Mount Shasta, California | 41.309°N, 122.306°W | July 21, 2018
This is my favorite thing. This is my favorite thing.
As the midday sun beats down on us, and the muscles in my legs strain against the rocky incline, I repeat this phrase silently to myself, over and over again.
I'm climbing up a giant volcano. This is my favorite thing. This is my favorite thing!
Sweat drips from every pore of my face, neck and arms, saturating my clothes and pack. Up until four days ago, I was living at sea level (quite literally on the ocean) and now I'm climbing to over 10,000 feet with 40-pounds strapped to my back. I wipe the back of my hand against my forehead, slinging sweat into the air, and let out a groan of frustration. My breathing doesn't feel as rhythmic and steady as it did when I was climbing this mountain last year.
In fact, almost everything about Shasta feels different this time around. When we drove up to the parking lot of Bunny Flat last June, we encountered giant snow banks. Now, almost 2,000 feet above Bunny Flat, we see vast expanses of rock with only sparse patches of dirty snow.
I made this climb in snow pants and several layers last summer. Now, I'm sweating through my running shorts and tank top. Scrambling across everything from large boulders to small, slick rocks messes up my mental game—my weak ankle feels threatened with every other step. I tread carefully, trying not to feel discouraged by the slow pace.
This is still my favorite thing, I think. But I prefer more snow and ice.
When we finally reach Lake Helen, we aren't terribly surprised to find no one else is there. After setting up the tent, organizing our gear, and wolfing down a quick lunch of cold quesadillas, we settle in for a long afternoon of rest.
While Jon naps, I read the book he brought up here, a collection of essays by John Muir. I flip to an essay titled Snow Storm on Mount Shasta.
Mount Shasta, situated near the northern extremity of the Sierra Nevada, rises in solitary grandeur from a lightly sculptured lava plain, and maintains a far more impressive and commanding individuality than any other mountain within the limits of California…
When Jon wakes up, we grab our cameras and spend the better part of an hour watching the sky change and taking photographs. Other than the occasional gust of wind, all is quiet. To simply enjoy the view, to appreciate the “commanding individuality” of the mountain fills me with gratitude.
When the alarm goes off at 12:30am, we sit up in our sleeping bags and methodically start donning layers. Jon fires up the JetBoil while I slather peanut butter on bagels.
After exiting the tent, I strap on my pack, snap the closure on my helmet, and breathe in the crisp, cold night. We start out.
This is my favorite thing.
Within 20 minutes, Jon and I have stripped off our warm layers, hiking in only our base layers and shells. Again, I’m struck by the difference in conditions this late in the summer. The air feels almost tropical compared to our climb in June last year.
I miss the snow. The rocky terrain is relentless. With each step, the ground seems to crumble beneath our feet. Rock and scree slide out from under our boots, making our progress feel infinitesimal. After two hours of slipping and sliding, avoiding falling rocks, and shoving our ice axes into alpine gravel, we stop to rest. I lay down on the rock, breathing hard.
"I'm worried about my energy level," I tell Jon as I try to steady my breathing. "I feel like I'm using way too much energy on this part of the climb. We still have so much further to go."
"Don't worry about that right now," Jon says. "We don't have to make it to the summit. But we do have to get to the ridge line."
It takes us another hour to reach the ridge line. A faint trace of blue creeps along the horizon, signaling the first light of day. We are off route and exhausted and a little bit scared, but the sky is still mesmerizing. Jon removes his glasses and squints at the sliver of light growing in the east. I want to take a photo of the light reflected in his bright eyes, but my camera is buried in my pack and my hands are freezing and we need to keep moving. We stand up and begin a long traverse.
When we finally reach the Red Banks, we are met with more crumbling rock and white out conditions. We sit down to rest and discuss our options. It is almost 7am — at this time last year, we were standing on the summit. But now we’ve been climbing for almost six hours and we’re only halfway there.
It’s a tough decision to make, but an important one. Today is not our day to summit.
The decision made, we begin our descent. While Jon typically moves through the mountains with speed and agility, he now navigates with the slow, tremulous movements characteristic of a person gripped by fear. I can see the risk calculation in the expression on his face. He throws his pack down. It slides down the icy chute and immediately disappears from view — we can hear it tumbling down the mountain.
He makes it down the crumbling embankment without falling. I’m not so lucky. Jon lunges to catch me as I fall roughly 10 feet.
“I’m okay,” I say immediately.
“You’ve got a ton of adrenaline shooting through your system right now,” Jon says. “Are you sure?”
I stand up, dusting the tiny rock particles from my pants and gloves, and notice new rips in the fabric. My clothes are torn, my legs are bruised, and my mental fortitude is at an all-time low. But fretting and feeling defeated is not helpful right now. I force my mind to stay focused on the task at hand —getting down this damn mountain safely.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Five minutes later, we spot Jon’s bright red pack resting in a patch of snow 30 feet below us. We scope out the snowy patches, hoping to find a good place to glissade. Jon attempts a short glissade but ditches after just a few seconds. “It’s no good,” he says. The frozen snow renders our mountaineering ice axes useless.
Down, down we go, trying not to slip on the slick rocks. Fatigue settles into my legs, and I feel increasingly grateful we made the decision to turn around when we did.
When we finally reach the tent, I remove my layers and crawl into my sleeping bag. The deep slumber that comes from complete physical exhaustion engulfs me immediately. I do not dream. I do not stir. I sleep like the dead for two hours.
After resting, eating, and packing up the tent and gear, we continue our descent. As we near the Bunny Flat parking lot in the early afternoon, Jon and I take in one final view of this beautiful, perilous place.
Even without reaching the summit, even with a couple mistakes, some bad luck, and rough conditions, this is still my favorite thing.
We vow to climb Mt. Shasta again — but not in late July.