If at first you don't succeed, try again: failing to climb Mt. Shasta at 11,000 feet

Respect nature, because it has no respect for you. --Fox Mulder, in The X Files

Mt. Shasta from the start of the trail

It is said that it is attitude not altitude that prevents someone from climbing a mountain such as Mount Shasta. Believe me, before we left, my mind was already on the Summit. I earlier summitted Mount Lassen (at 3,187 metres (10,457 feet)) and I was quite confident I would be able to make it. Mount Shasta is the second of Cascade Range Volcanoes that I was attempting to climb (I plan to do them all) and the route we were taking, Avalanche Gulch, looked pretty straight-forward, albeit extremely strenuous.

The route and the landmarks

So early Friday morning (at 5a), I, and my friends Tanya and Jason (who I should say at this point almost made it all the way to the base of the Red Banks, to about 12,500 feet) headed out from the Bunny Flat Trailhead at 6,800 feet. I had had a fever and a fairly severe cough through the week, and while I did my best to rest and felt fairly good, I was still weak. Right from the beginning it was clear that I couldn't set a fast pace. So I took my time and in an about an hour had crossed through the timberline and was making my way to the top. Things looked good.

The view after crossing the timberline

As I went past the timberline and crossed the cabin at Horse Camp, after filling up my bottles with pure Shasta spring water, my pace slowed but I kept going steadily up Spring Hill, the first part of the route where you slowly start climbing. From Spring Hill to 50/50 flat (through Climber's Gully), the going was tedious but still quite comfortable. After 50/50 flat, the major obstacle before reaching a major landmark, Lake Helen, was Standstill Hill. There's a reason that hill has that name, and that is one of the steeper portions of the climb, though it was only a taste of things to come.

Almost up Standstill Hill

I climbed up Standstill Hill, again quite easily, and then I was on Lake Helen at 10,443 feet. It taken me about five hours to get there (around 10a) and it was too slow! Still, given the warnings about the 50 MPH wind around the Red Banks, I figured I'd go at least that far.

The view from Lake Helen (or thereabouts)

I felt the slight beginnings of a headache as I stopped on Lake Helen and took two more Ibuprofen tables. As I relaxed for about a good half-hour enjoying the breath-taking awe-inspiring stunning views (if you really want to have a good day hike and aren't willing to push to the Summit, this is really the spot to get to), I felt the beginnings of nausea. It wasn't clear whether it was related to my fever or altitude sickness. Within a few minutes, I was throwing up. A ranger approached me and told me to drink plenty of water and tried to convince me to go back down. I drank a lot of water and decided to climb up some more.

Looking up at the Red Banks from Lake Helen

The climb from Lake Helen to the Red Banks is the steepest portion of this route. I went past Lake Helen for a bit (about 500+ feet), struggling with my altitude problems. While my feet were ready to move forward, and my chest was doing okay, my brain was complaining the most: headache, nausea, and ultimately more vomiting. Even the water I had drunk didn't stay in me. Normally this would be a clear situation for me, but my body was in conflict---because of the fever, it was almost as if I was dehydrating and so I was drinking a lot of water. Yet perhaps because of the altitude and the excess of liquids, I was throwing up. Finally at about 1p, I decided it was time to turn back, as clouds started gathering around the mountain.

At approximately 11,000 feet, looking down at Lake Helen

I had an extremely fun time going down. I was so tired that I just lay down in a chute and glissaded pretty much all the way to Horse Camp. There was only one time when I felt I was going too fast and had to use my ice axe to arrest myself (only to prevent myself from bumping into the person in front me). A couple of times, I was in near white-out conditions though it was never scary because the path down was very clear. At the end of it all, I ran into Tanya and together we slowly walked back to the car where Jason already was waiting (having glissaded in a non-standard fashion).

I slept for fourteen hours that night. The next morning I wasn't sore at all (since I had taken it easy) but both Jason and I had second-degree sun and wind burns (it took a few days for the skin to peel off before we looked normal again). We looked, as Jason remarked, as though we had been in a fight and lost. We had.

Climbing the mountain was a lot of fun--the view and the time I spent at Lake Helen was really worth it. But this is not a day hike---it's definitely an ascent and I think it pays to be prepared for it. Besides being in great (not just good) physical shape, it also requires planning to do it in one day. While I wouldn't want to do it any other way, I think practicing to climb this mountain by staying in Mount Shasta city and climbing to Lake Helen on one day, the Red Banks on another, and then finally attempting the summit I think is a good idea.

Pseudointellectual ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org || June 9-11, 2000