We were soundly rebuked on Mt Shasta recently. There are no two ways about it. Five students and three guides shivered and whined in our tents overnight at 10,000 feet as a cold and steady snow blew in from the west. By morning the icy squall had dropped eight inches of crystalline powder, leaving a blanket of windswept snow that buried our bivouac sight, muted the features on the moraine, and left our summit ambitions in ruins.
Fleeting moments of sun allowed tantalizing views of the peak.
It was beautiful, for sure. In the morning, the sun was breaking through the waves of clouds that blew through in irregular intervals. It would go from cold and dark, windy and snowing, with visibility falling below 100 feet to bright, glorious shining sun and tantalizing views of the peak. But those ecstatic moments would disappear all too soon and I felt myself swayed with the waves of clouds. Weather has an immediate effect on attitude.
I was aware of my fickle inclinations and the effect of the whims of weather, but I couldn’t shake the vascillations. As a cloud blew in and the sharp, shining needles began falling, I would think, “What are we doing here in a storm? We have to mobilize to descend. This could settle in, the winds could whip up, the snow could really start falling, and we could get stuck here.” And then the clouds would break in rays of low morning sun, the wind would die down, and the mountain, what we had come to climb, would come back into view. Spirits would rise, someone would inevitably throw a snowball – I even made a snow angel – and I would think, “Maybe that’s the end of it. Maybe we can stay. We are doing okay for now. Let’s brew up again and wait a bit.”
We arrived at the trailhead – or as close as we could get in the van – on Thursday afternoon. It was a planned 5-day ascent. We would be down and out on Monday. That left us time to acclimate, time to teach the important skills of roped glacier travel and self arrest, and a bit of flexibility in our summit window. The road to the trailhead was still snowed in to two and a half miles out, which extended our first-day’s hike and cut into our itinerary – not a great way to start the ascent but not a big deal, either. By the time we reached the trailhead parking lot on foot, we had already traversed a mile on snow and the last 300 yards in post holes. That, and having come from sea level that morning made the decision to camp at the trailhead that night a good one.
The view from the North Gate Trailhead, Mt Shasta.
The weather was fine that day and that evening. Clouds were building, but slowly. The temperature was chilly but the sun was out most of the time. And occasionally the mountain would come out in full view beckoning us toward her slopes.
We were optimistic despite the weather report. How could you not have high hopes, if not high expectations, with a peak as shapely and inviting as Shasta smiling down on you. A view like that can make you believe in yourself. The forecast called for a couple of low pressure systems to come through beginning Friday evening. Neither system was predicted to be strong and they were calling for little to no snow accumulations even at altitude, so we felt secure continuing on. We would simply keep a weather-eye out, as they say, and constantly reevevaluate our situation, which is our practice in the mountains, anyway. One of the two other guides, my second, and I had been on this route before, so we knew what to expect from the terrain.
So, we set off on Friday morning making for the moraine and our basecamp at just below 10,000 feet. We could take a direct route up the valley because the trail that led our from the trailhead to the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers was covered in three to four feet of sintered snow. Snowpack like that makes off-trail travel a bit simpler. You can go wherever you want, take any line up the valley, and the surface you tread is relatively uniform and predictable – as long as it is cold, which it was. It should have been easy hiking – except it wasn’t. Not for me.
My energy was sapped and I was struggling to keep up with the group. My pack was heavy and I felt it. Sometimes a heavy pack is a joy, a sort of motivation in an odd way. Sometimes you feel the heft and it is pleasing, like getting out of bed in the morning, a chore but a joyous one. It is a lovely sensation that makes you feel strong and worthy and a part of something. Other times your pack is heavy and you don’t want to heft it. It weighs you down like a pig on your back. It is crushing and you feel slow and you obsess over what you packed that you didn’t need. Your mind begins to calculate and scheme and lead you into dark places, entertaining wild possibilities to explanation or escape the burden you bear. Breathing hard, huffing for oxygen, well behind the group, mildly frustrated, and trying to keep my attitude on straight, I actually wondered if one of my companions had hidden a stone in my pack.
I couldn't get enough air, my pulse was consistently up around 160, and the muscles in my legs just felt weak.
I wondered if I could just be fabulously out of shape. Teaching in the classroom all year doesn’t do much for physical fitness, it is true, but my struggle was indicative of a level of fitness well below my typical standard. Had I let myself go that far? My rock climbing had slipped, I knew that, but this was bad. I couldn’t get enough air, my pulse was consistently up around 160, and the muscles in my legs just felt weak, like I was recovering from the flu or something. It was appalling, really, that I lagged so far behind, but it was what it was. Whether a conditioning issue, a sickness my body was fighting, or some kind of long-built up stress response from the year, I didn’t know, but I couldn’t hide it and a group is only as strong as its weakest member. I just wasn’t used to being the weakest member. I took it slow, worked hard to suppress the anger that was building in me at having been left behind by my co-leaders and focused on my breathing.
Actually, it wasn’t entirely miserable. In fact, I enjoyed hiking alone to a certain extent. I followed the group’s rowdy footprints in the snow, analyzing their steps and tracking them like prey. Slowly we progressed up the valley to the moraine.
By 1:30p the weather had deteriorated significantly. We were almost at 9500 feet, climbing the steep slopes to the top of the moraine where we would make basecamp and spend the next three nights of our summit attempt. As we emerged from treeline, leaving the last pines behind us, we felt a breezy but insistent wind blowing from the west. It would snow soon.
It began snowing as we crested the moraine.
It began snowing as we crested the moraine. There were still moments of clearing, but they were shorter and less complete. Tired and weary, some more than others, we lunched at the top. Two loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly disappeared quickly as we all passed them around and slapped together sandwiches. We were huddled in a rocky outcropping, sheltered somewhat from the wind and snow. It felt good to eat and I could feel myself growing stronger with the influx of fuel. I knew we were close, but the immediate surroundings were unfamiliar. We had come up a slightly different route than last year, hoping to gain our basecamp site from a different direction, but we weren’t there and I couldn’t tell from our lunch spot how far away or really in what direction our basecamp lay.
And then the weather hit.
In the span of 10 minutes the temperature dropped 15 degrees and the snows set it in earnest. I urged efficiency in donning layers and packing up our lunch. The kids were slow to respond in the teeth of the gale, but I didn’t want us to spend too much time out in weather like that. Not only was the temperature dropping, but apparently a kind of post-lunch lethargy had settled over us. It was time motivate and get on with it.
We pushed up and over a rise in the moraine, looking for a familiar chute near the far lateral edge of the moraine, but near white-out conditions made everything harder. The terrain seemed alien. My glacier glasses kept the blowing snow out of my eyes but the wind bit my cheeks and nose. I pulled my balaclava up over my nose and in an instant my glasses fogged up, obscuring vision and orientation. My fingertips, too, were painful. I wore thin, windproof gloves, which were far better than nothing, but my hands had become chilled at lunch and now were taking too long to warm. I had full ice gloves in my pack but I didn’t want to stop moving long enough to retrieve them. Even when I managed to keep my glasses clear of condensation, the visibility was so poor I couldn’t see far enough to gain a reliable orientation or a sense of where we were on the moraine. I keep looking around, waiting, hoping that something I saw would connect in memory. I just wanted to recognize something. It all looked likely and yet none of it looked positive. Uncertainty reigned.
At a flat spot, somewhat sheltered from the brunt of the gale, we reconnoitered. My second and I decided to scout the area in an attempt to locate ourselves or a suitable bivouac site. The important thing was to keep making progress toward getting us all inside and out of the weather. I hesitated only a moment at the prospect of leaving the group to wait in the cold while we scouted – hypothermia can set in quickly – but as long as my partner and I went together and weren’t gone too long, it was a viable plan. I noted to my third that we would be back in ten minutes and encouraged him to do what he could to keep people moving and warm.
It is called a whiteout because everything turns the same shade of white – or grey rather. Sky and ground, up and down, all begins to look the same. Topography recedes and abates, features disappear, everything lacks distinguishing detail, and your depth perception goes to zero. In fact, walking about in the wind and snow, there were times when I couldn’t tell if I was walking up hill or down. At times I staggered searching for solid ground which seems to shift under me. It can be a dangerous situation if you are not sure what the surrounding terrain looks like. A cliff edge can be absolutely invisible because the snow covered edge is indistinguishable from the air beyond it. Experienced mountaineers have walked – not fallen – walked right off the edge of precipices to their deaths. Footprints in the snow show a track of calm step leading right over into the abyss.
My partner and I were careful, though, and we scampered about arguing with ourselves and each other about where we thought we were in relation to last year’s basecamp – ultimately to no avail. We were not lost by any means, but we didn’t know where we were in relation to where we wanted to be, which isn’t a bad situation, necessarily, as long as where you are is okay. We weren’t likely to find our particular basecamp in the storm and I wasn’t even willing to keep looking, really. My partner and I decided to find a suitable bivouac site, gather the group, and set up a storm camp.
The site we found was among some boulders – not quite as sheltered as I would have liked but gaining time, at this point, was more important than finding a perfect site. In some haste, I gathered the students and laid out the plan for setting up shelters in the wind. We needed to work together well and not, under any circumstances let go of a tent. I showed them how to use ice axes as snow stakes to secure their tents and how to bury a rock as a “dead man” anchor. We all worked together on each tent and then, together, moved on to the next to get the shelters set up well and quickly. We all had an interest in every one of us having a shelter, and in no time we had four solid tents erected. The wind and snow had not abated, and we all climbed into our shelters to hunker down and wait for the storm to lift.
At one point, after three and a half hours recumbent inside our tents, my second, who had set up his own tent and was its sole occupant, began to stir.
“Who’s got the mashed potatoes and sausage?” he bellowed. “And I need a stove and a fuel bottle.”
I couldn’t believe it. “What are you going to do, Scott?” I called through the gale. I knew what he was going to do; I just wanted to hear him say it.
“What’ya mean,” he called back. “We gotta eat!”
“It is pretty cold out, Scott. And it is still snowing. Let’s just pass around some power bars and gorp and call it good for tonight. We can eat a good meal in the morning. It is pretty cold.”
“No, no,” he said with resolve. “The kids gotta eat. Where’s the sausage?”
So, with all of his layers on, in below zero wind chill, with the snow coming across the moraine, my intrepid second leader, cooked freeze-dried mashed potatoes and sausage for our group. When it was done, he and my third leader collected bowls from the students and delivered hot meals to their tent doors. It was an amazing gesture, one of toughness and conviction. It was something I learned about my partner. I felt I glimpsed a bit of his fiber, his caliber, and I was proud to be up there with him.
The storm broke about midnight. I didn’t see it, but I am told that in the early morning hours the skies parted and you could see stars blinking down on us.
There wasn’t much of a decision to be made in the morning. It was still bitterly cold, but more than that the storm had covered the mountain in eight inches of fresh powder. The avalanche danger higher on the glacier was now prohibitively risky, and ours was not a winter ascent. The decision to pack up and go down was easy.
Wind still blew and an occasional snow flurry came through, but our descent route was clear and we glissaded down the moraine head wall. Disappointed to have been denied our ambition but ecstatic to have fronted the elements and our own discomfort, we laughed with each other and at ourselves for the night we spent shivering in our tents as the snow fell.
The mountain is a fickle master. You don’t go there to conquer anything except yourself.