The annual PCS Picnic was held again on the slopes of Mt Shasta on Memorial Day weekend. What a gathering it was, with 18 adventure-loving participants showing up and, in an amazing show of endurance and determination, 17 making it to the summit. Unfortunately, determination was not enough to overcome muscle cramps from preventing one person from making the final portion of the climb. The desirable-to-be-with group consisted of Debbie Benham, Brian Boyle, Janice Bradford, Jim Curl, Dodie Domish, Noreen Ford, Anne Gaillard, Patty Haight, Liz Harvey, Gary Jost, Chris Kramer, Deac Lancaster, Peter Maxwell, Mike Meredith, Jim Ramaker, Charles Schafer, Kai Wiedman (assistant) and George Van Gorden (leader).
There were many differences from traditional Shasta trips. For a start the route was the Hotlum-Bolan, on the north side. Also, in contrast to the usual at this time of year, the warm temperatures (around 80 in Mt Shasta City) turned any cold problems into heat problems during the climb. We were easily able to drive all the way to the North Gate trailhead, even in normal cars (clearance is not a problem with a little care), where there was not a sign of any snow. On getting out of the cars we discovered the place was infested by bees, including big bumblebees which seemed to be turned on by the smell of sunscreen.
We weren't anxious to loiter around in these conditions and were on our way around 10.15 am. George had brought some plastic stakes with orange flags in case of bad weather and Liz got the job of carrying many of them. She reminded me of the Good Fairy, with a plentiful supply of magic wands. We had to climb quite some distance before finding any sign of snow. Our camp site was a huge flat area at 9600 feet which, amazingly, was completely free of snow. George's recommendation not to bother with carrying snow shovels paid off. Snow stakes were still useful for the tents, however, because the ground was very loose and soft, like coarse sand. We made this by early afternoon and had the rest of the day to laze around in the sun and warmth - not at all an alpine experience. Several people had not brought summer gear and looked ready to explode through overheating.
The scenery at camp was spectacular. We were in the midst of large chunks of volcanic rock of all sorts of contorted shapes giving an atmosphere of some grotesque alien landscape, with Shasta looming immediately above. Debbie had brought a pack of cards and after some initial problems in finding players, a lively game of Hearts started up. This turned out to be the social center of camp for a while, with many joining the game and then leaving again.
We all agreed to aim for a 6 am departure the next day, so it was up at 5 am to a glorious sunrise. The temperature was a positively balmy 36 . We actually got under way at 6.20, not bad considering George did not use any threatening gestures or give a countdown. Very soon after the climb commenced clothes began being stripped off, not to be used again until nightfall, it was so warm. After about 1/2 hour the slope steepened and we stopped to put on crampons, with another group of climbers, roped up for the Hotlum glacier. At this point our party split into two. Kai had planned a diversion at the top, described as easy but airy in the Fifth Season guide. Those of us interested in doing this (Kai, Noreen, the two Jims, Brian, Deac, Dodie, Chris, Mike and myself) headed off on our own. We'll now tell the tales of the two groups separately.
Kai's Courageous Climbers soon became Wiedman's Wilted Wanderers, such was the intensity of the sun, the warmth of the air, and the punishing pace. Long Johns were rolled up as well as sleeves and plenty of water was consumed each stop. As we got close to the elevation of the Hotlum headwall, the views of the glacier were dramatic, and the angle of the sun highlighted the ice and crevasses beautifully.
When we got to the point of making the diversion, we sized up the messy looking rock on which we would have to climb. It was fitting that our leader was an honorary official of the Shasta Bail-out Bunch, because at that moment many more members were signed up. Now being united, we decided to take the normal route instead.
As it turned out, this was no picnic, because the final gully we had to climb was full of loose rock, and several pieces became dislodged by people above us, one particularly nasty 12" diameter chunk stopping itself in snow just before I had to make my final decision which way to leap. Topping this gully, for the first time the summit was suddenly visible, and it was only about 5 minutes away, half hidden in the cloud which had just blown in.
We arrived at the register around 12.15. There were the usual Memorial Day crowds up there and there was quite a waiting list to get the register and sign it. The sun came and went as clouds breezed past, but there wasn't much wind and it wasn't all that cold. Kai cracked the whip around 1 pm and we headed back down again.
Descending the loose gully we saw Charles and Janice but there was no sign of the others. We found out later that they had traversed around to the other side and summitted using the final portion of the south side routes. This avoids the loose rock and would be a preferable alternative. We were able to plunge step our way back down the first steep snow, avoiding having to put our crampons back on at all.
Once we had got around the last bit of rock outcrops the fun really started. The warmth of the air and the sun had softened the snow to a perfect glissading consistency, so it was into rain pants for some of the best glissading imaginable: high speed descending with showers of snow every time the boots dug in a little. We were able to descend in this manner almost the whole way, and were back in camp by 3.30. That made 6 hours up and 2 1/2 hours down. While all this was going on, the group of slower but determined and valiant climbers, led by a determined to bring everyone to the top leader, George, kept going steadily, not so far behind the faster group as Kai's voice could still be heard for a long while. We took breaks, ate snacks, regrouped and drank regularly and even took some pulse checks to monitor our efforts. We also passed some roped parties without stepping on their ropes with our sharp crampons. Such care was not always appreciated though. Our group had the utter misfortune to cross words with a bona fide arsehole. There were actually three groups of roped mountaineers with paid guides. We intersected with two of the groups several times, literally criss-crossing while traversing several gullies. One leader, who looked like a villain from Oliver Twist, or a deadbeat pirate, and his group, who looked worn and NOT happy, were slowing down on a section of rock between two snow gullies. We were almost to the top! Anne asked to pass, and quickly did so. I (Debbie) started to pass below them when the leader barked, That's not how you hold an ice axe - you could fall on those rocks and really hurt yourself. I ignored him.
As we reached the end of the rock, near the sulphur springs, once again the pirate leader blasted us with, Are you people a consolidated group - are you together or what? . Even Anne's question of What do you mean did not deter the fellow from lecturing on the perils of climbing Shasta and listing all the people who had died this past year. Perhaps he was trying to impress his clients.
By 1:45 all but one reached the top. The descent was no picnic as facing the steep snowy slopes downward was a challenge against fatigue. Lightening from threatening dark clouds obscured the joy of glissading, but we all made it back to camp by 6 pm.
In an attempt to beat the traffic going home, the departure time the next morning was set for 8 am, amidst some grumbling about having to get up at 6 am. This did get us home early, although a good alternative which other parties could consider, is to spend the 3rd day in the area, rather than stuck in a car in heavy traffic. In particular, a hike over to the ice fall at the terminus of the Hotlum Glacier looked as though it would be well worth it.
The big mistake of the trip was to stop at the bagel shop next to the Fifth Season in Mt Shasta City for lunch and some of us order some of the cooked breakfast dishes. They were delicious, but the service was TERRIBLE. While everyone else got their sandwiches, ate them and left, we had to wait 45 minutes just to get our meals. What's worse, they told us we would have to wait only 10 or 15 minutes . They definitely don't have their act together with large crowds.