July 6-7, 2007.
With two big days of climbing ahead and my first 14K mountain attempt in sight, I was up and ready to get moving on this beautiful, warm July morning. Elliott, Jenn and I had driven from Portland to the Bunny Flats Trailhead on the southwest flank of Mt. Shasta the previous day. Our chosen route: Avalanche Gulch, also known as the Traditional John Muir route. In two days, we would climb 7300′ over the course of 7 miles. Due to an unusually low snow year, much of the route had already melted out, so we were in for a late-season style, rocky ascent.
Day 1: With fully loaded packs, we started up the gradually sloping trail through forest and dust until the trees disappeared. The sun bore down heavily, bringing temperatures up to the 90’s. As there was no place to take cover from the solar fire, I struggled to maintain a reasonable body temperature. Failing miserably, I ascended sluggishly as the morning wore on. In less than 2 miles, thankfully, we reached the Sierra Horse Camp. Here we refilled empty water bottles with cool spring water and sat in the shade. Here, my friend Keith joined us with his tiny daypack as he was planning a quick jaunt up to Helen Lake and back.
The walk from Horse Camp to Helen Lake was hot, hot, hot. The surrounding landscape consisted of piles of gray rocks, interrupted by the occasional melting snow patch. A cricket or bird would break the monotony every now and again. As Jenn and Elliott proceeded effortlessly up ahead, I stumbled up the trail lucky to have Keith for company for at least some portion of this stretch. I took frequent breaks to catch my breath, cool down, and hydrate. We encountered one other pair of climbers along the way. About 5 hours after we started our journey, we arrived at Helen Lake.
We each located a crescent shaped stone shelter in which to pitch our tents. The enthusiastic and serious climbing ranger warned us of Shasta’s notorious winds, suggesting we tie down our tents securely. I did this, unpacked my gear, and settled in with my two companions. It was warm, but somewhat breezy. We sat comfortably in our base layers, shoeless, devouring tasty treats and drinking water like it was going out of style. Hours passed as we told stories, laughed heartily, and took in the scenery. At about 6pm, I decided I’d had enough sun and retired to my tent where I dozed in and out of sleep for quite some time. I was entertained by the raucous voice of a climber far too excited about preparing some blueberry cheesecake dessert in camp.
Day 2: The blasted alarm woke me up at 3 am, seemingly minutes after I’d closed my eyes. I poked my head out of the tent into the warm, nighttime air. Headlamps and stars shone in the darkness like pegs on a Lite-Brite. I was discouraged to notice that some foul beast had nibbled into my food cache, eating the homemade granola bar I’d planned on eating for breakfast. It also got into my trail mix so I was down to a bag of M&M’s, beef jerky and some Clif products for the remainder of the trip. Damn.
By 4 am, we were off. Again, I plodded along slowly as we ascended a scree slope to the base of the Heart. We got on the snow as soon as we realized that climbing on the rocks was overly frustrating and energy-sucking. The crampons gripped the snow nicely and our pace improved. At the base of the Heart, we decided to go left. Although the ranger told us that most climbers go right, we thought this route looked more fun and it would avoid the gnarly ascent through Red Banks. The sun had carved out lovely shapes in the snow, that not only made the route more beautiful, but also gave us nice platforms to stand on and step into. The sun rose as we climbed the increasingly steep snow. Eventually, we topped out on the ridge, traversed right, and again changed footwear for the scree scramble up Misery Hill.I soon discovered this aptly named rockpile was just about all I could take today. My body craved more oxygen than my blood could deliver. I moved ahead at a snail’s pace as Jenn and Elliott disappeared out of sight. Silently, I cursed the heat and the elevation. I’ve never felt this weak on a climb. I thought I was stronger. Gotta be the heat…
We took a couple of extended breaks on the Hill and on the snowy, flat terrain above. I couldn’t stop anymore. Each break seemed to set me back; slow but steady climbing is more my style. So as the couple took another rest stop at the base of the summit, I carried on.
More rocks. But these are bigger, more solidly stacked up, like the boulder fields in the Presidential Range in NH. YES! I joyfully clambered over the rocks like an agile mountain goat. If I could just have 10 minutes of contentment, I would take it. As the summit quickly came closer, I veered back on to the sandy trail and poked my head on top of the final pitch. Upon seeing a group of three climbers snacking and relaxing up there, I smiled knowing that at last, the climb was finished. I chatted with them for a bit and checked out the photos they took of us ascending the last snowfield.
20 minutes later, the rest of my team arrived. We sat on the summit for about an hour, stretching, napping, writing, eating. It was great. During that time, a few other groups made it to the top, including 2 guys with teeny packs, and a group of 20-somethings in jeans and t-shirts. Yeah. Is it really much of an accomplishment to say I got to the top too?The descent, as always, was far easier for me. My lungs got a break as my legs took over the work. We passed lots of people now, all on their way up. Close to Red Banks, we donned crampons again and followed a thin band of snow through the pumice cliffs. There was a glissade chute there for hardy (or stupid?) souls, but the snow conditions were really poor for glissading. After getting off the snow, it was back to a fight with scree. Helen Lake’s welcoming appearance couldn’t come fast enough. There, we spent quite a while eating, airing out, and sitting down.
Burdened with heavy packs yet again, we followed the orange flagging back down the desolate, gray trail. Elliott rushed ahead to get to the composting toilet and I soon followed behind. Poo bags are provided to pack out solid waste, but I just couldn’t do it. Let me just say the toilet was a very welcome sight. We met some other climbers preparing for their summit bid and again relaxed in the shade while refueling on snacks. The last 1.something miles back to the car were a breeze. Smiles and words of congrats came from most of the aspiring climbers on the way up the trail.
What a trip. Thanks to Jenn and Elliott for making it happen. If I do return to Shasta, it will most definitely be covered by much more snow. Two climbers we met mentioned a 45 minute ski descent from summit to trailhead. That almost makes me want to take up skiing…