Saturday, September 24, 2011

Shasta with Greg, Sept 22-24, 2011

Watch for links to video below, and click pics for larger versions. View the whole set of pics here.

I love Shasta. I love it so much I want to share it with whomever I can, and I never get tired of it. What a special place it is.

This trip, I was guiding my buddy Greg up the mountain in his first-ever mountaineering experience, so this was a trip that was mainly for his benefit--meaning my primary role was to help him have a good and safe experience, rather than going for a summit attempt of my own.

We drove the usual 5.5 hours to mountain, stayed at the Cold Creek Inn (not without considerable homophobia drama from Greg, I might add... damn, I wish I'd gotten video of that hahaha), had a tasty dinner, went downtown to the Vet for a drink and ended up staying to play pool for a while, then crashed.

Mornings in Shasta City are some of my favorite, because A) it's at the base of a GORGEOUS mountain... and then there's the Seven Suns, and the wacky hippie clientele that frequent it. I hadn't slept very well the night before, so I was in desperate need of coffee (gosh, what a shock), so the Seven Suns was just the thing.

Coffee hipp... I mean...  HAPPiness
There was a group of older guys gathered for morning coffee inside, and they watched with rapt attention as I shot the photo of myself (at right) in front of the place--and proceeded to give me shit about it when I walked in to actually order my coffee. "Are you takin pictures of yourself out there?"

Not being one for taking shit, however, I popped off a right-handed no-look shot of the heckler on my way past him and said "Yep... and now I've got one of you, too." He looked horrified for a moment, and then his whole group cracked up, and that was sorta the ice breaker for more conversation.

When we had what we needed (breakfast burritos and coffee in our bellies, that is), we headed to the Fifth to pick up Greg's rental gear. There were plenty of people there, but we were in and out  pretty quickly, and departed long before any of the guided parties who were still doing some tedious gear checking out in the yard... whereupon we headed off to the trailhead on the north side.

Greg... making love to the camera
Overall, it was an uneventful morning, but I could feel the excitement building in the car as we rounded the north side of the mountain and I could begin to point out our route to Greg.

Truth be told, this trip happening with Greg at all was a pretty big step outside his comfort zone, so I was particularly aware of my responsibility to him as his guide, and really excited that he chose to do this with me at all. That I could be a part of it at all was a tremendous pleasure.

Greg, in his element
I get so excited to see prominent features I recognize up on the mountain myself... it never seems to get old. So as we drove the bumpy approach road snapping pictures and talking in animated anticipation and knowing the weather forecast looked pretty good, I was optimistic about our chances of success on summit day tomorrow.

Eventually, we reached the fire road's terminus and parked at the trailhead, loaded up, and hit the approach trail.

Greg, climbing to 9,000 feet
Our packs weren't too heavy, but our climb was slowed by frequent rest and food breaks--but it was no big deal. Our only concern that day was to have enough time to do a few key things once we got camp set up high.  The approach climb on the north side to high camp is usually about 3.5 to 4-ish hours, but I think we did it in 5.

The higher we got, the more Greg's spirits seemed to sag a bit, so we took it easy: we were in no hurry.

After the final push up a slightly steeper face that leveled out a hundred or so vertical fee above in a flatter portion of the glacial moraine, we eventually chose a nice little spot for our tent near 9,600 feet, and got a comfy camp set up.

Chillin' in the tent at 9,600
We refilled our water bottles from icy-fresh glacier runoff, cooked up some food, chatted a bit, and generally recharged.

Feeling much better by then, we grabbed some gear and walked up a little higher to do some basic snow school and glacier travel training up on the snout of the glacier nearby to get Greg ready for what tomorrow might hold.

He really seemed to enjoy that part, and said ice axe, crampon, and self arrest training helped him understand more about what I love about alpine climbing, which meant a lot to me. I've known Greg for at least a thousand years, so I would never want to let him down.

Greg in the moraine
I've learned after spending some time rock climbing and rappelling with him that it's the more technical aspects of climbing that fire him up--in warm temps, preferably--so I was glad to see him interested again after a somewhat pessimistic last leg of the climb to this point.

By the time we finished, the sun was just beginning to set, so we walked across the mountainside to get a better view of what promised to be a firestorm on the horizon far out on the western edge of the visible earth.

Me, shooting the sunset
Up here, that's always a great way to end an evening. We tucked in for a sleep, planning an alpine start around 3am--which is exactly what happened.

We got an early, crisp start and headed up to the glacier, where we put our crampons on and started climbing. We weren't moving very fast, but made OK progress anyway for about the first 15 minutes until we made a quick stop for a layer change on Greg.

It was at this moment that he set his helmet down on the slope, and as one might expect, it immediately skittered away down the glacier like a turtle on its back, boucing and careening wildly through the suncups with the headlamp still attached, twisting and flashing the whole way down to the moraine below.

Greg and I, miserable on first break, summit day
It eventually stopped at the rocks, and we paused for a second to decide what to do. I'm the faster climber, so I asked him to anchor down here while I walked back down, picked up that lost turtle shell, and climbed back up to the place we dropped it. Only took about 5 minutes or so, so all was not lost. 

I think the helmet thing was my fault, though: I failed  the night before to warn him to never set his helmet down on the slope, cuz--yep, it'll run away down the hill faster than you can catch it, and you'll have no choice but to either A) burn the time to go get it, B) climb without a helmet--unwise--or C) turn around and go home, depending on how far it slides--and what's below you.

Dawn begins to break on Shasta's north side
But we got going again, and soon we were making great headway. At our first break stop, we did what one pretty much always does on the first break stop up here: shiver in the cold, windy dark and refuel for the next stage. Greg wasn't feeling too great at this point, and I felt bad for him, but resting seemed to help.

We got underway again, and pretty soon, the real fireworks began... it's like magic up here when the sun starts to rise on this side of the mountain. Everything changes from star-flecked moonlit black to the deepest violet to an intense shade of ultramarine to fiery red-gold... it's just incredible.

We snapped some pictures and kept our upward momentum going, but it was such a beautiful morning this day, that as we got up near the exposed patch of hard glacier ice just below the bergschrund, I simply HAD to stop and bust out the camera. What I got was one of the best climbing pictures of my life. The rising sunlight shone its morning colors off the wind-polished, scoured and shiny ice surface, making it look like stationary running water. (Which is exactly what a glacier is, now that I think about it haha).

Early morning deep violet shades flood the Hotlum glacier with ethereal light
Unfortunately, Greg got a pretty good bout of altitude sickness around 10,400, so we stopped to assess the situation, talk it over, and decide what to do. The answer, it seemed, was that he was done.

Greg, anchored in the morning light on the Hotlum
The common altitude headaches were plaguing him, yes, but I was more concerned about about his increasingly severe nausea (a small part of which, I'm guessing, was nerves--but regardless of the source, climbing while nauseated is truly miserable, and I felt bad for him). So after some discussion, we called it quits and  began to descend back to camp. Greg started feeling  better almost immediately, which was a relief.

Meanwhile, a 4-person guided party that had arrived very late in the evening and camped lower on the moraine the night before had been following below us all morning long, never more than a few hundred vertical feet below us.

Greg and the SMG party above us
Eventually, we found out who it was: Keith Potts guiding an SMG party up behind us, and we stopped for a quick hello, then continued on our downward trajectory.

Shortly after we passed them going the other direction, though, Greg started feeling regrets about going down so soon, and wanted to turn around and give it another try.

Me, on the way back up again
He was clearly feeling better after eating and drinking and resting a bit, so I did a quick health check on him, and then agreed to go up again with him for second shot.

So up we went again. This time, we got just above the bergschrund when we noticed someone coming up behind us: an independent fast and light party of two up there in just shorts, light shirts, tiny day packs, soft leather hiking boots and strapon crampons.

They were cruising pretty good, and zipped right past us in the middle of the huge face at about 11k.

This time (after passing the SMG party again while they were on a break) we got up as high as 11,600 somewhere around the bergschrund before Greg finally ran out of gas.

Greg, toughing it out on the way back up
I was hoping to get higher, and I think Greg was disappointed, too, but truth be told, if we'd continued upward much longer at the pace we were going, I think we'd have had to turn around anyway.

The reason is that later, we  noticed  a HUGE pair of stacked lenticulars blooming over the summit--just about the time we'd have been walking onto the summit if we'd stayed our upward heading.

My guess is that we probably would have hit the summit, and then been descending at about 13,000 when the high winds we later experienced kicked up full force hit.
Me and my bud.

And they're much worse at 13k than down low where we were. No bueno... so it was a good decision.

That 2-person party would have hit the summit roughly around noon, but we were never quite sure what happened to them. In all the time we spent at camp relaxing--and ultimately packing up before heading down--we never saw them come off the mountain, and we were in camp til about 3pm. Kinda worrisome.
First of two lenticulars forming over the summit
I got thinking about my mountain guide friend Rich Meyer... specifically how with guided parties,  mountain guides must have to do what we did today quite a lot: turn around mid-climb. In fact, they must have halfway climbed that mountain a zillion times when people want to turn back, I imagine.

At any rate, we made it back to camp without incident (and had some fun sliding in the process), and we laid around, cooked up some food, got more water, and rested up before we decided to just bust it out of there and get home. This is typical of what I do on Shasta most times. Before the trip,  think I'm gonna need 3 or 4 days, while expecting with optimal weather to get it done in 2, but I tell myself I'll just stay on the mountain that extra night and come down the next day--but I never do.

We had a bit of a rough time as we in our high wind profile heavy packs got blown around the trail a bit in high winds around 9k as we watched an alien ship cloud roll in over the north side of the mountain and settle over the tip of the peak, and the winds blasted us ferociously with sand and grit from the powdery dirt trail below the moraine.

After we got into the valley leading down to the forest and the main part of the descent route, things quieted down a bit, but out in the open, it was positively vicious for a while.

It's always nice to get back to the car and change out of stinky clothes, take a dump in a real toilet, and such from any mountain climb, but we had a bit of extra fun posing for retarded camera shots in the parking lot before loading up for real and heading out for town. It was burger time.

We went to the Goat after we got back down, and after we ordered some food and drinks, we checked the weather report... and we were shocked  to see what it was doing back up where we were on the mountain just a few ours earlier... 40-70mph, gusts up to 110mph.

Good thing we got outta that. We were breaking camp in high winds at 9,600 as it was, so we figured it was a good call. How right we were. With all the decision making about the direction, it was a crazy afternoon up there... and then add the weather in as a factor.

But overall, it was such a satisfying trip, and so great to be out there with my brave buddy Greg, who that day earned some respect in my eyes for doing something so far out of his box--just because I wanted him to.

Looking back on it now, I'm not sure I could ever get him back out there again... BUUUUT... knowing his penchant for technical climbing, I bet if we planned an ice climbing trip--that same exact route, but instead of going up to 11,600, we'd turn left and head to the icefall on the Hotlum glacier.

Or the bersgchrund... maybe rappel into it, and then ice climb out with spikes on all four limbs: two overhead swinging ice tools and crampons on both feet.

I've been wanting to do some ice climbing on the building-sized seracs of the Hotlum for a long time... maybe it's time he and I plan it.

Greg... rockin' the mountain.