A Rookie's First Climb: What I Learned Summiting Shasta

A Rookie's First Climb: What I Learned Summiting Shasta

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 41.33000°N / 122.3°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Jun 17, 2010
Activities Activities: Mountaineering
Seasons Season: Summer

Getting Ready

Crew at Bunny FlatsCrew at Bunny Flats
I came to be here by accident. My husband signed up for a high adventure youth group with my stepson and asked me to go to the first meeting for him. Little did I know that he had signed me up too. Not that I don't love the outdoors; I had backpacked every summer as a kid, but this was a whole new ball game. The Venture Crew is a coed group, and I would have to do the climb if any girls were signed up. I like an adventure as much as the next person, or maybe more after being a stay-at-home mom for the last several years, but this was pretty extreme even for me.

I started trail running and hiking with milk jugs filled with water in my pack, which did wonders for my cardio (my heart rate is now 55), and did a lot of squats. But in all honesty, my workouts tapered off toward the end, and I could have used more training especially back strengthening exercises. As a group we had done an all-day ice ax, crampon and self-arrest training; had hiked our local Mt. Wilson (14 miles RT); and had done an 8-mile snowshoe trip to Dewey Point in Yosemite for cold weather training. My confidence increased with every trip, as I realized I was capable of more than I thought. As for gear, we were pretty unequipped, so I spent months trying to educate myself, and find deals on gear for the three of us.

First Sighting

Crew President on his chair at Summit PlateauCrew President on his Chair at Summit
When we first saw the mountain from the highway, it was daunting, and got bigger with every turn. Covered in snow from top to bottom, it seemed to follow us like a big full moon as we fished on the lake the next day, filling us with a nervous, excited anticipation. We were informed by a gleeful gas station attendant on the way up that seven people had been evacuated off the mountain by helicopter the weekend before, including an SWS guide.

Because we were climbing with 6 teenagers, we decided to acclimate a day at Horse Camp and then hike back down to meet our guides the next day. The precipitation on Shasta was at 140% of normal and there was a 6-foot base of snow at the Bunny Flats trailhead which has no water. I had also heard that the Sierra Hut was buried under snow including the water pump so I filled up my canteens at the SWS office where we had a pack check. Our guide, James Brown "JB", had us divide our gear into a "take" pile and a "leave" pile. My leave pile consisted of deodorant and an extra sleeping bag; I left the deodorant but thought I would need the ultra-light bag to bolster my 20-degree sack. One crew member had a three-legged chair in his leave pile, which he insisted on bringing as well.

Boys' Life Documents Our Trip

Beth Wald and Todd OffenbacherBeth Wald and Todd Offenbacher
As a freelance writer, I had written to Boys' Life magazine to see if I could write an article for them on our trip. They liked the idea, but wanted to use their own writer. But they told our crew advisor that they were sending a photographer and a "porter" to help her with her equipment. We met Beth Wald and Todd Offenbacher for the first time over burgers, not knowing the reputation of either of them beforehand.

Beth, as we learned, is an award-winning photographer who has a passion for both the outdoors and diverse cultures. She has done assignments for Outside magazine and National Geographic Adventure, as well as Patagonia and North Face. She is a world traveler, adventurer, and also an experienced climber as we found out watching her jog double speed ahead to get shots of us coming up.

Todd has an energy and enthusiasm that you immediately feel when you're in his presence. He has the intensity of a Tom Cruise or Richard Branson type, and has what I call the "mountaineer's eyes"; alive and intense, with a little bit of crazy mixed in. The boys were in awe of his bulging pecks, and the joke was on us as Todd quietly avoided talking about himself. It turns out he has an extensive resume: Lake Tahoe RSN TV host, Adventure Film Fest creator, and some of his best friends are Fred Beckey and Chris McNamara. He is an adventure junky who has climbed El Capitan 17 times including Native Son, Trible Rite and Lost in America, and has climbed first ascents in Pakistan, Peru, Canada, Thailand and China. But more than that, he's a kind and giving person who was an inspiration.

The Hike to "5150" Below Helen Lake

User Profile ImageThe Wind Picks Up
We met our guides and geared up with crampons, ice axes, helmets, and harnesses and hiked back up to Horse Camp to break camp from the night before. It was a bit convoluted, but we got it done and continued up to our base camp below Helen Lake. The guides said it was safer there; less exposure to avalanches and rock fall, and their name for it, "5150", is the police code for a mentally disturbed person; That seemed appropriate.

The hike was steep, but didn't give me too much trouble. Others were struggling; one kid kept falling asleep during short snack breaks while sitting up. I was glad my training was paying off. When we got there, the tents were already set up from a previous group, so we had the rest of the day to do more self-arrest training. The views were incredible! We were only at about 10,250, but I already felt like we were on top of the world.

When the winds were gently blowing, our guide said he didn't like the looks of it, but it seemed pretty mild to me. Obviously he knew what he was talking about, because at about 11 pm the winds started slamming our tent, ripping out the guide lines, and making it impossible to sleep with the sound of ice violently pelting our tent. And it was coming from both sides at once. I felt like I was in a giant taco as I watched the two sides push in and nearly swallow me up. I turned my face away from the side thinking I would be suffocated by the tent. JB got out and secured all the tents and checked on everyone. He informed us that we wouldn't be waking up at 1 am for the summit push as planned, and that he would check in with us at 7am. He estimated the winds to be 50 mph with 70 mph gusts, which sounded right to me as I had been in gale force winds with my dad while sailing down the West Coast as a kid. My tent mates prayed as I envisioned us being tossed down the hill tent and all.

Another Chance

Avalanch GulchAvalanche Gulch
We weren't sure if we'd still be able to summit, and were almost resigned that we had lost our chance, when JB said that he could have a guide come up with another tent to replace the one us adults had been sleeping in that had a torn vestibule, and to bring up more food. The problem is that some of the people who were struggling with the climb the day prior, and a younger crew member who got spooked by the winds, decided they wanted to go back. Our crew advisor decided to head back with two kids after much deliberation, and after interviewing all the crew members individually. We didn't want to break up the group, but it was a shame to come all this way and not let those who could summit. I was one hundred percent committed.

So we lounged around base camp for a day, with the boys building an elaborate snow cave to occupy their time. They were even talking about sleeping in it, and started using it for bathroom privacy. The winds died down by the end of the day, and it looked promising for summiting the next day. We went to bed at 7:30 pm again for our planned 1 am summit start.

I woke up at 12:30 to go to the bathroom and decided it was pointless to go back to sleep. I lingered in the tent a while, and then started putting on my gear. I was wide awake, not sleepy like I thought I would be. The kids geared themselves up, and we ate breakfast and headed up the hill towards Helen Lake with only the light from our headlamps illuminating the way. We could see the city lights far below us in the distance.

Trudging quietly up the dark hill, I thought to myself "This is crazy, what am I doing here?" But crazy as it seemed, I had chosen to go, and was driven to continue. I'm not sure when I caught the climbing bug, but my husband began to notice when I was devouring books about climbing expeditions to Everest and elsewhere, and talking about them non-stop before the trip. We passed Helen Lake in the dark and proceeded up Avalanche Gulch. I was smacked hard by something careening down the hill, rock or ice I didn't know, but it gave me a scare. I was keeping my mind full of positive thoughts of success as I climbed, and channeled Todd and his energy to keep me going.

I was glad that we had been taught different crampon walking techniques the day before since the climbing was hurting my ankles, and I used the different stepping styles to ease the pain and the monotony. We traversed up the Gulch rest stepping as much as possible. The most difficult parts were changing directions on the steep incline, and trying to prevent sliding down thousands of feet while "resting" on the hill; It felt pretty precarious with just my ice ax and the back two tines of my crampons holding me on the mountain, and wasn't very restful. We proceeded quickly up this difficult section to avoid the hazards of ice and rock fall.

Red Banks and Beyond

Red BanksRed Banks
We had left camp at 2:20 am, and after 5 hours of continuous climbing, we reached the top of the Red Banks at 12,800 feet. The reduced oxygen at the top caused me and several others to start coughing. After resting at the top, we climbed up Short Hill and then to Misery Hill. In my view Misery Hill has an over inflated reputation. It is difficult mostly because it comes after the steep section up to the Red Banks which saps all your energy.

My water had frozen during the night in my hydration pack, so after draining a 1-Liter Nalgene, I was "borrowing" water from everyone. Our guide told me to put the line in my jacket to warm it up, but it didn't help. I refilled my bottle with snow and a little water hoping to melt some more in the Nalgene which I had inside my jacket, but it never did melt. Casey Harden, our second guide, said it was colder than usual. I thought it was just me, and I kept wondering when we were going to have to shed layers. I had all my layers on up Avalanche Gulch except for my down jacket, which I added at the top of the Red Banks and kept on the rest of the day until we were halfway back down the Gulch.

The Final Push

Howlett Family on the SummitMe and My Family at the Top
The Summit ViewAbove the Clouds
At the Summit Plateau, the wind was blowing an icy chill through our layers of clothes and balaclavas. We stopped to eat and rest before making the final push for the summit. Luckily we had been warned about "false summits" which JB said has made grown men cry when they thought they were near the top but weren't. We were told that we may think we are near the top on several occasions, but if we had any question, that wasn't it. We would know the summit when we saw it, they told us, and I was grateful for the forewarning. As we approached the summit, we could see and smell the sulfur fumaroles reminding us that we were on a volcano.

And then, after 8 hours of steady climbing, we made it to the top at 10:30 am. "Wow," said Jeremy Kolbach, 17, "We're above the clouds!" He then brought out the chair from his "leave" pile and set himself down to take in the view. The panorama at the top was a spectacular 360-degree view and gave me a feeling of vertigo. It was an awesome sight! I had to choke back tears several times; I'm not sure if it was the fatigue or the beauty or a combination of both, but I didn't want to make a scene. JB said that we were actually one of the quietist groups he had at the summit. And that with a bunch of teenagers!

After all the summit pictures were taken, the boys started talking about next year's trip, perhaps sailing in the Bahamas, the boys said. Something warm; they had had enough of snow for a while.

The Descent

User Profile ImageMisery Hill
We knew that it wasn't over yet. We still had to make it back to base camp, break it down, and head back to our cars at Bunny Flats. The boys were looking forward to glissading; for some it was the only reason they came on the trip, but we would have to wait until the snow softened a little. It wasn't until halfway down Avalanche Gulch, and after much haranguing by the boys that our guide, JB, said it was safe enough to glissade. It was a blast, although I was taking it a little slow, but I found that I could glissade in areas many couldn't with the right technique. It saved my aching knees (previous injuries had weakened them), although it didn't do much for my back. Twenty minutes out of Bunny Flats my back started to give from the days' strain. I throw it out every two years and I know the feeling, I was on the verge of being rendered helpless as it threatened to seize up on me. And I wasn't the only one who felt shooting pain in my feet with every step towards the end. With almost no complaints from the boys, we made it back to the cars at 5 pm, after 14 1/2 hours of near constant exertion. It was a great trip! Between summiting, having some amazing guides who waited it out with us, and meeting Beth and Todd, we were truly lucky.

What I Learned

I knew absolutely nothing about mountaineering before this trip. Summitpost was helpful, and I am thankful for all of the experienced climbers on this site who took the time to explain things to a newbie. But I have to say, there is no better teacher than the mountain. And, in our case, we got an accelerated education from the infinite wisdom of our SWS guides which they readily shared with us. So to pay it forward to some other first timers, here is what I learned on my first excursion; some first hand knowledge, and some I learned from our guides.

What I Learned About Water

1. Have plenty of it, and know where you are going to get more.

2. Bunny Flats doesn’t have water, and Horse Camp’s water pump can’t be used when it’s buried under 6 feet of snow.

3. If you are running out, pack some snow in your water bottle while it is still half full. The remaining water will help melt the snow faster while you hike than if you pack the whole bottle with fresh snow.

4. Keep water bottles and filtration packs in your tent near your body to keep them from freezing.

5. Blow air into your water bladder hose before going to sleep to push the water out so that it won’t freeze in the drinking line. Do the same during climbing treks after drinking so the line won’t freeze between drinking.

6. It takes time and fuel to melt snow, but it can melt naturally with time in a dark pot in the sun to save on fuel. To accelerate the snow melt in the solar still, cover the pot with a black garbage bag.

7. Add powdered drink mixes to your water to mask the taste and sight of sediment in your snow-melt.

8. Drink ample amounts of water prior to summit; pre-hydration will help reduce the possibility of altitude sickness as well as fatigue.

9. Leave no trace. There's no way to wash dishes and dump grey water on the ice/snow covered mountain. Use the climber's cocktail method. Clean a dirty plate/bowl with boiling water, using your utensil, and drink the liquid.

What I Learned About Staying Warm

1. Good glove liners can practically get you through a climb alone without thicker gloves if it’s not too cold. Make sure the glove liners will fit into your thicker gloves should the temperature drop.

2. If you suffer from cold or numb feet at night, when going to bed, melt snow until boiling (or very hot) and pour into a Nalgene (or equivalent) bottle. Slide the bottle into the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm your feet.

3. Also for cold feet, make sure you aren’t lacing your boots too tightly or you will cut off circulation on the tops of your feet making them cold. Wearing too many layers of socks will do the same thing. Your toes should be free to wiggle, and your laces tight but not constricting.

4. Put clothes for the morning into the bottom of your sleeping bag. Not only will it keep your clothes warm, but it eliminates extra space at the bottom of your bag, thereby keeping you warmer.

5. Balaclavas are Awesome. Some men prefer the thinner versions, which will not snag on a two-day shadow and can be used as a neck warmer if it becomes too warm.

6. During a climb, keep a down jacket handy to put over your hard shell for some quick warmth. Should you overheat, you can quickly remove the jacket. The same applies while in base camp, just prior to climbing. Typically, you want to start your climb with minimal layers, (starting a little cold) so that as you warm up during a climb, you don't have to remove excess clothing. Just prior to starting the climb, you can wear your down jacket over your hard shell, and when you start the climb, remove the down jacket. This worked really well on Shasta during sub- freezing temperatures at 2am.

What I Learned About Tents

1. If you forget, lose, or break tent stakes you can use small sticks one-inch in diameter and 4-6 inches long as “deadman stakes.” You dig them into the snow horizontally to secure.

2. Digging a tent platform with a wind barrier and a 2 foot ditch dug out in the front to sit and put on boots makes life easier.

3. Guide lines to secure the integrity of the tent and fly are critical. If they go down in high wind, you want to re-secure them as quickly as possible. If the wind is very strong you can use pickets to attach the wires to.

What I Learned About Hygiene

1. Deodorant is a “leave” item.

2. Wag bags to pack out human waste aren’t fun, but are far better than trying to hold it in, starve your self, or use medicine to induce constipation which can make you sick. Used wag bags can be stored under snow, protecting them from direct sunlight. Do not subject yourself to off-smells and put wag bags in your backpack until it’s time to leave.

3. The P-Mate is a convenient device for women, check it out: www.femalefreedom.ca

4. Disposable, individual gelled finger toothbrushes that can be worn on your finger are a quick and easy way to keep your breath and teeth clean while on the mountain.

What I Learned About Sleeping

1. It’s very difficult to sleep through 70 mph winds.

2. Ear plugs are very helpful to block out the noise from the wind and the snores of a tent mate.

3. A Mylar pad underneath a Thermarest keeps you extra warm when sleeping on snow due to its high level of insulation.

What I Learned About Sun Protection

1. Always wear glacier glasses while alpine climbing. A boy from our group didn’t and he got second-degree burns on his face with blistering and oozing puss.

2. Use lip protection with zinc oxide in it. Most chap sticks only have sunscreen ratings of SPF 15 which is not nearly strong enough for alpine climbing.

3. Put on sunscreen every hour, or every time you stop for a snack.

4. Use sunscreen under your chin, under your nose, and in and around your nostrils and ears.

5. There are some brim hats that affix over a climbing helmet; this makes for comfortable sun protection

What I Learned About Snacks/Food

1. I learned to hate traditional Clif Bars, but the Mojo made by the Clif Bar company which is mostly nuts, is much better.

2. Always bring lots of extra snacks and food, as summit pushes are often delayed due to weather.

3. Chocolate bars melt in the sun, and freeze in the snow and then develop the consistency of sawdust and are not very tasty at that point.

4. Nuts and good beef jerky gave me the most energy when I was really hungry. Trail mix with chocolate chips and peanut flavored chocolate chips makes for a great energy boost.

What I Learned About Gear/Clothing

1. The R1 Hoody by Patagonia is just as good as everyone says. I wore it all day, and then slept in it at night.

2. Never tuck your base layer into your sock; it can cause bad shin bruising. Extra long wool socks are best, and pull your base layer only about an inch over the sock but not down into your boot.

3. For help gearing up for Shasta, check out the SWS website and look at their gear list for the 2-day Shasta climb. The only thing missing is lip balm with zinc.

What I Learned About Glissading

1. You can glissade with a trekking pole as your anchor rather than an ice ax by dragging the handle side in the snow (not the tip) because it has more surface area for drag.

2. If you are wearing a pack and harness, you will slide much faster if you lift your heels off the ground and lean forward.

3. You should keep your feet together to push any ice or rock out of the way so that you won’t be impaled by these objects in sensitive places.

What I Learned About Guides

1. A good guide can accelerate your learning curve dramatically, giving you inside tips that would take you years to acquire.

2. If your group is inexperienced, a guide service is highly recommended for Mt. Shasta. It can be a dangerous mountain, but much less so with a good guide.

3. SWS Mountain Guides are a good outfit to use. Check them out at http://swsmtns.com/

What I Learned About Training

1. Alpine pre-training is highly recommended. That way, training during a Shasta excursion is a refresher course, not a first-time learned skill. Find a group that can provide crampon, ice-axe, self arrest and glissading training prior to a Shasta summit attempt. The far majority of all injuries on Shasta are due to inexperience with crampons, ice axes and self arrest- according to the Shasta Avalanche center: http://www.shastaavalanche.org/advisories/advisories/accidents.

2. Do more physical conditioning than you think you need to. After hiking 14 ½ hours to the summit of Shasta and back with a pack on, my back was ready to give out. Cardio, back strengthening, and squats for your legs are good. Our guides said that their clients whose primary form of exercise is cycling tend to do the best on the mountain.


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cab - Jul 13, 2010 6:31 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Report

Very well written!

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