As we drove north from Sacramento the sun had set, yet one hundred miles ahead a large mountain was faintly visible on the horizon. Two hours later we cruised through the sleepy streets of Mount Shasta City and exited town on the Everitt Memorial Highway. After a half hour we pulled into the crowded parking lot at Bunny Flat. It was warm out and we quickly parked, fetched our sleeping bags and found a flat place to sleep for the night off of the road.
The sky was lit with stars. The night was completely silent. It was a restless night, with only a thin foam pad and sleeping bag protecting us from the underlying dirt, stones and pine cones.
Dawn came quickly and after getting out of my sleeping bag I walked up to the car and got my first view of Mount Shasta’s Avalanche Gulch. The topographic maps and pictures I had studied did not prepare me for the incredible size or steepness of our proposed route, which was only visible up to the lower Red Banks at twelve thousand feet. The entire route was covered with snow except for the rocks of Casaval Ridge, Sargent’s Ridge and a moraine I presumed was Helen Lake. After readying our packs we drove back into town to meet with a group taking a basic mountaineering course from one of the mountain’s guide services.
After a pastry and a glass of orange juice we met our group and headed back up to Bunny Flat. An hour later we were hiking up the trail to Sierra Club’s Cabin located at 7,800 feet. Fifty minutes and one thousand vertical feet later we arrived at the cabin and filled up our water bottles from the spring and headed east with our ice axes for our course in the lower reaches of the Avalanche Gulch proper.
For three or four hours we worked on our footwork, self belay, self arrest, and glissading techniques. We then ate briefly and retrieved our packs at the Cabin and started on the three and a half hour slog to Helen Lake where our high camp would be located. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature had risen to the seventies.
We slowly climbed up the snowfields through the climbers gully stopping briefly to catch our breath and gulp down a few swigs of water ever forty-five minutes or so. At the top of each moraine we were sadly disappointed to find that we had not reached Helen yet. As the hours passed we slowly made progress and a little after six that evening we hiked up the steep hill immediately below Helen.
Helen was already occupied by many other climbers. We found a site for our tent and my partner expanded an already existing tent platform. The work was challenging after a full day of hiking and also due to the 10,400 feet of elevation we had attained after having been at sea level the day before. After our tent was pitched we unrolled our sleeping pads and laid out our sleeping bags and welcomed the opportunity for rest.
My partner climbed into his sleeping bag after shedding his soggy boots. The sun had dropped below the rotten yet spectacular volcanic arete of Casaval Ridge and beyond the snow covered Trinity Alps. Without the sun the temperature dropped. I pulled on fleece pants and jacket and reinforced them with my goretex shell. I fired up the stove and began to cook a dinner of Ramen noodles and the spent the next three hours melting pot after pot of snow for water for the night and for our summit bid the next morning.
Finally after 11 pm or so, I crawled into my bag and quickly feel asleep after a few minutes of listening to my labored breathing. I slept deeply and morning quickly came.
We arose shortly after 4 am, slowly dressed and our readied our equipment. The inside of the tent was coated with hoarfrost - our condensed and frozen breath. Outside the sky was dark with fading stars. The snow had frozen over the course of the night. With cracked and dried fingers I painfully laced up my double plastic boots, put my gaiters on and stepped into my crampons.
A thousand feet higher on the mountain I could see the swinging arcs of the headlamps of a line of five climbers approaching the “Heart” - a bulge immediately below the Red Banks. By the time I had my pack ready and helmet on it was already starting to get light. Around five o’clock we started trudging our way towards the summit. I listened to the reassuring crunch of my crampons bitting into the frozen snow. My breathing had become less labored over the passage of the night. On the western horizon the mass of Shasta formed a shadow as the sun rose.
About midway into our two and a half hour climb to the lower part of the red banks I suddenly heard a chorus of people yelling, “Rock! Rock!” As I turned around I saw a grapefruit sized chunk of Shasta sail down the climbers gully just below the “Heart.” Climbers timed there moves to the careening boulder’s bounces and narrowly escaped being pummeled to death. I turned back up the 35 degree slope and frontpointed my way up to the base of the lower Red Banks.
The group I was climbing with opted to save time by passing through steeper chimneys than most of the other climbers on the mountain were using. Not only did we take a more direct route but we picked a extremely narrow and steep couloir with multiple chest high benches that I would have to overcome.
My heartbeat pounded in my head as I kicked my boots and crampons into the snow and approached my first obstacle. I raised my ice axe above the upper aspect of the ledge and buried the spike and shaft to the head of the axe. I feebly brought my right leg up over the edge but could not achieve any purchase with the tines of my crampons. I panicked and lunged, somehow ending up on top of the ledge. I repeated this harrowing maneuver several more times. I then found myself at the top of the lower reaches of the Red Banks crawling across verglas coated rotten volcanic rock with the 40 degree chute I had ascended, and a two thousand foot snowfield as my runout below.
I rested briefly, looking out over the hundred miles of view I had to the south. Castle Crags was visible ten or so miles to the south. I could make out Lassen Peak to the southeast and the sun was starting to warm the day. Someone then reminded me to put on my glacier glasses. I resumed climbing up the remaining slopes of the upper Red Banks. As I passed twelve and a half thousand feet my breath became much more rapid. Every twenty or thirty steps I would stop and suck in as many deep labored breaths as possible for a minute or so, and then continue on.
As I ascended Misery Hill - a never ending hill which crests at thirteen thousand and nine hundred feet - my headache intensified. I now stopped every ten steps and rested for closer to two minutes. Finally after an hour or so I exited onto the Summit Plateau and I could see the pinnacle that marked the Summit of Mount Shasta at 14,162 feet.
The closer I neared the pinnacle, I became increasingly more nauseated due to the intense odor of sulfur emanating from the fumaroles. I then left the snow and started up a steep slope of scree and l climbed the last fifteen minutes to the rocky summit. I had no sense of elation on my arrival to the summit. I experienced only fatigue. For the next thirty minutes or so I tried to pay off the oxygen debt I had accrued during the ascent with the oxygen poor air surrounding me.
We took the requisite summit photographs, congratulated ourselves and I gulped down some gummy bears. I had already finished my two liters of water two or so hours below the summit. The gummy bears stuck to my parched mouth and esophagus.
I almost vomited as some other climbers lit a joint and the heavy odor of the marijuana blew into my face. As they celebrated their summit success one of them said, after a deep drag, “I’ve never been higher in my life.”
The descent was easy. We had shed our crampons as the snow had softened up. As we quickly descended Misery Hill clouds had began to roll in. It was only 11 am and we hoped we would be down low before any afternoon thunderstorms developed or the sun aggravated further rock fall danger. We glissaded from the upper Red Banks to just above the chimneys, electing to down climb around the luge-like chutes that had developed. Visibility became increasingly poorer, but improved as we approached the heart. We then glissaded down the remaining fifteen hundred feet to our high camp.
After quickly breaking down camp we trudged down from Helen through the snow to the Cabin. After topping off our water bottles, we the continued out to the car at Bunny Flat. Looking back, the clouds obscured the upper reaches of Mount Shasta - our first summit of a fourteener.