25 May 2015

Skiing from the Summit of Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta, located in Northern California, stands alone in its prominence, rising 10,000 ft above the surrounding plains. At 14,179 ft tall, Shasta is the 2nd highest peak in the Cascade Range (little sister to Rainier at 14,410). Shasta can be seen from 140 miles away on a clear day. 

Not that I would know really. I've only ever driven there in the middle of the night during what I like to call a "long two-day weekend". 

You all remember last year. Four Seattlites and 2 Californias converged at the trailhead to launch our attempt. For those of you who refuse to click on hyperlinks, the plan was thus:

  • Drive to Mt. Shasta Friday after work (a mere 8hrs, 39mins from Seattle sans traffic)
  • Make it to Bunny Flat trailhead (6,940') and camp at some point on Friday night/Saturday morning
  • Get up and skin to high camp at Helen Lake (10,443') on Saturday
  • Make camp, eat food, go to bed early Saturday night
  • Sunday morning have Alpine-ish start, depending on expected sunrise and snow conditions
  • Summit! Complete with cheers over a Rainier Beer just to let Shasta know who's really the big 14'er in the area (clearly sarcasm people)
  • Ski back to Helen Lake, break camp, ski to car
  • Make long drive back to Seattle (a mere 543 miles post 14,000' climb/ski)
  • Work on Monday - be sleepy all day and not care cause our weekend was epic!
And that's more or less how it went in 2014. Minus, unfortunately, the summit. 

Turned around by wind at the Red Banks on Attempt #1

So when Theresa suggested we give it a go again this year (March 7-8, 2015), on nearly the exact same weekend, I was keen to give it a go. Why the hell not? I mean, Jordan and I had spent the previous week doing nothing but drinking and sunning at sea-level in the British Virgin Islands, surely we were in good enough shape to climb a 14er, right???

Ahh, to be so naive. 

Shasta2015 went more or less the same as Shasta2014. #TeamTutu left Seattle after work, drove FOR-EV-ER until we were at the Bunny Flat Trailhead in Cali, set up camp by 3am, slept until 10:30am, and were skinning by the crack of 1:15pm (we are not always the most motivated bunch). 

Gear explosion. Of course it includes a tutu shadow.

Leaving the trailhead.

Once again it took about four hours to get to the camp site at Helen Lake (10,443'). And just like last year I was getting absolutely crushed on the ascent, only this time it was Theresa doing the crushing (she made camp in 3:30 and could have done it in 3 hours, I made it in 4:15 and would have preferred to fall down and sleep and accomplish the feat in 6 hrs). It felt like we were skinning in an inferno it was so hot.

Settling in at camp was relatively easy. After the dinner staple by Mountain House we snapped a few photos of the sunset and settled in for a cozy night in the 3-man tent. I got to be big spoon AND little spoon. Camping is the best.

Looking west.

Ours is the yellow REI half dome. A few (unfriendly) climbers next door.

Shasta JUMP!


We left set the alarm for 4:30am, which was really 3:30am because we chose to do this Long Two-Day Weekend trip just when the Spring Forward Time Change was happening. Nice move boneheads.... but we left camp around 6am (real time 6am, our time 5am) and watched the alpenglow sunrise as we climbed. Booting in crampons with skis on our backs, the going up Avalanche Gulch was relatively straightforward, albeit steep. Conditions seemed perfect for primo skiing on the way down, and I was excited with the potential for spring corn. Without the winds from last year it was much more pleasant, but you still gain 3,000' in a relatively short distance, and I was feeling the affects of elevation. Going was slow.

The views were stunning though, and the company was great. Despite not feeling amazing (more on that later) I was having a hell of a time. Take a look:

5am and I'm already bringing up the rear.

Theresa's shot of Jordan and I coming up behind. Love the valley below.

One step at a time.

Me nearing Theresa at the top of the Red Banks (13,000')

It took me a solid 3.5 hours to cover the 3k vert and reach Theresa, who was happy to finally have found some sunshine. Exhausted, I collapsed in a heap beside Theresa. I was pooped for sure, but not feeling overly terrible. I scarfed a burrito (poor choice - I do not recommend anything with beans at elevation) and downed some trail mix. As I was eating my eyes took me north towards Misery Hill. "That doesn't look so bad," I thought to myself. Oh Kristina....dear, sweet, naive Kristina.

Misery Hill. 800' of suffering.

Theresa was cold after her long break waiting for us and started ahead, trying to motivate Jordan and I to pick up the pace. At the base of Misery Hill (13,200') we were both moving pretty slow. On more than one occasion Jordan tried to convince me to leave him, then I pulled the same move on him, but I'm proud of our teamwork. We stuck together to get to the top.

But it took a long ass time. I believe somewhere in the ballpark of 90 minutes to cover 600ft, which is slow even at 13,000 ft. 

Misery Hill is so named because - much like the false summit on Mt. Adams - the slope isn't overly steep and gives you the sense that it's not as tall or as far as you think. But with each step the hill just keeping "rolling over", getting longer and further until you just want to rip your boots off and lay down for a long nap.

But at least the rime ice didn't look so terrible here. I was happy that the winds remained (relatively) calm. The the skies were clear. The air was clean. The views were spectacular.

When, at long last, we rolled over the top of Misery Hill I looked back to see Jordan appear like a mountain warrior as he crested the ridge. This became one of my all-time favorite shots in the mountains.

Mountain Warrior.

Then we looked ahead. The photo below shows just how incredibly far we still had to go to the summit. We were at 13,800' and still needed to gain nearly 400ft of vertical in over a half-mile. 

And I did not want to. My head was pounding, my lungs were burning, and my backpack felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. My legs were screaming at me with each step. I felt nauseous. Really, really nauseous. I didn't really want to continue.

Shasta's true summit (right) from the top of Misery Ridge.

But the lure of the summit kept me moving. Jordan and I went a few hundred yards to get out of the wind which magically appeared on the ridgeline, and I dropped my skis and pulled out my bladder (from my backpack, not my body). The snow had completely turned to rime and my bladder (again, the one full of water not full of pee) had long-since frozen, so skis were worthless to me as was my block of water-ice.

Without the weight I felt better, but still very ill: worsening headache, constant nausea, significant apathy ("No, really, leave me here. I'll be fine."). Definitely the beginning signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). But we endeavored on to meet up with Theresa, who had been waiting for nearly an hour. Once again I collapsed beside her, and she brought her water spout down to my mouth so I could drink some water. 

I was miserable, but we were so close. Only 200' stood between us and the summit, and we wanted to get there.

All of us left our packs for the final scramble to the top. With the smell of sulfur burning our noses and the proximity to the summit propelling us upwards, we made quick progress to the summit. Then we were there. All alone - just the three of us. It had taken 7 hours, we thought it would be 4 to 6 at most.

Group summit selfie!

#TeamTutu on the summit!

As is always the case in Cascadia, the views were stunning, but I didn't want to dawdle. We took a few photos, signed the summit registry, and left. I especially wanted to get down, as I was really feeling the effects of the altitude. Surprising all of us, I basically ran down from the summit, across the giant snow field, and to my backpack in under 10 minutes - over 300 vertical feet and half a mile. I needed down. I needed down now.

We got to skis and chattered our way down to the top of Misery Ridge, where we at least had patches of skiable snow interspersed with the rime ice. Skiing on rime is a unique experience. Imagine ice, you know, the crap that's hard to ski on anyway, and then put a bunch of oblong, baseball-sized chunks on top of it. Those chunks cling hard to the surface ice and threaten to rip your skis (and legs!) off with every turn. Yeah, that's skiing on rime.

Skiing was basically terrible from the summit (or 13,900ft where I had left my skis) down to below the Red Banks (12,800ft). All rime - all bad. I had to take multiple breaks, some of which involved lying down to catch my breath. AND I have the great privilege of having all of this on film - I got a GoPro for Christmas and thought this would be the perfect trip to use it! I was wrong.

Theresa just past our campsite skiing like a trooper with half of my gear.
The suffering finally ended around 11,500', where we finally encountered perfect spring corn in Avalanche Gulch. I was happy to be moving in easier conditions, and raced down to our tent eager to lose some elevation and hopefully start feeling better.

But I did not start feeling better. In fact, I was so tired that Theresa had to pack my bag for me while I sat out of the sun. She stuffed my sleeping bag, loaded my back, and she and Jordan divvied up the group gear to lighten my load. I have never been more grateful for such amazing teammates. 

Let me be clear here - I'm not proud of any of this. I should have turned around and I'm very lucky that nothing serious happened.  I've never had a problem like this before or since (turns out there's a reason for that). Having climbed well above 10k before, and having lots of backcountry experience, I falsely thought I was someone who performed well at altitude. I'm so thankful to my wonderful teammates who kept a close eye on me and made sure I was okay. 

Making Memories
I'm also lucky to have 28 years of skiing experience under my belt, and multiple Cascade summits, which absolutely helped on the descent. The excellent conditions helped too. We had perfect spring corn from 11,500' all the way down to the trailhead. Rarely in the mountains do you find such perfect corniness, let alone 5k of it! I only wish I could have enjoyed it more.

But we made it safely down zee mountain to discover a big party in the parking lot. Theresa and Jordan celebrated with beers - I laid down in the back of the car hoping my pounding headache would go away. It didn't. And I didn't feel better the next day.... or the day after that. It wasn't until May that I would discover I had climbed Shasta with an unwanted stowaway on board: Petra, My Parasite

Which, ultimately, makes this Long Two-Day Weekend all the more memorable. And isn't that why we go into the mountains? To make memories to last a lifetime?

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