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Later this year I will be visiting Mount Kailash in the Himalayas and will spend 3 days trekking up the mountain. The entire trek will be at elevation above 14,000 feet, so it was suggested to me that I should climb Mount Shasta. The local mountain stands at 14,179 feet and the training and experience would acclimatize me to higher altitudes. After doing some research, I discovered that climbing Mt. Shasta is more mountaineering than trekking and promptly gave up on the idea. I am a hiker and runner, but not a climber.
Moreover, I am not a fan of snow sports.
But for some reason, Mt. Shasta would not let me forget her. I kept meeting people who wanted to climb the mountain, or felt in some other way spiritually connected and drawn to her. After one such meeting, I decided to go for it. I was very glad to discover that there are guided climbs available and signed up with one of the companies.
I drove up one Thursday to the town of Mount Shasta and the next day joined our two guides and seven other climbers in the party at the Fifth Season Mountain Shop to rent all the mountaineering gear: ice axe, crampons, mountaineering boots, and helmet, all of which were new to me. We also had a complete checklist of items needed for the three day expedition. I was alarmed after packing my backpack; it was so heavy that I needed help in lifting it and hoisting it onto my back.
We drove to the Bunny Flat trailhead at 6,950 feet and headed off towards Horse Camp at 8,000 feet. Each step was an adventure. I did not know if my feet would sink into soft mushy melting snow or strike a hard, slippery, icy surface. I began to observe how distracted my mind usually was, because each time my focus wavered, I went scrambling. Slowly I began to let go of my thoughts and just focus on my steps. Within a couple of hours we reached Horse Camp and pitched our tents in the snow. The day was still warm, but I was apprehensive about the night. The guides taught us some climbing skills including techniques to use the ice axe to help arrest a fall. We retired to bed after a delicious dinner of soup and burritos, when it was still light.
Two hours in and my worst fears began to materialize. I squirmed and changed position hoping to ease the pressure of my full bladder. I had many fears —it would be bitingly cold outside, my socks might get wet, I’d wake everyone up, I might fall on the hard, slippery ice. I was now beginning to shiver with discomfort and apprehension. Two more uncomfortable hours later, there was no choice but to face my fears. I shakily stepped out bracing myself to be slapped by a rude cold wind. Instead, the night was pleasant and welcoming, the sky was brilliant with sparkling stars, and the snow added a surreal glow to everything. The relief was instant, but the rewards far exceeded that.
We packed up by 9 a.m. the next day and began a steady climb towards Lake Helen. We had to climb 2,000 feet in two miles with a backpack that seemed to be gaining weight. We kicked our feet into the snow with each step up to carve out a bootpack staircase. As we were crossing Avalanche Gulch, the guides pointed out signs of recent avalanches. We were now above the tree line and there was nothing but a steady slope of snow stretched out ahead. We took breaks every hour and made it up to base camp at 10,000 feet, slightly below Helen Lake.
Some among us were already feeling the effects of the altitude—headaches and loss of appetite. One in our party decided to stay back and abandon the summit attempt. I felt like our tent was floating on a frothy wave. It looked precarious on the snowy slope with no protection from the wicked winds that could whip us at night. The guides went through the routine and taught us more techniques like rope travel and glissading (sliding down the slope sitting down.) We had dinner of hot pasta and prepared for the early morning Summit climb.
We stripped down the backpack to the bare essentials of warm jacket, food and water and readied all the equipment like helmet with head lamps, harness for the rope traverse, thin inner layer, warm mid layer and outer waterproof layers of clothing, gloves etc., and hit the sleeping bag before 8 p.m. I had to wake up again for my quiet moment of mountain relief, but managed to catch a few hours of sleep.
We were woken up at 1:30 a.m. by the guides asking us to begin preparing for the ascent. It was 3:20 a.m.before we had all eaten, dressed, geared up and ready to make our way up in the dark. I was on the rope team with one of the guides and two other climbers. It was a pleasant morning and I felt cheerful and full of high spirits as we made our way up towards Helen Lake and from there onto Red Banks. Red Banks is a band of red rocks at the top of the steepest part of the climb. We gain over 2,000 feet in about a mile taking us up to 12,600 feet. The beginning of the climb felt easy due to the firm bootpack created by climbers ahead of us. I looked up to see a starry staircase created by the headlamps of climbers ahead of us rising up to meet the billions of stars illuminating the night sky.
About an hour into the climb, we stopped on the steep slopes and attached crampons to our boots. The sharp teeth of the crampons held onto the now icy surface with a firm bite. It was a slow steady climb—one foot up, next foot up, ice axe up, power breath to force air into the lungs and so on.
About half way up, dawn broke and there was lightness in the air. Everything was illuminated with a pinkish glow. Unfortunately I could also now see the top of the Red Banks which seemed impossibly far, but it also seemed like we had come a long way up. The thing with Mt. Shasta is that there is nothing obstructing your view up or down for thousands of feet, which can be intimidating.
After reaching the Red Banks I was disheartened to realize we had more steep climbs ahead of us. The sun was now out, the layers were making me feel hot and stuffy, the light was blinding even with the sunglasses, and the snow reflected UV radiation in all directions. I was beginning to worry that my slow pace might jeopardize the summit for others on my rope team. But thoughts, good and bad, need to be squelched in a hurry in such an environment. Each step and each breath demand complete attention.
Up Short Hill and up Misery Hill we went till finally we reached the Summit Plateau. Ahead was the Summit Pinnacle glowing like a red ruby rising up from the glistening, moving sea of snow and ice. The smoke rising from the sulfur springs reminded me that the mountain is very much alive.
With each belabored and conscious step, I connected with the spirit of the mountain. The guide pointed at the final red rock scramble and said that there were 30 to 40 more steps to the summit. I had tears of gratitude in my eyes for the mountain and the guide
and everyone who had helped me get this far. The views were clear and spectacular in every direction. The conditions could not have been more perfect. I had more tears when I realized how much the forces of nature must have colluded to make it so perfect.
By the time we were heading down, the snow was softening. We took off our crampons at the top of the Red Banks as it is safer to walk without them on softer snow. The plan was to glissade down from the Red Banks. It is unsafe to stay on that stretch in the afternoon as the risk of rock fall increases significantly. Everyone else had gone ahead and I was the last one to go.
Since I am not a skier, the prospect of long steep icy downhill rides on my behind was fairly intimidating to me, while it is great fun for those experienced in the sport. I gingerly put my feet on either side of the glissade chute (formed by those who had glissaded earlier), sat down, prepared my ice axe as a break and took off down towards Helen Lake over 2,000 feet below. Within seconds I felt I was accelerating too rapidly and used the ice axe to self arrest and stop. This was very unnerving and I was shaken. There was no way out now, so I got back into the chute and started off again. Again, I felt very out of control as the speed was too much. As I was on my belly sliding down rapidly trying to use the ice axe to help me stop, I got bumped in my knee and was thrown around. I lost the axe, was now on my back, head pointing down, sliding at top speed down 2,000 feet of icy slope, completely helpless. In sheer terror, I called for help.
The next thing I knew, I had bumped into the guide. She was rock solid, calm, gentle, and in that moment—God. When I got bumped I could have been thrown in any direction, but the mountain that had made me visit her, made sure I was safe. After this harrowing experience, the guide managed to retrieve my ice axe, rope me to her, and helped me get back to base camp safely.
My knee was pretty inflamed, if not broken. God showed up again and this time in the form of my tent mate, who happened to be an ER doctor. I was quickly examined and given a strong anti-inflammatory drug. I had to still make it down four miles with my 35 lb backpack. With each step, slip, and slide towards the car I felt a peace and strength within. For the first time, without any doubt I knew I was not alone—ever. There was a larger purpose to everything. There was something in the spirit of Mount Shasta that I needed to take with me to Mount Kailash. I had a part to play yet.
Guided Climbs to Mt. Shasta: http://www.climbingmtshasta.org/guide-services.htm.
Fifth Season Gear Rentals: http://www.thefifthseason.com
Samanvitha Rao is a Technical Marketing Engineer based in San Jose. She is an avid adventure enthusiast.
This article first appeared in the July 2009 issue of the magazine.