The third time is the charm, right? That’s how the saying goes. As if, by fate’s design, we are all destined to taste bitter failure twice before we can truly appreciate success the next time ’round. Maybe the moon was in the seventh house and Jupiter was aligned with Mars and all of the cosmic forces of the universe willed us to succeed. Or perhaps Mt. Shasta needed us to prove our worth and determination on those previous attempts before it would acquiese and grant us safe passage to her craggy summit. Or maybe that is all a load of crap. Maybe this time we were just a bit stronger and bit smarter than we had been in the past.
The afternoon before we made the summit push from Helen Lake, the climbing ranger came around to discuss route conditions with us. He asked if we had been up on Mt. Shasta before and we explained that we had both made two attempts but failed to summit. His reaction surprised me at first, although it shouldn’t have. He said, “Good, at least you’re smart enough to turn around when it starts to look bad.” And maybe that was it. The trip certainly had its fair share of weird weather, interesting characters, bumps, bruises, and general odditites. But at no point did it ever look bad. That much can’t be said for my first two attempts, one of which ended in a trip to the ER and another that was capped off by a 12 hour sandblasting at the hands of a nasty windstorm.
Our Mt. Shasta trip had already been delayed once by a brute of a headcold that punched Ben in the nose and took his lunch money two days before our original departure date. We rescheduled for mid-July and crossed our fingers that Avalanche Gulch would hold enough snow to keep conditions on the route just this side of a scree-bound death march. It had been 5 years since my last attempt and a couple of years since Ben’s. We had never climbed together before this trip. In fact, we had never spent much time outside together. Come to think of it, the majority of our time together had been spent in a beer-fueled daze watching OSU football games or attending Mother Hips concerts. Having met through mutual friends, we knew of each others’ love for the outdoors and spent the brief moments between Derek Anderson interceptions spraying about our various outdoor feats – his far more impressive than mine.
We rolled out of San Francisco at 5:30 on Friday afternoon, and by 7:30 we had made it all the way to Berkeley – nearly 15 miles away. The frenetic pace was almost more than our tender hearts could handle. At one point, we saw the needle on the speedometer edge past the 30 mph mark. Such is the life of bona fide weekend warriors. We made it to Vacaville before stopping for dinner and fueled up on top notch energy food – Jack in the Box Ultimate Cheeseburgers, oil soaked fries, and massive sodas. We certainly were setting ourselves up for success in every conceivable way.
Sixty-four ounces of Dr. Pepper has a way of making its presence known in one’s bladder, and just shy of Dunsmuir I decided I could wait no longer. Somewhere between the I-5 Pollard Flat exit and the parking lot of the Exxon, we must have passed through a portal into the Twilight Zone. As we pulled into the parking lot of this gas station/restaurant/general roadside oddity, we surveyed the cast of character loitering outside. They looked like they were on a field trip from the Siskiyou School of Bathtub Chemistry – all sleeveless shirts and mesh-back caps and faded tats.
I’m not easily spooked, but I was in no mood to linger at this place. I walked inside the front door and picked up a very creepy vibe. The place was empty – dark inside except for a couple of random lights and the blue cast of a TV shining from one corner. I looked around for the bathroom but didn’t see anything obvious. This is an odd analogy to be sure, but the most fitting one that I can find. Think back to the movie “Goonies” – at the beginning when the kids first go looking for the entrance to the cave and wind up inside of the Fratelli’s hide-out/restaurant – that is the kind of vibe this place had. It looked like they’d hired Ted Nugent to do the interior decorating. As I made my way to the far end of the room, a voice behind me bellowed, “Can I help you?” I told the grissled gentleman that I was looking for the bathroom. He muttered something about being closed but that I could use the bathroom in the corner by the TV. I made my way over to the bathroom and pushed the door halfway open. I could hear the faucet running. Thinking I had barged in on someone, I quickly closed the door and offered an apology. Then I realized there was nobody inside and pushed the door open further this time. A survey of the single-seater bathroom revealed a full-size, clawfoot bathtub sitting in one corner with a female mannequin propped up inside. When I wandered over to the toilet, the mannequin was staring right at me. Somebody had a pretty twisted sense of humor. I finished up my business as quickly as I could and made a bee-line back to the car.
A Moonlight Hike
After some aimless cruising around the fringes of Mt. Shasta City, we found the Everett Memorial Highway and arrived at the Bunny Flat trailhead at 12:30AM. We decided to start hiking so we could rest at Horse Camp, rather than trying to sleep through late night arrivals in the parking lot. We made it to Horse Camp in no time, but we were still dog tired from a full day of work and 7 hours of driving. The formalities of a tent seemed too complicated and we opted for a night under the stars. The 4AM rain showers made us temporarily regret that decision, but we slumbered on through and before long the sun was rising.
We took our time ambling up the scree and soft snow between Horse Camp and Helen Lake, stopping for photos and Clif bars frequently. During our hike, we passed several dejected parties that were on the return leg of a failed summit attempt. Apparently the sprinkles we felt down at 8,000 feet were a bit more imposing between 10,000 and 12,000 feet. Most people put on a smile and wished us luck on our attempt that night, but one middle-aged, alpine superstud took his 30 seconds to inform us that nobody was going to catch a break this weekend. I appreciate it when fellow climbers, hikers, etc. have some useful information to pass along regarding route conditions, weather patterns, Yeti sightings, etc. But spraying bad energy all over someone’s hopes just because your attempt came up short is pretty weak. We nodded, dropped a couple of mental F-bombs on the guy, and kept on slogging.
For the uninitiated, Helen Lake is not a lake at all. It’s a large, sloping snowfield that has a pleasant habit of developing 3-foot suncups by mid-July. Most people opt to set up camp on the windward side of the rocky bench that surrounds the southern end of the “lake”. The stakes we had for the Megamid were no good in dirt, and by setting up camp on the snowfield itself, we had a 100-foot head start on everyone else the next morning. Our afternoon was spent ingesting massive amounts of calories and boiling snow for water. We took a couple of naps and generally laid low for the rest of the day. We knew Sunday was going to be big and we didn’t want to waste any energy.
Guy – A Cautionary Tale
Early that evening, this random guy (henceforth known as “Guy”) hauled himself up to our campsite and dropped his pack right next to Ben. Guy was sweaty and haggard looking; dressed in lightweight hiking boots and a glorified track suit. He had a thick accent and went on about the hike being much harder than he expected. Guy asked us where we got our water and we explained that we had been melting snow all afternoon. When he asked us how to melt snow, a few points became clear: a) Guy was pretty weird, b) Guy was in way over his head, c) Guy was in real danger of hurting himself if he kept going the next day.
Ben started grilling Guy on his gear and how much food and water he had with him. He was reluctant to answer most questions and occupied himself by stretching out his back. Then he stood up and asked Ben if he could, “…do me a favor.” Reluctant, Ben asked what he needed. Guy hesitated and then said, “I need you to kick me in the back.” I nearly spit the Gatorade I was drinking through my nose, but Ben didn’t miss a beat – “NO, absolutely not. I will not kick you in the back!” After some further explanation and awkward hand gesturing, we came to understand that he meant punch, not kick, and was looking for an impromptu back massage – slightly less weird, but not by much. Looking to get Guy on his way sooner than later, Ben obliged and punched him in the back a few times before sitting down and pretty much ignoring him until he left.
A Bid for the Top
Sunset brought with it the surreal colors that only appear in the high mountains. We spent some time taking photos and retired for the evening soon after the sky fell dark. That night’s sleep was restful, but short. It wasn’t long before the alarm went off and we were up and dressed for game day. We left the tent just after 2AM and made our way toward the main snowfield leading to the Red Banks. Without any moonlight, we were left to find our way using headlamps and the faint outlines of the major rock formations that contrasted against the snow. We were the first pair on the route that morning and everytime we turned around there were more and more headlamps winding their way toward us. On more than one occasion, I hoped they weren’t all following us, because neither Ben nor I were 100% confident about our route selection. Our progress was slow on this most difficult section of the climb, but we made it to the Red Banks before dawn and found an end-run route to the far right of the Red Banks, taking us toward Thumb Rock. We encounted steep scree that slid with every step and further slowed our progress, but we eventually made it above the Red Banks and were treated to great views of the east side of the mountain.
Once you’ve made it past the Red Banks, the climb is very straightforward. There is still 1,500+ feet of vertical to go and the summit is not yet visible, but a well worn path leads the way. Endless switchbacks took us to the base of the aptly named Misery Hill. We rested up and grabbed a bite to eat before we resumed the slogging. Misery Hill is a false summit that tops out near 13,800 feet – it’s an annoying but necessary final step before you are treated to views of the summit. Ben was moving faster than I was at this point, but he waited for me at the base of the summit plateau, where we encountered the first snow since the Red Banks.
From the summit plateau, the summit block looked a bit intimidating. It’s only 300 feet tall, but it’s craggy and steep and doesn’t appear to hold any simple lines. As we got closer an obvious route around the left side of the block appeared. We made one final push up a set of switchbacks and scrambled to the top – 14,126 feet – the sixth highest mountain in California and the second highest mountain in the Cascade range. We took a minute to sign the summit register and snap some summit photos. As far as we can tell, we were the first pair on the summit that day – sometime around 8:15 am.
Inside the Storm
The weather had been slowly deteriorating all morning, and from the summit we got a better view of what was going on. Clouds were bearing down from the west and splitting as they approached the mountain. The wind was picking up and we had one massive cloud slowly spinning around us. It felt like we were onboard the mothership and I soon realized we were in the middle of a massive lenticular formation. It was a very strange feeling and not one that we cared to sit around and contemplate. On our way down from the summit block we passed four or five parties that had been clipping our heels the whole way. With smiles on our faces, we encouraged them along. We beat a hasty retreat down the mountain and made use of the large snowfields to do some glissading.
The weather continued to deteriorate, and we encountered some rain and some hail, which made us very glad we left camp when we did that morning. We passed all varieties of climber on our descent – young and old, fit and fat, a group of four that had enough equipment to put up a new line on Cerro Torre, and even Guy, who was suffering like a champ. We took a few minutes at Helen Lake to break down camp and fill our packs. Ben was itching to get down, so he made quick work of the snowfield down to 50/50 and on to Horse Camp. I moved as fast as I could, which wasn’t fast at all. During the hike out, I gained an appreciation for just how long the route actually is – 7,000 feet of vertical and about 7 miles each way. It might be considered a walk-up by some, but that’s nothing to sniff at.
I met Ben at the car around 2PM. We were both pretty beat, but the smiles were wide and spirits were high. More hugs, more high-fives, more photos. We drove down to Mt Shasta City and grabbed a bite to eat. The drive back was mercifully faster than our drive up and we made it home to San Francisco before dark. This had been the quintessential weekend warrior trip, and it was a success no matter how you look at it.
Google Maps Link (trailhead)
This post is part of the SierraSoul Archive. The trip took place in July, 2004 (or thereabouts).