On May 21, 2003 I drove up to Mt. Shasta for my first mountaineering trip in over 20 years. It was a very hot drive with temperatures in Redding in the upper 90's. I hit Mt. Shasta around dinner time and found it covered in snow and found the snow level down to about 5,000 feet. This was quite low due to the recent snow storms (late winter). It was a warm night at the parking lot (approx. elevation 6,920) and a hint of things to come.
The next morning my partner (Russ) arrived and we divided up the group gear and started the long walk. Due to the high snow fall (approximately 17 feet deep) snowshoes were the call. We started around 10am and worked our way up to the Sierra Club Cabin at Horse Camp (8,000 feet). Along the way we were treated of views of the Trinity Alps and Castle Craig . The Sierra Cabin was buried and had friendly inhabitants. We made our way up to the edge of the tree line and set up camp. After hiding from the sun for a couple of hours I realized that I had forgotten my pile cap in the truck. Well it SEEMED like it was a short walk back to the car, so I set off for a quick trip down and back. It took me 45 minutes nonstop to get to the truck just to realize that the cap wasn't there! I must have left it at home. I did however have a polartec baseball cap, so I took that and started back up the trail. As I hiked and hiked (in snowshoes) I realized that this wasn't such a great idea. By the time I got back to camp, I was beat. Russ had finished melting snow, filling up water bottles, and eating dinner. I sat down, ate and then hung out.
We hit the sack around dark (9pm) and found it quite warm. We left the door open to the tent and I pulled my -5 degree bag over me as a blanket. We figured it never got much below 40 degrees at night. A 20 degree bag would have been more in line. After a easy breakfast we shouldered our packs and started up to Helen Lake (10,400 feet). It was an uphill walk to Helen Lake and we arrived around noon. The snow was quite soft most of the time and without snowshoes we would have sunk up to our knees. Around lunch time we made it up to Helen Lake with great view around us. Despite the hot sun (and us being hammered by the sun) we dug out a space for our tent around the other visitors to the area (about 4 other tents) and the US Forrest Service camp . We were able to see our route up Avalanche Gulch and the Red Banks. While in camp we had great views peaks off in the distance including Lassen Peak and Casaval Ridge. The sun was quite hot but due to the sunburn we already had received we decided to hide in the tent till the evening. Our temperature gauges read temps between 94 and 100 degrees. Around dinner time we came out of the tent, met our fellow townsmen, and started the long pr4ocess of melting snow.
After speaking with the others in camp, we decided that we would be lucky to find consolidated snow, especially in the afternoon. It was believed the freeze zone was over 13,000 feet. With this knowledge we decided to push up our departure time to midnight instead of the planned 3am start time. This was in hopes of spending more time on solid snow and having more time to travel incase the snow caused us to slow our pace. We hit the hay around 9pm and it once again it was quite warm (although cooler than the night before). The 12am wake up call came early. It seemed a bit warm still and I went with a light layer (medium weight patagonia capiliene, North Face micro fleece top, and Gore-Tex pants) and decided to leave my down parka in the tent. We also decided to go with our snow shoes (both for lower and just in case we needed them higher up on the peak). We started our long walk out of camp.
We walked for over an hour using the snow shoes up low angled (20 degrees?) slopes. We also saw another pair of headlamps leave camp. Eventually the snow was getting steeper and with a moonless night, the headlamp wasn't lighting up our path that well which made me nervous about slipping on the slope. I managed to take off the snowshoes, strap them on the pack and put on my crampons (first time other than in my room) while standing on the snow slope. Russ decided to keep his showshoes (smaller, more climbing orientated) on. We continued our climb up the face while the pair of headlights caught up with us. I watched the coed team make good progress on crampons and tried to follow their path. I must have been heavier than they were since I broke through about every 4th step. This made for slow going and eventually they became a speck of light in the distance. I continued to climb, but slowly started pulling away from Russ. He had doubts when he went to bed if he was going to make the climb due to a bad headache.
Russ stopped to take off his snowshoes (about 1/2 way) and I also stopped while he completed his task. Eventually he finished and I asked if he was okay. He said yes, so I started the long slow climb, this time not breaking through as much as I found prior footsteps and used them. I slowly but consistently pulled away from him (later I found out that his additional 50 pounds caused him to break through much more than I did) and continued the long climb up the hill. I saw another group catch Russ and from the parts of their conversation that I could hear, I believed that he was considering turning back. With this information I decided to push on without him. I continued up the slope till I eventually saw Thumb Rock a short ways away. Unfortunately this last distance was the slowest. I started breaking through the snow once again. Eventually I reached Thumb Rock (approximately 12,800 feet).
What a difference in temperature! The wind was blowing and it was quite cold. I immediately started to put on warm clothes. I removed my Gore-Tex pants and tried to put my fleece pants on, but the full side zips and the cold caused me difficulties. Eventually I was able to get on my pants, heavy pile sweater, Gore-Tex jacket, and heavy gloves. I was still very tired. I placed my pack on the ground, sat down on it, and huddled against one of the rocks. It was still dark, but sunrise was coming soon . I had a great view looking down onto the Konwakiton Glacier. I had doubts about continuing. I was dehydrated (difficult getting water out of the pack during the climb, should have brought the camelback), hungry (nothing I brought sounded remotely tasty), and tired. After warming up a little, I watched the sun come up . I looked at the saddle above Red Banks and felt it was dumb to give up so early. I got back up and started the long slow walk up to the base of Misery Hill (13,290 feet). Misery Hill is located between the Konwakiton Glacier and the Whitney Glacier (located on the northwest side, and the largest glacier in California). The wind was blowing and despite the clothing I had on, I was cold again. I sat down to rest and to try to eat. Once again I discovered it near impossible to eat (despite now walking/climbing for over 6 hours). After trying to regain my energy, I realized that I didn't have the strength to continue. I needed my parka (sitting inside the tent), and some form of food that I could swallow (which I didn't have). So despite being about 1/2 mile and 900 feet of elevation from the summit I turned around.
I retraced my steps back to the saddle at Thumb Rock. Here I found Russ. Russ had pushed on and made it up to the saddle. We hung out and I ate a few of his Pringles (good summit food) while we discussed plans. My drive to get to the summit wasn't there, although with the sun rising things were warming up, and he didn't care either way (not feeling well and had been on the summit several times before). We decided to call it a climb and descend. We decided to rest up, enjoy the view , and wait for the snow to soften up before beginning the LONG descent. We plunge-steeped with crampons for the first half of the descent. From there we felt secure enough to try a glissade. Unfortunately with the snow covered with footsteps from the last couple of days it was a slow bumpy ride.
We made it back to camp around 9am. It was now Saturday, May 24th, and the official beginning of Memorial Day weekend. People were already starting to arrive and make camp. We rested, broke down camp, ate, and then shouldered the monster packs and started the long hike down. The snow had developed into a mashed potato consistency which made things dicey on my Atlas snowshoes. I had to removed the snowshoes and walk (sinking up to my knees or thighs) down the slope directly below Helen Lake. There was already a VERY long line of people that extended from just below Helen Lake all the way down to the trailhead. Our entire hike out, the line of people never ended. Our best guess was well over 100 people would be spending the night at Helen Lake. We continued the long walk down. The snow softened so much that I ended up partly skiing and partly walking on the steeper slopes. Once again I had to remove my snowshoes. I found it faster walking in the pathway established by the long line of climbers than slipping and sliding on the snowshoes. I continued to hike down to the tree line. Once at the tree line I put the snowshoes back on and continued the downhill trek to the parking lot arrived around 1:30pm.
The parking lot was completely full with people parking along both sides of the road for almost a half mile down the road. For those people heading up for their climb, I think they had long days of hot snow ahead of them.
I came away with some new knowledge. BRING your warm clothes up from high camp even if you didn't think you would need them. And I need to find new snacks for meals above 12,000 feet.