Hotlum-Bolam on Shasta

26 May 1996 - by Arun Mahajan

Over the Memorial Day weekend, 14 people from the Peak Climbing Section attempted Mt Shasta from the north side, by the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge. All summited.

To begin, we met at Fifth Season in Shasta City on Saturday, the 25th at 8.30 am. It was a beautiful day, but very windy. The snow could be seen blowing from Shasta and the lower Shastina summits.

George divided the group in 2 parts and Debbie Benham was to lead the other group. After some adroit driving over unpaved roads in the Shasta wilderness, we reached a trailhead that was adjacent to the official "north gate" trailhead. At 12 pm, we started off. We did not take snowshoes. The trail was gentle at first in the woods, but soon got steep. We arrived to our campsites at about 9500ft at 4 pm. The entire mountain was visible clearly, and George and Debbie showed us the route that wewould be taking the next day. We started off at 7.30 am on Sunday the 26th. Axes were out, and the snow was hard enough to walk on. The day promised to be great.

The climb was steep, and un-ending, but we still made good time. Finally we navigated a gully and came to a platform that was at 12800 ft, where we had lunch. Meanwhile clouds started to gather below us, and soon a clould came over the sun. It got a little cold, we could see some peolpe already coming down, there were some peolpe skiing down too. Rising steeply above us was a section of snow and ice. George was at the notch above the wall and he had set up a rope. Meanwhile the cloud had drifted, and it was bright and warm again. We could all make it to the notch just by kicking steps, thought it was good to know that the rope was there. At the notch one can see the bizzare sculptures that the wind has done on the ice that lies on the rocks. It was like looking at massive walls of white coral. Quite impressive.

It was relatively flat now, but hard and rippled with ice. We descended a gully and then traversed up. There we smelt the sulphur, and we could see sulphur fumes coming out of the fumaroles. Then we were upon the switchbacks leading to the final summit block. There we met the people who came from the other routes. Soon we reached the summit.

George headed down, warning all of us not to dally at the summit. There were many people on the summit, and we had to stand in line to get to the summit block to get our pictures taken. It had taken us 7 hrs (2.30 pm) to get to the summit. It was all so perfect. Too perfect! We reached the place where we had to downclimb the snow/ice field. Suddenly, without warning, clouds engulfed us, it got very cold and it started to hail. The hail was pelting me so violently that I could feel it underneath my 3 layers...and we were in a whiteout. There was thunder and lightening. Thor had just checked in! I could only see Debbie and Ted in front and vaguely makeout Dennis. Dongshil was right behind me, as we cautiously downclimbed the wall. We still had a ways to go before reaching the place where we had lunch, but we could see nothing and we had no idea which way to go. A mistake would have grave consequences at this point. One could feel the power of the mountain. Debbie herded us all together.

From behind us, people started appearing. With relief we accounted for all the people in our party we knew were behind us. Meanwhile the weather was not letting up. Finally we heard Bill and George yelling to us from the mist below, and we could dimly makeout their silhouettes. They were yelling "get down quick and don't stop", we came down, plunge stepping as quickly as we could. There was George, with Bill and the rest of our party. We started down fast, the visibility was better, but it was still snowing. We took off our crampons and glissaded down to the 10000 ft level and then walked back to camp. It was snowing fast, and it was wet. Shasta was blanked out behind us. Our tents were drenched, George wanted to hike out back to the cars (it was 5.30 pm then) right away and took a vote. Me, Ted, George, his daughter Adrienne and her friends Liz and Dongshil decided to go down. The rest decided to stay. We made it back to the cars at about 8 pm.

What a day! We had climbed from 9500 to 14100+ and back, and then from 9500 to 7000 in 13 hrs, the last 5 in forbidding weather. Debbie says that it snowed a foot and half atleast that night. She and her crew had to shovel all that snow the next morning (Monday). Their group left at 8 am and were back to the cars at about 10 am without incident.

We are glad that we had the able leadership of Debbie and George when we were in the whiteout, and that we all stayed together. We could summit and get down in time, because we had an early start and kept a steady pace. George had said that if we dont get the summit by 3, we head down, thus we had reserved time to get back. When at the whiteout, Ted had taken a compass bearing, and it was in the same direction that we eventually took after hearing George and Bill, so even if we had not seen or heard them, we would have been ok following the compass, the value of which cannot be underscored.

As some might have read in the newspapers (SF Chronicle and the Record Searchlight, of Redding), a 49 yr old college professor from Oklahoma City was found frozen to his death at 9500 ft on the day after Memorial Day (tue). He was climbing with his friend on the same day as we were, Sunday. He and his friend had been seperated at a point, and he had probably strayed away in the whiteout that the storm had caused. Some of us had spoken to him on the way up. I too had spoken with him, earlier in the day. I had passed him and his partner and then had noticed that he was wearing a jacket of the same make and color as mine and that had caused me to stop and exchange pleasantries.

This accident brings out the unforgiving nature of the rapidly changing weather on a mountain, and is a harsh reminder of the risks that are inherent to the sport of mountain climbing. I am reminded of a statement made by an older mountain-rescue person in New Hampshire after bringing down yet another dead person from Mt Washington, "the reason that I am still climbing mountains is beacuse I know when not to climb, the mountains will be there forever, I won't".

List of the people in the PCS trip who summited: George Van Gorden (leader), Debbie Benham, Bill Kirkpatrick, Mara, Yanuka, Adrienne, Liz Binkley, Dongshil, Dennis Hilpakka, Eddie Sudol, Richard and Helena Verrow, Ted Raczeck and Arun Mahajan.

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