The holiday glow (or was it heartburn?) was still upon us as we packed up the cars on December 26th and drove through the rain toward the peak that has defied the PCS winter after winter. We figured (hoped?) that it would stop before peak day, but no one expected that the storm had completely missed Mt. Shasta!
Those of us who slept at Bunny Flat (Brent Asborno, Tony Cruz, Steve Eckert, Jeff Fisher, and leader Kelly Maas) cracked the ice off our bivy bags while Brian Boyle and Dan Ehrenfried drove up from the Flea Bag No-Tell in the village. As usual, "8am start" means "say hi at 8:00, change clothes at 8:30, repack at 9:00, and start hiking at 9:30". (Me? Sarcastic? Naah!)
Given the noticeable lack of snow on the mountain, with shiny spots and many completely bare ridges, we decided to leave all the snowshoes and skis in the cars. Veterans from February's slog might be thinking ~hip deep trauma", but we found icy showshoe tracks that lead up to treeline where the snowdrifts held the weight of even the stoutest mountain mule. Well, usually.
Jeff and his nephew Brent turned back shortly after we started, since 12-year-old legs could not posthole at the pace we were setting. Bigger feet might have helped, but it is wise to "know when to say when". We figured that would be the last we heard of either of them...
We headed up to Green Butte, staying on the ridge and eyeing the 11,000 foot flat spot on Sargent's Ridge as a campsite within striking distance of the peak. By about 3:30 it was clear that Helen Lake at 10,400 feet was about as far as we could go before dark, so we cut off the ridge to the snowdrift known as a lake.
Fingers crystalized as we set up tents in temperatures dipping below 10 degrees. Predictions of vicious cold and an early start each turned out to be false. It warmed up to 20 degrees during the night due to cloud cover, and we spent an hour and a half getting out of camp. 7:45 does not exactly count as a "pre-dawn, alpine, eager-beaver" start, but it sort of went with the prior day's schedule.
(That's twice now... No reprisals in future issues are needed. We all know I am poking fun at the leader, but being an equal opportunity offender I expect to be the nail as often as I am the hammer.)
Almost immediately we began to spread out. Dan was trying to stay warm with speed instead of clothes, I was trying to measure every step like a metronome to avoid altitude sickness, and Brian was doing wind sprints trying to pick a pace. Tony decided to stay in camp, not feeling up to the peak. Kelly waivered but finally declared "EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF" and tried in vain to catch Dan.
We turned Red Bank to the left (the high side), and popped over the cornice right at the base of Misery Hill. Amazingly, Jeff was coming DOWN just as I started UP! He had spent the night with Brent at the Horse Camp and day hiked the entire peak, beating us all to the top by a good margin. After grunting up to the summit plateau on mixed rocks and snow, the stroll over to the summit proper was rather pleasant. Not much wind, clear skies, and crunching snow on which crampons were optional.
Anyone who has climbed Shasta in the summer may have trouble imagining the summit with no people, but we each summited one at a time with as much as 45 minutes between people. A solitary moment to look at volcanoes in Oregon, down to Lassen, and then to the reddish smoke haze over what we call the "civilized" part of California. I have never been to the top when there was less wind, or less people, or less of a hurry to leave.
While wating for Brian to summit, I warmed my hands in the rotten egg steam vents, and climbed the OTHER 14,000 foot peak to the west of the usual peak. (Check it out on the map - all of you 14k peak baggers probably missed this one!) From there the lack of snow on the northwest glaciers was very visible, with white streaks of snow packed into the crevasses but blue ice everywhere else.
The fun is over when you reach the top, right? Not so! No one wanted to climb back down the cornice by Red Bank, so we clawed our way over icy pumice toward Thumb Rock and went down the snow chute from there. Why is it called Avalanche Gulch? Has anyone ever seen a slide there? Anyway, Dan lost his footing, lost his cap, lost his ice axe, but kept his good luck by zooming into a patch of soft snow and making his own blizzard. I did a standing glissade on a hard drift that turned into a soft drift with a hard crust, prompting the only full-speed-head-first-on-your-stomach arrest ever required outside of ice axe practice (and it WORKS if you remember the drill). Kelly and Brian either made no mistakes or told no one about them. Jeff and Tony were back at the cars by then, taking any and all cool stories with them in silence.
Those who got back to camp early fixed a sunset dinner for those who arrived just at dark, and we zipped in feeling quite content. The red sunset was nice, but being horizontal was nicer. After my repeated attempts to change the agenda into two full-pack climbing days followed by a summit-and-out day, Kelly had to remind me at least once that it WAS possible to do Shasta on the second day. Then he mumbled something about finally being able to quit trying over and over, but I did not hear that part! Interested parties might contact Kai Wiedman or Butch Suits for some folk lore (aka "historical context") on past trips.
We skipped breakfast the next morning, and hit the cars just after 8am. Our first early start... but then again, if you have ever had the two-pound pancake plate at Marilyn's Stage Stop you know what the rush was all about. Trust me, a stack of three pancakes cannot be eaten by a normal human. Take $4 and a doggie bag.