In 2009, I attempted a summit of Mt. Shasta. While it’s one of the easier mountaineering experiences with minimal technical parts, we didn’t top out. I’m planning on attempting the climb again this Spring, and thought it would be great to publish my experiences and photos from the last attempt as a review!
We took two nights to summit and camping in Horse Camp as well as Helen Lake. That May was an exceptionally snowy year, as you can see. This added some additional difficulty as the path to Horse Camp, which is normally free of snow, has a very deep layer and since we left the trailhead at 3pm, we ended up basically postholing our way to Horse Camp. A very exhausting way of starting.
The rangers are on skis — great way of quickly getting around.
Horse Camp has a shelter but it’s for emergencies only, so we cleared a spot in the trees. it was my first time camping in the snow and I wasn’t very prepared — I rented a foam pad from the local store in Shasta (The Fifth Season, highly recommend), but neglected to bring my air pad for laying. The first night I was very cold and got very little sleep.
It was gorgeous the next morning.
Making our way to Helen Lake.
The snow was great — icy and not soft, so we walked with crampons on top of the snow without falling through.
This gives you a better idea of the steepness of the slope, which wasn’t even the worst that we encountered (more on that soon.) I have very inflexible ankles, which was an issue — you can see me on the right here sidestepping up the slope since my ankles couldn’t go straight.
Helen Lake is around the lump in the middle. Here you can also see Red Banks and the slope leading up to it, which is pretty much a 45 degree ankle upwards. The summit is not visible here and is behind the ridge on the left.
At one point one of my buddies (also the cameraman) dropped his glove which fell all the way down the slope from him… and conveniently on my path. That’s me to the right.
Helen Lake! Good number of people prepping for the summit the following morning.
One of the two people I went with decided to dig a “toilet” with the best view in the world. There are no trees or any sort of shelter here, so peeing/pooping is normally… rather exposed.
Of course, my bowels didn’t want to cooperate (“but this isn’t actually a toilet!”) More on that later…
Icing backs after the climb. Unfortunately winter and mountaineering gear are a bit heavier than normal backpacking, leading to much heavier packs and unhappier backs.
Boiling/filtering snow. I’m making quite a fashion statement with my unzipped pants, long underwear, and giant hat. Even though we were in the snow, it was very warm out in the sun (not to mention the very reflective snow making it warmer and brighter.)
We had Mountain House food for our main meals, as well as salami, cheese, and crackers for snacks — you know, the usual backpacking food.
The mountain was absolutely breathtaking.
Sleeping this night went better than the last night, probably due to exhaustion. We also got up earlier than what is usually recommended (I believe 1am as compared to the usual 3am wake up call) since I and another person on my team were more out of shape than the average mountaineer. I didn’t move very quick and tired easily, but taking small breaks was usually sufficient to keep going, so we just hoped we’d get to the top in time to summit by leaving a little earlier. You don’t want to summit too late in the day due to the possibility of poor weather and avalanches.
Patented side-stepping technique, this time in the dark!
Here’s where small things started to go wrong — one of my climbing buddies abandoned the climb and went back down to Helen Lake. We also had to deal with high winds, which was knocking a lot of ice off from the top of the mountain. After this photo, I started climbing with my sunglasses on due to being pummeled by small-to-medium ice chunks (also, note the helmet, which was also to protect against this.)
Large ice chunks were a major concern, and necessitated watching the slope above you very carefully. I was climbing and someone yelled, “ROCK!” and another climber and me ran perpendicular to the slope, narrowly missing a rock chunk about 8 inches in diameter. We yelled to the climbers below us, and unfortunately one of my climbing partners below me ended up getting hit in the lower back by this same ice chunk. While it didn’t cause any physical damage, it was actually mentally scary and very discouraging.
Eventually the sun started to come out. Here you can see the degree of the slope and how steep it was. I ended up getting into a 20 steps-rest-20 steps-rest rhythm. Again, slow but steady movement upwards.
Climbers below us.
The sun’s shadow was amazing.
Eventually we made it to Red Banks, where we decided to climb one of the chimneys instead of going through the Thumb Rock pass on the advice of the rangers, who said the crevasse from the glacier might be opening. This is was technically kind of difficult — the slope was nearly vertical though only about six feet high (if I remember correctly). I managed to use the points of my crampons and my ice axe to basically climb upwards until I got to the edge at the top. It was a very unstable feeling (well, of course, since we didn’t have ropes) — if you were to lose your balance and fall backwards, you’d probably fling yourself all the way back down to base camp. Not recommended. My partner, shook up from being hit by the rock earlier, didn’t feel great at this part either.
But we made it! Thumb Rock is behind me. The imprint to my right side is where the crevasse would be. Was definitely careful not to stray close to it.
This is where the views got even more spectacular.
Here you can see basically where the summit is (the very right-ish), and the tiny climbers to the left.
The ice at the top was pretty gnarly. It was also super windy here (I remember how well it cut through my gloves and how cold my hands were).
This gives you a pretty good idea of what we were walking over at this moment.
I was still trucking on, but my partner at this point couldn’t make it further. Unfortunately the stresses from the morning (bringing our third member back to camp, getting hit by the rock, the frightening climb up the chimney) took their toll. About fifty feet further than the photo above, we opted to turn around and head back to Helen Lake.
TMI time! Remember earlier when I mentioned bowel issues? Pardon me, but I’m going to stop being delicate for a bit. I hadn’t pooped in three days. I knew I needed to, but every time I tried earlier, it just didn’t happen. Turning around apparently signaled to my brain, “NOW!” and I was in such insane distress. There was absolutely NO shelter here (not even snow-drifts) and climbers hiking nearby everywhere. I decided to try to hold it until we got back to Helen Lake, but it turned into a walk-10-feet-stop-and-try-not-to-shit-pants type situation.
It would have been faster to get down had we were able to glissade, but since we turned around so early in the morning (7am if memory serves), the snow was still icy and it was too dangerous to slide down — too much danger of getting out of control, and the snow was also too icy to get a good amount of penetration (for slowing) by our ice axes.
I made it (slowly and painfully) about 3/4th the way back to Helen Lake before I called defeat — my partner dug me a barrier to kind of protect my dignity, stood a lookout, and I finally did my thing. Hilariously, the paper you poop on (no leaving waste on the mountain, you have to pack out everything, including your feces) has a target.
I felt immediately better (yay!), we got back to camp, and I promptly passed out in my tent from exhaustion.
Finally roused and broke camp in the mid-afternoon, which wasn’t that great — the snow was half melted and fluffy with a high avalanche chance. We opted to glissade down the mountain at this point.
Mini-avalanches. Very not comforting.
Halfway (maybe even just quarter of the way), our nice smooth glissading path was interrupted by someone who was tired of post-holing and thought that maybe the glissade path would be more stable. So the smooth path turned into a full-of-boot-holes path and we had to stop sliding ourselves — it was impossible. To this day, I want to strangle that person. There was even a point where we could see ski marks from a ranger who came by presumably to tell the person to get off the fucking glissade path, and the boot marks moved off the path… only to return about 50 feet later when presumably the ranger was gone. Enraging.
The snow was so fluffy that we were post-holing up to our thighs. Not to mention we took a different path down the mountain than we took to get up, and we ended up going way off the typical path, almost getting lost. Miserable.
Thankfully, once we hit the tree-line, we found the path, made it down to the car, emptied our boots of inches of freezing water, and immediately drove to a burger place for beers.
So that was our 2009 attempt. It wasn’t quite over — I woke up the next morning feeling funny and went to a mirror, and discovered my bottom lip had swelled to 300% the normal size. Probably caused by sun-and-wind-burn. Incredibly embarrassing (took about three days to return to normal.) I walked around in public with a scarf around my lip to hide.
Oh, and when I got home to the Bay Area, I tossed my bag outdoors and completely forgot to remove the waste bag from the top. I’ll spare you the details, but I bet you can imagine the smell.
Doesn’t that sound fun? The physical effort and the amazing views made it more than worth it, as scary, painful, and strenuous as it was. I’m sincerely looking forward to trying it again.
Stay tuned for a write-up of what I’m planning on doing differently this time around!