacred and to venture above timberline was taboo.
When my watch says 5am, I gear up and start climbing in the dark. I'm using the stars, the moon, and a flashlight to light my way. After about fifteen minutes of climbing what feels like the wrong way, I backtrack to a vague junction with some ambiguously placed cairns, and find the correct route. Shortly afterwards, I pass the only other climbing group on this route, consisting of four: two young men, one older man, and a boy. I wish them well, and am careful not to dislodge any rocks as I move above them.
The stars are brilliant. I track Orion across the night sky as I climb. But after a couple hours of climbing, it's still not light out. I realize that my watch is actually two hours off! I really started climbing at 3am instead of 5am! Oops. I can almost see the light of the coming sun now, so I estimate making summit at sunrise.
The route is steep but very manageable. I skirt Watkins Glacier to the left on scree and don't need any technical gear, just strong legs and lungs. The wind is becoming ferocious though. At 11,000 feet, it's ripping across the southern slopes, carrying a constant barrage of tiny rocks and sand. My face is feeling wind burnt and sand blasted. My eyes are burning. I don't have goggles, just sun glasses, which I can't wear at night. I put my hand in front of my face to shield it and press onward.
At 12,000 feet, the light of predawn is growing, but the wind has only intensified, I'd guess that it's a constant 60 mph or more. It's actually becoming a real force and source of concern. I burry my face in my windbreaker and shield my eyes with my gloved hand.
Somewhere around 13,000 feet, I look up and the summit is so close. Only another 1000 feet to go. I can almost taste it. But something strange is happening up there. I notice five long cloud talons creeping up and over the summit from behind. It looks like a white hand with long boney fingers sliding over the summit, reaching toward me. I keep a sharp eye on it but continue to climb. As I climb I see that the fingers are filling in and morphing into a solid blanket. I look down and see clouds starting to slide in from around the side of the south face too, closing in below me. At this point I decide I have to abort the climb. There is a bizarre weather system enveloping Shasta's summit, slowly erasing my ability to locate the landmarks I will need to navigate my descent. Not only that, but the wind is now blistering. My tear ducts are filled with sand, and my eyes are on fire. My left eye feels scratched and I have a hard time keeping it open.
I begin a rapid descent, plunge stepping the steep scree slopes. It's relatively effortless compared to the immense amount of energy required to climb. The cloud cap is pushing downward, but I am able to stay comfortably ahead of it. On my way down I encounter two of the climbers from the other party. The older man and the boy have already turned back. The two young men of the group are trying to decide whether to continue. I give them my account of what I just experienced above with the worsening wind and the developing whiteout conditions. I continue my descent as they debate their course of action. I try to snap a few pictures as I get closer to safety but it's so windy that most are out of focus. By 9am I am back at my 9000 foot base camp. Geoff is waking up. It's actually sunny here, but I can see the nasty weather system in it's entirety hanging on the summit. There is no other weather in the sky. It's almost as if Shasta has conjured up this force from within...
Geoff and I hang out at base camp for several hours waiting to see if the wacky storm will blow over. It doesn't seem to want to go away anytime soon, so we pack up and decide to head down the mountain. I swing by the basecamp of the other group to see if the two young men made it back, and if they made summit. They are back, and had decided to abort the summit as well. A very wise decision on their part. A couple hours later we are back at the car. Right about the time we get off the mountain, the violent weather system that had plagued my final ascent and forced me to abort the summit gives way to bright blue skies.
It is disappointing and frustrating to abort a climb so close to the summit, especially after climbing over 6000 feet with only 1000 feet to go, and then watch the weather clear up as I drive away. But despite the fact that I didn't summit, the climb was remarkable. I can't say that I believe in the highly advanced subterranean civilizations that are said to thrive inside the mountain, or buy that it's a hotbed of UFO activity, or that divine beings roam it's upper slopes. But after spending the night up there and experiencing such a bizarre weather event, I can appreciate how these stories come to be. There are extremely powerful natural forces at work on top of this mighty volcano, and also deep within. These forces are so extreme that it's not outlandish to interpret them as supernatural, because in a way, they are. For much of my ascent in the twilight hours of predawn, I felt like I was marooned on another planet, or slipping into some other dimension. Especially when the "great white hand" reached out to squeeze all life from the summit. Shasta haunts me. I want to go back. And maybe, if I'm lucky, even make summit. But ultimately that is for Shasta to decide, not me.