Elev: 14,161 feet
May 28-30, 2005
For Memorial Day, Kirsten, Marcus, Anastasia and I decided to make the 9 hour drive down to Northern California to climb and ski that big, but oft-forgotten volcano lurking at the extreme southern end of the Cascades, Mt Shasta. Really, most people are probably more familiar with the endangered soda pop species named after the mountain than the mountain itself. But while being similar in height, size and relief as Rainier, the climbing on Shasta is generally considered less technical and difficult. We left Seattle before the crack of dawn, at 4 in the morning Saturday. We stopped at the 24-hour Starbucks near Northgate, loaded up on coffee, and just like that we crossed the California border around noon. As we approached the mountain, we could see a vigorous-looking storm system over the coast.
After getting our permits at the ranger station in the town of Shasta, we headed up to Bunny Flats at 7000 feet, not at all excited about the weather that was approaching. We had intended to climb Cascade Gulch, which is a slightly more technical route than the dog route, Avalanche Gulch, and much less crowded. However, we chatted with a ranger at the parking lot, who said that lots of wet slides had been coming down in Cascade Gulch, some running a thousand feet and reaching over twenty feet in depth. Also, in discussing the incoming weather, the ranger commented that “Shasta is an interesting place to study wind and weather.” Not really a great selling point for climbers – an intensive lesson on Shasta's weather was not what we had in mind. Thus, we decided to bail to Avalanche Gulch – a route quicker to retreat from should we need to and, ironically, with less avalanche hazard. And at least that would answer the question of whether to bring glacier gear or not! (eh, no)
We arrived at 9500 feet around 6:30pm and decided to set up camp there, instead of continuing another 800 feet to Helen Lake where the traditional camp is. We didn’t want to haul all our overnight gear that high when there was tons of snow coverage for camping a little lower, and we wanted to hurry up and get settled, fed, hydrated, and to bed at a decent hour in anticipation of our 3:30am wake-up. The way up had been marked by lots of noticeable avalanche activity around the gulch, and pretty mushy snow insome places and a breakable crust in others. Apparently there had been no freeze/corn cycle in a while, which was not a good omen for our skiing prospects. Well, right away we ran into our first SNAFU – I couldn’t get my stove to work. I fussed with it for a good hour or so, to no avail. Meanwhile, we could see thunderheads forming in the distance and occasional flashes of lightning in the foothills. This might be described as a low point in the weekend. Marcus and Anastasia graciously put off their snow-melting to cook our pasta for us. Fortunately, while sitting there trying to choke down the food, staring angrily at my damn stove, it hit me that something was missing – the little fuel deflector that keeps the jet from shooting the fuel out of the vicinity of the flame. I found the piece in my stove bag, successfully cranked up the stove, and we were able to start melting water. That was a bittersweet little moment, as Marcus poignantly captured by saying, “Look at the big but slow brain on Nate.” At least I figured it out before we got home – then it would be “tragically slow.”
We woke up at 3:30 Sunday morning, and peered out the tent door toward the summit. It looked like a beautiful night – no clouds around, except down in the lowlands. It seemed as though the low pressure system had passed, but the ranger at Bunny Flats predicted that if it did pass, the back side of the system would reverse the winds and bring another bout of stormy weather. The snow had frozen over pretty well during the night, making us hopeful of some good corn later in the morning, but also mindful of all the beginner and maybe even incompetent climbers that would be on the icy slopes. As we hiked up, eventually switching to crampons, we would occasionally see some pieces of people’s gear come sliding down. Fortunately on a route that crowded, there is usually another person lower down in the object’s path to retrieve said gear.
This circumstance was a little annoying, but it became unnerving midway up the slope when the next object to come sliding down was a boy. He was headed toward Kirsten and me, and our first instinct was to get out of his way to avoid getting punctured by his various sharp, pointy things, and allow him to arrest himself, but when we realized he had lost his axe and was basically sliding uncontrollably we switched gears into help-him-stop mode. Another man nearby made a very well timed and calculated dive for his chest, avoiding the boy’s one remaining cramponed boot, slowing him down most of the way, and I stuck out my ski pole for him to grab, and he finally came to a stop after a total ride of about 500 feet. He was obviously very shaken. He had lots of snow burn around his waist and couldn’t really go anywhere without his axe and only one crampon, so Kirsten and I chopped out a seat in the hard snow for him. The other guy gave him some advil and Kirsten instructed him to do everything he could to stay warm and not move until someone retrieved his axe and crampons and his dad got down to him. He thanked us profusely and we carried on up the slope.
After another hour or so we saw the boy's dad coming down the slope. He appeared remarkably unconcerned about what had happened. He had apparently climbed on ahead of his son and didn’t even know he had slipped until he didn’t show up for a while. He came down to look for him and was only then filled in on his son’s fall. We spoke to him about it briefly, then carried on, but I did notice that he was carrying his axe by the shaft and had no leash attached to it. He seemed comfortable on the slope though, so I said nothing. A moment later he stumbled. I looked back and watched him try and arrest, only to have the hard snow pull his unleashed axe from his hands, ripping away his one tool for stopping himself, as he began picking up velocity down the slope. And he certainly did not enjoy the comparatively good fortune of his son. We could do nothing but watch as he kept sliding down the slope, unable to stop for about 1300 feet, rolling and tumbling almost all the way back to Helen Lake. We learned later he suffered a broken ankle, bruised ribs, and loss of skin on his arms… but at least he lived.What a bad day for that family. I can only imagine how horrified his son must have been.
As if the vibe on the mountain wasn’t bad enough, the weather was starting to deteriorate. As the ranger had predicted, the system seemed to be hitting us with its backside… and rather viciously. Yes, viciously. The backside was "vicious." Think about that. We were socked in by a cloud and even though we were still in the relatively protected position of the gulch, we still got blasted with icy chunks of spindrift and gusts of wind strong enough to make you wobble on your crampons. We caught some people coming down from up on the ridge who said it was even worse up there, so at 12,300 feet we decided to call it and turn around. We slowly cramponed back down to about 11,000 feet until the snow showed signs of softening a bit, at which point we quietly rejoiced and donned our skis.
From about 10,500 feet down, the snow was turning into fantastic corn and the weather was clearing a bit, so after stopping at camp for a bite to eat we skinned back up to a point just below Helen Lake for another lap. As we took our skins off, the clouds moved back in again and we could barely see 50 feet in front of us. We picked our way back to camp, taking cautious turns, and playing Marco Polo trying not to lose each other. It was close to noon now, and we were pretty exhausted, so we ate lunch and napped in the warm oven of clouds until about 3 in the afternoon when the sky cleared up again. We felt refreshed from the nap and the snow was still in good shape – about an inch of wet corn on top of firm base, so we yawned, stretched, put the skins back on and went back up for another 1000 foot lap. It turned out to be one of the finest 1000 feet of corn skiing any of us had skied, so feeling quite satisfied with our accomplishments that day, we returned to camp and cooked dinner: a hearty meal of sausage sandwiches and Rainier beer! And for all of us it was the highest we had eaten sausage at. A notable achievement to be sure.
We retired to our tents around 7:30 with the plan of wiling away the evening reading and relaxing in our sleeping bags. We were thoroughly exhausted by the day and only managed to read for about 15 minutes before falling asleep for a solid eleven hours. Monday morning we slowly got up, ate breakfast, drank coffee, used the strange Shasta "brown bags with kitty litter," and broke down camp. We began our descent when the snow was just beginning to soften again, making for a very fun ski down, even with heavy packs on. We skied right up to the parking lot at around 10:30, hopefully in good form because we are on a tourist’s home video. We left Bunny Flats eagerly anticipating lunch at a place in Weed called Buddha Belly Kitchen that Kirsten and Becky ate at on their way to the Sierras a couple years ago. Alas, it was closed for Memorial Day, and we were forced to resort to something a little less tasty in Yreka. I won’t bother with the name as it was little more than adequate. Then we spent eight more hours in the car driving home replaying all the fantastic turns in our minds.The climbing report this week on the Mt Shasta climbing site said, "We had another exciting bout of weather this last Memorial Day weekend with thunderstorms, strong winds and a little bit of snow." We're hoping next time we won't get such a good lesson on Shasta's interesting weather.