Summiting Shasta

A One-Day Assault on one of California's Tallest Peaks
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Four Views Mt. Shasta
Four Views of Shasta (Jane English, Earth Heart)

Shasta is a mountain of fire and ice, a place where you can find a challenge and an answer, both mysteries and truths. The challenge is the climb and the answer is that you can likely complete it. The mysteries are of Lemurians, Yaktayvians and Phylos, creatures who are said to inhabit the inner mountain. The truth is only for you to find. At 14,162 feet, Mount Shasta rises like a giant diamond in a field of coal. Located 60 miles north of Redding, it is the jewel of Northern California, and can sometimes be seen for more than a hundred miles in all directions. U.S. Forest Service scientist Michael Furniss, photographer John Storey, my brother Rambob and I planned to reach the top of it in a single day.

Climbing Shasta is one of the west's great adventures, an endurance test that most people in good physical condition have an honest chance of achieving. Climbing Half Dome in Yosemite or hiking the Grand Canyon might be comparable outdoor achievements. But Shasta stands apart because of its sheer size with a volume of 80 cubic miles, it's the highest of Northern California's peaks, the largest of the Cascade volcanoes. Much of it is gouged with glacial canyons.

To put it straight, the climb to Shasta's peak can be a punishing hike, an ascent of 7,000 feet over ice, snow and rock — while trying to suck what little oxygen you can out of the thin air. The big stopper is weather. The old mountain creates its own, and a sudden whiteout can turn your trip into a blackout, even in summer. Mountain sickness, a combination of dizziness, nausea and wheezing, also claims its share of victims. If you're trying to make the summit in one day, the clock can work against you — there is a maximum of 14 hours of daylight in summer, less at other times of the year.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, about half of those who try don't make it, with bad weather being the number one preventive factor. That's why we chose to make our trip in early August, when Shasta gets its mildest weather of the year.

John Muir made it to the top. So did Josiah Whitney, the country's leading geologist in the late 1800s. Thousands of others have since tried. Your success or failure in reaching the peak may depend on forces well beyond your own control."Man is not always a welcome visitor in a kingdom he cannot control," said mountaineer Fred Beckey, describing Shasta.

At Mount Shasta, you are a visitor at one of the world's true cathedrals. As at any sacred place, you become aware that not all are permitted to enter.

We made our base camp at 7,400 feet. At daybreak, we looked up at the old mountain through branches of red fir. Red Bank, a jagged outcrop at 12,900 feet, seemed almost straight up, preceded by a 4,000-foot ice field. There are many routes to the peak, but most people start the trip at Horse Camp, a two-mile hike in from road's end at 6,800 feet on the southwestern side of the mountain. At Horse Camp you can get water, set up a base camp for the trip and prepare for the ascent.

From here, figure it will take eight or nine hours of scrambling to reach the peak and three or four hours to get back. Leaving at 5:30 a.m., you can be back by sunset — if all goes well, that is. Many depart far earlier. When Josiah Whitney climbed Shasta with William Brewer in 1862, they left at two a.m. after a moonlit breakfast.

At Horse Camp, well before first light, we hid our large backpacks in the forest. We strapped on small daypacks that carried food, emergency weather gear and snow equipment. The first few steps seemed so easy, a gentle climb over brown rocks, which looked like much of the pumice that covers Shasta from its last eruption 300 years ago. The small porous rocks formed from lava that blew right out of the top like puffed wheat.

"You can't get lost going up Shasta," said my brother Rambob."Any direction going up is the right direction."

The last trees disappeared at 8,500 feet, and as we entered the alpine area, only a few tiny flowers were sprinkled among the rocks, wherever they could find a toehold. This late in summer, the first snow was at 8,600 feet. A little patch of it sat at the bottom of a gully, fingers of it tracing up the mountainside.

Already, the world below seemed to be opening up at our feet. Looking south, we could view the entire Sacramento River canyon, topped by Castle Crags, a series of granite spires near Dunsmuir. The sun wasn't up yet, but its glow lightened the tops of the Marble Mountains 40 miles to the west. Below in the valley, at 2,800 feet, we could make out cars and trucks traveling on Interstate 5, tiny images in the distance. I remembered how many times I had driven the highway, then looked up to Shasta, wondering if a day would come when I would climb it. That day had come.

At 9,100 feet, we reached the start of a long, narrow cut packed with ice and snow called Climber's Gully, and stopped to strap crampons on our boots. Crampons are metal frames with spikes, which dig into the ice to hold your position.

I jammed my ice ax in the slope, sensed its hold, then pulled myself up a step, booted crampons holding the gain. My short steps made a crunch-crunch sound as I began climbing the ice slope. The going was slow. A few steps, a few breaths, and I'd continue on. It was so quiet, I could almost hear my heart beat. The ice field seemed to stretch on forever, and my ice ax was holding each step. But I had an eerie feeling, as if I were being watched. Other people up here have had the same sensation.

"Look at that!" shouted Furniss, the scientist. Thousands and thousands of dark moths had hatched and were fluttering along the slope, so many that you could hear their wingbeats. It is the only time I have seen such a phenomenon.

Stranger things have been reported on Shasta. A species of mysterious beings known as Lemurians are said to inhabit the inner world of the mountain. According to legend, they live in underground caves that are lined with gold. Some people say the Lemurians are tiny, while others identify them as huge, perhaps seven or eight feet tall.

Phylos is the most famous Lemurian. He is said to be able to materialize at will, wearing a flowing white robe. A climbing party once claimed that they were invited into his golden temple to listen to soft music. But at 10,000 feet we still hadn't seen any sign of Phylos.

Then there are the Yaktayvians of the Secret Commonwealth. They are said to have built the greatest bells in the universe, tuned so precisely that their ring causes giant landslides. Some people claim to have heard the bells while driving on Highway 5. We're still listening.

Maybe it was the Yaktayvians who caused the rockslide we passed at Helen Lake. The lake is actually only a flat depression at 10,440 feet, occasionally the site for a shallow pond in late summer when ice melts above it. It's one of the few spots where climbers can set up a camp, although it can be cold. It was about 20 degrees here during our climb, on a day when it reached 105 in Redding. High winds are also common here. When we arrived, we were told that a rock the size of a Volkswagen had come tumbling down through the area the previous night.

After a lunch of jerky, nuts, dried fruit and water, we moved on. At 12,000 feet, the slope reaches 35 degrees and each step is a labor of passion. You jam your ice ax in the snow, pull yourself up a step, then rest for a moment before repeating the process. With long-spiked crampons, the steps come easier, the metal tips poking holes and grabbing the icy slope.

It is below Red Bank, a huge red volcanic outcrop, where Shasta chews up most of its climbers. Some people start to wonder why they're even here. Fun? Who said this was fun? It seems too steep. One slip and you might turn into a human snowball. Many turn around and return to Horse Camp.

A few more steps, a few more breaths. It was near here during Whitney's geologic expedition in 1862 that three members of the team got mountain sickness and were barely able to continue. On this trip, our scientist, Furniss, was having the same problem. His face was so bleached that he looked like he'd seen a Lemurian.

"Dizzy, very dizzy," Furniss said. He slowed his pace, but continued. At Red Bank, you must scramble through a steep rock and ice chute where you would certainly fall without crampons. We forged through, then emerged atop Red Bank, perched at 13,000 feet. Close, very close.

We crossed a lumpy glacier and forged ahead toward what is known as Misery Hill, because it gives the false impression of being the summit. When you rise atop the hill, however, the true Shasta peak suddenly rises before you, a massive pinnacle of lava which seems to jut straight up into the air.

The air is thin and your lungs gasp for all they can get, but it is never enough. At the top, the Shasta summit, there is no snow. Wind has carried it away. Your steps are slow, but now you can see the goal. With a final push, your hands grabbing rock to pull you up this pinnacle, you take the last few steps, and suddenly you are standing on top.

A lot of things can make you shout, but standing on top of a big mountain is something that can make you silent. Just over there is Shastina, Shasta's smaller volcano, a glaciated turquoise pond forming a bowl in its mouth. To the north are miles of Oregon, the Three Sisters Mountain Peaks barely visible through binoculars. On those rare perfectly clear days up here, you can see Mount Hood, Mount Lassen, the Siskiyou's backbone and 200 miles beyond.

On the day of our climb, clouds obscured the view. Some light hailstones fell, looking like little puffs of cotton. At 14,000 feet, the sky is a deeper blue than you've ever seen, and on this day, scarcely a hint of wind was blowing.

From the side of the peak, a plume of sulfurous smoke still rises from inside the old volcano. In 1875, John Muir almost froze to death when he was caught in a blizzard at Shasta's peak. He stayed alive by spending a night huddled near the mountain's hot sulfur gas vents.

As we were perched on top, I thought of Muir standing at the same point. And of Whitney's trip. And of the thousands of other hikers who have since climbed Northern California's greatest peak. You will sense their shadows, and sometimes maybe even their ghosts, helping you as you pull your way up the old mountain.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Jul 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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