I'm not even sure where to begin with Mount Shasta.
It is legendary to me. I have read about it, studied the routes, and admired it from passing road trips a dozen times. It's my favorite mountain. And I had never climbed it. I had never seen the features I'd read about and studied in photos up close. I needed to see them up close.
I made plans early this year to climb Shasta with people from a Meetup group I belong to. The leader is a guy named Walt who has 40+ years of experience and enjoys taking people around to teach them winter camping and expedition skills. There are also a few epic outings each year. Mount Shasta would be the most ambitious planned trip for the group.
We'd tried a couple times before. Three years ago, the weather got us before we left Reno. Then, Covid canceled the season, basically. Last year there was an historic lack of snow on the mountain, and conditions were shit. This would be the group's third attempt, and my fourth. (I had joined up with a group and begun the hike in 2016—before I went to Denali—but turned back very early due to a lot of anxiety surrounding not knowing the other climbers and as a result, not knowing whether it was a good idea.)
In February I began a specific training program through Uphill Athlete that would conclude the week of the climb. It was perfectly lined up and going to be a true test of whether mountaineering was a pursuit I should continue or if I should rethink everything about how I do it. For me, there was quite a bit riding on the success of this trip. And defining success is hard. Would total comfort on the mountain but no summit be good enough? Maybe. Would a very difficult and painful summit be a good or bad thing? Couldn't say. All I really could do was go for it and be as ready as I could.
We would be climbing Mount Shasta's Avalanche Gulch route. This is the standard route, essentially a steep walk up without any technical challenges. The team was six strong—Walt, Matt, Alan, Carol, Denis and myself. We would meet and add Stu and Garrett by chance at Horse Camp. They became a fun addition to the team.
I could go on about my training for hours, and probably have to a number of unsuspecting friends and acquaintances. I'll eventually detail it here for posterity, rather than it taking over this entire post. I do have a few things to say, though.
This sounds trite and obvious, but it took me a long time to learn: Training for any endeavor where real danger exists should be the most important aspect of your preparation. I see it as eliminating any doubt as to your own physical abilities to complete the task, so that all of your concentration during the event can be focused on what will keep you safe and healthy.
I have failed at this several times, and as a result have lacked confidence in my abilities those times that could have become a problem. Luckily, each time I had enough in the tank, and a good enough team, to keep us out of trouble. I haven't actually had anything go wrong, but I have been in fear because I wasn't sure what would happen if a specific situation had taken a wrong turn. Simply put, make training and your physical abilities the least of your concerns, and you'll have the energy to focus on what keeps you safe.
My training consisted of several layers. First and foremost, the coaches at Uphill Athlete seem to have cracked the code. Their training methods for mountaineering are second to none, at least among many pros and an awful lot of us hobbyists. I joined their Mountaineering Training Group and received a 12-week workout plan, along with a bi-weekly Zoom call to ask questions and get thorough explanations of methods and reasoning behind them. Every day of those 12 weeks was programmed with a specific workout or rest/recovery activity to keep the body in tune.
Along with the training, I completely stopped drinking alcohol. When you take rest and recovery seriously for maybe the first time on your life, not drinking is a major benefit. You actually get rest, and you actually recover. I suggest giving it a try.
I followed that 12-week plan like everything about this climb depended on it. I missed a week in the middle while on vacation, but was able to maintain while away and pick up where I left off when I got home. My willingness to skip workouts in the past and not knowing how to properly progress workouts for serious improvement had led to failures in my climbing, so that could not happen this time.
Knowing that I am physically capable of something I want to do goes a really long way toward alleviating the anxiety comes with the lead up to a climb. The anxiety generally hits the night before departure. My mind spends the majority of its time thinking of ways I can bail out without pissing everyone off to the point I'm no longer invited. I have a brutal night of sleep, wake up too early, and continue thinking about bailing out.
When I climbed Mount Rainier in 2015, I experienced several days of pretty tough anxiety. Each of the first three nights on that mountain, out of five, were very difficult. I had no communication with home, was surrounded by strangers, was faced with a massive mountain that I wasn't sure I even belonged on, and wasn't sure what it really took to finish this task. During the day, when we were actually doing the work, I was fine. My mind had other things to do. But sleeping was a challenge. And that makes the mornings a challenge. Challenging mornings lead to tough days out there. Tough days led to increasing anxiety in the evenings and a harder time getting to sleep, etc.
I can't emphasize enough how much training helps with this. Following the plan gave me the confidence on this climb to talk myself out of the fear pretty easily. I mentioned at least twice to Christy (who might worry about my mental state more than me) that I felt really good and thought I could handle this with relative ease. I didn't want to get ahead of myself, but I also try not to lie to myself. I really did feel good about this, and that was helping my anxiety.
On Rainier, I finally overcame the anxiety after a few days and was able to finish the job. I gained confidence by how I was doing during the days. I was stronger than most of the team, and the guides I had were letting me know where I fit on the team—and it was a good place, I was trusted. It feels really weird for me to respond to that type of reinforcement, but I did.
Another potential source of anxiety is how conditions will look during the trip. When you schedule a climb with a guide service, the dates are set and the conditions are the conditions. It may really suck, but you don't really get an option other than to hunker down or climb. On this trip, which was organized by Walt, the mood would be far less rigid. If conditions suck, you cancel. We did last year. So, watching weather becomes a bit of an obsession that last week. Checking every few hours during the day (just in case something changed!) is pretty normal behavior. Luckily, in this case, we had a window that included two potential summit days, but the first was looking very good.
Knowing the weather helps you pack. Ok, not really for me. I probably would have packed exactly the same thing had it been forecast a bit warmer, and had it been a colder outlook, I might have had to pack even more. But where it was, I had the pack dialed in. I thought.
When you're driving any distance, much less over 200 miles, to get to the trailhead, you have to overpack and make game time decisions. I did that. We brought snowshoes, doubled up on what could be shared equipment, and planned to pare everything down before departing the car.
Reno to Bunny Flat
With a scheduled 7:30 a.m. departure, I had ample opportunity to have a terrible night of sleep. It wasn't actually that bad. I got about seven hours and scored a 73 on my watch, which is decent. I was awake a total of 35 minutes during the night, though. That's less than ideal for a person who averages about zero minutes a night of awake time. Overall, I still felt good. No good reason to bail out.
Besides, if I bailed out I would have screwed over my climbing partner. Matt picked me up and met Christy. Once we had loaded up, we were off to the north.
The nerves do weird things, so we talked for the entire four hours or so to Mt. Shasta. We arrived, bought our summit passes (required for going over 10,000 feet on the mountain). We had agreed to share a tent and some group gear. It's great to know someone well enough to pull that off on a trip like this. Generally, everyone is on their own outside of the safety element of climbing as a group. Your own tent, stove, fuel, shovel, etc. Sharing is far better, but it takes a bit of trust to do that.
Our first stop was The Fifth Season, a gear shop in Mt. Shasta, California. I had no idea it even existed before. Let me tell you—this is a legitimate gear shop. Everything necessary for the climb is available. Everything. You can try on mountaineering boots there. If you know, you know, but for those that don't, buying mountaineering boots usually requires ordering multiple styles in multiple sizes and returning what doesn't work. Being able to try them on and make a decision without floating a couple grand (the boots run from $500-1,000/pair) at a time just to maybe find what's right is pretty outstanding. This shop will now be a regular stop on a route I drive somewhat regularly. (Sorry, Christy.)
We grabbed lunch (nerves were really setting in—I ate half of a split sandwich and fries) and waited about 20 more minutes for the rest of the group to arrive. Everyone gathered up and we drove up the Everitt Memorial Highway to Bunny Flat.
Bunny Flat to Horse Camp
I changed clothes and began making decisions. We would not be needing snowshoes (a blessing) or avalanche gear. My beacon was deep in my pack because I knew it wouldn't be necessary for the first day, and I was already on edge as the anxiety had creeped up. I elected not to stand in the cold to try finding it and then needing to repack, so I left it there. (Probably a pound or so.) I had way too much food, but we also had to make provisions for a potential extra night and day if weather didn't cooperate. I kept it all. (Probably two pounds extra.) I took more clothing than I needed. Never be caught too cold, right? I just made that up, but it's likely my mantra. My pack weighed in at 50 lbs. after adding my tent piece. Forty pounds would have been too much if you had asked me what I thought before packing. Cool.
The hike to Horse Camp was the goal for Day 1. We were planning to move slowly because part of our group had traveled from the Bay, and elevation might be a concern. That's fine with me. Plan for the slower speed and I can deal. I liked this idea. Horse Camp was a 1.7 mile hike with about 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It took us under an hour. So far, everything was moving along really well. That's a perfectly fine first day.
We found spots for tents and set up. We also had the use of the Sierra Club hut there. We could stay out of the gusty winds and colder temps to organize gear (no sleeping in the hut) and eat dinner and breakfast. It was another good sign that things were going well. The easier you can keep it early, the better you are on summit day. To calm myself and try to ensure a good night's sleep, I stayed in the hut for as long as I could stay awake before heading to my sleeping bag.
Sleep was rough. Scored a 26 with a lot of awake time. I had hydrated incredibly well in the hut, if you catch my drift. I was fine with that. I believe that hydrating the day before you do something that will be taxing is much better than depending on hydrating during the event.
We were expecting a long day due to high winds. The hike isn't a joke, either. It's about the same distance as Day 1, but with 2,400 feet of gain. Plus, we'd be hitting the snow and might need to don the (cram)pons to get to camp at Helen Lake. Wearing the spikes is just a bit more taxing. They get heavy, so you wear out more quickly—a fact known to everyone who wears them, and not the biggest deal by any stretch, but it slows you down just by its nature. Our departure time was set for 8:00 a.m.
Horse Camp to Helen Lake
We got out by 8:30. All things considered, that was fine. Being late was something we'd have to rectify the next day, as summit day carries with it a far more rigid timetable--you have to beat the warming temperatures that make snow conditions tougher and can lead to rockfall from the cliffs above the route in certain parts.
The hike starts out on what's knows as The Causeway. It's a rock trail built over the years to guide hikers and climbers while also keeping them off the sensitive areas around the trail. The Causeway is both an awesome addition for the sake of the wildlife in the area, and a terrible path to walk on. It's a hard and uneven surface, which when coupled with rigid-soled boots is hard on the body. But, it's the path, so you follow it. It's not too long, either.
You soon reach a choice: a set of switchbacks up and over a hill on rocky dirt trail or a gulley that wraps the hill and maintains a fair bit of snow this late in the season in a year like this. We chose the trail. The gusts of wind during this portion were forecast to hit 60-70 miles per hour. That is too high of a number for me to accurately gauge without sounding like I'm embellishing (I was once told the two most exaggerated things in climbing are pack weight and wind speed), but they were strong. Group leader Walt said they absolutely hit those speeds. It was windy. Is 70 mph different from 50 mph in that situation? I'd venture to say not by much.
We hit 50/50 Flat after cresting that hill and started to see more and more individuals and groups heading back down the mountain. Every one of them had started that morning from the parking lot, but the winds up high were too much to continue. The forecast was basically correct, and this was not a day for climbing above Helen Lake.
We took a long break, then made the last push for the day up Standstill Hill to Helen Lake. Slow, steep, but finite is basically how I remember this. It ended, and we were the first group to reach Helen Lake, where we had our pick of tent platforms, nicely dug out from previous climbers. Matt and I did a bit of leveling work on ours and set up. We had the entire afternoon to prep and relax. It was glorious.
Our afternoon consisted of laying around, shoring up plans, and packing my summit day pack. Let me tell you about this idea. I would normally never carry the extra pack for summit day. Why carry that extra weight?
Well for me, when I learned that I would be bringing my largest pack due to my inability to trim my gear down, I knew I had to. It would be worth carrying the one-pound daypack up the lower mountain for the ability to drop the four-and-a-half-pound pack for summit day. When fast and light is the plan, you take the three-and-a half-pound trade. And that trade was a huge mental boost. When I was slogging up to 50/50 Flat and wondering what the hell I was doing there, I would make sure to remind myself that tomorrow I would be moving faster and carrying under 10 pounds total. Whatever it takes.
Departure time was set to 3:00 a.m. Conditions were shaping up to be slightly windy (20 mph), cold, and clear. This was potentially the best case scenario. I set my alarm for 2:15 a.m. Matt set his for 2:00 a.m. So I woke up at 2:00. Well, when I woke up for the fourth time that night. A major benefit to the relaxing afternoon was the ability to hydrate again. I was liking the developing situation in that regard. We hustled to get ready, since it was cold, and then we were ready. It was 2:30 a.m. So, we stayed warm until the rest of the group was ready. We set out for good at 3:10 a.m.
A few early stops for gear adjustments made for a very cold first hour. I had dressed in a base layer, a fleece, and a wind shell for the start. That represented a lot of layers for me, as I run pretty hot. However, this combination was not working, and I was still really cold. During one of the stops, I basically made the last decision I could. I put on my heaviest layer over everything else. This is not a super heavy layer, though. I had left my massive parka back at camp to save another 2.5 pounds. It was the right choice, but now I was out of clothing. If it was windy and colder up higher, I might have to make a decision to turn back. At this point, though, I felt great, and was able to continue.
And I was pushing. The early cold and my energy level made me really want to go faster. I was keeping an eye on my heart rate so as not to push too hard too early, and I was feeling great. I kept moving.
Those first couple of hours after an alpine start are mentally the easiest to me. You're moving with only the light of your own headlamp making any sense to you. You can't see the progress you're making, whether good or bad. You just set your mind to continuing to move and keep putting that foot in front of the other one. It works to my advantage.
By the time the sun began to illuminate the route, we were above the base of The Heart and could see that we were very close to the Red Banks. When first light comes at time like this, being close to finishing the most significant major obstacle, it's encouraging. I was feeling great and moving efficiently. Today was working for me.
At the Red Banks, the group split briefly. Matt, Alan, and I took a route that looked more "fun." We climbed one of the chimneys (very furthest left) up the Red Banks. It required use of ice axes and front-pointing the crampons (sticking the spikes on your toes in) to get up, adding a bit of adventure to the day. This is a deviation that would have never, ever, ever interested me on past climbs. It was frivolous and wasted potentially much-needed energy by being harder overall. It is also insignificant in the grand scheme of energy conservation. I was feeling the energy to try this that day and it sounded fun. So I did it. Choosing to have fun also was a mental obstacle I didn't realize I needed to overcome.
After the climb up the Red Banks, we took a break at the plateau below Misery Hill. Misery Hill—and this might be my excitement talking—was overrated. It's not hard, but it is long. It's also the last real obstacle on the climb, so it feels easier as you get closer. It amounted to a partially snow-covered series of switchbacks, and not even 1,000 feet of gain, leaving you with roughly 200 feet remaining.
From the top of Misery Hill, you can see the summit for the first time. You can also see everything else. It's an awesome place to take it in. On this beautiful, clear, cold, breezy day, I could make out Mount Rose all the way back in Reno from that point. It was gorgeous.
We rested for a bit, then continued on across the volcanic crater and up the final summit spire to the very top. I was not stopping at this point. I felt great, and I needed to get there. I came up and had the summit to myself for a few minutes, and I loved it. I had never felt so happy on a summit, and I had never felt so energized on a summit. I still felt ok about expending energy. I took a selfie!
I texted the selfie to Christy because I had cell service, then climbed down and greeted my team. We took all the pictures, then hit the road to start warming up again.
After lunch in the crater, the slog down began. The morning was so cold that the snow wasn't softening up much. Firm snow made the ideal descent plan—glissading—basically impossible. So, instead of sliding down, we walked. Walking is harder. But we had incentive. If we could get to camp quickly enough, it would allow Matt, Alan, and me to pack and head all the way back to the car to get home before bed. The other three members of the team wanted to stay another night and take their time, and were fine with us heading home a night ahead of our original schedule. So we moved quickly.
That's not to say it was quick. The steepness of the hill makes for a difficult walk. Add crampons into the equation, and you have to move deliberately, which means more slowly. I tore a hole in my nice puffy pants with a slip of the crampon, too. But I kept moving, and eventually rolled into camp at 12:15 p.m., about 9:05 hours after our summit departure. I was still feeling great.
Another thing I remember for my own perspective on how my day was going: I had applied sunscreen no less than five times since leaving. That is also unprecedented for me. I am normally too tired, annoyed, or cold to bother with passable self care. On this day, I was taking excellent care of myself. I had just enough water left to get to the car, which means I had taken in over half of my day's allotment, all exactly according to plan. Things were going well.
We rested for about an hour, then took an hour to pack up. Our early departure group of three left and made our way to the car. It took us 1:45 hours to get there. We were very motivated. There was a burger at Yak's in Dunsmuir waiting, along with our own beds back home. It kept us up and chatting for the ride home, and I got home with all of my stories at 9:30 p.m.
A couple of notes about how I'll always be able to remind myself of how well this went for me.
First, I have pictures (and a selfie). Second, I felt amazing on Sunday and Monday, plus I did a serious gym workout on Tuesday. After past climbs, I would probably take a week off to recover. My body was ready to continue after a couple days of rest and yoga. Finally, I feel completely untraumatized about this. Even past successes led to dread regarding setting foot on the same mountain again. I am already looking up alternate routes on Shasta and looking forward to progressing the climbs back to my major goal of Denali.
By any measure, the trip was a success. Not only had I managed to beat the anxiety that creeps into trips like this, but I was able to do it while thoroughly enjoying the climb and the people I did it with. I have never felt like this on a climb, or even on a summit. At the time, I tweeted that this was the most "what it's supposed to feel like" climb I have ever done. A week later, I have no notes. It truly was, and I'm now encouraged to continue to push my body harder to achieve tougher goals.
I'll try to remember to take more pictures.