This past weekend, Memorial Day weekend '08, a couple friends and I set out to climb Mount Shasta; we did not succeed. Mount Shasta is the second highest of the Cascade Mountains, the fifth highest mountain in California and the fiftieth highest in North America. Shasta is noteworthy for being by itself; Shasta pops out of otherwise mostly flat land, making it a rather imposing sight. Driving down I-5 on the Seattle to San Francisco leg of my move from Greater Boston to the Bay Area, I passed Shasta and was absolutely blown away by the sight of such a massive mountain popping up out of nowhere.
Myself, Hippo and John, set out from the bay area Friday evening. Stopping at Chipotle's en route, we got to Finlandia! Motel in Mount Shasta City, California sometime around 1 or 2AM. Repacking lightly and getting to sleep, we woke up rather early so that we could pick up our rental gear and meet up to take a basic mountaineering course with Shasta Mountain Guides. The rest of Saturday was spent at low elevations of Shasta learning how to mountaineer, including climbing steep snow/ice, self-arresting with an ice axe, etc. Personal, I felt the course was really informative, leaving me both glad to have the knowledge for the climb and glad to have the knowledge going forward. Saturday night, we dined in Shasta City, which, I might add, is an incredibly pleasant little town with very friendly people.
Sunday morning, we woke up bright and early at 7AM, getting to the trailhead at Bunny Flats by about 9AM. Bunny Flats is at an elevation of 6,800', already more than 500' higher than the highest thing I'd ever climbed previously, Mount Washington. From Bunny Flats, we obtained the necessary permits and set out. We reached, the first notable waypoint, Horse Camp at 7,800'. When making a two day trip of climbing Shasta, one usually makes camp at Horse Camp or Lake Helen; our initial plan was to camp at Lake Helen but the weather combined with the advice of the Horse Camp caretaker convinced us to camp at Horse Camp. Horse Camp also provided the benefits of outhouses (climbers are otherwise required to bag and carry out feces from Shasta) and a flowing spring. The spring water available at Horse Camp is reputed to be the best water on Earth and, having tried it myself, I must admit that I have not encountered better water to date. We took a short hike further up Sunday afternoon, leaving all of our gear behind, turning back when it started to snow heavily. Sunday night we cooked various dinner stuffs, repacked our bags with essentials and went to sleep around 7 or 8PM.
Monday, we woke up at 1AM, got ready and began climbing by head-lamp light around 2:15AM. The climb up from Horse Camp, is slow and rather arduous. The climbing was mostly up big, steep snow fields, which had nice fresh snow from the heavy snow that caused us to cut short our hike of Sunday. Thankfully for us, there were two guided tours that left around 1:30AM and had blazed the trail for us, making things a little easier. By around 5:15AM, we had reached Lake Helen at 10,400'. Although, Lake Helen is 2,600' above Horse Camp, it's only about ¾ of a mile laterally, in case you wanted a sense of the difficulty. By Lake Helen, I was starting to feel a little off, getting exhausted and losing my appetite, at the time unidentified early signs of altitude sickness or, if you prefer, acute mountain sickness. The sun started to rise while we were at Lake Helen and we set off for points higher. After Lake Helen is one of the steeper portions of the entire mountain and it's really steep. From Lake Helen up is when the altitude sickness really kicked in.
Altitude sickness is when the lower pressure of the air prevents your body from getting as much oxygen as it normally needs, which poses rather substantial problems for your brain and body. Subjectively, for me, it felt as though my brain was falling asleep. I wasn't tired, my body and muscles felt like they were in fine shape to continue but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was so exhausted that I was going to collapse. It's somewhat like the sensation of being on the edge of passing out after you've been awake for a couple days, minus the being tired part. Altitude sickness, being altitude driven, gets worse pretty much every step up you take, which made continuing progressively harder and harder. We were following a hike one hour, rest a little, hike one hour, rest schedule and when we next rested, my GPS, which we were using as an altimeter read 11,242'. As we rested, I drank water and tried to eat but the altitude sickness was in pretty full swing. I was so worn down that chewing a granola bar took most of the effort that I was able to muster from myself. Imagine, if you will, the level of incapacitation that goes along with a very high fever but without the fun of delirium or the security of being in bed. Noting that I was in pretty poor shape and felt on the verge of passing out, it was decided that turning back was the best option. Another thing about altitude sickness being altitude driven is that as soon as you get back below your ceiling--mine is apparently about 10,000' right now--you tend to start feeling better. By the time we got back down to Lake Helen, it was as though someone had lifted a great weight off of my brain.
It was a little frustrating to be at Lake Helen and feel mostly fine to go on but know that the altitude would make it too difficult. From Lake Helen down, it was mostly wading/jogging/trudging/hopping through a few inches to a few feet of snow, of which enough was powder to make me really wish that I had skis. Very soon after we started downward, it started to snow rather heavily with whiteout levels of visibility. The rapid drop in weather quality made it almost fortunate that my altitude sickness had forced us to turn around when it did as contending with whiteout conditions at higher elevations and greater exhaustion would have been rather hazardous. The weather events of the weekend seem to have prevented most, if not all, people from summiting Shasta over this memorial day weekend, so we may not have really missed out on too much. We got back down to Horse Camp by about 11AM, the bizarre result of starting at 2:15AM and all decided to take a nap. Unfortunately, when we got up from our naps to pack and leave, it was raining. It took us rather a while to accept the rain, get up and pack everything. From there, it was a couple hours hike out down the slow path from Horse Camp and we were done.
Ultimately, it was a grueling, sometimes unpleasant endeavor and I'm immensely pleased that I did it. I would very much like to try Shasta again sometime; perhaps I'll try to do some altitude training or get a doctor to give me some Acetazolamide. Shasta aside, methinks that this whole mountaineering thing is a thing that I should be doing more of.
P.S. For those of you who are not Shadowrun geeks, Mount Shasta is the home of the great dragon Hestaby. For those that are, while I was hiking beyond Lake Helen and feeling the effects of altitude sickness, I got myself to keep going by telling myself to roll willpower.