Makin’ the Mountain Our Own: Mt. Shasta

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 5-28-09

Schrick… chock… pause…
Schrick… chock… pause…
Schrick… chock… pause…
Schrick… chock… pause…

Len’s and my steps sounded in perfect unison as we leaned into the southern slope of Casaval Ridge. He was teaching me the finer points of rest-stepping as we trudged up the snow under heavy packs. “Stop running, Laura. Lock out your bottom leg. Rest as you’re going uphill.” Looking back at the train behind me, four strong, handsome men following in my steps, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Keep driving. Keep moving. Keep pushing.” Len reminded me to pull over when I got tired, let him and the others break some trail. OK…

Mike and I left B-town around 0400 Friday morning, catching the first glow of day reflecting off Mono Lake , the crescent silver moon hanging in the southeastern sky. The other three guys were from San Diego, and were hitting the I5 for the long haul up to Shasta. I had mentioned a run up Lassen to Mike when he said he wanted to cruise the east-side, so he kept pouring coffee into my mug as the TOF rumbled north through the obscurity of Gardnerville, Susanville, and Chester. But instead of the dry hills of the desert, we were surrounded by verdant meadows , dense forest , happy cows , and strategically placed telephone lines (as in right in the middle of the photographs). There was no fighting traffic here: just good company, chatter, and laughter as we gawked at the landscape, Mike’s GPS running a tally of miles and ETA times. Finally, Lake Almanor filled the screen, and we got our first clear view of Lassen , towering above the emerald lakeshore with bright white snow. Whoever was in the passenger seat at the time was in charge of photos, so Mike leaned out whenever I swooped to the shoulder.

We parked at the end of the road just after 1100, after hitting a few of the touron spots and me buying my Adventure Pass at the gate. The sun glare off the snow spiked the temps, and we appeared quite the odd couple with me in shorts and t-shirt and Mike in pants, long sleeves, and tall gaiters. With the snow on the peak, there is no route finding involved: hit the ridge and go up . I preferred the direct approach, kick-stepping into the softening snow for 50-100 steps before catching my breath. Mike floated along to my right, cutting back and forth up the face and pausing to get pictures of the vast views beneath us. After a brief tree-wrestling match , we were on the ridge , alternating between the soggy trail and the remaining snow. Just after 1330, we were on the summit , gasping at the landscape falling away, marvelling at the hovering ghost of Shasta to the NW. Mike rolled his eyes, as he often does, when I whipped out the cell phone to update friends and family. This is definitely one moose who is never getting lost…

The descent was a series of boot and butt glissades down a sloppy snow face, but it saved time and postholing, and my shorts dried quickly. We laughed outright at each other’s balancing acts and attempts to ski, returning to the TOF in 45 minutes. More touron activity at the Visitor Center, which was an advantageous stop, since I had left my SPOT on top of the TOF in the parking lot and it gave some very kind people a chance to catch us and return it! A few hours later, we pulled into the Bunny Flat trailhead area, caught up with Len, Bill, and Arthur, and made camp for the night, the slopes of Shasta looming above, clouds dancing around the summit in the fading light.

Len knocked on the window of the TOF around 0500, letting me know that water was on and it was time for coffee. Our fearsome fivesome hit the trail around 0700, following the train -I mean boot-track through the trees and up the gulley. All at once, the curtain of forest parted to reveal the grandeur of this mountain, the morning sunshine fading out the upper reaches, the spires of Casaval Ridge in dark contrast to the snow. Campsites had been debated the night before, with Hidden Valley being the usual and customary stop. But we had all day, the weather looked great, and the snow agreeable, so we decided on the ridge, and would keep trudging until we found a spot to set platforms for the night. Not many others were on the trail that morning, although once on the slopes of the ridge we could look down and see the ants beginning to march up to Helen Lake and the base of the Avy Gulch route. The chossy, friable rock reached heavenward above us as we crested the ridge before noon, each of us spreading out on the boulders to nap and wait for the sun to reach the north side and soften the snow in the boot track enough to allow our crampons to remain in our packs. Just up the ridge, Len had spotted a ” flat ” spot beneath a spire, thinking it would take us another 30 minutes to reach it, and we were in no hurry. It took us 10.

We dropped packs and then started the fun game of “How bored can you get while sitting on a ridge waiting for the sun to go down…” Arthur held our attention the longest, as he constructed a snow condominium , complete with kitchen and storage units. Mike built a bathroom for the guys (I wandered up and around the ridge somewhere). clouds formed on the northern horizon, darkening and rising in the heat of the afternoon, and the first rumbles of thunder perked all of our heads and ears in that direction. The wind shifted, our view now obscured by the fog both above and below, but flashes and rolling growls kept well off of our perch. In moments, we were pelted by grauppel , Len and Mike diving into bivy sacks, Arthur, Bill, and myself riding out the deluge and laughing at each smack of a pellet, cameras at the ready. It was over as soon as it had started, the clouds peeling back, the sun glistening through a curtain of rain far below to the north. Time for dinner.

cooked : on the menu, Moose’s Meat Sticks . Thinly sliced tenderloin slathered with sundried tomato pesto, feta cheese, and honey, rolled and wrapped in, well, bacon. Pan fried at 10.7K, and served with loaded mashed potatoes. Watch the strings tying it all together. Use your hands. Who loves ya, baby?

We settled in for the night, but I awoke just as the last rays of the sun crept beneath the horizon. We were alone on the ridge in the quiet of evening, a light breeze breathing calm across the snow and rock.

I was up by 0430, rousting the men as I readied pack and flashed headlamp across the platforms. Clouds already dotted the early morning sky as we climbed out of camp and up the ridge, Len and Bill leading the way. We picked our way across the rock, passing another campsite above 11K, and then reached the steep snow slope of 45-50 degrees. Again, we each picked our own path, the firm snow biting crampons and holding each step as we ascended. We met the boot track high on the face , and topped out into the sunshine and cold breezes, now able to look down onto Avy Gulch and the hordes of ants clambering up from Helen Lake. Seeing the masses below, it made me stop and appreciate just how huge this mountain was. We had gazed down to Hidden Valley the night before, too many tents to count between the snow and the rock, people wandering every which way. Now the same in Avy Gulch, the procession dotted by resting groups, the tent camp looking as if one guy farted at one end, the other end knew it. But we heard nothing but our own breathing and laughter, felt only the chop and grab of our own steps as we continued up the ridge. We regrouped at the Catwalk , a notorious overhang later in the summer, but now filled with snow that allowed easy passage and minimal ducking . In turn, we popped out to the saddle and crossed to the main route, joining the masses.

From this point, the route is a simple snow walk , crossing above the great Whitney Glacier and bracing for Misery Hill . Mike’s afterburners kicked in (he is, after all, a MACHINE), but even he got tangled into the traffic. I don’t know why the over-abundance of shiny new gear surprised me: rented helmets, gaiters still creased, boot soles unworn, crampons sparkling, people dripping sweat from too many layers, elbow-high gloves in the heat of the day. We had climbed into Whitney north. I was trying my best to not be judgmental, but I felt as if I was in line for Half Dome, people resting in the middle of the trail, oblivious to all others around them, stopping forward progress. I guess that because we were in the north now, the etiquette for passing on the trail reverses as well: I was knocked more than once by those careening DOWN as I trudged UP. Hmmm… Annoyances aside, I pressed on, scouring the snow for Mike’s bright blue jacket and green pack ahead, Len’s ridiculous green turtleneck just behind me. We rested and waited for the others just below the summit blocks when I heard someone calling from above: I looked up to see my friend Charles on the summit waiting for me. (Oh, did I forget to mention I knew a few people climbing in other groups this weekend??)

Len and I continued up while Mike waited for Bill and Arthur to arrive and we followed the rangers, already placing flags along the path. “Stop running!” Len called out with a smile, but this time I was too excited, and I dashed up to greet Charles on high. “You carried that hat all the way up here?” asked random guy. Oh yeah, the Call of the Moose rang loud and clear from the snowy blocks over the crowds below. Number 10 was in the books , and the bubbly (couldn’t find champagne, so raspberry lambic made a more than appropriate fill-in) was popped open. (More amused and befuddled looks from the crowd. Wait, she brought THAT up here???). Shortly thereafter, Len and I were joined by the rest of Team Hypoxia , pictures snapped, and we got the hell out of dodge to get away from all the people.

We descended the west face gulley, where the snow had not yet softened enough for a comfortable glissade (DARN!!), but the sun suddenly burned through the clouds, spiking both the air temperature and the radiant heat from the snow. Around 11.7K we finally cut across, Mike leadingout once again across the bowl to the ridge and down to camp. He always makes it looks so damn easy, swinging his axe casually and stepping lithely, but all at once sinking to his knee. I instantly knew this was most definitely NOT going to be easy for the rest of us: welcome to posthole city. Mike pulled further and further ahead , as I tried in vain to keep up, every third step breaking through to my knee or thigh. The heat rose stronger, and my frustration grew, until I heard Len say behind me, “Arthur is having as much fun as you, you know.” and I looked back to see the other two on the face, hands above head on poles as they climbed out of holes. But above, fog swirled off the rocks, breathing into nooks and smoking off the fingertips of the spires. We were once again alone on the ridge.

Back in camp, I took a few minutes after packing to watch the air breathe around me, the clouds roiling, billowing, and evaporating in the shifting currents. It was a beautiful dance, mesmerizing and gentle in the face of avalanche debris, sweat, towering rock, and work. I wished everyone could see this, pick their heads up from the ground immediately in front of them and breathe in synch with the heights. I hoped a few of them would. I am not so arrogant in looking at all the new gear and self-centeredness I saw that day to not know that a few would indeed take a moment to truly see where they were, and just how special that was, how few people ever even get the chance to try. The glissade down from the ridge was a few moments of unadulterated joy for me, as I whooped and flew down the slope. “I thought it would be too soft for that,” Len smiled. The five of us strode out to the waiting trucks, each in turn looking back and absorbing yet another fine adventure.

Pics from Lassen are here .
Pics from Shasta are here .

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.



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