Bagging a Fourteener

image001(With the new year, I’m taking a bit of time to reflect on the past. Here’s an essay I wrote sometime back in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s.)

Mount Shasta is a dormant volcano located in Siskyou County in Northern California. At over 14,000 feet, this centerpiece of the Shasta National Forest attracts a huge number of hikers and mountaineers, as would be expected. But in addition to outdoorsmen and adventure seekers it is also attracts an enormous cult of New Age worshippers who believe that inside this mountain live the last survivors from the lost continent of “Lemuria.” The mystique of Shasta is only bolstered by this supernatural element.

My friend Matt had become obsessed with Mt. Shasta and had committed himself to the task of reaching its summit. It was to be his journey of inner discovery. His pursuit of spritiual strength would culminate in scaling and mastering this snow covered mass of volcanic rock, and I was going along for the trip. Now, Im not best described as an experienced mountaineer or outdoorsman. I’ve climbed Half-Dome in Yosemite (along with a number of overweight tourists), and I’ve hiked to the top of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County (“The Sleeping Lady” – a mere 2,500 feet in altitude). The decision to accompany my pal on his quest was based upon a number of factors. First of all, I was unemployed for the summer, so I had the time. Second, living in San Francisco had started to wear on my nerves and getting away from the city sounded like a relaxing prospect. Finally, conquering a mountain appealed to my masculine sense of power. I liked the idea of ascending into the severe heights where the air was thin and cold. I wanted to defy gravity and laugh at nature in her attempt to restrict my movements. I wanted to be a conquering god. I wanted to “spank that bad boy” and, as mountaineers say, “bag a fourteener.”

I dont know if Zeus ever stood at the base of Mt. Olympus and wondered how he was going to get to the top, but when I first viewed Mt. Shasta from the valley floor, I seriously questioned my godly potential. This white, wrinkled tower rises past even the clouds as it juts violently towards the sky. I felt every foot a mortal as Matt pointed out the route we would follow. Our hike would take us from 8,000 to 14,000 feet up the ominously named “Avalanche Gulch,” through the “Red Banks,” over “Misery Hill” and to the summit. From our base camp, the ascent would take an estimated 10 hours. On a scale of 1 to 3, this route was classified a 1. In other words, it was considered an easy route. Looking up from my perspective, I realized just how relative the term “easy” is.

While waiting for our climbing partner Craig to arrive, Matt and I took a hike up a closed road in order to explore our surroundings and to get used to exercising in this altitude. About a mile up we discovered the reason for the road closure. An avalanche had swept across the pavement like a tidal wave of very stiff whipped cream. Along its trip down the mountain, it had snapped and uprooted a number of huge trees and carried them along like chocolate sprinkles. The icy torrent had cut a swath through the growth on the slope and left a path about as wide as a four lane freeway. Standing in the midst of this now stationary flow, we had a direct view of the path we were going to take to the top of the mountain. “Avalanche Gulch” had been appropriately named.

Despite the threat of being engulfed by an avalanche, our chosen approach to Mt. Shasta was by far the safest one. All other paths required crossing one or more of the many glaciers that adorn the slopes. Apparently, a number of bodies remain entombed on Mt. Shasta, each lodged in one of these glaciers. In fact, the last person to die in a mountaineering accident fell into one of these openings just two weeks before we arrived. Retrieving the bodies is impossible, so the glacier becomes a cemetary, and the mountain a headstone for such unlucky climbers. The bodies remain in a deep freeze for eternity, perfectly preserved between enormous blocks of ice. I wonder, as with the ancient Ice Man discovered frozen in the Austrian Alps, if some future explorer or scientist will discover these bodies when the glaciers recede and hypothesize about their purpose for being on the mountain and about the composition of their primitive tools. “Perhaps they were holy men on a spiritual quest. Their odd, purple and black clothing seems to attest to the uniqueness of these climbers. …And what of these strange markings on their equipment? What is the significance of the words North Face or the letters REI?”

We hooked up with Craig and hiked in to our base camp. Horse Camp was covered in a layer of snow that you could tell was about six feet in depth by the basins that had formed around the trees in the area. It seemed a little bit crazy, to me, to set up a tent in the snow, but it was also obvious that there was nowhere else to do so. The snow acts as an insulator, I was assured by my comrades, though I could tell from the expressions on their faces that they shared the same misgivings about this sleeping arangement as I did. On the plus side, the camp was equiped with an outhouse and a natural spring. I hoped that the reputed magical healing qualities of Mt. Shasta’s water would do something for a rash I had developed on my forearm, and I expected the liquid gushing forth from the spring to taste as sweet as a can of Shasta Cola. Perhaps it would give me second sight as well, or tune me in to the wisom of the ancients. These hopes became confused with other concerns upon meeting the camp caretaker. He was a man of about 40 who was friendly, in a goofy kind of way. He was prone to giggling for no apparent reason when he spoke and he acted like he possessed some kind of big secret. “You hear and see a lot of wierd things up here,” he confided in us, and I didnt doubt for an instant that someone who lives a good portion of the year out in the woods alone, drinking magical water, probably does hear and see plenty of strange things. It was then that I wished I had a water filter.

We spent the following day practicing some climbing and glissading techniques at “Giddy Giddy Gultch.” It was here that I learned a few lessons which made me feel anything but giddy; and certainly not giddy times two. I found that when faced with vast expanses of white, distances become very difficult to judge. You can easily be fooled into believing that large objects very far away are actually very small objects close to you. The glare and even expanse of the snow plays tricks on your eyes, robbing you of depth perception and placing you in a bright, white 2-D world. At one point in our acsent of the Giddy Giddy Gultch I was convinced that we were about to be attacked by a pine martin (a member of the weasel family) that was quickly approaching us. My sense of danger was magically transformed into one of boredom when Matt pointed out that what I was seeing was another hiker, moving away from us, much farther up the slope. Right after that, as if to compensate, I mistook a pair of trees that were growing out of a rock ledge for a pair of fellow hikers.

The lessons of the first days hike under our belts, we went to bed early that night in preparation for the next morning and the really big challenge.

We left our basecamp at 4:30 in the morning to begin our ascent up the mountain. Our first goal was to reach Lake Helen at the 10,000 ft. mark. As we began the hike up Avalanche Gultch, I followed the lead of my partners and switched back and forth across the face of the slope, zig-zagging upwards slowly and steadily. This process took too much time so, being the impatient novice that I am, I switched to the “French method” and began sidestepping straight up the slope. This was too awkward. I ended up snagging my crampon on my pant leg, tripping and sliding a short distance down the face of the mountain. I avoided a big setback only by stopping myself with my ice axe. Next I adoped the “German method.” This very inelegant procedure proved to be most to my liking. I would scamble, pidgeon toed, straight upwards a number of steps and then plant my ice axe in the snow, heaving for breath in the thin air. Once I caught my breath I would identify a landmark, like a rock or unusual design in the snow, grit my teeth and then make another mad dash towards that goal, where once again I would rest. I was never able to travel more than a few yards at a time, but the sensation of going straight up the grade as fast as I could gave me more of a feeling of satisfaction and short term accomplishment than any other strategy.

The climb just seemed to go on and on.

At each plateau that we reached, another slope appeared and our hopes of reaching the top were frustrated. Towards 11 AM, we had still not reached The Red Banks – a formation of volcanic rock that looks like a row of rotten teeth at the 13,000 ft. mark. Many people had said that if we made it to that point, the hardest part of the climb would be done and the rest would be a piece of cake. In a way they were right. When I finally did reach that row of red, smiling teeth I realized that with each heaving breath on the way up, I had expelled all my thoughts and feelings. I no longer was frustrated or dissapointed or tired or cold. I no longer felt like a conquerer or an adventurer or a god. I was simply a pathetic little creature that was moving from one rock to the next, incapable of any kind of higher order thought or reflection.

It took 3 more hours to reach the actual summit of Mt. Shasta. The same blankness of mind prevailed all the way up, except for a short pause before the final 200 ft. rise when I questioned whether or not I had the physical strength to actually make it to the top. Sitting on the rocky summit, wedged into a natural seat that surveyed a 360 degree view of the Shasta Valley, I realized that my goal was now ironically reversed. Now I had to get to the bottom of the mountain.

After signing the register that is kept in a metal box bolted into the rock, we began the decsent. It took 12 hours to get to the top, but with gravity as our ally, only 1 1/2 hours to get to the bottom. Once back at Horse Camp, all of us fell asleep for 10 hours.

No one conquers a really tall mountain. In order to be conquered, a mountain would have to submit to the domination of another being. But a mountain doesnt care about anything since its just a big hunk of rock. It can’t engage in a battle of will. It is incapable of withdrawing, yeilding or becoming obedient. It just sits, indifferent, while hundreds of little people attack it in an attempt to confirm something about themselves. I didnt experience a sense of power or enlightenment, of excitement or pleasure from scaling Mt. Shasta. The physical exertion, the altitude and the tendancy towards perceptual illusion all combined to lead me into a state of unthinking, unfeeling inertia.

I think that all philosophizing must take place below the 12,000 ft. level. Above that height all abstract thought ceases. Only below 12,000 ft. does any reflection take place and it is only at sea level that really clear thinking kicks in. Philosophy at 14,000 ft. is nonexistant.