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Story by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tales

                  

A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
An Adventure on Northern California's Mighty Mount Shasta

1998 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

 

       
photo courtesy of John Crenshaw           

 

I had been living in Mount Shasta for a year when I decided it was high time I hiked up to the summit. After all, it seems like hundreds of people head for the mountaintop every summer, so I figured it couldn't be all that hard. Of course, now I realize that many of those who start out for the 14,162-foot high peak do not make it. I also realize that I'm lucky to be alive after what happened to me up there.

It was 5:45 am, September 22nd, the autumnal equinox, 6,800 feet above sea level. As we set out from the Bunny Flat trailhead, my friend, Robert Dow, and I were psyched and ready. We had checked topographic maps, equipment lists and weather forecasts, and had talked to forest rangers and mountain guides about the best routes to the top. We both carried crampons and ice axes rented in town the day before, and bore knapsacks carefully packed with plenty of drinking water, layers of warm clothing, high-energy snacks and an assortment of hiking paraphernalia. Mountain men to the core!

Actually, neither of us had ever done any real mountaineering, but we're both in pretty good shape. Well, at least Robert is, thanks to his penchant for marathon mountain biking and a lucky set of genes. I already knew he was capable of going uphill like a goat on the lam. It had become painfully obvious to me when he had practically galloped to the top of 9,000-ft. Mount Eddy a few weeks previously, while I had marched stoically behind, separated by an ever-widening gap. But I am tenacious if not fast, and I often hike the higher mountain trails around here, between 6- and 8,000-ft., so I'm acclimated to altitude. As we started out by the dawn's early light, I never doubted for a moment that we would both get to the top of Mount Shasta that day.

After about an hour's walk we arrived at Horse Camp. This is the staging area for many who come to climb this mountain. A stone and timber cabin, owned by the Sierra Club, serves as an emergency shelter. Here, too, is the last source of fresh water, a pure spring where we topped off our water bottles. Several tents were pitched in the surrounding woods, but no one stirred as Robert and I passed.

We reached the tree line a little below 9,000 feet, and the trail narrowed and rose steeply in a series of switchbacks. The solid earth of the forest gave way to loose scree - gray, brittle volcanic rock and sand that tended to slide away underfoot and required a careful step. Before us rose the huge, snow-covered southwestern slope of the dormant volcano Mount Shasta, still in shadow as the sun rose behind it. I had never seen the mountain's face so close. It appeared bigger and much steeper than I'd expected.

By this time, we'd been hiking for a couple of hours with only a brief break at the Horse Camp spring. Robert was plowing forward effortlessly, of course. I felt strong, too, but was beginning to notice a slight soreness in my knees, in the tendons on either side of the joints. Well, there was nothing to be done for it, so I plodded on over the lunar landscape of pumice and shale, past automobile-sized boulders in chaotic clusters, hoping the tendons would somehow loosen up.

When we reached the snow line around 9:00, we had to stop and strap on the crampons. These steel spikes are designed to fit against the soles of your hiking boots. They grip snow and ice with a certainty that would comfort Sasquatch and, though neither of us had ever used them before, we immediately appreciated the ease with which we could now move on the snow. The ice axes also came off our packs to serve as walking sticks - and as a safety brake if need be.

The storekeeper who had rented us the ice gear had given us a 2-minute lesson in its use. He was particularly careful to explain how to shift your grip on the ice axe if you should slip and fall on the high slopes, and dig in the point to stop your downhill slide. Otherwise, once you start sliding down the face of a steep ice field you cannot stop yourself. There are places where a person could slide and tumble for several thousand feet, with little likelihood of surviving the fall in tact. In fact, quite a few people have died on Mount Shasta over the years, most of them from falling. So Robert and I drilled ourselves in the ice axe maneuver while still on a relatively gentle slope. As things turned out, it was a wise precaution.

The broad trail over the packed snow was easy to follow, trampled as it was by a whole summer's-worth of hikers that had passed this way before us. Now it began to rise sharply once again and our conversation ceased as we concentrated on trudging forward in the thinning air. We were nearing 10,000-feet and my knees were definitely becoming a nuisance. Each step brought with it a sharp little jolt of pain and I silently prayed it would not worsen; we still had a long way to go.

Lake Helen, at "ten-four" (10,400-ft. elevation), is a relatively level area that many climbers use as a base camp for their final push to the summit. We didn't see a lake there, but I understand that in drier years the snow and ice actually melt enough to form a little pool of water in a rocky basin. That day it was no more than a frozen field of snow at the foot of Mount Shasta's very steep, upper-most slope. Nevertheless, it's a popular hikers' mid-way station and over the years people have piled stones into a series of windbreaks for pitching tents and sleeping bags. You can stay there overnight and so get a fresh start for the summit in the morning, gaining a 3,600-ft. head start over the Bunny Flat trailhead where Robert and I had begun.

It occurred to me that that might have been a good idea, because we had been trekking for four hours now, the hardest half of the climb still lay ahead, and I was already limping badly. The tendons of my knees, particularly my right knee, were very sore. It may have been a reaction to the altitude, or to the unaccustomed weight of my backpack, but whatever the cause, each step was becoming an ordeal of mind over pain. (I kept repeating that Rocky phrase, "no pain, no pain", like a silent mantra while I walked. Rocky always triumphs in the end. I was beginning to suspect that I might not.)

We took a 10-minute break at Lake Helen. The rest stop did me some good and I was able to hike a bit afterwards with little discomfort. But soon the pain returned and intensified. My limp was by then so pronounced that I finally told Robert I would have to slow way down. We agreed that he would forge ahead, since he surely had a better chance of reaching the top without me. For my part, I would continue more slowly to the summit, or else turn back after awhile, depending on how I felt. My partner charged off like a greyhound through the gate and soon disappeared up the slope ahead of me.

Relieved at no longer having to keep up with Robert's pace, I found a comfortable gait and moved on determinedly. I couldn't step forward any longer with my right leg; it simply hurt too much to bend and load it with the weight of my body. But my left knee was still not too bad, and I could step upward on that leg, then bring my straightened right leg level with it. In other words, I was limping like Chester in the tenth episode of Gunsmoke and only making half time up the mountain, but I was at least ascending steadily. Even at that slow pace, I overtook and passed another hiker - the only one I'd seen besides us so far that day. At that altitude, people tend to move slowly and rest a lot, and this fellow was sitting more often than walking. A little later, I saw him give up and turn back. Soon after that another man came carefully down the icy slope from above and passed me, saying he'd had enough and was giving it up. He had passed Robert higher up and assured me that my partner was progressing well.

Moving at my own pace gave me more time to observe my surroundings. The first thing that strikes you on this high side of Mount Shasta is the feces. The entire, broad path to the top is absolutely littered with freeze-dried human waste dotting the snow like chocolate chips in a giant bowl of ice cream, but much less appealing. Hundreds of hikers cannot leave nature entirely unscathed, but here the hikers have collectively managed to pollute the landscape to an astonishing degree. There are no "facilities" up there and people just go where they are. In an effort to stop this grotesque desecration of the upper mountain, the Forest Service, together with a local environmental group called Friends of the Mountain, now provide airtight "pack out your waste" bags for free at the Bunny Flat station. They even put kitty litter in them! Unfortunately, it appears that too few hikers have the decency and consideration to use them.

Another phenomenon I witnessed was an amazing abundance of insects lying about in the snow - many dead, some still alive. I can only suppose that strong updrafts of wind carry them up from the forest and deposit them here. Flocks of woodland birds have discovered this and can be seen hopping and pecking on the snowy slope, enjoying the easy feast.

Of course, the views are spectacular, panoramic, awe-inspiring, breath-taking...how many adjectives can I use? I gazed out through wisps of cloud, across the deep valley to Mount Eddy and Castle Crags and beyond for a hundred miles and more to distant, layered mountain ranges, pastel shades of gray-green overlapping silver-blue that fade into a misty waveline as sensual as a reclining woman.

The route we (and so many before us) had chosen for the ascent is called Avalanche Gulch, and for good reason. It's an exceedingly steep slope, a broad scoop between two great, jagged ridges that converge toward the summit. The gulch forms a 3,000-ft. funnel from the mountaintop down to Lake Helen, a natural slide for winter snows. Now, in late summer, it merely provides a chute for falling rocks. I didn't pay much attention to the scattered stones and boulders that dotted the snowy slope around me. I did notice one or two small rocks skidding down a distant part of the gulch, broken loose from the high bare bluff above, but they didn't particularly alarm me. I was concentrating on my step-at-a-time progress. By now the slope was so steep that to sit and rest was like pausing on an icy playground slide. I had to face downhill with my crampons dug in firmly, drop my rump back against the ice, and hold the ice axe at the ready for fear of slipping.

So, when I spotted a large boulder lying on the slope a short distance above me, I headed straight for it. Happily, I discovered a broad, flat side of it facing uphill, forming a comfortable backrest for me to sit against. I unslung my pack and sat back gratefully, giving my knees and all my tired muscles a much-needed rest. I remained there for ten minutes or so admiring the view above me, the final few thousand vertical feet to the top of Mount Shasta. At this rate, I thought, I just might make it yet!

Refreshed, I got up and got going again. I'd only taken maybe a dozen steps when some rustling sound caught my attention and directed my gaze ahead and upward. There, careening down the mountainside, was a rock about the size and shape of a large cannonball. It was coming so fast - at near-terminal velocity - that it flew and skipped over the snowy surface almost not touching at all. For one second, I thought it would pass to the left of me. Then it bounced sharply off a groove in the snow and I thought it would pass to the right. Another bounce and...Oh, shit! Instinctively, I turned sideways to the projectile just as it shot past, literally inches from my legs at about knee level. It flew by, a whirring blur, and an instant later smashed into the flat face of the boulder, into the very spot I'd just been sitting against. With a sharp thwack! the stone exploded entirely, sending fragments flying in every direction like shrapnel.

I was stunned. My life had been spared by inches - six at the most. Or else by seconds of time, the time it had just taken me to stand up from the boulder and take a few steps. I realized that if I hadn't turned sideways when I did, the stone would have surely broken my legs at the knees and sent me tumbling down the icy mountainside. Or, if I'd remained sitting against the boulder for another minute as I had been for the past ten, the flying cannonball would have caught me squarely in the chest. Either way, I'd had a very close encounter with a disaster that left little chance of survival.

Yet I was strangely unmoved by it at the moment. I suppose the realization didn't sink in right away. I remember wondering whether the event might have been some kind of personal warning or threat from the mountain itself. Mount Shasta is reputed to be the abode of spirits and phantoms of every description (see "Shedding Light on the Mountain"). But I concluded that what it meant was that I'd better keep a sharper lookout for falling rocks above me. So, resolving to do that, I plodded on.

It wasn't much after that that my other knee gave out. It happened suddenly, with an odd twist and a spasm of white pain. I grunted and fell, and as I started to slide I grasped the ice axe as I had been taught and stabbed it into the hard surface. It caught and held, and for a moment I lay there on my stomach catching my breath. After awhile I was able to squirm around to a sitting position with both my legs straight out before me, knees rigidly locked and throbbing terribly. I tried to bend them and cried out at the intensity of the pain. Obviously, I couldn't continue the ascent. But then, sitting alone in the snow at 12,000-feet, it occurred to me that I couldn't go down either. I couldn't walk.

The clouds, which had been building slowly all morning, chose this moment to close in on the mountaintop. My world became a white semi-sphere, a 30-ft. radius of shifting mist and frozen snow. There was no sound other than a gentle wind sighing. Then a muffled clatter somewhere nearby! More falling rocks? I didn't know. I couldn't see.

I'm not sure how long I sat there, letting the pain and the apprehension subside. I knew I would have to get myself back down off the mountain somehow. I wasn't equipped to spend a night up there. If I waited for my buddy, Robert, to return, he might not see me in the thick fog that now enveloped these solitary heights. He wouldn't even know to look for me; he'd just assume I had headed back on my own. Besides, what could he do? No, there really wasn't any alternative. It was up to me to get down - even if I had to crawl!

I tried shifting my position and one leg was instantly seized by a massive cramp. I yelped aloud and pounded on the hardened muscles. Gradually they released their fierce grip. I took several deep breaths and started to inch myself down Avalanche Gulch on my back. Then I tried sitting up and sliding on my rear and got a bit farther. Finally, I stood awkwardly, using the ice axe as a crutch and, stiff-legged in an almost comical parody of the monster Frankenstein, took my first wobbly steps.

With much trial and error, I invented a combination of techniques that gradually propelled me down the mountain. I found I could indeed take short, cautious sidesteps downhill, keeping my knees stiff, legs straight. It was slow, painful and tiring and I had to rest often. Sometimes I switched the leading leg; often I chose a course that tacked across the slope to ease the angle of my descent. But whatever I did hurt, and when walking was no longer possible I sat and slid, using the ice axe to brake my speed as gravity overcame friction and I began to slide too fast. Soon, however, one muscle or another would cramp up, or I'd grow tired of the unfamiliar position of keeping my upper body twisted halfway around to hold the ice axe in place. So I'd resume the straight-legged baby steps.

I eventually did get myself down, hobbling out of the woods at Bunny Flat nearly thirteen hours after our pre-dawn departure. Robert came sauntering in about an hour later. He had made it to the top, but he admitted it hadn't been easy for him. In fact, he said it was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. Somehow that made me feel a little better.

Clearly, we had both underestimated the climb, and we each came away with a story to tell. Robert's is one of triumph over gravity and fatigue and the crushing solitude of high places. Mine is simply a tale of surviving, by luck and by pluck, between a rock and a hard place.

~ End ~

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