If we were hoping for full conditions for a winter ascent of Mt. Shasta, we were to be sorely disappointed. The weather on Presidents' day weekend was fantastic! And the snow conditions were better than that; as good as any I've ever climbed on. The cramponing was firm, just like standing on stiff Styrofoam.
One of the fellows (Chris Jones) got sick (flu) and Dave Blockus went down with him, leaving Dan Tupper (Mr. Shasta), Brian Boyle, Steve Shields and me. We built a McKinleyesque snow shelter for the night at 10,000 feet and enjoyed "I can see forever'' views from our perch on Green Butte Ridge. With a full moon that night the views actually improved under the canopy of starlight with the shimmering outline of our ridge sweeping upward toward a glowing white summit set against a riot of stars.
Our alarm didn't go off on time, and we got off to a "late'' 6:30 a.m. start. As the sun rose, silhouetting our ridge in a warm orange and yellow glow, all I could think of was this is my fantasy ridge! Sweeping views of a wild alpine-scape on either side and a commanding view of the Siskiyu high country behind me.
So much snow has fallen on Shasta's flanks that only the tallest gendarmes were showing above the ridge line, each one presenting an interesting mixed climbing problem. With steep snow chutes falling away on either side, these ice-encrusted rock combs posed routefinding and alpine climbing challenges we here in California seldom experience.
At one point I was forced to make several rock climbing moves with my feet while hooking my ice axe into an icicle for leverage. One challenge after another left us not tired and beaten but exhilarated and thirsty for more. This was a climb worthy of the best!
Dan and I moved out in front of the others at a steady pace, making route finding choices and the first steps in otherwise perfect snow flutes, sculpted and hardened to perfection by gale force winds. Each obstacle required the full measure of alpinist choices: route finding, rock climbing, hazard avoidance, front pointing, all manner of axe positioning and physical endurance.
Green Butte was throwing every trick at us it could muster, and we laughed at it using all of our experience. I swear that at one of these gendarmes all I could think was how much it resembled "the Hillary step'' on Everest.
Where Green Butte ended at the Red Banks, a new kind of snow pattern emerged. Here the snow fields endured the constant blasting of hurricane force winds. Often caring large amounts of moisture, these winds blasted into the rock formations, depositing long horizontal tentacles of ice onto the windward faces. So strong and so moist are these winds that even the snow on the ground is covered with these textiles of ice. As they grow longer, these ice tentacles break off, casting their shards of ice on the ground there to roll around in the wind. Repeated millions of times, these shards roll against one another, shaping them into round and oval shaped frozen spheres covering the ground in great heaps of white and blue gem stones.
Misery Hill once again earned its name as Dan and I trudged up its featureless hulk that has so often discouraged first-time climbers with its false summit promises. Once on the summit plateau, we found ourselves in the company of nearly 15 other climbers converging from either the Avalanche Gulch or Cassaval Ridge routes.
The surprising calm of the plateau contrasted sharply with the steady strong winds on the summit. The new register served to record my sixth ascent and Dan's twentieth, as well as tell us no one had climbed the peak in the months of November, December, or January.
In fact, only a few parties had proceeded us, but nearly 25 people that day would summit. Truly an amazing number considering this was the middle of winter.
The decent was uneventful except that the snow conditions were so ideal, so consolidated, Dan and I decided to skirt Avalanche Gulch's sides on the way down and regain our ridge much lower on the mountain. Quickly packing my gear, I donned my Randenee skis, locked them down and managed snowplow survival turns all the way down the hill, meeting Dave and Chris at 5:30 p.m. at Bunny Flat. Truly a climb to remember.