After climbing Mt Kilimanjaro in 2010, I felt a strong sense of accomplishment but also that mountaineering was not for me. More than anything else I hated the altitude but at lease with Kilimanjaro I didn’t have to do anything technical with ropes or ice axes. Fast forward 6 years and somehow I found myself doing exactly what I never expected to even try on the slopes of California’s Mt. Shasta. Two years ago I managed to join a group of intrepid colleagues on a hiking trip where I climbed Yosemite’s Half Dome. The trek was fun, and with a start-to-summit time of about 4 hours, and a round-trip time of about 7 hours’ total, this was relatively simple and straight forward.
Last year this same group did a 26-mile loop over four mountain passes around Colorado’s Maroon Bells. This was simply the most difficult day of hiking I’d ever completed. At the celebration dinner, following our 16-hour hike which had begun at 10pm the previous evening, Mt. Shasta’s (4321m) 14,179 foot snow-capped peak was announced as our next target. Sure, I told everyone I’d see them next year…but I also said that there was no-way Donald Trump would be the republican nominee for president…. What do I know?
As this was a technical climb we hired guides to help us through the process. To do that we had a short amount of time on some snow the day preceding the hike to learn some basic mountaineering skills such as how to actually use the ice axe. We learned to walk on the ice, fall and ultimately stop ourselves from sliding all the way down the mountain. Naturally, we felt the need to practice this by running off the hill (while holding an axe) and diving downhill as though we were superman. This was fun until one of our team cracked his ankle in a few places. He was taken to the ER and received screws in his ankle and lots of painkillers. As a reminder, this was our practice session. Our group the prior year had started off around 35 people, for what was the hardest day of hiking in my life, we were now down to only 16.
One of the reasons for the low numbers were the odds the various guide services had given to our venture.
Most guided groups climb Mt. Shasta over two days. Indeed, while we were practicing, many of these groups were setting off on their trek. They camped overnight half-way up the mountain, continuing to the summit with us the following morning. We instead chose to skip the alpine camping and start our walk at midnight. There were three guide companies in Mt. Shasta that were contacted by our group, two of those companies told us we were idiots for what we were trying to do, we went with the third. (Now you see why I like these people – like minded to the fullest!)
At 11pm on Saturday night, when most people in California were doing Saturday night California things, we were instead waking up from our naps, doing our best to clear our bowels, and gradually making our way to the Avalanche Gulch trail head for our midnight departure. (Note: All the amazing and yet, WTF am I thinking hiking adventures in my life have seem to start at night.) I had some general feelings of dread regarding my own fitness level, the altitude, the ice axe, the ice itself and naturally those screws that had been inserted into my friend’s ankle. Also in the back of my head was concern for the weather report, which featured late morning thunderstorm, but when I saw the clear, starry sky at the trail head I managed to but those fears to rest.
We started walking.
The guides kept the pace and I have to say, we had some excellent guides. They made the walk up this [to me] practically vertical slope about as easy as walking up the stairs at work. Sure it was long and arduous but many of us felt we were so well paced that, although exerting ourselves, we never felt terribly short of breath or in need of a rest. Still, several did begin to fall behind but overall our group was on target and moving uphill at a very good pace.
With several hikers having difficulty as we passed the overnight camping areas, we had to shuffle groups around a little bit. Part of the reason for this was that above this point, Helen Lake which is nothing but a flat-ish area of snow on the mountain, guides needed to be roped to their group and a single guide could have no more than 4 hikers attached to them. Continuing on we were one group of 4 and three groups of 3, I was in a group of 3.
As we continued from this point, the story starts to change substantially.
All of the things I was worried about—the ice, using the axe, my fitness, etc.—were not issues at all and I was actually starting to enjoy myself as the sun came up and I recognized what a special place I was in. The problem was that as the sun came up most of the other hikers on the mountain started to come down. Those late morning thunderstorms had shown up several hours early and the mountain appeared to be surrounded by dark clouds and piercing lightning shows. Via radio we were in touch with another group from our guiding company, who had camped on the mountain like *normal* climbers and were several thousand feet above us. Their reports were not positive and they turned back as well. For some reason we kept on hiking.
One member of my trio was beginning to struggle and was very vocal about this in a stunningly constructive way, perhaps because he is a former Marine. He shared that he was feeling the affects of altitude sickness, the items he was doing to help deal with his, and that he wanted to continue but that it was a situation we needed to keep in communication about. This was important as none of us were unable to travel alone and if he needed to go down, we all did, so we slowed our speed an slightly increased the frequency of our breaks. The support of the team in this regard was rather spectacular.
Later, using the Marine as something of a model, I expressed my same concerns with regard to the weather. By this point we had become 4 hikers, rather than 3, as another trio had a member need to descend and one of their hikers was able to join us. I told the group honestly that I was getting quite scared by the increasing display of lightning, the blizzard forming around us, the presence of the wind, etc. Mostly though, it was the lightning combined with “my children need to have a daddy”. Our guide, a former Army Ranger, discussed this with us and we took a vote in which two of us expressed that we felt it might be time to head downhill. Somehow being led by an Army Ranger, who stated clearly that he had full confidence in his ability to get us safely down the mountain, and anchored by a US Marine who was feeling much better and aching to get to that summit, convinced myself and the other doubter that we should press on, so that’s what we did.
The hiking at this point was also more difficult. The snow had turned to ice and was more slippery. We were often having our boots break through the ice and fall into a knee-deep hole. The wind was sometimes knocking us over. We couldn’t see very far in front of us for the blizzard that was taking hold around us. We were well above 12,000 feet in altitude and thinness of the air was beginning to affect us as well. Oh, and the slope of the mountain was probably 45 degrees.
You may recall from earlier in this story that one group of four and three groups of three had set-off from the camping area. One trio, left a hiker with my group and headed downhill. Another trio was well ahead of us making a run at the summit. That left my group and the original group of four together as we climbed to 13,000 feet in altitude. At that point, the other guide, determined that the weather had deteriorated enough that should we continue, and things get a little worse, that we might not be able to safely descend the mountain. We were turning around.
The first bit of downhill hiking was very difficult and I was again afraid for all the reasons I was afraid before weather was an issue—slippery ice, the axe, slope, fitness, etc. Thankfully this did not last long. We made it just below a region of the mountain that was rocky and glissaded about as far as we could. If you’ve never glissaded before, imagine going downhill in a sled but without a sled. You just sit in the snow and make pretend the mountain is a giant, cold, slide. It was fun.
The only part that stunk about the descent was when we finished, and turned and looked back at the summit, and saw nothing but blue sky.