With my stay in California rapidly approaching its terminus, I realized that I had little time left to try my luck with the local fourteeners. So on one of my few remaining weekends, I set off for Mt. Shasta in the far north of the state. Standing at 14,162 feet, Shasta rises nearly a full vertical mile higher than any of the neighboring peaks, dwarfing them with its steep, snow-covered slopes. Given its impressive stature, it's not surprising that Mt. Shasta has found a prominent place in Native American folklore, and has earned a reputation in urban legend as a popular UFO landing site.|
On Saturday afternoon, I drove to the Bunny Flat trailhead via Everitt Memorial Highway, which weaves its way up the flanks of Mt. Shasta. At 7040 feet, the trailhead stands higher than the tallest point in New England, yet still leaves a 7000 foot climb to the summit. Initially, I had planned to start my ascent shortly before sunrise, but when I realized that my trip fortuitously coincided with clear skies and a full moon, I instead set my alarm for 1:00am, opting to make my ascent during peak UFO observation hours. I spread my sleeping bag out on a patch of soft sand, barely hidden from the parking lot, and went to sleep.
But as luck would have it, my three scheduled hours of sleep were cut short. At 0:25, a late car pulled into the Bunny Flat parking lot. I heard two women's voices, followed by one person's footsteps approaching my small campsite. Despite the full moon, it became painfully clear that the approaching woman didn't notice my sleeping bag when she came to within 10 feet of me, dropped her pants, and purged her system of the caffeinated beverages that had no doubt kept her awake for the late night drive.
Perhaps not the world's most pleasant wake-up call, but I realized that I probably wouldn't get back to sleep any time soon - So I got up, ate a quick breakfast consisting of a chocolate chip muffin, an english muffin, and a pint of OJ, and hit the trail.
The brilliant glow of the moon was far brighter than I had anticipated, so my headlamp proved to be entirely unnecessary. In the blue-grey moonlight, the rock faces of Mt. Shasta blended almost perfectly with a distant cloud bank. The dark silhouette of the summit was sharply contrasted with the intricate maze of brightly lit snowfields and glaciers that wound their way down from the peak, forming a ghostly skeleton that echoed the shape of the otherwise invisible mountain.
The beginning of the trail was flat and wide, so I made good time as I wound my way up toward Horse Camp, a small hut operated by the Sierra Club. In the still, windless night, the silence of the forest was palpable. There were no animals, no bugs, no breeze - Only my footsteps disturbed the otherwise perfect silence. When I stopped to admire the stars, I could hear the sinewy swish of cold muscles as I turned my head toward the Pleides, just rising over the eastern ridge.
I passed quickly through Horse Camp, fearful that I might wake nearby campers. As I left the camp to the northeast, the trees soon disappeared, giving way to the low-lying plants of the alpine tundra. As I ascended the steep talus slopes, even these robust plants eventually disappeared. The frozen landscape was completely devoid of life. Only the city lights, nestled in the valley thousands of feet below, broke the illusion of might well have been a martian landscape.
As I approached Helen Lake, I was startled to see a tiny point of light, slowly creeping up the mountianside above me. It was barely 3:00, so I was surprised to think that someone else might have beat me to the mountain. Then again, I can only presume that extraterrerstrials keep unusual hours.
When I came into the Helen Lake campsite at 3:30, I found a small city of tents, spread out along the top of the rocky plateau. A few bleary-eyed mountaineers had just gotten up, and were melting snow for their day's water supply. One of the more coherent climbers confirmed that a few ambitious folks had started their ascent as early as 2:30, hoping to reach the ridge before sunrise. I snuck quietly through the slumbering city, anxious to start my ascent up the snowfield.
For the duration of the hike, I had been particularly conscientous about drinking plenty of water, recognizing that proper hydration was one of my only allies against the unfamiliar altitude. But apparently, when living at sea level, two and a half hours of sleep at the trailhead provides insufficient time to acclimate to a 14,000-foot climb. After one particularly intense burst of effort, my body expressed its extreme discontent by spewing a well-diluted soup of muffins and orange juice. Now, It's not unheard of for my body to express itself in such a manner in response to extreme exertion or poor acclimitization... What really bothered me was that I hadn't even reached 11,000 feet. Could I really keep this up? Should I turn back now and give up?
Of course not.
After a few minutes of rest, I resolved to push ahead at a more reasonable pace. My only race was against the sun, and recognized that I was unlikely to reach the ridgeline before sunrise, regardless of my speed.
Ascending the snowfield was easier than I had anticipated, even though I had opted not to bring my crampons. The hot summer days had melted deep ruts into the ice, forming an easily navigable stairway. After nearly two hours of climbing, my slow steady push up the snowfield ended abruptly at the Red Banks, an ominous wall that rises out of the ice. Here, the well-marked trail entered a narrow crack in the cliff face, where it proceeded to ascend a long, straight, icy chute. By 6:00, this chute had become a veritable climbing superhighway. Every climber on the southwest face was eventually funnelled into the narrow gap, which provided the only reasonable route to the summit.
As the sun rose on the other side of the ridge, Mt. Shasta cast a nearly perfect triangular shadow through the hazy atmosphere to the west. As I continued toward the summit, the shadow crept slowly through the valley, marking an eastward-progressing daybreak for the towns in its path. Finally, at 7:30, I reached the ridge and was greeted by the warm glow of the rising sun.
After a long break, I proceded north up Misery Hill, the last big push before the summit snowfield. Thankfully, Misery Hill proved less adversarial than its name might suggest, and I managed to keep a steady pace, motivated by the knowledge that the summit was nearby.
When the trail leveled off, the summit came into view, rising abruptly out of the broad, flat snowfield. The short walk on across the flat plane of glistening snow was a welcome break before the final push to the top. At 9:20, I topped out on the jagged summit and took ample time to admire the staggering 360-degree view more than two vertical miles above the valley floor. I spent 40 minutes at the summit, catching my breath, admiring the view, and baking in the intense sun.
The descent route from the summit approximately followed the ascent route, with minor variations made to avoid icy patches while maximizing the time on the snowfields. Typically, the descent route offers a continuous glissade that can take a climber down nearly 4000 feet in just a few minutes. But unfortunately, with poor winter snow and an unusually warm summer, the toboggan run down Avalanche Gully was largely destroyed, passing through large regions of exposed rock. I was still able to appreciate about 500 feet of the glissade route, but was dissapointed with the condition of the snow.
I took my time on the return trip, chatting with other climber and offering beta on the route. Once I passed below the high camp, I met a number of day-hikers, anxious to go for a cool swim at Helen Lake; they were unanimously disappointed to learn that the lake offered poor swimming conditions, owing largely to the fact that it was frozen solid.
Shortly before 15:00, I arrived back at the Bunny Flat trailhead, having been reminded of my appreciation for the oxygen-rich atmosphere at sea level. It also served as a reminder that I need more high-altitude training. After all, that Denali expedition can't be that far off.