Climbing Mount Shasta

by Steve Bragg

Access to Mount Shasta is from the town of Mount Shasta, which is located on its southern flank. The town can be reached from Interstate Route 5, about 55 miles south of the Oregon border.  From the town, an excellent asphalt road winds upward through patches of pine trees for a half-dozen miles to a pair of large, paved parking lots.  The trailhead is a wide dusty path that can beaccessed from any point on the north side of the upper parkingarea.  The trail goes up and to the left over several ridges, and can be difficult to follow where wind has blown volcanic ash over it.  On the downhill side of the ridges, the trail breaks up into goat paths before consolidating again into the main trail.  When this happens, especially just before the advance camp, it is best to stay high on the ridge rather than taking a trail heading straight down from the ridge.

In September of 1986, I departed the parking area with a huge backpack, determined to live in luxury at the advance camp halfway up the mountain.  Traveling up a broad path, I soon had lumps of volcanic ash in my sneakers, since the route was covered with a layer of silt.  Whenever the path meandered into the lee of a ridge or large rock formation, the gritty substance built up into a layer several inches thick.  The climbing was similar to ascending a sand dune.  The ridge tops and windward faces, however, were scraped clean and made for much easier travel.

After traversing interminable sandy wastes and barren ridges beneath the hot sun, I finally came within sight of the advance camp.  It is situated on a small plateau directly beneath a wide, snow-filled couloir.  I had to descend into an ash-filled depression and ascend a steep scree slope to reach the camp.  I have never been so frustrated in my life.  The descent was through deep silt that sifted into my sneakers at once.  After reaching the floor of the depression, the scree slope angled up steeply several hundred yards to the camp.  The surface had the consistency of marbles, and I somehow plunged into it up to my knees.  Swearing continually and with sweat dripping down my nose, I staggered up in great loping strides.  I tottered at each step as the massive pack threatened to upend me.

Finally crawling to the rim, I relapsed into a catatonic state, staring in disbelief at the easy trail now clearly visible which looped aroound the high ground of the basin, nicely sidestepping the mess I had just traversed.

The advance camp, a compact cluster of multi-colored nylon tents, gleamed amidst a waste of cracked stone and blackened ice.  I claimed a spot with rock walls already built around it; good protection from the wind.  The sun was thankfully setting, as it had been an uncomfortably warm afternoon.  Lights were sparkling in nearby valleys as streetlamps turned on far below.  Wisps of cloud glowed red overhead as the sun's last rays caught their edges.

Wandering around among the fifty-odd residents of the camp, I heard that the couloir immediately above the camp was ice-hard in the early morning, while rockfall swept it later in the day.  I decided to rise early and ascend with crampons.

After a restless night, the alarm went off at 4 a.m. I crushed it at once and slept for another hour.  Pulling on cold plastic boots in the clammy interior of the tent, I crawled out into the darkness to find that no one else was awake yet.  This could be a vast and intricate conspiracy to get me out of bed much too early.  This could also be a case of paranoia brought on by a poor night's sleep.  I shouldered the pack, turned on my headlamp, and set off into the gloom, the snow crunching like Styrofoam beneath my boots.

After a half-hour of hiking, I stopped for a view of the camp.  A few tents sparkled below like fireflies as their inhabitants lit lamps and stoves.  The lights of the town of Mt. Shasta twinkled far below.  Above, the encircling mountain walls conspired to throw the couloir into shadow.

I continued on up moderately steep ice.  The crampons bit deep, crunching and grinding as I ascended.  Front-pointing was frequently necessary.  The ice was cast in a pale glow by my headlamp.  My eyes adjusted to the cone of light, and I lived within it for some time; small rocks and flows of ice appeared suddenly at the top of the cone, traveled slowly through it, and faded away at its bottom.  Head down, I slogged on through this tiny lamp-lit world to the head of the couloir.

Pausing at the top for a drink, I shut off the lamp.  Sunlight was filtering over the nearby ridge.  Below me, a scattering of other climbers were attempting the couloir.  Some clearly had no crampons, since they slipped on the ice and then went back to their tents to wait for the ice to melt later in the morning.

Ahead, a long wall of black rock, covered with a glistening sheen of ice, blocked off access to the higher reaches of the mountain.  Directly ahead was a narrow, steep split in the rock, looking as though an ice axe had cloven the face.  It was coated with a thin layer of ice.

The standard route appeared to loop around the wall to the right, but the crack looked interesting.  Armed with crampons and ice axe, I clambered up into the gully.  A narrow rivulet of ice choked the bottom of the gully.  Straddling the frozen flow and hacking away at frozen mud for handholds, I gradually moved up through the dimly lit defile.  The air in this confined space was frigid, and my breath froze around the front of my shell parka.  The walls on either side gradually lowered, until I could find a way up and out of the gully.  The route had terminated in a plateau, bare of snow and covered with small rocks and frozen mud flows.

Angling uphill, I soon cleared the plateau and hiked into a largefield of sun cups, which is a snow field in which the sun has burnt small but deep depressions.  The heat was startling after the cool plateau.  A faint path led through this odd landscape.  I wandered through the sun cups, jumped down into cavities melted in the snow, and climbed around fantastic castle-like formations of ice formed by the combination of sun and wind.

I came out of the sun cups and into a flat dell.  Several stone circles used to protect tents dotted the area.  There was a strong sulfur odor arising from bubbling hot springs scattered through the area.  People camping within the stone circles probably spent all night glaring accusingly at each other whenever the stench wafted through the tent.

Up and to the right was a tumbled mass of stone -- the summit.  The normal route forces one to pass through the dell and climb a scree slope a few hundred feet to the top.  On the nearer side, however, was a more exhilarating possibility.  A short, steep face, almost a chimney, let straight to the summit.  Already pumped with adrenaline from this most excellent climb, I decided to try the face route.  Still wearing the large expedition pack, I scrambled through loose talus to the base of the cliff; it was covered with large, jutting rocks affording fine holds.  Climbing up perhaps thirty feet,  I suddenly felt pressure against my back, and realized that the pack had jammed against a rock outcropping.  While wriggling closer to the rock to yield enough room to break free, I became aware of a deep rushing sound coming from somewhere behind me, like a monstrous wave building to its crest.

The sound increased rapidly, blocking out all other sensations.  At the summit of a mountain on a clear day, there is only one occurrence that will cause such noise.  You are above avalanches, and blizzards are impossible when there are no clouds in the sky.  I was sitting on top of a volcano -- it was about to explode.

Only seconds had passed between the first onset of noise and the realization that I was about to die.  Before any reaction to this thought could occur, a fighter jet flashed past, turned sideways, not fifty feet away.  Instantly it was gone, and the roaring sound with it.

The volcano was not going to explode.  I settled into the rock with a sigh, grit from the stone rubbing against my cheek, sweat starting from my fingertips.  Shifting from the absolute certainty of death to a sudden reprieve brought a typical reaction.  Looking up at the portion of the cliff yet to be climbed, I decided that there had been enough excitement for one day.  I carefully climbed back down to the talus, circled around, and finished the climb by the normal route.

Rather than being angry at the fighter pilot for buzzing the summit, I was filled with a fierce desire to live.  The daily thoughts about more possessions, more summits, more money, had no meaning.  The only feeling left to me was gratefulness to be alive and still be able to see, touch, taste, hear, and smell the world.  For the remainder of that day, I sensed everything with acute clarity; things that we block out of everyday life because we accept them as ordinary -- the crumbling taste of a cookie, the chill freshness of a light breeze caressing the face, even the pungent odor of the sulfur springs bubbling below the summit.  These sharpened perceptions faded as the fear passed; nonetheless, I sometimes think back to what it was like then, and know with a deep certainty that being so thoroughly frightened for a few intense seconds was clearly worthwhile.

The descent was uneventful, except for the couloir above the advance camp. Several dozen climbers were ascending as i hiked down.  The rock band directly above the couloir was dropping stones on them as the sun's heat melted rocks free from the face.  Climbers leaped out of the way while other crouched in hesitation as projecticles bounded down amongst them, whirring through the air like birds in flight.

Packing up the tent at the advance base camp, I trudged down to the car through intense heat, stumbling through tractionless dust inches deep.  The plastic expedition boots, strapped to the top of the pack, rolled around and hit me on the head after every stumble.