How I got here...Being from Ohio, getting to Mt Shasta takes some work. Being a single dad, it also takes babysitting. I'd planned a trip to San Jose to visit my boys grandparents, and they agreed to watch him for a couple of days whilst I went and had some fun.
Shasta is about 5 hours from San Jose. Mind numbing drive overall, until you get past Redding and into the hills of the Shasta region. Weather permitting, you'll be presented with a couple of great views of Shasta from I-5.
I had intended to climb the West Face gully, because Avalanche Gully had a reputation of being an overpopulated circus, but I was delighted to see only 4 cars in the Bunny Flat trailhead parking lot when I got there. By the time I'd gotten to Horse Camp, I'd reasoned that Avy Gulch would be my best option; higher camp, shorter summit push, better acclimation overnight. Also, being solo, the presence of a few people would be something of a safety net... better than nothing!
Horse Camp to Helen Lake
Having never been here before, I was relying only on my topo map and whatever met my eyes to get me where I was going. Because of the weather, not much was meeting my eyes. The mountain was veiled in clouds from around 9000ft up. I stuck to what I thought was the trail and soon ended up on snow, much preferred to the lumpy, loose rock of the hike. I later realized that this was to the west of where the trail to the lake was.
Heading up this band in 50ft visibility, I heard voices. Both in English, one Australian, one with a heavy French accent, both talking about; "where are we?". I could sympathize, so I called out to them, and soon they appeared out of the mist. They had met each other on the descent from the summit; the Frenchman was looking for the parking lot, the Aussie was looking for Helen Lake, her camp, and her brother. After a short conversation, we all had realized that we weren't where we wanted to be. The man from France followed my tracks (easily distinguished by their red color from the algae I'd exposed) back down, and the Aussie, a lovely lady by the name of Nickola, joined me in my ascent and search for Helen Lake.
A quiet camp
We finally arrived at Helen Lake, and Nickola reunited with her brother at their camp. I was surprised to find that they were the only people there. As they broke camp and I built mine, the clouds began to clear. By the time they had hauled off, the clouds were passing and I was casting a shadow as I tied down my tents shell. I retired for a nap, and was awoken a few hours later by the sounds of another human.
Another soloist had arrived, a verbose man with a grey goatee and a very social demeanor. I can't remember his name, though I think he'd forgotten mine as well; he'd taken to calling me "Guy". He set camp and we talked a bit about the mountain and the route. I boiled some snow to cook up some noodles and dried potatoes, and aided him with his tent as dinner steeped. Around 6 or 7pm, my belly full, I laid down in my tent and didn't get back up until 4:30 AM for the summit push.
I ate only a Nutrigrain bar for breakfast, and packed a bunch of food to snack on during the ascent. I was using powdered Pedialyte instead of gatorade this time, and I have to say it was much better. Had great energy, and my stomach wasn't upset.
Summit push, making it harder.
I chose to go left of The Heart. The upper route was hidden by clouds at the start, and though they cleared, I reasoned that they may return and chose the simplest route to keep from getting lost. The route was steep and frozen hard, feeling like a class 2 or 3 in terms of exposure and the lack of penetration by my axe spike. To top out at the far left of Red Banks, I had to front-point around the rock, swinging the axe as an ice tool. It was a fairly smooth, fairly swift ascent, thought the intimidation of the exposure was only a head-turn away.
Misery Hill lived up to its name. I took an off-path route around the west side to take some photos of the Whitney Glacier, and rejoined the trail for my path to the summit.
Rime Ice was everywhere up here, growing on the bamboo rods that marked the trail, turning them into paddles pointing at the sky. The Saddle was windy, blowing about 40 mph, but otherwise the weather was stunning. Clear above, clouded below. At one point the clouds seemed to ring the mountain like a hula hoop.
The summit was pretty academic: Follow the bamboo rods up the switch backs, sign the summit log, snap some photos, and leave in earnest. During the whole ascent, I hadn't seen a soul. I had the mountain to myself, which has got to be rare. My photo's were a bit overexposed, but I did take a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3iz4BQEMDw&list=UUPh2JZzA11UTWjdNi0ClnxA&index=7&feature=plcp
Everything had gone better than expected. The wind was up a bit, requiring a face covering, but the sun shown bright and the way down was straightforward... but I made a mistake.
A mistake.I was unfamiliar with the route, so I descended the same way I came up. I didn't know the normal route, I didn't want to descend the wrong chute in Red Banks, I didn't want to get lost if the clouds came in. I knew the way I'd come up, so I decided to follow my own route and descend the way I'd come up, then skirt along Red Banks to the "Glissade Chute" east of the heart.
Descending the crux the same way I'd gone up, front pointing, went off without a hitch. I was concerned about the consequences of a slip-up, the steepness of the iced-over snow, and the long LONG slide down the west side of the heart. As I skirted around the rock and had the face of Red Banks filling my eyes, I relaxed a bit and switched to French style with my feet, using the spike of my axe again. It was still early, the ice hadn't softened yet, and penetration was minimal.
Right foot down, left foot up, I took a step down that seemed to grab well on the ice. I shifted weight off my left foot onto my right.
It is at this point in my trip that I stopped taking pictures. I apologize for that, but it just wasn't a priority.
Do a barrel roll!There was a crunch and scrape from my right foot as the ice around the points crumbled and the foot shifted. The left foot still had a decent grip, but the axe did not. I lost my balance, I fell back onto my butt. Unfortunately, one does not just fall on their butt on a 45+ degree slope.
It was not slow at first. The layer of ice was steep and stout and my weight did not crack a depression into it. I accelerated quickly down the steep slope, backwards at first, then feet first as I spun around into a glissade-like position. I tried braking as I would in a glissade, but it was useless; the pick didn't do anything to the ice and I didn't slow down. Why didn't I immediately arrest? For a fraction of a second, some moronic part of me thought I could glissade this slope. I'm not proud of that. All it did was turn me sideways, without sinking into snow a bit you can't control your slide. I spun to my left and I began to tumble.
I cant say how many times I rolled and flipped, I just couldn't perceive the motion. I can tell you from the hits to my head, shoulders, hips, and legs that I went end-over-end in just about every way possible. I later found that my head lamp had been smashed, and I had numerous rips in my clothing from the close calls with my axe and crampons. I remember feeling my right foot dig in at one point, and the feeling of everything in that ankle going awry in a fraction of a second. As far as what I saw, I only saw one thing: Barney, my trusted purple ice axe.
Occasionally obscured by a flailing leg or "splash" of disintegrated rime ice, my eyes were fixated on the ice axe fluttering violently at the end of my leash. Centrifugal force was pulling it away, and it seemed like every time I reeled it in I'd take a hit that knocked it out of my hands. I managed to get ahold of it solidly once, and I thrust it at the slope in an attempt to arrest... I think I was upside down at the time, because it shot downward out of my hands again.
At this time I would guess my speed at around Mach 7. I managed to stop the flipping and get stabilized on my belly, though I think I was sideways. I pulled the axe in again and finally stuck it in with some luck. I'd be lying if I said that I had confidence the entire time. I still can't believe that I was able to stop that fall, but I'm here, so it apparently happened. I don't know how long I clung to the pick after I stopped, feet dangling, right hand likely turning purple from the leash. Earlier that morning, I'd decided to tighten up my leash; it had been loose so that swapping hands was easier, but I thought it'd be safer to cinch it up as things got steeper. Glad I did, to have lost the axe would have been my end. I remember a sense of "You've stopped! Now don't you $%^&ing move from this position!"
Zoom in to see the location of the fall:
I successfully made things harderI could feel the pain throughout my right foot, ankle, and aching up to my knee, and it made me very uneasy. I'm on a class 2-3 slope covered in ice, if my right foot doesn't work, I can't leave. If broken or torn, there would be no moving from that spot: I'd be digging myself a ledge to sit on and hoping my phone would hail a rescue. Even they would have to lower me a couple thousand feet to Helen Lake to get me on a helicopter. Keeping my death grip on the axe pick, I dug my left foot in and stood on it. I attempted to dig myself a ledge to sit on, but it was too slow-going through the ice, and I ended up with a small step. Putting my left foot in the step, I took my dangling right foot and placed it on the ice, put weight on it, causing it to roll with the slope. "GAAAAAHHHHOOOWWWW!!!"
Few people will ever feel or appreciate the simple, profound joy of a functioning limb. I put the foot down and felt pain throughout the foot and ankle, some even shot up to my knee.... but it held! I let out the most pathetic laugh I'd ever heard. Sure it was the worst leg injury I'd ever had, it hurt with every movement, and I absolutely LOVED IT; it wasn't broken, it wasn't torn or dislocated, with some care it WILL get me down. That was a feeling of wincing joy; I get to leave!
That's some damn fine luck.
The show must go onI looked up to see that I managed not to crash into the massive rock outcrop 80-100ft below my crux. I was on the slope another 100'ish ft below it. Do I get to technically tell the world that I fell 200ft? Very steep, very exposed, and I had to traverse over to Red Banks to find something resembling safety with a damaged ankle on the low (load bearing) side. It was a tense trip, every step in the direction of the Red Banks being painful and full of care and uncertainty; "what if my ankle is barely hanging together? What if it lets go?" The snow at the base of the Red Banks rocks had somewhat peeled away, leaving a gap and a place to move without the immediate exposure of a significant fall down the mountain. There were some places, however, that a fall would slide me down into the deep, narrow gap between the snow and rock. It resembled a mail-slot to hell in my current condition.
I followed the base of Red Banks all the way to the traditional route. The path along the Banks required more careful downclimbing than I thought, it was not a smooth traverse and there were many drops, gaps, and steps. At the end, there was an amazing glissade "chute" that resembled a bobsled track, something that I would normally dive right into. I LIVE to glissade, and that made the most sense considering my injury. However, my recent argument with gravity left me distrustful, I didn't want to do any more sliding, so I actually began to downclimb in pain because I didn't want to slide. Fortunately, I grew my balls back after a painful 50ft and stepped into the chute to inspect it; 1-2 inches of powder accumulated in the base, that would help cap my speed. Soft snow on the walls, my axe will dig that and stop me. Reluctantly I removed the crampons and took a seat, which was a good call. 20 minutes later I was at the base of the chute, limping and tripping the last 100 yards to my tent at Helen Lake.
Not done yet. I still had to break camp and haul 60lb of crap back down to my rental car. Luckily my camp-mate was there and he helped me pack up my tent. I am ETERNALLY grateful for that; squatting and kneeling hurt like hell. Thousands of steps taken that day, every one with the greatest focus. I never bring trekking poles up a mountain, this was the first time, and that was another lucky decision. My right arm hurt from bearing the weight, but the pole helped spare my ankle quite a bit of shock on the loose switchbacks back to the car. On the way up, I was impressed by the causeway. On the way down, I utterly loathed it.
What's worse; the rental car didn't have cruise control, so even the drive back managed to hurt. Chevy; Why put Onstar in a car and not Cruise Control?
I'm writing this 2 weeks later and there is still pain. The large area swelling and pain is gone now, and I've got several small, focused bits of pain and a few hard spots that are likely scar tissue. It would appear that I did have some tearing, though not complete. I'd had the ankle solidly in a brace/cast until a couple of days ago, and I'm now beginning to use it. I'll end up seeing a professional at some point, but life is busy at the moment.
This may be a lasting injury, it may even need surgery, but I'm still very happy that I didn't need a rescue.... or a recovery and a bag.