Mount Shasta: Puttering in the Dark

Upwards in the dark*

*Check here for Sierra Descents pictures of the lower mountain at dark, Lake Helen, and the Red Banks.

The snow line began 150 yards past the parking area. Even though it was midnight, the night was warm with toasty down slope winds.

The boot-track in the snow was streaked with dirt, but the higher I got, I found myself post-holing even in pre-existing boot track.

Many people doing Avalanche Gulch break the climb up into multiple days. People backpack in to Horse Camp (8,000 ft.), 50/50 Flat (9,500 ft.), or Lake Helen (10,400 ft.) doing Shasta as a 2-4 day trip.

Despite the popularity of overnighters, it turned out that I wasn’t the only day-tripper: I was surrounded by plenty of people in the dark. 

For the first 2 hours I felt great, though warm I was glad to be moving upwards. I enjoyed the sensation of passing other parties every 15 minutes or so.

The night was warm and I remained in a t-shirt. With all of California having just endured a heat wave, the lower snow pack on Shasta showed the effects, it wasn’t firming up in the dark.

Roughly two hours into the climb, I stopped a moment to rest (tiring from slopping around in the soft snow) and to don gaiters to keep the slush out of my boots. Glancing up I was struck silent.

Overhead the stars shone bright white against the black-velvet sky. The night was a cloudless and moonless: perfect stargazing conditions.

Looking around, I also realized that the brightest source of light pollution wasn’t any nearby town, rather the bluish string of 50 headlamps stretched out on the slopes below me. 

Lighter now, Sierra Descents image from below Lake Helen*

What a fantastic environment! Between the snow, the sky, and the dark it felt like I was climbing Everest or other large peak.

The route continued at a moderate grade up to Lake Helen (which I hoped to reach before dawn).

After putting on gaiters, and prematurely fitting crampons to my boots, fellow climbers began to pass me as I started to lose steam. The combination of altitude and soft snow started to take their toll. Though most other climbers were able to follow the impacted boot-track in the snow, but I was post-holing 2-8 inches every couple of steps.

I pulled into Lake Helen in 3h50m having covered 3.3 mi and pushed 3,500 feet of gain. I stopped to catch my breath and prepare for the climb beyond.

At Lake Helen the route REALLY begins. Beyond, the ascensionist gains some 2,500 feet in the following mile, the altitude hits, and you really need to know how to use your ice axe and crampons on the steep, icy incline.

Past Lake Helen, climbers aim for a ridge above a formation called the Red Banks.

The Red Banks are rust-red volcanic cinder cliffs plastered in snow and ice. In addition to being a good visual marker, they can also be a source of danger: as the day warms up, rocks break loose from the cliff and the ice. The liberated chunks come careening down slope at a dangerous speed.

Hence the helmet I brought.

Past Lake Helen, I still found myself post-holing a few inches every couple of steps. Now over 4,000' into a big climb, oxygen ever dwindling, I slowed to a miserly crawl, being passed every few seconds by fresh climbers who camped at Lake Helen and people I had passed hours before.

The ridge above the Red Banks is an important milestone: it is the place most climbers will emerge into the sun, it signals the end of the steepest section, but it also marks 13,000 feet, and even though the summit is still far off the incline will never be as steep as the climb out of Lake Helen.

Halfway to the Red Banks I finally began to nail down my crampon, and axe-belay technique speeding up slightly. People stopped passing me (as quickly).

Just a few yards shy of the Red Banks my right foot broke through a void hidden beneath the snow. I stumbled into this new post-hole dislodging a Gatorade bottle from my pack. It went skittering 500 feet before climbers below gave up trying to catch it for me.

A precious blend of moisture, sugar from the Gatorade and heavy-hitting pedialyte, this ambrosia is one of the few items that I can stomach at altitude. I still had a little Gatorade/pedialyte in my other bottle, but I dropped my full one. It would be sorely missed.

Dejected but determined. I continued up, content to rely on my Clif Shot-blocks for electrolytes and energy.

About 12,700 feet, at the bottom of the Red Banks I hit a wall.

I was stopping to gasp for air, I was so hungry, I was nauseous, but in a bad place to stop for a snack. I needed to stop for a break.

I made a breathless scramble for a lower portion of the Red Banks where a red cinder-conglomerate outcrop jutted up above the snow: a perfect seat for a rest.

Sitting on the bluff, I looked up at the coming sun, just a few minutes from hitting me.

I reached into my pack looking for sunglasses and sunscreen with a preternatural sense of dread.

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