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.