Grueling Climb… Summit Success!

After a long and challenging climb, Ron, Karen, Alan and I stepped onto the 14,179′ summit of Mt. Shasta, and were able to enjoy some well deserved rest and spectacular views of the surrounding landscape far below us. To start this post, here are some stats from the climb:

  • Over 7,200 feet of vertical climb from the Bunny Flat trail head to the summit
  • Total time on Mt. Shasta (including 1 hr at the summit): 15 hrs and 5 mins
  • 9 hrs 40 mins to ascend… Began climb at 12:50 am and summited at 10:30 am
  • 4 hrs and 15 mins to descend… Started descent at 11:30 am and finished at 4:15 pm

Needless to say we were all exhausted, looking forward to a hot shower, good meal and some well deserved sleep, but first we had a 2 hr drive to get home…  so let’s rewind to the start.

There are many factors to consider when climbing a mountain like Shasta; the route you will take, the gear needed for the forecast conditions, food and water, etc. But the most important thing is safety, and since this is such a steep mountain there is one particular skill that is important to learn… the ability to self-arrest with an ice axe. Put simply, self-arrest is a technique to quickly gain control and stop if you slip and begin an uncontrolled slide down the mountain. Since none of us are technical climbers we had to figure out how to do this, so we went to the source of all instruction, YouTube! After viewing a couple videos we felt confident in the technique and would do a little practice on the mountain before the slopes got too steep. Another useful video covered the technique to glissade… essentially sliding feet first down the mountain in a sitting position. Fortunately we did not have to self-arrest for real… if we had, the title of this blog entry would have been “YouTube Saves Lives!”

As mentioned earlier, this climb was a grueling physical challenge. Mt. Shasta is the third most prominent peak in the continental United States after Mt. Rainier (the highest mountain in the Cascade Range) and Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the continental U.S.). Prominence is a measure of how high the summit of a mountain rises above its surroundings; and in the case of Mt. Shasta, 9,772 ft of its total height is exposed above the surrounding landscape.

We began our climb in the dark, which in retrospect was a very good thing for three very important reasons. First, the cooler temperatures ensure that the snow pack is firm which allows good traction with crampons without sinking into the snow. Second, it allowed us to complete the long climb in one push and make the steep descent during the daylight hours when the snow was softer and more suitable for glissading. Finally, and most importantly, the darkness ensured that we couldn’t see how long and steep the climb was until we were over half-way to the summit! Believe me, when the sun finally did come up and we were able to see how far we still had to go, I think we all began to think “why again am I doing this!

By the time the sky began to lighten and we could begin to make out the route above us, we were already above Helen Lake, a small flat area at 10,433 ft where the climbers who do this peak in 2 days, camp for the night. Still above us, emerging from the shadows, was the prominent red rock wall of the Red Banks at just under 13,000 ft. Above us, still unseen, was the final push to the summit up the appropriately named Misery Hill.

The Red Banks creates a natural dividing line between the lower slopes, from which you can’t see the summit, and the upper part to the mountain where Misery Hill lurks between 13,000 and 14,000 feet, and the last final climb to the summit rock. Pushing ourselves through the thin air and up the steep slopes took will and fortitude. We found ourselves setting small goals all the way up the slope… take 50 or 100 steps, then stop to rest… then repeat. This got us to the bottom of the Red Banks where we then had to navigate up a narrow, steep, and slippery slope. Digging in with our crampons and using our ice axes, we successfully made it to the base of Misery Hill.

Fortunately the weather couldn’t have been better with clear skies, comfortable temperatures, and little wind as we finally emerged onto the upper reaches of the mountain. What remained was the last and most daunting obstacle between us and the summit, Misery Hill an aptly named particularly steep section that begins at 13,000 feet. With our energy reserves depleted, we pushed ourselves forward on will power and the desire to stand on top of this beautiful mountain.

After nearly 10 hours of continuous climbing we stepped onto the summit and were able to enjoy some rest, a few snacks, some camaraderie with our fellow climbers, and a bit of official paperwork. You may ask, “how could there be paperwork at the top of a mountain?” It just so happens that shortly after we arrived one of the park rangers, acting in his official capacity as he reached to top, asked each of us to show our permits.  Additionally, there is a logbook at the summit where climbers can sign their name or write a short reflection.

After an hour on the summit, it was time to descend and put this adventure behind us. None of us was looking forward to the thought of several more jarring hours of downhill hiking which is uncomfortable and physically demanding. So we were pleasantly surprised that the snow conditions, which were firm during our climb, had softened to the perfect conditions to glissade. Using the proper technique (thanks YouTube!), we were able to slide several thousand feet down the mountain, cutting hours off of our descent time, and saving us from additional wear on our tired bodies.

Glissading down the mountain… fast and fun!

Ultimately, this experience was rewarding and memorable. Although physically challenging, we will only remember the joy of standing on the summit and the shared experience of doing this together.

Mt. Shasta Video Links:


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