In May of 2008 I spent about 4 days at Hidden Valley doing some snow & ice rescue training with my local SAR team. The weather had been miserable almost the entire time. It had been a bad snow year, so the conditions looked more like June or July than May, and it wasn't particularly cold, but it snowed most of the time we were there. Summiting Shasta had been part of our original plan, as was training on the Upper Whitney Glacier, but the weather kept us close to camp most of the time. On the eve of our last day, four of us decided that weather permitting, we would at least try to bag Shastina.
On May 28 we got an alpine start and headed up Cascade Gulch in the dark. Cascade Gulch is a terrain trap, but there hadn't been enough snow to cause avalanche concerns. Our plan was to ascend Cascade Gulch to about 10,600 feet, traverse left to the Lightning Couloir, follow that to the summit (purple line) and descend via the Shasta-Shastina saddle and Cascade Gulch (yellow line).
Casualty No. 1 and First Signs of Hypoxia
One of our party, Nate, had decided to go "ultra-light" during the entire trip, consuming nothing but water and Clif bars. He had pulled this off successfully on shorter trips at lower elevation, but had never been on Mt. Shasta. We suggested he bring more food and water for our climb up Shastina, but he assured us he knew what he was doing. "I know my body" was Nate's common refrain. Within an hour he bonked. He'd already burned through all his water and turned around when it was still dark. Since camp was still in sight and the terrain was relatively mellow, we let him descend alone, putting in a call on the radio to make sure he got back okay, which he did.
We continued up the gulch until about 10,400 feet, at which point Todd, our most experienced and level-headed member made an odd suggestion: "Why don't we go do Shasta instead?" Paul and I exchanged a glance. "What are you talking about?" I responded. "Shastina is the plan. Let's stick with the plan. We didn't start early enough for Shasta and the weather has been getting shitty every afternoon." Todd argued his point for several minutes before finally giving in. At the time, it didn't seem weird, but in retrospect, for Todd (of all people) to suggest this was way out of character. Todd planned even the simplest routes months in advance, with waypoints marked and downloaded into his GPS. To change our plan and go for Shasta at this point was strange.
With Shastina still the target, we veered off to our left (northwest) to intersect the lower portion of the Lightning Couloir, the most direct route to the Shastina summit. As we approached the ridge, the wind picked up considerably. Meanwhile, my lower GI system began to make some rather pressing demands. Within 30 minutes I could no longer ignore my body and had to find a place to "see a man about a horse". As we approached 10,600, the wind was howling and I found a small crag to hide behind. I attempted to use the wag bag assembly (complete with adorable little paper target, provided at the trailhead) to contain my waste. In sustained 30-40 mph winds, the paper target was a no go, nor was "containment". Nevertheless, I was now several pounds lighter and felt like a hundred dollars. Onward and upward!
At about 10,600 we traversed over to the Lightning Couloir. It was daylight now and although a bit breezy, the weather was fair. The couloir was pretty steep, maybe 45 degrees near the top. Paul was french stepping, while Todd and I front-pointed. The snow was hard-packed, basically ice, so it was fun climbing. Just enough exposure to make it interesting. I knew if I fell I'd be going for a hell of a ride. But nobody fell and we came out of the couloir at about 12,000 feet to sunshine and a beautiful view.
We took a short break and as we did so, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up and the skies grew dark. When they say the weather on Shasta can change fast, they ain't kidding. This all happened in the time it took me to eat a Clif bar - literally 5 minutes from sun to storm. (The picture at right was taken less then 10 minutes after exiting the couloir, which at the time, was under sunny skies.)
Shastina Summit and Near White-out
From the top of the couloir, we headed north to the summit. By the time we got half way up the small summit hill, the large angular rocks were covered in a dangerous 2-inch coating of fresh snow. Walking around on this was sketchy. Crampons were useless, but boots weren't much better. Sooner or later, I thought, someone is going to slip and brake an ankle. On top of that, visibility was getting really bad. Even though we were right below the summit, we couldn't figure out where it was!
At this point, Todd began to show clear signs of hypoxia. Some of the things he said didn't make much sense. I suggested we descend. "We're close enough. We're in a white-out. We can't see the summit, or anything else, and this terrain is in a dangerous state." Todd was adamant that we find the summit, again, totally out of character for him. He pulled out his GPS, and started following it. I stayed put while Todd and Paul stumbled over the slippery talus, through the snow and wind, following a GPS to the summit of Shastina. I was certain something bad was about to happen, but to my amazement, they returned 5 minutes later and said they found it. Apparently it was right behind the rocks I was hiding behind. "Great, whatever, lets get the fuck outta here."
Our plan was to head east to the Shastina-Shasta saddle and follow Cascade Gulch back to camp. That plan lasted all of 15 minutes. As we hiked east, we could see nothing of the terrain in front of us. Todd was beginning to complain of pain in his ankle. "I should have french-stepped up that couloir instead of front-pointing. Now my foot hurts. I don't want to descend that way." So we stumbled around the upper plateau of Shastina for another 10 minutes trying to find the way down to the saddle before giving up. "We have to descend the couloir Todd," said Paul, "we'll rope-up if we have to".
So we hiked back to the couloir exit and prepared to descend. We decided to build a single snow-picket anchor, which, if we could get the picket into the rock-hard snow, should be sufficient protection. Todd and I descend on rappel and Paul downclimbed with me belaying him from an anchor at the bottom of each pitch. This worked fine and we repeated it about 8 or so times. But standing around that much was making us all cold. To make matters worse, I dropped my glove at about 11,200 feet and spent what seemed like an hour watching it slide down the couloir. That thing just wouldn't stop! Thankfully I had my Mountain Hardware liner gloves on. (Those things kicked some serious ass. I will never leave home without them.)
We exited the couloir at about 10,500 feet after retrieving my glove, and hiked back to camp. Within a few hours camp was broken and we were on our way to Bunny Flat. As we passed Horse Camp a gnarly thunder storm hit the mountain and I wondered what would have happened if we'd tried to "bag" Shasta instead of her little sister.
At Casa Ramos in Shasta City a few hours later, with a HUGE ice cold beer in front of me, we reflected on our little "consolation" summit attempt of Shastina. Here are my conclusions:
1. Shastina is no slouch of a mountain. It is dwarfed by it's massive big sister, but at 12,330 feet, things can and do go wrong up there.
2. AMS can strike any time, and seemingly anywhere (except at sea level). We had been at Hidden Valley (elev. 9,200 ft) for about 3 days already, yet Todd started exhibiting symptoms within 1,000 vertical feet of there.
3. The Lightning Couloir is a fun route to ascend Shastina under the right conditions. White-out is probably not the ideal conditions, and descending the route is not that fun.
4. Always attach ones glove to ones wrist. I chose to bring my "cool looking" gloves that didn't have wrist straps, instead of my normal looking gloves that did. Were it not for my liner gloves, I could have been in serious trouble when my main glove went for a ride.
5. Last and most obviously, when a storm hits, descend. That should have been a no-brainer (and was to me) yet we lollygagged around the summit looking for the highest rock for far too long.