Climbing Mt. Shasta

Originally posted on November 22, 2015 by Svetopolis
One motion at a time…
First, plant ice axe into the snow.
Thump! Thump! Thump! Swish…
The axe sinks a foot into the snow.
Now, the right foot up.
Crunch!
Then step forward with the left.
Crunch!
Repeat… Repeat… Repeat…

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The Hotlum Glacier

For 1,000 feet, as I climbed my way up the steep snow and ice incline of the Ramp, this is all I could think about–the rhythmic, mindless motions of climbing a very steep and icy hill. Looking up was too tiring, and looking down was dizzying–and also a bit terrifying. It was a long and steep fall down to the Hotlum Glacier below. I tried to not let my mind wander too much, because the more it wandered, the more I fixated on what could go wrong if I took one wrong step up this snowy path…

The emotions of climbing Mt. Shasta vacillated between terrifying and exhilarating–not only during the actual climb, but also in preparation for the trek. A couple of months before the climb, my friend Dylan called me up and invited me to climb with him this last summer. Dylan is an avid hiker and climber, having climbed many of the big Cascade volcanos: Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan to name a few. He ensured me that, since I was a novice, he would find a climb that was not too technical, but he thought that it would be a fun event. We settled on Mt. Shasta in northern California. At 14,179 ft, Mt. Shasta is the 2nd highest peak in the Cascades–sitting just 200 ft under Mt. Rainier. We set the date for a July 18 and 19 to make the climb. Dylan and I did a few hikes before to train and he taught me how to use the equipment like crampons, ice axe, etc. Even with this preparation, though, I was nervous about the climb and the potential for disaster. I realized that the worry was mostly unwarranted, and Mt. Shasta would be tough but safe, enough…

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Me and Aaron

We enlisted Dylan’s friend Aaron for the climb. Aaron was also an avid climber, having climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Annapurna loop in Nepal. We headed down to Mt. Shasta from Seattle the night of the 17th and arrived in the town of Mt. Shasta, CA early that morning. At the ranger station in town we picked up our permits (for those going over 10,000 ft you need to purchase a permit), and we checked out the routes and maps. The ranger advised us to climb the Hotlum/ Bolan Ridge Route on the north side of the mountain.

The trailhead for the route is at Northgate (about an hour from town) at 7,000 ft. We set out at noon with our packs and gear for high camp at 10,000 ft. The hike took us about 2.5-3 hours to get to the camp. The camp had lots of places to camp out with great views of the peak and the valleys below. It was fun hanging out and relaxing on the desolate and rocky face of the camp.

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I did notice the elevation difference, having come from Seattle at sea level. I continually drank water to offset the altitude and dry air.

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We woke up at 2:30 am, made a quick breakfast and some coffee and set out for the summit around 3:45. The first part of the route took us up a long moraine below a ridge. At the top of the moraine we had to cross the Hotlum Glacier. The ranger had advised us to watch out for a bergschrund (crevasse) on the glacier. While navigating the softer snow of the moraine was easy, the steeper and icier glacier was nerve-racking to cross. We reached the top of the glacier just as the sun was rising. The view was spectacular.

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Dylan, me, Aaron

At the top of the glacier was the Ramp. This was a slog for what seemed to be a thousand feet. I quickly began overheating in my ski jacket and gear. The Ramp was also very steep and it was disorienting getting used to the motions of climbing the steep facade of the mountain. After about an hour or more of climbing the Ramp, we reached the Step at 13,100 ft and had a moment of rest before embarking on the final thousand feet. The snow quickly gave way to the rocky peak of the mountain. We went around two rock features (the Rabbit Ears and the Shark Tooth) as they guided up around to the southwest side of the mountain. Here our route merged with the most popular route, Avalanche Gulch, at the caldera. (Mt. Shasta is an active volcano and there are some areas at the top that gave off steam, heat and noxious sulfur gasses.)

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While coming from the Hotlum/Bolam Route, we hadn’t encountered any climbers, Avalanche Gulch had several groups of climbers ascending and descending. Some of these climbers looked like seasoned mountaineers and others looked like amateurs. A group of Japanese men were descending. One looked very discombobulated and disoriented… Altitude sickness was overcoming him as he stumbled down the path. Although Mt. Shasta is an easier mountain to climb compared to others in the Cascades, at 14,179 ft, altitude sickness is a very serious and real danger. I was also starting to feel the drags of altitude by this time too. I was starting to get a pounding headache, even though I had been drinking lots of water and taking it slow climbing up the peak. The sulfurous, egg smell the mountain gave off at the caldera was not making it better.

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We finally made it to the peak around 10 am, where we signed a book that was kept in a metal box and we took pictures. Unfortunately, clouds had come in right as we made it to the top. It took us 6.5 hours to reach the summit 4,000 ft above high camp. We all took celebratory sips from the Rainier beer I packed up, and we spent a few moments to rest and take in our achievement.

Climbing down was much quicker. It only took us 2 hours to get back to high camp. We glissaded (slid down on our butts and used our ice axes to steer and brake our slide) about 2/3 the way down to camp. My thigh got really bruised up from doing this. Often times the decent is much more dangerous than the ascent, since people are more tired and try to speed down the hill. Accidents happen. I only had 2 mishaps. First, I tripped over my crampons on some rocks. My left pant leg tore. Then as I was glissading my crampons caught on my right pant leg and tore that one too. (I learned that I shouldn’t glissade with crampons on.) We finally made it back down to high camp at 1 pm. We took a quick rest, packed up our gear and made our way to the car. The most satisfying thing for the trip was eating a giant burger at the Black Bear Diner in Shasta!

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In retrospect, the experience was unique and I did have a good time, even though it was a tough, tiring slog to the top. I think I would like to climb another mountain again, but I would like it to be a fairly non-technical mountain to climb (the next one might be Mt. Fuji in Japan). My favorite part of the trip was the backpacking/camping part, so any climbing trip for me needs to include some camping.

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