I arrived in the town of Mt. Shasta about noon Thursday, as I like to do. It allows me the afternoon to visit the Fifth Season climbing shop, get some great route beta from Jacque, and go to the ranger station for even more beta.
My planned climbing partner had to cancel a couple days earlier because of work, so I had made arrangements to join a small group which I found on the internet. Kind of like internet dating, only climbing instead. They had also been planning the same route, the same weekend, and would be arriving at dinner time.
Of course the meeting place was the Black Bear Diner. I met the team, comprised of Al, Mark, and the organizer whom I had climbed once before with, Kevin. Great dinner as expected, then up to Bunny Flat (6950’) for the night. Two tents pitched in the parking lot, with me in the back of my truck.
Our route was Casaval Ridge, which runs along the west side of Avalanche Gulch. Standard high camp is on the ridge at 9600’, not too far away, so we expected a relatively short first day. This being the case, in the morning we headed back down to the Black Bear, craving their pancakes! Afterwards we went to the ranger station so the rest of the team could get the same beta first hand, which included an excellent slide show presentation the rangers have assembled on a PC. Then to The Fifth Season again, for some last minute rentals and purchases.
By the time we got back to Bunny Flat and packed our gear, it was noon before we started climbing on Friday. As usual, it appeared I had the heaviest pack, estimated at the low 50s pounds. On the recommendation of a skier we spoke with, we headed up without snowshoes, which turned out to be a huge mistake. The first couple hours hiking to Horse Camp was absolutely miserable, sinking into the snow with almost every step. We met Abe at Horse Camp, who was on his way up the ridge also, to meet a team of three already at high camp. We were somewhat disappointed at this, as we were enjoying the solitude, and looked forward to being the first team of the season up the ridge. We ran into Abe again up on the ridge, and discovered that unbeknownst to him, the team he had set out to meet was actually us. Finally at high camp, with Abe having joined us, it is already dark, the sun having set at 4:39 PM. The winds had started to kick up pretty strong, not unusual for Mt. Shasta. At 10:00 PM, I was finally calling it a day in the warmth of our tent.
Alpine start planned for a 4:00 AM wakeup. The winds that night were incessant, beating up the tent, and caving in the sides with each strong gust. Nothing like a facefull of tent to add to your sleeping pleasure. The noise kept us from sleeping well, and we seriously doubted whether we could climb in the morning. But we awoke, a bit late, got ourselves dressed and ventured outside to check it out. Turns out, the bark was worse than the bite. While quite windy and cold, it was still climbable. Abe announced he would be heading back down, so the original four of us prepared for the day, donning every bit of clothes we had brought with us.
With crampons on and ice axes in hand, we were on the move at 7:00 AM in the not-so-early morning dawn, enjoying the sunrise as it crested over the horizon at 7:23. We moved slowly under the effects of elevation, and bucking a relentless headwind that would constantly blow the loose, stinging snow into our faces. By 9:00 AM, those of us who had them, had put on our balaclavas and goggles. Even though the sun was up, the temperature was well below freezing even before adding in the wind chill effect. It became apparent we would not summit at any reasonable time (usually climbers like to summit in the morning, or shortly thereafter). At 1100 AM, we were informed by Al that he had been having leg cramps, as he had the day before, and he decided he would return to camp. Ten minutes later Mark and Kevin decided it was over also. Hey, I just had to spend a night sleeping next to another dude, so I sure as heck am not throwing in the towel this quickly! So…. we had a little pow-wow.
The way I saw it, we could make it. No Problem. While extremely windy and cold, the wind was not so strong that it would blow us over. There had not been any snow for several days, and the temperatures had been consistently below freezing on most the mountain. The weather forecast was very stable, with no chance of a storm for several days at least. Skies were impeccably clear, with an almost-full moon set to rise at 1:34 in the afternoon and it would not set until 2:05 the following morning. All things considered, I felt the only reason not to continue climbing would be if we felt bad personally, i.e. sick, cold, etc. So after discussing this, Kevin reconsidered and decided to continue climbing with me, while Mark was committed to heading back.
We set out again, at this point just the two of us. Did I mention how cold and strong the wind was? We eventually made it up the steep west face headwall, and into a snow chute through the rock band above. There we rested and took some spectacular photos of the gendarmes which we had been climbing beneath. Continuing on, the big decision ahead of us was whether to go through the Catwalk, which is a narrow, exposed stretch on the side of a shear wall. With the right snow conditions, this is considered the most exhilarating part of the climb; the crux. With the wrong snow conditions, it is suicide. With Kevin leading about 50 yards ahead of me, I watched as he veered left, swinging around to take the alternate route up the West Face proper. I was not inclined to argue; as it was, I was anticipating a five or six PM summit, and if the Catwalk was not passable, it would have just cost us even more time.
After making it to the west face peak, we found ourselves on the much-coveted upper mountain. Still fighting a constant fierce headwind, we were thankful that it was not worse. This is the part of the mountain, where climbers above the Red Rocks frequently turn back due to winds that threaten to knock them off their feet. We swung around to the base of the infamous Misery Hill, and found it was actually easier than much of the earlier climbing. Halfway up, we could look west and see a one of Shasta’s large open crevasses on a nearby glacier. The sun had already set over the horizon, and we were now climbing in the dusk, looking at a narrow band of red sky in the western horizon.
As we approached the final summit peak, we were on broad, open terrain with the worst wind of the climb blowing from due east. Ascending the summit, above the fumaroles, we were temporarily shielded from the wind. A few steps behind Kevin, I finally made the summit, finding him kneeling before the summit register, back to the Windy East, of course. I joined him for photos of the register; however neither of us much cared to remove our mittens to sign it. We continued to take the obligatory summit photos of each other, in spite of having lost the sun an hour ago. However, we were anxious to get out of the fierce wind.
We climbed hard for over ten hours, and now looked forward to the descent. It was a very special treat to make our way down under the bright moonlight of the clear Shasta sky. We never had any confusion of where our route was, in fact much of our tracks were visible without needing our headlamps. We descended more into the west face gully, and the final push was a half hour climb over the lower ridge line to get back to our camp. Thirsty and tired, we arrived at camp at 9:30 PM. As the odds would have it, shortly thereafter the winds suddenly disappeared. Go figure. We were treated to a quiet, still night in the tent.
Morning came with a clear, still day. On our way by 8 AM, for a quick and easy two-hour hike out. Al and Mark met us at Bunny Flat, and of course it was back to the Black Bear for a well deserved steak and beer!