Mount Shasta , California
June 7th, 8th, and 9th, 2002
Introduction to Mountaineering
Having little experience climbing in the mountains above tree line, I decided to take a class called Intro to Mountaineering through Sierra Wilderness Seminars. The brochure said it was for beginners and those who really wanted to enjoy there time on the mountain. I assumed this meant it wasn't going to be a rush to the summit and back, but rather an enjoyable more easygoing adventure. Sounded perfect! I consider my self to have quite a bit of hiking experience and pretty good knowledge of backcountry skills. I have done a few multi night trips on the Appalachian Trail (Tennessee/North Carolina section) and numerous local hikes in Southern and Northern Michigan. In addition, I spent three years in the military in the airborne infantry and three years in Corps level long-range recon. Needless to say, I have spent a pretty good amount of time in the bush. Despite this, I have never really set out to climb up to a single peak.
To prepare for the climb on Shasta I started hiking regularly two months before the trip, about two times a week. I started off with a relatively short distance and light pack, 6 miles and 30 pounds working my way up to three hikes per week, each a distance of 10-12 miles with 45-50 pounds in my pack. The terrain was a mix of developed trail and off trail traveling. For the most part is was flat or rolling, but definitely not much uphill (I would pay for this). In addition, I followed a regular weight-training program. Nothing crazy here, just hitting ALL the basic muscle groups with three sets of 10-14 reps per set. I also trained my cardio on a Norditrack. I would "ski" on the machine for 30-40 minutes three times a week. Using a heart rate monitor it was very easy to measure my output, I always used the first 5 minutes to warm up and then would work hard enough to get my HR between 165 and 175, holding it there for about 30-35 minutes.
I had a few things I had to buy also. A pair of new glacier glasses and a few other things the guiding company required. Trekking poles are a GREAT help when going up hill! If you don't have a pair yet, try them out - they make a difference. The guiding company said they would provide group gear, this included: ice axe, climbing helmet, rope, tents (Mountain Hardwear Tango 2), stoves (MSR Whisper Lite), and harness. Some of the more expensive equipment can be rented at The Fifth Season in Mt Shasta city. They have everything climbing related for sale and tons of stuff for rent also (boots, crampons, packs, sleeping bags, etc.).
If you would like a complete list of the required equipment, as provided by the guiding company, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll email you a copy.
Food and Water:
All clients were informed to carry 3, 1 liter, bottles OR 1 bladder system and 1, 1 liter bottle. No small mouth types, use the ones with the large top openings so it will be easy to pour water in them while in the field.
The guiding company also provided breakfast and dinner; each client was responsible for their own lunches.
Friday June 7th
The day started off by meeting at the SWS office in Shasta City at 8:00am. After meeting the two guides everyone was told to unpack and prepare for a gear inspection. The guides then pick through each pile of gear and suggest eliminating unnecessary gear. They also start to distribute the team gear.
In our group we had two females clients and five male clients, plus the two guides Heather and Randy. The guides distributed equipment for one two-man tent, one three-man tent, and two bottomless tents (not sure what these were called). They also distributed fuel, stove components, and food packages for the dinners they were providing. For the provided breakfasts, each person goes into the SWS office and selects what they like from a table containing granola, Cliff bars, Gu, oatmeal, etc. After adding all the essentials my pack probably weighed in around 50 pounds.
Once everything was packed, we all car pooled to Bunny Flat trail head, about a 15 minute drive. At the trailhead, the guides pick up the climbing permits (only necessary if climbing higher than 10,00 feet) and distributed them. There is a certain electricity in the air at Bunny Flat as climbers scurry about, purchasing their permits, using the toilettes, and packing there gear.
The first movement, the hot approach, is through a forested area and makes it's way up to Horse Camp where the Sierra Hut is located. The trail is well developed and we see many other people on the way. At Horse Camp there are numerous picnic tables, a clean spring fed water supply (requires no filtering, boiling, etc.), and pit toilettes. There are people scattered all about, lounging on the tables, filling water bottles, and doing what ever. Our group moves through this area and up hill about 150-200 yards where we pick a site to set up our first camp. The guides select a great spot nestled in some pines and explain site selection discussing avalanch and rock fall hazards and some other things to consider. The area is totally snow covered and from hear on I don't suspect we'll see any more dirt trails. In this general vicinity there are numerous other camps being set up by other climbers and bright colored tents dot the dense forest. A few of us quietly grumble about the lack of altitude gain and are a little disappointed that we have done such a short movement on the first day. Oh well, the guides have been doing this for years and they know what there doing. Right?
After setting up camp and eating lunch we grab our ice axes and helmets and head up hill for about 20 minutes. At the base of a small snow covered hill we start snow school. The first thing covered is the ice axe - proper terminology of its features and how to carry it. Next, we are off walking up the hill, using the proper ice axe carrying techniques and learning how to step in snow with our mountaineering boots. Next, we learn the basics of self-belay and self-arrest. We start in easier positions and then progress to more difficult positions. Each time we slide down the hill we have to climb back up it and the guides have us use different stepping techniques.
We did this for a couple of hours before headed back to camp for dinner. Dinner time was an excellent experience: good chow and good people and the guides cooked it (so much for be a self sufficient mountain man!).
Saturday June 8th
Didn't get much sleep this first night, maybe a few hours. We woke up around 7:00am and had finished packing and refilling water bottles by 10:00am. Like I said, no rush here. It was exciting to get moving and in a short time we were above the timber line.
The next sequence of events could have been taken from a movie script. As we worked our way up the Avalanche Gulch route, paralleling the glissade trenches, we would pass people coming down the mountain. A couple of the more notable quotes we heard from these people were, "You're crazy for heading up there man!" and "The winds are so strong that I just ruined my $400 tent man!" Hope you saved the receipt bud! We also heard of a man who was blown off the mountain while he was inside his tent at Helen Lake. He was able to get himself off the mountain but also earned himself 16 stitches in his head. All these comments just motivated me, I was eager to get up to our high camp and see for myself how the weather was.
Making our way up the route, it was evident that bad weather was brewing. Clouds started to blow pass the flanks of the summit and the higher we went the more the wind picked up. We had left the Sierra Hut at 10:00am and at noon we were busting out our tents at 50/50 Flat. This is another location where climbers commonly stop to set up there high camp, although most go to Helen Lake. Again, a few of us quietly grumbled about the lack of vertical progress for the day. But what the heck, these guides had it all figured out, right?
After setting up camp we found another nearby "hill" for day two of snow school. Again, more self arrest and walking techniques were covered. Additionally, we roped up and practiced walking while roped up and how to arrest if one of the roped up members falls. During our training the wind picked up and it started snowing. The wind was whipping by fast enough that to communicate you had to yell and be relatively close to who ever you were yelling at. I would guess the winds were somewhere around 40mph. They were strong enough that the snow was going by horizontally. By late afternoon clouds had completely covered the mountain above 10,000 feet.
With the weather getting worse, most people retreated to their respective tents to relax and be out of the weather. I didn't fly all the way from Michigan to sit in a tent though. Instead, I found a large rock and cuddled close to it on the downwind side. There were some truly incredible views from up here and it was nice to enjoy a little bit of solitude on the mountain. Some time in the late afternoon we saw an individual skiing down to us from Helen Lake. He cut turns pretty slowly and looked rather clumsy skiing down using more of a snowplow than any other technique. Eventually he rolled into our camp and we discovered it was Ranger George. He stayed a few minutes to discuss the weather and give us some practical information. He mentioned that there were only two or three tents up at Helen Lake. Nearby our location at 50/50 there were only a few other tents, meaning that on this side of the mountain there were only a handful of people at this elevation. George also confirmed what we had heard about a climber who, the day prior, had been blown off the mountain in his tent at Helen Lake. Witnesses stated that he was literally lifted 100 yards into the air and then smashed down on a bunch of rocks. After talking for a while George checked our climbing permits and then continued on. He was one very cool old Ranger.
We were informed that our summit bid would start at 1:30 am on Sunday. If we were not woken up then there would be no summit attempt.
Sunday June 9th
The wind was vicious all night long, getting worse as the night progressed. Sleeping was impossible without the earplugs I had brought along. Through the night whore frost had covered the inside of the tent completely and when the wind snapped the tent surfaces the whore frost was knocked down. No matter how tightly I cinched down my mummy bag's opening, whore frost always managed to fall into the bag and on to my face. Getting up to go to the bath room was a real pain in the arse, so much fun it was that I did it two times through out the night. 1:30 came and went with no knock on the tent door, there would be no summit attempt.
Some time in the morning the guides came by and informed us that they would distribute hot brew and then we would bust camp down and head start heading off the mountain. Outside our tent, the vestibule had completely filled with snow and we had to un-burry our packs. The winds had really picked up and I had to walk leaning into the wind. It was easy to get knocked off balance when an unexpected gust came through. My tent partner and I packed up our gear and sat in our tent, out of the wind, waiting for everyone else to be ready to take down camp. In this brief time of sitting and not moving or anything my toes did a serious cold weather dive. My toes have always gotten cold on me relatively quick and it was no surprise to me when I couldn't really feel by big toe any longer. Off the boots came and I started to massage them back to life. I breathed on them and rubbed them for about 5-10 minutes. While doing this I stuck my socks under my t-shirt to warm them up. I also took our warm canteen (from the hot brew) and rolled it across my feet - this felt awesome! Soon my toes were toasty and ready to go back into my frozen liners.
The winds were strong enough that I witnessed a full pack start to slide across the hard snow surface before being grabbed by its owner. Breaking down a tent required five or six people or else the wind could rip the tent right out of our hands. One of the guides suggested that the wind was around 60 mph and my temperature gauge was reading 15-20 degrees F, this made the wind chill around -15 - -20 degrees. Knowing that when the wind chill is -19 or below, frost bite can occur in l5 minutes or less, this is relatively serious. However, as long as all exposed flesh is covered well you can do just fine. I was really missing not bringing my ski goggles, as the winds were pushing snow and ice crystals every where, even behind my glacier glasses.
Once everything was packed up, started our descent. The Gulch was covered in about 6-10 inches of fresh blowen snow and we began plunge stepping down. The wind made things a little tricky and some time within the first ½ hour or so I slipped on a slick surface, fell on my belly/chest and began to slide. I quickly self arrested within just a few feet (sorry - no harrowing story of a 1000 foot fall here!) and was quite proud of my slef for reacting in a semi instinctive manner. I guess a couple of days of training got through my thick skull after all. Once we descended a short while we were out of the main thrust of the storm. We retreated off the mountain via Climbers Gully. On the way down we saw numerous pieces of mountaineering equipment being tossed about by the storm. We witnessed a sleeping pad flying in the storm like a kite and saw numerous water bottles slide down the gulch.
Toward the lower elevations of Climbers Gully we came across a sole climber. He had lost his car keys and a small plastic bag filled with goodies the day prior when he had hiked up here. Unbelievably, he was now looking for them! Even after a night of storming weather he had found the small plastic bag! Good luck finding your keys pal!