Medford man's 13th ascent of Mount Shasta is cause for reflection
Though I have summited Mount Shasta 13 times, each time I learn something new about the mountain and about myself.
This summer, on a clear Saturday morning in June, Dan Ethridge, Bren Dixon, John Landsiedel and I began climbing Mount Shasta at 2:37 a.m. via the Clear Creek route. Knowing this route is sketchy even in daylight, I had hiked the trail the week before to about 8,500 feet elevation. There I had built a small cairn to mark the trail just after it crossed near Clear Creek springs, about three miles from the trailhead.
I expected to reach this area about dawn on the day of our climb. But we were well ahead of schedule and the area was totally dark, except for the headlamps of my three friends (my headlamp having failed). We came unexpectedly upon a briskly flowing, snow-banked rivulet — something I had not seen the week before.
Checking my GPS route tracing of the week before, I could see we were about 100 yards east of where we needed to be. Yet as we were on a well-marked trail, I supposed it would connect in due course to the trail I had earlier marked.
By dawn, we were at about 9,500 feet — 1,000 feet higher than the springs and the cairn. Because we didn’t want to lose elevation to find the cairn, we continued our ascent. Sooner or later, I reasoned, we must intersect the main trail. Meanwhile we simply aimed for the highest visible point of the mountain. When we reached about 10,000 feet we came across a deep field of snow with switchback footprints left by several earlier climbers. We followed their tracks until that snow field ended. As we continued climbing, we crossed several more fields of snow, similarly crisscrossed, then as we climbed higher into more fields of snow, there were no longer any tracks. We could not tell whether these climbers had turned back or continued on loose scree instead of snow.
Though I had drunk a full liter of water just before leaving the trailhead, and had carried two additional liters with me in a CamelBak, I realized about 10 a.m. that I was going through my water faster than expected. As we neared the end of the final snowfield, I could hear water trickling beneath the snow. Using my ice ax, I tried to cut through the frozen snow to reach the flowing water to refill my CamelBak, but the snow was too deep. Glancing uphill, I could see and hear a faint trickle of water where the snow field narrowed to just a few yards across. Upon reaching this point, I reached into my backpack and emptied a sandwich baggie. I laid it open in a shallow icy pool, about the size of my hand. The baggie gradually filled with enough water to pour into my CamelBak. By doing this several times, I refilled my CamelBak. I now had enough water to take me through the rest of the day.
After the last snow field ended, we removed our crampons, exchanged our ice axes for trekking poles, and continued our ascent on very loose scree, aiming as always for the highest visible point on the mountain. At about 11,000 feet, as the pitch became much steeper and the scree became much looser, I gradually started to fall behind my three younger friends. Exhausted, and not wanting to prevent my friends from reaching the summit in time to safely to return, I called out that they should continue, and I would meet them back at the trailhead. In that moment I felt I could go no farther.
John (whom I had not met until the day before) replied that if I went down, he would go down too, so that I wouldn’t be alone, while Bren and Dan continued to the summit. When I realized John was willing to sacrifice his summit for my safety, I replied that I would somehow find a way to continue so that we could all reach the summit. If I could just put one foot in front of the other and keep doing that thousands of times, I reasoned, I could eventually reach the top.
We soon picked up a feeble trail in the loose scree. As we passed Martian Rock (it appeared to have dropped from another planet), this trail seemed to vanish — or to split into two almost imperceptible trails, one faintly headed north and the other south. Seeing no obvious trail heading west toward the summit, we continued aiming for the highest point we could see. This required us to traverse up through an extremely steep field of boulders. (Data on my iPhone later showed it took us a full hourto cover just 300 yards.)
When we crested the peak we had been aiming at all morning, I had hoped to see the welcome snowfields and gradual pitch of the “soccer field” above the Whitney Glacier, just below the summit. Instead, we saw only more of the mountain to climb. But since my GPS showed we now were above 13,000 feet, I knew we had to be close to the 14,179 foot summit.
We noticed a discernible trail and followed it north. The footing was firm and the pitch was gentle compared to the boulder field, so we made good time. Within about 20 minutes, we caught our first glimpse, through mists of swirling clouds, of what appeared to be the summit jutting above an appealing field of snow. As we got closer, I realized this could not be the actual summit. So, instead of heading directly north toward this jutting peak, we turned west, crowned a ridge, and there before us was the beautiful northern end of the soccer field. We crossed a small segment of that field, occasionally post-holing up to our knees in the warming soft snow.
We now began to smell the sulfur of the fumaroles just below the peak. After a final push up the last steep pitch to the summit, we were on top of the world. We stared in awe at the magnificent views, signed the guest register, got a group photo, and rested. Though now on top, we knew we still had hours of toil remaining. It would be an exhausting slog back down the mountain.
After descending through the steep boulder field and passing the Martian Rock, we once more were upon fields of snow, now softened by afternoon heat. We glissaded down 2,000 feet in just a few moments. Below the fields of snow, we passed the cairn I had built the week before near the Clear Creek springs. I could see exactly where we had made our navigational mistake in the morning darkness.
When I reached the trailhead about 7 p.m., my feet were tender from the inflexibly stiff-soled mountaineering boots I had worn the entire day. It had been 16.5 miles of misery. In the long and weary final mile to the trailhead, I decided this would be my last climb. Now at age 68 I began thinking of giving away my crampons, ice ax and climbing helmet. Upon arriving back in Medford later that night, I told my wife I was now officially done with climbing.
And on Sunday morning, when I woke, feeling well-rested and basking in the afterglow of having done something really hard, I began talking about next year’s climb of Mount Shasta.
Kelly L. Andersen lives in Medford.
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