What We Can Learn From the Death on Mt Shasta

A couple of young climbers recently got into trouble on Mt Shasta.  Big trouble.  Two went up one of the northside routes intending an early spring summit on the less-frequently climbed slope of the mountain.  Five days later one of them staggered, alone, back into their basecamp.  Siskiyou County Sheriffs and Search and Rescue climbers had set up an incident command at the trailhead and were on their way up to find the imperiled climbers.

The story is here for the time being.

There are some notable oddities to the reporting and to the story that is emerging about what happened up there – severe inconsistencies that don’t allow a gracious or even dignified coherency – but as a friend and climbing partner said to me recently, “First, the press never gets the facts straight, so any commentary from me is completely meaningless, which it was anyway, as you knew already.”  Word to the wise.

Even so, I find myself pondering the ordeal, wondering, supposing, and asking questions about similar situations.  I have no need to cast aspersions on a death in the mountains – not to bolster my own sense of competence or the endeavor of climbing or the climbing community.  Rather, I believe that for all of us who spend time on the mountain, this is important processing.  We can learn from other people’s experiences, if we try, if we intend to.  And even if we can’t or won’t know just what happened or why a climber did what he did, there are insights that we can glean from the story of this event.  The particulars and specifics are in doubt – in part because the press chooses which facts to include in order to tell the story it wants to tell and in part because the surviving climber chose not to grant an interview in the early days after the event – but the truth of the matter is not in the details.  It never is.  When people say, “Every situation is different,” they mean because of the specifics.  A million tiny decisions make up any trip up the mountain, but the tiny decisions don’t get you into trouble – the big ones do.

1.  These two climbers had no climbing permit.  And they did not check in at the ranger station in Mt Shasta City or on the south side.  Securing a climbing permit serves many purposes, some are obvious and some are really subtle.  But this one large decision to forego the permit had implications for their entire climb.  Getting a climbing permit alerts the rangers that you are there, logs your plan, and is one more opportunity to get important route and weather information about the climb.

It doesn’t even bug me that they didn’t have a permit, per se.  I have made that decision in the past, just shown up a the trailhead and signed the register at the kiosk.  But it isn’t the failure to get the permit that is important.  It is what not getting a permit indicates about the the underlying orientation to safety, risk management, immortality, you name it.  The decision not the get a permit to climb Shasta is a sign, an indication of an orientation, an inclination, an attitude.  And it is not a small oversight, like not having all the gear you need.  It is a huge, grand, significant gesture in which their fate was already written.  Maybe not on this trip, not on this mountain, maybe not even in the outdoors, but written nonetheless.

2.  These climbers were unaware of the weather report or didn’t heed it.  They arrived on the northside on Thursday, and there was a severe weather alert predicting a storm on Saturday.  The surviving climber said they checked the weather report before the trip, but on Thursday the rangers were already advising people not to climb that weekend.  One of those pieces that just doesn’t quite add up.  Bottom line: don’t climb into weather.

Again, it doesn’t bother me particularly that they were on the mountain with weather coming in.  You can’t let your trip be tyrannized by the weather report.  But these climbers made a dash for the summit.  The surviving climber said they intended to be up and down before the weather came in – which is not a bad plan if all goes well.  The troubling piece is the underlying attitude that this decision indicates.  There is a discernible sort of pseudo-hard man, it won’t happen to us, we can get up and down before it breaks attitude, and that is the biggest factor in what eventually proved fatal.

3.  These climbers did not acclimate.  I can’t tell why they chose to climb so fast, although there is a noticeable tough-guy trend out there in the climbing community that mistakenly over-values exploits and stunts over experience.  I am not saying that being hard as a rock hasn’t always been a piece of climbing, it has.  But there is also a mania attached to it, a blindness.  Maybe that is new and maybe it isn’t.  I mostly know what I have experienced in my 4o or so years.  These climbers arrived at the northside road on Thursday morning and summitted sometime Friday afternoon.  That appears to be 6000 to 14000 feet in 36 hours.  Too high too fast.  No time to acclimate.  Climb high and sleep low, folks.

At the end of the day, a climber didn’t die because they didn’t have a permit, and not because they got hammered by the weather.  A climber died from AMS, probably HACE, because they didn’t acclimate.  And my reading of the failure to acclimate is the same: in and of itself, not a big deal.  I have had AMS – mild, thankfully – and many climbers climb fast and survive.  The underlying inclinations that led these climbers to choose this as a path and make these decisions, very big deal.

I strongly encourage all of us who go outside in pursuit of experience to strive to understand what happened on Shasta, to learn from it, and not to accept the slacker’s interpretation: shit happens, it was unavoidable, a freak accident.  That is just so much intellectual cowardice.  And it belittles the experience these climbers had.

My heart goes out to the surviving climber who will now live with what happened and to the family of the deceased who will ask why.

5 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From the Death on Mt Shasta

  1. Rod Lamkey

    I fully concur with you. A few years ago I went up Avalanche Gulch (on Mt. Shasta) with a partner who needed to prove his strength. At Horse Camp (elev. 7,800 ft.) his logic started to go. From there he raced up to Helen Lake and pitched the tent on boulders! During the night he was stricken by a severe headache and was rambling. My only choice was to break camp and walk him downhill.
    For flatlanders (like my partner and I) even the parking lot at 6,800 ft. is high! I suspect that the two you wrote about were already affected by altitude at at that elevation when they decided not to check in. Or maybe they thought time was of the essence. Who knows?
    Anyway, thanks for this commentary. I’ll have my future climbing partners read it.

    Reply
  2. Putyatin

    Thanks, Rod. Unfortunately, your story and the disaster on Shasta are all too common. I am reminded of Edward Whymper’s advice: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.

    Safe climbs and keep your front points sharp!

    Reply
  3. Robert

    No need to second guess the climbers about the permit or the AMS/acclimitizing. The permits are self issue and that is what I did on my one day climb. I checked the weather from my own sources and maybe they did maybe they didn’t. I did come up and hike to 9000 ft the day before then slept at a hotel in weed as prep for the altitude, but you could second guess that too. All decisions are deemed wrong after the fact and after a bad outcome. Sure they could have got the permit and goofed around at 7000 ft for a day and 10000 ft for a day then at 12000 ft another day. Most likely the same unfortunate outcome would have happened. Then you would have found some other fault to preach about. Maybe they should have taken an MD on the climb…..or maybe just stayed home. Maybe never take any risk. Acceptable risks are the name of the game, I believe. This was just a strange unfortunate thing. No need to place your blame about permits and the need to spend a week or a few day to climb to 14000 ft. People day hike mt Whitney very often. Every once in a while people die there too and with a permit. If they were inexperienced climbers and the peak was 20000 ft plus, then I would agree. But his isn’t the case here. One can always be more careful. If something ever happened to the preacher here that is so wise, no matter how careful, there are plenty of couch potatoes that would say “well, he should have not been up there in the first place” or “he didn’t do his or didn’t do that”. Shame on you.

    Reply

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