Shasta, the north state renegade – climbing the Cascades’ 14er
THE NORTH STATE RENEGADE:
Climbing California’s Cascades Range 14er
Of California’s 15 peaks over 14,000 feet, only two are outside of the southern Sierra: White Mountain and Mount Shasta. Shasta is the geologic freak of Northern California, a massive Cascades renegade that like, Alaska’s Denali, dwarfs its neighbors.
Paul Ligtenberg teaches geography and weather and climate at the Sierra College-Grass Valley campus. He is also one tough climber, who’s enamored of Shasta, which he’s climbed 11 times. Paul leads groups of students up its flanks every June, always on the easier, day-hikeable south face. This year our group of seven was his guinea pig on the more-demanding north face up the Hotlum-Bolum Glacier. Normally, only about 50 percent of his charges summit, and we were no exception.
The Fifth Season sporting-goods store in Mount Shasta City is the staging area for all attempts, and bustles with climbers trying on crampons, hefting ice axes, and discussing routes. We secured the necessary permits to camp above 10,000 feet there, then drove out Highway 97 to Military Pass Road and the trailhead at 6,700 feet.
The climb up to our above-treeline base camp was just 3 miles, but entailed 4,000 feet of gain with about one-third of it on snow. My friend, Dana Bruce, and I made it in just before dark; three men stumbled in by the light of their headlamps and the full moon at 9:45. It was blowing hard and bitter cold, and we all felt the effects of the high bivouac to a degree. For only the second time ever, I had nausea from altitude sickness, and two men developed headaches that prevented any attempt at summiting. We hunkered down for a night of little sleep.
The next morning it was still blowing a gale. Only Paul, Dana and I decided to try the climb, with the other men knocked out by the altitude. A mountain sticking up that far into the jet stream creates its own weather, and we could see plumes of swirling snow on the summit – a warning to climbers of dangerous high winds. But the sky was the clear blue-black of extreme altitude, and not to attempt to summit was out of the question.
After giving us a brief lesson in self-arrest with the ice axes in case we slipped, Paul started up the glacier at 7:30 a.m., while Dana and I were struggling into our crampons.
I’d never used crampons and an axe before and had borrowed them from my 14er-bagging partner. My equipment was 20 years old and dull compared to the others’, but the beautiful steel crampons looked and clinked like conquistadors’ spurs, and the wooden- (vs. metal) shafted axe had a warm feel. The aesthetic appeal of the implements and knowledge of their history of climbing adventures made the extra weight in my backpack worth it.
A hardy guy in top physical condition, Paul toe-kicked straight up the 1 1/2-mile-long, 3,400-feet-of-gain glacial face in softening snow, whereas Dana and I quickly found we had to traverse. Paul later estimated the wind was blowing 40 mph and gusting to 60, forcing us to frequently dig in our axes just to remain upright. The wind, plus the lack of oxygen, forced me into a rhythm of 20-25 steps, rest, kick turn up the 30-35 percent slope. It was the toughest and most dangerous 14er of the six I’ve done in California. Gradually gaining trust in my crampons, I leaned on my axe, gasping and thinking, “Jeez, my mom would die if she could see me perched up here, trudging along being sand-blasted by ice.” Given the conditions, my four-hour ascent was pretty good time.
Dana and I became separated for the last hour of the climb. I summited alone, a novel and exhilarating experience, two hours after Paul. Gazing down on a hundred miles of valley farmland was a very different experience than being above miles of 10,000-foot-plus peaks in the Whitney Corridor.
As always, descending from extreme gain is almost as tough as ascending, and it took me another two hours. Back at camp, Paul and I worriedly studied the clouds forming below us while scanning the glacier for Dana.
When he arrived, we had to hurriedly grab our packs and get out before the weather changed. Sliding in the snow on wobbly knees down to the vehicles, with aching calves and quadriceps muscles, we experienced the mountaineers’ euphoria of a peak well-climbed.
If you are going:
Stiff, waterproof mountaineering boots, crampons and an ice axe are essential for climbing Shasta. The Fifth Season sporting-goods store in Mount Shasta City rents all three for about $35. Reserve well in advance at 926-3606. The store also arranges guided trips for all faces and sells the $15 camping permit for the north face. Take the central Mount Shasta City exit, Lake Street. The store is at the corner of Lake St. and Mount Shasta Blvd.
This article was originally published on 10/13/1999.
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