As 2009 was drawing to a close, three friends and I decided to sign up for a guided climb up Mt. Rainier in June of 2010 in a sort of early new year's resolution. All of us had a mix of backpacking, camping and rock climbing experience. Some of us had been at altitude before on Whitney and Kilimanjaro. But none of us had any mountaineering experience as such. The nearest we had come to crampons and ice axes was on REI shelves. So the resolution was about taking the next step. We would not fully digest what it involved until later on - which was precisely the point of signing up.
The winter and spring was spent mostly going up and down the steepest trail of Mt. Diablo, east of San Francisco Bay, carrying increasingly heavy packs stuffed with blankets, sleeping bags and weights. Not the most glamorous activity, but the 3,500ft gain over a short mileage prepared us well for what was to follow. We also made a point of snowshoeing up smaller Tahoe area peaks and camping out, to get accustomed to that side of the package. June shortly arrived, and conditions on Rainier looked questionable. One after another, late season storms battered the Northwest, and a big avalanche made headlines when it caused the first fatality on the mountain in several years. Nonetheless, we were preparing and hoping for the best.
In the course of the preparation, we figured it would be good practice to climb Mt. Shasta the week before Rainier. Accessible by car to us, we decided to head up and get some bigger mountain experience on what is supposed to be an easy, non-technical route: Clear Creek. With a couple of days to go before driving up Interstate 5 to Shasta, we were glued on our monitors watching yet another very wet late season storm hit the mountain. We decided at the last minute to delay the trip by a day, hoping that the worst of the storm would have passed. And so on a grey Friday, Ann, Mathew, Wade and I packed our gear and food and headed north.
We arrived at the city of Mt Shasta just before the sun went down, but the mountain was nowhere to be seen, enveloped in low cloud. We wondered whether we would get a climbing window, and stuffed ourselves with soup and pasta all the same. Later that night, a break in the clouds offered us a sneak peak of the majestic white mass that is Shasta, and sent us into sweet dreams.
The climb begins
The next morning we rented any missing gear, finished packing, and drove over to the "back side" to find the trailhead. Reports differed as to how long the approach would be, since a portion of the road leading the trailhead was still under snow. We estimated the closed section to be 2-3 miles, so we left our cars on the side of the road among the fallen trees and mud, put on our "slow shoes" and marched upwards. It took us a good two or three hours to get to the trailhead, which would normally mark the beginning of the approach. The toilets were still under feet of snow after the intense El Nino winter and spring. So on we went, catching the occasional glimpse of the mountain which was still mostly shrouded in cloud. The further up we went, the wetter the conditions became. By the time we reached Clear Creek meadow, we were fully in miserable dampness, so we set up camp and started melting snow and cooking. The night was equally damp and miserable, but finally around morning time the sky started to clear. We had a late start and made our way up the Clear Creek route, aiming to camp a second night above the Watkins Glacier, as high as we could go, to make the summit push shorter. The going was still pretty slow under full load and snowshoes, but the scenery was beautiful. Mud Creek canyon and the east side of Sargents ridge were silhouetted against a sky which was becoming increasingly blue. The summit was still visible in the distance, and Shastarama point jumping out of the clouds made for a spectacular subject.
An hour before the light started to fade, we reached what looked like the last significant rock band before the "triangle" of the upper Clear Creek route began. We had scouted the rocks from a distance for a place to camp, and were aiming for a promising spot. When we got close up though, things didn't look so good... The terrain was much steeper than we had thought, and space more limited. We would have good shelter from SW and W winds, but pitching a tent looked unlikely. There was one more set of outcroppings a little higher which we couldn't see earlier from below, and which I decided to scout out in a last ditch attempt to avoid an uncomfortable night. The ice axe had to come out at that point and the snow shoes off, as things were getting steeper and more slippery. After a little climbing, I found a pocket between the rocks a few minutes higher that looked like it might be able to accommodate a tent or two. I returned to the rest of the party, who agreed that it was our best bet and climbed up with me to see it for themselves. After little deliberation, we decided that it was indeed our best bet, and started shoveling. The snow was pretty thick, but the slope was steep. To our dismay, we hit rock underneath, but we kept digging. After we were done, we slapped the tents on the platform we had dug out, which turned out to be an inch within the lip... A tight squeeze or a perfect fit, depending on how you look at it. In any case, a happy ending late in the day. We sat down and got the stoves going, as the setting sun colored the clouds above in pastel blues and pinks. Things were starting to freeze up too, so we dug rows of steps under our tents to help with cooking and movement during the night if we needed it. We finally retired in our tents pretty late, having stayed up to melt snow and fill up our bottles for the following day. Opinions differed as to when we should wake up for the final climb, but we settled for 3am. As I was getting ready to go into the tent to sleep, a water bottle disappeared seconds after I put it down by the tent entrance. It seemed to have vanished. I started looking for it in the only logical place, which was way down the slope. After some searching, there it was finally. A trivial event, but the scratches on that bottle still remind me of how narrowly we managed to fit our tents on the slope.
After very little sleep, for a variety of reasons ranging from the sloping ground, the precariousness of the site and anticipation for the climb, we dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags and started to get ready. Amazingly, we didn't set off in earnest until 5am. We clearly had a lot to learn about getting ready swiftly - food, drink, layers, gaiters, crampons - too much crap to deal with. But the sky was clear, dawn had started to light up our way, and there was next to no wind. It seemed that we were in business and Shasta was calling! We made a 5min stop at the beginning to practice self arrest, "just in case". This was a joke of a practice session of course, and we only practiced the standard head-up belly-down version, but it still made us feel better. This was everyone's first time wearing crampons and using axes.
Without saying much, we worked our way up the route, duck walking mostly with the occasional French step thrown in. It wasn't very eventful, but we soon noticed that things were pretty hard and icy. It took me a little while, but I eventually realized that the squeaking sound that I kept hearing with every step was caused by the pressure of the crampon points on the ice surface... The crampon penetration into the surface was close to zero - we were just balanced on the tips – and the spike of the axe was merely touching rather than going in. The grey sections that we had seen from lower down on the upper Clear Creek triangle that I at least had mistaken for dirt and rock were in fact a bullet proof rime crust. It wasn't just the hardness of the surface that made going difficult, but the fact that it was covered in lumps which made foot placement trickier. Soon the slopes steepened from 30 to 35 degrees, and the sun rose, casting beautiful orange and pink reflections on the smooth ice surface...
I think it's safe to say that we were started to zone in at that point. The going was sketchy for us. We were feeling the elevation too. More seasoned climbers might have made short work of the conditions, but being on solid ice 30-35 degree slopes first time on crampons was not what we had bargained for. Still, we knew nothing different. We figured that's just how climbing was. So we continued upwards, calculating our foot placements and sucking in the exposure rather uncomfortably. By that point I knew that a fall would be from difficult to impossible to arrest on such a hard surface. Ann later told me that she calmed herself by believing that she would self arrest if something happened. I am glad I didn't shatter the belief up there, which helped her maintain her calm, but she did not take kindly to later being told that her chances would have probably been slim... Wade also wisely opted not to tell us what that he had found out from texting with his wife the night before that four people had "slid down the mountain" and had to be evacuated from Avalanche Gulch. The warm storm had plastered the upper mountain with ice, and people had fallen... There we were, oblivious (except for Wade), going up.
The sun was now hitting the slopes, and we were just below the steep headwall at the top of the Clear Creek "triangle". From our research, we figured we had two options. Either traverse west to join the last part of the Sargent's ridge route, or bypass the headwall to the east, with more exposure and steeper slopes above Shasta's east side glaciers. The option of climbing the gully which split the headwall was out of the question, since the sun was dislodging basketball- to cabinet-sized chunks of rime ice which were coming down the gully at least twice a minute. This fact also ruled out our first option, since traversing the gully to join Sargents would have been suicide. We were above 13,000ft at that point. So close and yet so far. So we decided to try the last option of bypassing the headwall to the east. I set off to scout it out, in pursuit of flatter ground. Instead, I soon found myself on my front points, swinging the ice axe. I found myself enjoying it and getting into it, in a very exposed and scary sort of way... After a couple of minutes, I stopped and announced to the other 3 that they should not try to follow me. The going was steep. And the constant showering of small rime chunks on my helmet disconcerting. I would climb down.
Climb down? How do you do that? Suddenly the slope felt much steeper to me, and I found myself showered with that "oh sh*t" feeling. "Well, you go down by reversing your moves", I told myself. So I grabbed the axe by the head, stuck it in at shoulder level, and then took a couple of steps down on my front points facing in. It worked well. So I repeated the sequence and carried on with newly found confidence and reached the others. After very little conversation, we all decided that heading back was the only prudent choice. We were in it above our heads. We would not reach the summit that day. Everybody was instantly relieved to see that no one argued to go on.
Soon the others were confronted with the same question, and with similar bewilderment on their faces: "how do we go down"? I took them through the technique that had worked for me. "Face in, get those front points in and a secure placement with the axe before you move your feet down", I advised. So, like newly born birds that take the plunge of the cliff and figure out how to fly, we clawed our way down the ice figuring out how to downclimb facing into the slope, feeling distinctly precarious and uncomfortable. Many times the ice axe pick would bounce off the ice rather than going in, requiring multiple attempts. I found that I could get some good rest by going in a relaxed self arrest type position, lying flat on the slope with front points in and ice axe planted by the shoulder. Step by step, and constantly accompanied by a stream of rime pieces coming down from above or dislodged by our footwork, we found ourselves on easier slopes where we could finally face out comfortably and downclimb. This didn't come naturally to Ann, whose fear of heights had made this experience more of an ordeal than for the rest of us. I could see that she was as tense as could be, focusing on every move. I tried to talk her into a more relaxed downclimb, facing out, which helped a little. Snack time. We made a quick stop to refuel, take some photos of the striking rime formations on the rock, and carried on downwards. Knowing the worst was over, I was able to relax a little, take in the scenery more before the final stretch back to our tents.
We made it to camp before noon. We must have been up and down in just over six hours. We were tired, hungry and our nerves were tight from the adrenaline of the last few hours. We had escaped accidents. No one had slipped. We started to breathe more easily, but weren't able yet to let go. We took a power nap, ate, packed up, and started our descent back towards Clear Creek meadow. The return was pretty straightforward. We tried to glissade in a couple of places, but the snow was too soft. Postholing was a pain, so we had to get back on the snow shoes. It was now a race against the sunset to make it back to the car. At some point as we approached the meadow, I looked back to see Shasta dressed in white, bathing in sunshine with our tracks clearly marking the mountain all the way to the top of the route. We had not seen another living soul up there that weekend.
We powered back towards the car, hungry, sleepless and fatigued. Ann was unable to lift her head up by that point. The stress of the downclimb with the constant looking down with a helmet and headlamp on (why didn't she take it off?) had sent her neck muscles into spasms. So she marched down, head leaning forward like a hunchback, in visible pain. We were all done with that weekend. Time to wrap it up. We got tangled up in some navigation choices when we hit the snow covered road, and when we least had the patience for it. We resolved it with a map and compass and tried to hit a beeline through the trees. Finally we were on known ground. Forty five minutes later, which at the time seemed much longer, we put our packs down, took those damned boots off, and drove off. It was dark.
Aftermath and afterthoughts
We were still coming to terms with what had happened up there on the mountain. Then I switched my phone on to find voicemails from the Siskiyou County Sheriff, who had been alerted by Ann's family. It turns out she had only told her mother verbally, not in writing, the details of the trip and her family had expected our return a day earlier. Her family had mobilized, getting ready to drive up to make sure that someone looked into the our situation, and having sent mass emails to both our offices asking people if they knew our climbing plans, which of course caused widespread alarm. Oops. We quickly called to set the record straight, much to everyone's relief. We always made a point of leaving a written itinerary behind, but this time the slip caused unnecessary worry. Our permit record (which we filled out at the rental shop) would have shown otherwise of course, but the sheriff cannot get to that until the following morning.
Mathew and Wade made it back to the Bay Area that night, alternating naps, but Ann and I cut the trip short at a B&B near Redding. My eyes were so tired, I just couldn't keep a straight line on the road. It was probably even more dangerous that the climb itself. We got back the next day, exhausted, emotionally taxed and haunted by Shasta's pristine white beauty that we had been privileged to witness that weekend. I felt relieved, perhaps lucky, happy with our decisions, skills and execution, and glad that we had managed to escape the fate that befell a number of other people on the mountain that weekend. The Fifth Season folks and the rangers later recalled that weekend as one of the busiest, in a bad way, for a while. I also felt that I could always look into my climbing partners' eyes after that weekend and sense the unmistakable bond that comes from having been through a “situation” together.
And so ended our rough introduction to mountaineering. A more experienced party could well have climbed on, but this was our maiden voyage. A few ice screws and a rope for running belays would also have done the trick, but we had neither the gear nor the knowledge how to use it. A week later, we would stand on the top of Rainier after a very cold and windy summit night, contrary to our expectations since the mountain continued to be hit by late storms and avalanches until just before the climb. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that crampons can actually penetrate the snow surface, and that the bulletproof Shasta from that weekend ice is not the norm... Our guides told us that they turn climbs back when it gets icy. How should we have known? As useful as the guides' instruction was, it felt like a cop-out not to have decision making responsibility on the climb - a necessary cop-out in the learning process though. Later in the year, we would spend far more time on crampons, climbing in the Sierra, and completing more technical climbs like the Dana couloir (guided on this one too). We would learn skills and techniques that would have come in very handy that weekend on Shasta. We would also stand on top of Shasta itself after a straightforward Avalanche Gulch climb in August. So the whole thing didn't have to be as nerve-racking as that baptism by ice in early June after all.
As much as I am glad that things got easier after our first climb, I am fully aware that routes, weather and circumstances can, and will, test us again on the mountains. That's the beauty of climbing. And despite not summiting, none of the successful climbs later that year came surpassed the wild, secluded beauty of that pristine, sparkling, rime-covered weekend on Clear Creek.