Some Background and our hike to Clear Creek Base Camp
Since before I was even back in California from New York City, my work gchat conversations with friends adventurous enough to consider mountaineering have been about taking down the west coast's most prominent peaks. Hood, Rainer, Whitney, and of course Shasta were the pretty day dreams that got me through the monotony of slow work days. Any climber knows their natural tendency is to want to continue going up, and going up as high as you possibly can. Topping out on a mountain peak was the next logical step from topping out on a multi-pitch big wall. While Shasta wasn't exactly the technical mountaineering climb I imagined her to be from my cubicle in Manhattan, I learned quickly that disregard of your map and the route you planned to climb combined with youthful arrogance can make Shasta a formidable opponent. Thankfully this trip didn't end in disaster or injury but the experience and the lesson that went with it were priceless.
On June 15th, 2009 I quit my job at Catholic Charities in New York to come back home to the Bay Area for the summer before I'm forced to return to the steel and glass valleys of Manhattan for graduate school this fall. The plan as its worked out so far has been to boulder, sport, and trad climb as much as possible while making time for family and friends. But after assembling a posse consisting of my childhood friend Boris, a soccer player and law student, my close friend from high school, Andrew a strength and conditioning coach, and my college pal Matt an eagle scout and casual climber who works at Staford University, we all felt ambitious and decided to move forward and take down all 14,000 plus feet of Shasta.
Being all cocky early 20 somethings we instantly ruled out going up Avalanche Gulch deeming it too easy and covered in "fat slob" tourists "sherpa-ed" up by guides for piles of cash. So after a little research we decided to take on the Clear Creek Trail, a relatively easy ridge route that would be fat slob free but difficult enough for first timers. After two warm up hikes the week before, one 6 mile with weight uphill and an 8 mile that varied I felt more than ready. Boris had joined us on the 8 mile hike and Matt had been running on his own so we all generally felt confident and prepared. The guys all rented the ice axes, boots, crampons, and helmets that most trip reports deemed necessary for the last 500 feet or so of the Clear Creek trail, still convinced however that they'd be excess weight and we wouldn't even have to take them out. I had my own gear including an epic wooden ice axe my dad had purchased in the 70's in Switzerland that seemed like it would still function.
We all somehow seemed to wedge into the back of my car and hit the road on the morning of Friday the 26th excited and confident we would be successful.
After stopping off in McCloud for a quick bite and purchasing our summit/wilderness passes from the ranger station, we finally made it to the Clear Creek trail head at about 5pm. After evaluating what clothes and gear were overkill we readied our packs making them as light as possible and head out on the trail.
The two mile hike to base camp took us a little under two hours. The entire way up we only saw three people and felt confident we had made the right choice avoiding Avalanche Gulch. The trail was gorgeous as Shasta opened up her arms to us after we passed the tree line.
We all felt good after we set up camp and ate dinner. Everyone even took a swig of our victory whiskey which we planned to toast on the summit. After a meal of ramen, hot cocoa, and dehydrated overpriced REI grub, we packed it in and hit the hay confident we would be standing on Shasta's summit the next day.
The Climb (well to be fair we all thought it was only a hike)
I slept surprisingly well, while none of the other guys slept a wink keeping each other up with jokes, stories, and assessments of the climb yet to come in the early morning. We all started moving and cooked a small breakfast at 2:50 am. After taking out our sleeping bags and pads which we put in a bush and planned to retrieve on our way down, we hit what we thought was the trail. Passing the small out crops of bushes that we had bivyed in we came to the edge of steep ridge/scramble. While I suggested we needed to traverse across what we as assumed was Wintum Glacier to our left to get on trail, the guys all feeling confident and energized voted on charging ahead instead. Feeling just as good I had no problem with it. What transpired was a scramble/climb in moon light with headlamps on what probably should have been done with some protection and a short rope. This section turned out to be the Wintum ridge.
After ascending the ridge we all came to the consensus that the best route would be to keep charging forward. We could see the summit which looked close and we all felt strong and Clear Creek was probably too easy anyways. The route we were taking couldn't be that bad right?
We continued up the ridge as the sun came up in one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen. And I couldn't help myself by taking picture after picture of the view. It was incredible. We did however feel the magnitude of the climb we had done in the dark. Looking down at the section of Wintum Ridge we had done in headlamps and feeling a little sketched out by the risk we had taken, but we figured the worst was over. No falls or injuries, Matt had lost one of his nalgenes off the ridge, but we figured we'd be ok on water. As we continued forward the mountain only got steeper.
After about 45 minutes to an hour we reached where the Wintum and Hotlum glacier seemed to converge together. Off in the distance ahead of us we could see a team of three climbers roped together. Looking up ahead of us we all suddenly felt a lot more nervous. The glacier was steep and our experience with glacial travel was minimal. While a crevasse was the last of our worries on Shasta during the summer or in general, I was really worried one of us might slip, start sliding, and not be able to self arrest.
But with no rope and not wanting to traverse over or turn back we decided to keep doing what seemed to work and just keep going up. Matt being the eagle scout he is assured us that while off trail we could find our way onto one of the other trails later on ahead. So I went over what I knew about self arresting and crampon technique with the guys, we all got geared up and pressed on once again.
While sketchy and certainly exhilarating, this section of the climb was the hands down favorite for all of us. The sun was really coming out and Shasta's summit continued to beckon us forward in the distance. Despite our early misgivings no one had any problems on the ice. Although new to crampons climbing up came with no problems. We pushed through with ease heading up to a ridge on our right which by our continually faulty calculations would lead us straight to the summit. While we were right this time we had no clue what we were taking on.
After a short snack and some cheesy poses on the ridge overlooking the glacier we began our hike/scramble up what seemed like a never ending scree field. From this point on we were on what we all would liken to a death march. Climbing completely exposed to the sun feeling the altitude, and slipping on loose scree.
Painful is really an understatement. As we inched up the mountain, the higher we each got we each began to feel more exhausted, dehydrated, and nauseous. The ascent of this section started with a short break every 100 feet or so, soon it was 30, then 20, then soon only a few steps before we needed to sit down rest for a few minutes and drink what little water we had left.
At this point we had begun to no longer ascend together in a group. Throughout the majority of the climb we had stayed close and taken turns leading the hike. Andrew a former cross country runner and self described stickler for pain smashed forward relentlessly on ahead of us. In his mind there was no possible way he was not summiting and no one not even himself would stop him. I fell about 30-90 yards behind him varying on my pace and rests. Matt and Boris were about 50 yards behind me. Trying to make sure the two them were in earshot while keeping up with Andrew who was "muleing" up the ridge non-stop was not easy.
As we moved on the climb became more and more personal. Each break we all felt increasingly on our own. And it was each of us versus the mountain. We'd peer on at each other on during breaks, occasionally mustering enough energy to yell an "Are you ok? Do you have enough water?!". The sun was beginning to beat down on us and despite the cool air normal to the elevation we were really feeling it on our skin. What I remember most of this climb was the utter silence. I could hear nothing and even when I tried to yell the wind and the cold air seemed to drown me into obscurity. I began to take fewer and fewer pictures and pretty soon my camera was in my pack and the only thing on my mind was just making it to the top of the mountain without passing out.
Over two hours in, Andrew had made it well ahead of us and had stopped in what looked like two huge boulders at the top of the ridge. A sheer cliff blocked our way to the summit and to the right an incredibly steep traverse was challenging the roped team ahead of us. (They ended up turning back.) Boris and Matt were no longer inching forward and Matt had to wake Boris up a few times during their breaks. They had both slipped and fell on the scree repeatedly and it was only getting worst as we climbed. Water was low and so was morale. Thinking that maybe because Andrew was the most fit out of all of us that he was fine and probably continuing on to the summit without us, I considered turning back and making sure my friends were going to get down in one piece. Today looking back I'm glad I didn't decide to do that.
I pushed forward to a point in which I was within 25 yards on the rock outcrop at the top of the ridge where I had seen Andrew take shelter. I began to yell up at him as I slowly ascended but I got no answer. After about 5-7 minutes I finally roused him.
"Are you ok?!" RC
"No, I don't have anything left" AW
"Do you have water?" RC
"Ok you need to come down to me I have water, we definitely need to turn back."RC
For over 5 minutes I got nothing from him. I continued to yell up at him and slowly make my way to where he was with what little energy I had left. I made little headway in that time, but I finally got word from him.
"You need to come to me now!" RC
"You're not coming to get me?!" AW
"I'm trying but it would help if you could come to me I've got little left"
After a few moments the palest Andrew I have ever seen staggered out from the rock outcrop he was using for shelter from the sun. His lips were white and he was stumbling down the scree toward me like he had polished off the entire bottle of the victory whiskey. I guided him with my voice and trudged to him. When he got to me he polished off what was left of my water and began to get a hold of the situation. He still doesn't remember any of the conversation we had or coming down to me from the top of the ridge. But he apologized for charging off ahead of us and was genuinely scared. I think we all were a little at that point.
Andrew said when he had gotten to the top of the ridge he realized he had used everything left he had. And seeing that the worst was far from over on the last 200 feet or so to the summit he felt despair and guilt for having lead us up what he says is "the hardest thing I have ever done in my life". Together we made our way down to Boris and Matt, shared some more water and had a small snack for energy.
The descent was so much easier and we found our way over to the Clear Creek trail that we were supposed to be on. The hike down through scree felt much longer and as we looked back up we were shocked with the intensity of the route we took lit up by sun light. After looking at the map and realizing that we had done some of the three most difficult sections of three different routes we felt a little better about not summiting.
(Wintun ridge -> traverse over Wintun glacier -> Hotlum-Wintun ridge -> Top end of Hotlum glacier headwall)
No one was bitter or upset but the only thing we wanted at this point was to make it back to camp, grab our sleeping bags, then get to the car and have some nice comfort burgers and shakes in McCloud to make up for the painful climb we had just retreated from. After leaving at 3am we had gotten back to the car at the trail head at 3pm. Andrew was hydrated and ok, and we were all exhausted.
In hindsight we were pretty lucky. After re-reading Freedom of the Hills I see the stupidity in both our preparations and general attitude. Read this book before setting foot in the back country.
Taking away from this I think its important to realize that every mountain is dangerous no matter how fit or young you are. Or even if she's overrun with tourists. And our lack of caution could have led to a much more tragic outcome had we not made the right decisions in the end. The mountain always wins and that careful preparation ala more water, protection, and supplies, and well more importantly paying attention to the map, could have made our climb while maybe a little less interesting and challenging, a successful summit attempt.
Next time Shasta, next time.
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