First - I should say that we (my son and I) are real neophites to mountaineering. Although we have done a lot of hiking, my son (age 15) had never been backpacking, and I (age 51) have done a lot of backpacking but not any in the last 25 years.
We attended a family wedding in Hood River Oregon over the Fourth of July weekend and were looking for some other activities to round out our trip. Around the beginning of May, I Googled “adventures in northern California” and was intrigued by “climbing Mount Shasta.” I mention this because I want to note that it is possible for a 51 year old woman and her 15 year old son to summit Mount Shasta via the Avalanche Gulch route, given enough time and perseverance. I did ‘train” for the next six to eight weeks, which consisted on running two to four miles every other day and doing yoga every day. We researched the climb thoroughly (reading trip reports, NFS accident reports and Steve Lewis’s book “Mt Shasta”), enough to realize that we were not likely to summit. We also noticed that most of the accidents happened to people like us, who had limited experience, so we knew to be very cautious. From the reports we noticed that most of the accidents happened during glissading and that the worst injuries were to those who did not wear helmets. I think it is important for every person who wants to climb Mt Shasta to take a look at the accident reports. It puts the challenge and the dangers of the climb in perspective. Reading the accident reports motivated us to take the Ice Axe and Crampon course on Day 1.
Day 1 – Equipment, Ice Axe Course and Horse Camp
We started the day by renting our equipment at the Fifth Season in the city of Mount Shasta. This store is wonderful. They were incredibly patient with us as we tried on boot after boot after boot, looking for the perfect fit (time well spent!!). Recognizing that we were newbies, they took the time to be sure that we had everything we needed, and that we knew how to use all our equipment. We are grateful to owner, Leif, and highly recommend the store for all your equipment needs.
Next we met up with Robin Kohn for her Ice Axe and Crampon course (http://www.mountshastaguide.com/robin.htm). She took us to a snow field on Mount Shasta where we spent about four hours climbing up and glissading down a snow field. This was one of the smartest things we did in the trip. I can honestly say that we would not have successfully reached the summit if we had not taken this course. In addition to the critical ice axe instruction, Robin taught us a number of climbing steps that were essential for conserving energy while climbing the mountain. Robin is a wonderful teacher, relaxed and knowledgeable. She really helped prepare us both physically and psychically for the climb. Her words, “your crampons will hold you” rang repeatedly through my head as I climbed the steepest parts of the “heart” and the Red Banks chute, afraid of looking down or even up, And yes, it is true, your crampons will hold you, even on the smooth (ice) 50 degree incline of the Red Bank chute.
In the early evening we arrived at the trail head Bunny Flat. Both my son and I were in awe of the mountain, and very intimidated. Even before we started it seemed impossible that we would reach the summit. Independently we were both thinking "what have we gotten ourselves into???." Exhibiting confidence I did not really feel, I promised my son that I would try to make it as far as he could; I did not want to be the cause of him not summitting.
After our obligatory pictures at the trailhead we hiked to Horse Camp to spend our first evening. Horse Camp is about an hour’s hike through gently slopping terrain. We arrived at Horse Camp exhauseted, wondering how we would make it to Helen Lake, much less the summit, if this first hour seemed so difficult.
Day 2 – Horse Camp to Helen Lake
We left Horse Camp at around 9 am, headed for Helen Lake. We each had 2.5 quarts of water which was just about right. The climb from Horse Camp was predictably grueling. After the first 45 minutes or so, the terrain becomes very steep and loose. We were pretty disciplined in our hike. We kept a slow and steady pace, drinking water every 30 minutes and stopping to rest and snack every hour. Naturally, my son always scampered ahead of me – but also kept a fairly consistent pace. It turns out that this discipline of slow and steady, resting, snacking and drinking at regular (timed) intervals was essential to our success.
We reached Helen Lake around 2 pm; Five hours from Horse Camp including a grueling final hour up the snow laden "Stand Still Hill' (two steps forward, one step sliding back). The weather at Helen Lake was clear and only slightly windy. We had no trouble finding a sheltered site and erecting our tent. We then spent the hours and hours necessary to melt snow for water. We ended up melting about eight quarts of water; one each to drink that afternoon, one for cooking dinner, two each for the next day’s climb and one to have the next day after returning from the summit. As other reports have noted, you must dig down in the snow to avoid the pink outer crust which can cause intestinal problems. We continued our regiment of drinking every 30 to 45 minutes to remain hydrated (continual hydration helps to prevent altitude sickness).
Being a yoga enthusiast, I spent about 30 to 45 minutes doing various postures to help release tension from my hips and back. Several other campers joined in to make an impromptu yoga class. Afterwards, I spent about 15 minutes teaching the other campers some of the climbing steps that I had learned from Robin the previous day. After we all successfully summitted the next day, we agreed that we would not have made it without this knowledge. Again, many thanks to Robin Kohn.
We went to bed around 9 pm. I did not sleep well at all. My feet were freezing. In retrospect, I should have used my pack for extra insulation between the tent floor and my feet. The wind picked up considerably during the evening, and we were glad that our tent was well staked.
Day 3 – Helen Lake to Summit
We awoke at 3:45 am. Despite having packed everything the night before, we did not leave until 5 am (I have no idea what we did for 75 minutes). This timing turned out to be fine. Our camp mates left about 30 minutes earlier than us, but we caught up with them below the "heart" (well, my son caught up with them).
While my son and I differ on this, I thought the most grueling part of the whole climb was from Helen Lake to Red Bank. This is a long, steep climb through a snow/ice bowl that has very few landmarks to mark your progress. At points the climb is so steep I was afraid to look down (I am afraid of heights). Looking up is demoralizing, since it appears that you have made no progress, despite your efforts. The terrain is very rough, with bumps and dips that make you feel like you are constantly climbing out of a pot hole, all the while climbing what seems like 40 degree incline ("my crapons will hold, my crapmpons will hold"). This part of the climb took me about 3 hours (2 hours for my son).
For much of the climb I used the same type of discipline we had used between Horse Camp and Helen Lake. I drank water every 30 minutes and stopped to rest/snack every hour. Between rest stops (where I would dig a little flat spot so I could sit down) I continued at a pace of 10 steps then a short (15 seconds or so, standing) rest, another 10 steps, another short rest. I was pretty disciplined about this; forcing myself to go 10 steps when I only wanted to go five, and doing only 10 steps even if I wanted to do more. In this manner, I never got winded, and slow as it was, I felt that my progress was steady. I believe it was this disciplined approach that allowed me to be successful. I remained hydrated, clear headed and did not suffer any effects from the altitude. Others around me often spurted past me, only to be resting for looooong periods of time while I passed them. In the end, I made it up to the summit slower than some, but faster than others.
After finally reaching the Red Banks, I caught a second wind while climbing the chute. Steep as it was (50 degrees?), I found clambering up the chute to be exhilarating after the drudgery of the bowl(repeating my mantra “your crampons will hold you”). Thankfully, I had been warned that the climb does not end after the chute, so I was mentally prepared to keep going. I am grateful to the group of three young men who were climbing with me at this time (my son having gone on with the group of our campmates). We were continually encouraging each other, each keeping the others from getting discouraged or loosing momentum. I reached the bottom of Misery Hill at about 10:15 (3 hours from Helen Lake to the Red Banks, about 2:15 hours from Red Banks to bottom of Misery Hill).
While I was resting at the bottom of Misery Hill, my son was ascending the summit, concluding that I was not likely to make it.
Climbing Misery Hill was not really all that miserable. I did the climb without crampons since there was no snow and crampons just made me very unstable. While climbing Misery Hill (many switch backs) you have to keep in mind that, once again, the hill does not end where you think it will. Even after you crest what appears to be the top of Misery Hill, there is still quite a bit of steep terrain. I continued with my slow and steady pace, although I now did 20 steps between each short rest. Again, I kept to the schedule of water every 30 minutes and rest/snack every hour.
At the top of Misery Hill, I was almost out of water and beginning to feel really tired (2 quarts water was not quite enough). Fortunately, I was almost there. A climber had whizzed by me while climbing Misery Hill, letting me know that the worst was over and that I must keep going!!.
After Misery Hill there is long expanse of gently sloping glacier (the Summit Plateau) and then the final (steep but short) climb to the summit. At the Summit Plateau, I was struck by the predictable cold wind. Up until this point I had been climbing with just one layer on top, and long johns and Gortex on bottom. I had to stop behind some rocks to add several layers, including my wind jacket, balaclava, neck gator and glove liners. EVery inch of skin had to be covered. It got real cold, real fast!
I was pretty scared while traversing the Summit Plateau which has steep terrain on either side. I definitely think this was irrational, caused by my fear of heights, but it was emotionally draining and I practically lunged toward the rocks at the end of the plateau. This also meant that I did not really stop to appreciate the views (next time ).
The final ascent is steeper and longer than it looks, taking me about 30 minutes. I reached the summit at around 12 noon and immediately burst out crying, overcome with emotion at my unexpected accomplishment. My son greeting me, having waited at the summit for me 1.5 hours because “it wouldn’t have been right” if I had made it and he wasn’t there. One of the climbers who had passed me had told him that I was “inching” my way along, but that he thought I was going to make it. I still get emotional thinking about it. Reaching the summit is really quite an accomplishment – especially for this over-50 mom.
Climbing Down the Mountain.
Being afraid of heights, I had thought that getting down the mountain was going to be difficult. There were times while climbing up the “heart” that I thought to myself ‘how the heck I am going to get down?” It turns out that getting down the mountain is not so scary or difficult as I imagined. My son helped me get started with glissading, and the very important 'self-arresting' as we descended from Misery Hill to the chute at Red Banks. It turned out to be fun after all – although I went quite a bit slower than he did.
Descending through Red Banks is justifiably scary. The rangers say that you are not supposed to glissade through the chute, but climbing down seems even more dangerous since it is steep and very rough and narrow.(even using the “side step” as Robin taught us). Finally, after climbing about half way down the chute, I decided that glissading would be the safer approach. And, as it turned out – much more fun!!
From Red Banks, my son glissaded the entire way to Helen Lake in one long ride (taking about 5 minutes). I, of course, took the slower route, but still a lot of fun! It took me about 20 minutes to descend “the bowl” which had taken 3 hours to climb. Who knew this was all about the slide!!! it was just like when we were kids; climb up the hill (albeit a big one), sled down.
We arrived back at our campsite in Helen Lake around 1:30 or so. We were elated, but exhausted. We decided to take a much needed nap before packing up our gear and descending to Bunny Flat. We left Helen Lake at 4pm and arrived at Bunny Flat at around 6 pm. We were exhausted! having just enough energy to get to the Black Bear Diner for cheeseburgers and milkshakes!!
Things that Contributed to Our Success
Robin Kohn - First and foremost we are grateful to Robin Kohn for her great instruction. I totally recommend the Ice Axe and Crampon course. The variety of climbing steps that she taught us were essential to conserving energy and balancing the load between many different muscle groups. Learning how to use the ice axe and how to self-arrest was crucial to self-confidnce in both climbing up and sliding down.
Good Weather - We are also grateful for having such good weather. Although we did experience a lot of wind, we had mostly clear skies, which was essential.
Boots and Socks - Having well fitting boots and high-quality hiking socks were important. We used sock liners and hiking socks that had two layers. Neither my son, nor I, had one blister – which is pretty amazing since we were climbing with rented boots (again, thank you to the Fifth Season). There were other climber who were crippled by their blisters.
Regular Water/snacks – we drank water (not necessarily a lot or a little) every 30 – 45 minutes of the whole trip and we had regular snacks. This is a method I have used to successfully run marathons (years and years ago) and felt that it was critical to our success. Neither of us experienced altitude sickness.
Perseverance – I used the slow but steady approach, one step at a time. I just focused on the next step, or really the next 10 steps . . . and persevered.
Book “Mt Shasta” – we read “Mt Shasta” by Steve Lewis and followed his directions. I highly recommend reading this book not only for the information that it provides, but because you will get a sense that this is something that you, too, can do.
Of course I have read other trip reports. I am proud to say that I am a "fat tourist” who successfully summitted, going up the Avalanche Gulch route. The beauty of the wilderness is the equal opportunity that it provides to all. It is the great equalizer, a place where people from all backgrounds, ages, and colors can gather and bond with common purpose. Be careful, do your research and wear a helmet – and that applies to everyone, no matter your age or experience. And remember, leave no footprints, and make every place a little bit better for your having been there.
Thank you to everyone who helped us reach our goal. This was one mother-son experience that we will remember for a long time.
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