Mt. Shasta | Saturday, June 3, 2017 | 1:15pm
Because it's a Saturday, the parking lot at Bunny Flat is packed. We drive past vans and SUVs plastered in stickers that rep local climbing gyms, nearby national parks, and excellent lifestyle choices: CLIMB STEEP, GET HIGH and MOUNTAINS, PLEASE. Familiar gear lines the pavement - ice axes, gaiters, boots, and crampons are required. Snowboards and skis are optional.
Jon finally finds a parking spot and we begin the now-routine process of rummaging through all our stuff and shoving the essentials into our packs. Even for a day hike, it’s a process. Today we'll walk up to Lake Helen, a roughly 4,000 foot climb that will take us to an elevation of just over 10,000 feet on Mt. Shasta. We’ll come back down, camp, and then tomorrow we’ll make the same climb – this time with full packs including the tent, cookware and sleeping bags, plus all the clothing and gear we need to make it to the summit.
“Are you bringing your crampons?” I ask.
“Yep,” Jon says, shoving his puffy jacket into his pack. “Just in case.”
“We should bring headlamps too,” I say. “Just in case.”
I divvy out bags of trail mix for each of us - more almonds for me, and more macadamia nuts for Jon. I double-check to make sure I have the sunscreen.
The beginning of the climb is a relatively flat trail of slushy snow through what looks like a windswept Narnia. The bent trees remind me of the Araucaria trees I saw on the Llaima volcano in southern Chile - like Christmas trees on crack. I walk just a step behind Jon, smiling at the climbers coming down the trail. They carry heavy packs and faces flushed with exhaustion, but also a strong sense of determination and satisfaction. Snowboarders swoosh past us. I haven’t been on a snowboard since I was 16. I need to re-learn how to snowboard, I think. And I need to get good enough to bomb down a steep volcano - then I’ll be a real mountaineer.
"Alpine climbing" is broadly defined as any kind of climbing above tree line. After an hour, we pass the last tree and enter alpine territory. The top of Shasta is a prominent, jagged pinnacle but from here all we can see is a series of rolling, round, white hills.
We stop for a minute to drink water and eat some trail mix. Jon has been in front so I've spent the past hour staring at his feet.
“Can I lead for a little bit?” I ask tentatively.
Jon gives me a stern look.
“Are you going to keep this pace?” He knows I would run up the volcano if I could.
“Yeah totally. If I start going too fast, just tell me.”
I can tell he is tired and annoyed. “I can’t go any faster than this Marley.”
Neither one of us says anything. After a minute, I finally concede. “You don’t want me to lead, do you?”
Dumb question. The answer is obvious.
“Alright,” I say. “Never mind.”
We start up the mountain again, and I fall in behind him, feeling like a child that’s been stuck in time-out. The rest of the climb is steep and long. I think about our climb up to Camp Muir on Mt. Rainier, and how scenic and varied the terrain was. Shasta is beautiful, but monotonous.
Lake Helen, it turns out, is not a lake. We watch other climbers set up their tents, preparing for summit bids late tonight or early tomorrow morning. We sit down and lean back against a small snowbank. We pass the thermos back and forth, eat more trail mix, and talk about our plans for the next day. After 30 minutes of rest, we head back down.
When we set up camp that night, I shove two bottles of Lagunitas Lil Sumpin into the nearby snowbank. We treat ourselves to a luxurious dinner—buttery grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed with avocado and dipped in tomato soup. After a long day of hiking in the snow, the cold beer and hot food could not be more satisfying.
Later, we lay in our tent, talking about tall mountains. We're about 500 miles north of the the tallest mountain in the continental United States (Mt. Whitney, California). Mt. Rainier is the tallest peak in the Cascades, and Mt. Shasta is the second tallest. We talk about how high we’ve climbed before, and how high we’ll attempt to climb tomorrow. I remind Jon that one of my New Years resolutions for 2017 was to bag a 12,000ft peak with him - tomorrow we'll be going for 14,180 feet.
In the ten days that we’ve spent climbing together, Jon and I have learned a lot about each other—how we eat and sleep, how we deal with problems, how we relax, and how each of us approaches climbing a mountain. I love going up the steep stuff. It makes my legs and lungs work hard, and reminds me of the training I’ve done. It makes me feel strong. Jon, on the other hand, likes going down.
We talk about our nerves. Neither one of us is terribly nervous - we feel ready for the challenge.
“We just need to communicate well," I say. "When it gets steep and scary, and it’s dark, and it’s just the two of us - we need to talk to each other.”
He falls asleep quickly while I fidget in my sleeping bag. I try to lay still and listen to the rhythmic sound of Jon's heavy breathing, just on the cusp of a snore. I focus on my own breath and within minutes, drift off.
When we wake up, I feel rested. It’s late – after 9am already. I scratch Jon’s head and he rubs my shoulders for a minute. Then we’re up and going through the motions of our morning routine. I make coffee and oatmeal while Jon charges the GoPro batteries. We both lay our clothes in the sun, hoping the last bits of moisture will evaporate in the bright alpine sunshine.
At 1:30pm we head back to Bunny Flat, strap on our packs, and begin our climb.