Category Archives: Leadership

Northside Denied – or – No Picnic on Mt Shasta

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 mor

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.

Hack Canyon, Ch. 6: Of False Summits

As I walked, I muttered.  I do that.  I play out conversations before they happen.  Sometimes I have conversations with myself that I know will never happen or never happen that way, and I play them out in various iterations, testing them for the way they make me feel.  I am always surprised when fragments of those speeches, scripted by me in the absence of any interlocutor and with no intention of ever using them bubble up in the actual conversations that ensue.

In knew my co-leader, Robin, and I would be debriefing the event in time.  His leaving the map we worked so hard to get in the car constituted a screw-up of no small measure, not for the slip of mind, the forgetting, but for the lack of awareness that forgetting the map had put the group at risk.  It was the void of concern that allowed the forgetting to happen that troubled me most.

I had left my pack where I had left the group and so I was able to walk fast.  I had a rain jacket and a water bottle, and the stepped cadence of my pace against which to think it all through.

My intuition – the teacher in me – very naturally raised the question, “What is the right thing to do?  What does Robin need to hear from me right now?  What is the right speech in this moment?”

The outdoor leader in me sighed and held back despair.  How many more times can this happen?  How many more challenges can we meet?  Things had just begun to go smoothly and now this.  Not that walking a mile and a half back to get the map was anywhere close to breaking the deal, but this after everything else, coupled with how unnecessary it was, and how avoidable, I found difficult to take.  And the group, in this weather, in this canyon, shouldn’t be split.

And it felt somehow like a false summit.  Hiking out of camp this morning and settling into a rhythm with everything we needed on our backs had felt like arriving.  Finally.  And then this.  Again.  Like a false summit.  The feeling of pushing oneself for so long on the slopes of a mountain, all to gain a summit, to get somewhere, and feel something, waiting and working to feel something, and then attaining the mountain peak to find that it is just one more summit in a succession of summits and the next one is still 2000 feet up and 2 miles distant.  There’s nought to do but sigh, keep back despair, and keep moving.  Just keep reacting, keep making good decisions, and keep moving forward.

As in life, I suppose.

Soon I began to enjoy my solo walk, and I resolved not to bring the mistake up with Robin, but to let it come up, as I knew it would.  A bit passive, perhaps, but a part of me wanted him to think about it, to stew in it.  A part of me felt that if I addressed it with him straight off, if I gave him the opportunity to own it too soon and move on too easily, it wouldn’t stick.  I wanted this one to stick.  I wanted him to live with it so that it would stick.

And again I felt bad ass – this time for hoofing it back to the car, for retrieving the map without missing a beat, and for mentoring my co-leader.

By the time I got back to my pack, having been to the car and having found the map on the dash where I expected to find it, it was late.  As I hiked on fast down canyon, the diffusion of light through the torment of clouds was dimming.  The fading of the light was imperceptible, but over spans of time I could discern a deepening pall in the canyon.  First detail went in twilight, then larger features, and soon I thought of my headlamp.  Night was drawing the canyon in, shrinking it to the size of what I could see clearly.  Soon, I knew, under the blanketed, starless sky, I would be navigating by a pool of light that shone from my forehead.

Where I pulled off my pack in the wash to retrieve my headlamp there was a skull.  A cow that had died up stream and whose coyote-scattered parts had been washed down with the cobbles and had come to rest here, where I was resting and searching for a light.  Before I continued on, I propped the skull on the stream bank and stacked a cairn beside it.

The first thunder I heard was far off.  It came as a distant rumble.  I didn’t even see the flash.  But it drew near quickly and in the dark of the night canyon I could see flashes light up the clouds from miles away.

Counting the seconds between light and sound is a habit.  Flash.  One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four, and so on.  It turns out that sound takes about five seconds to travel a mile.  And light travels a mile virtually instantaneously.  That means that if you begin counting when you see a flash of lightning (one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three…), you can gauge the distance of the lightning strike by how many seconds elapse before you hear the thunder.  Five seconds to every mile.  The troubling thing is that lightning bends and slants and can strike miles away from the thunderhead that produced it.  Lightning within eight miles is cause for concern.  Lightning within four miles should initiate a lightning drill.

The canyon was shrouded in total darkness now and the rain came down intermittently. A steady wind buffeted me with 10 to 15 knots.  I wondered how far the group had made it and if there was a real chance that I would miss them in the canyon, walking in the dark and right on by.  And then a flash like the epicenter of a bomb lit up the entire canyon and light pulsed all around me.  Everything was illuminated for a just a moment.  I would have counted the seconds but the thunder came almost instantly.  It was loud.  Boomingly loud.  Louder than one might expect and it shook me.  Reverberating the walls of my chest.  It stopped me in the wash, startled and breathless.  I waited, half expecting it to happen again.  In a few moments the rain came down in sheets.

I hoped and expected, really, that wherever the group was, that last strike had sent my leaders into a lightning drill with the kids.  That was the right thing to do and standard protocol in backcountry situations with students.  But as for me, I kept walking.  I needed to be reunited with the group.  I kept moving forward and I began to mutter again.  Maybe I hadn’t ever stopped, but I began to rehearse conversations with myself that I hoped I wouldn’t have to have.  Conversations about lightning drills, about camp siting, about getting the kids fed and keeping them dry and warm and into their sleeping bags in the tents.  God help us to have the tents set up already.

I think I kind of imagined all sorts of things having gone wrong in my absence.  I knew -or trusted, rather – that they hadn’t but it was a kind of self doubt, I was beginning to realize.  Every new thing that went wrong or not quite right, caused me to doubt the choice to go down into the canyons at all.  Maybe it was the wrong decision.  My worst case scenario involved a kid struck by lightning and rain swelling the dry arroyo in a flash flood, rain turning to snow, and all of our gear getting soaked.  Things were seeming pretty tenuous to me at that moment and they could go from tenuous to very bad very quickly.

As I turned the bend in the rain-wet but as yet not flowing stream bed and saw the single light shining at me from far down canyon, I kept thinking to myself, “Breathe, hold back despair, make good decisions, and keep moving forward.”

Hack Canyon, Ch. 5: Audaces fortuna iuvat

We were out and off that morning and feeling good.  A wind was up, blowing right down the canyon and with purpose.  It wasn’t a breeze and it wasn’t a gale.  The wind that met us that morning as we packed up our trailhead camp and hoisted our backpacks over rain gear was the persistent kind, a portentous wind that originates far off and has the force of weather behind it.  Some people say you can smell rain coming.  I never have or never thought so.  But I have felt the presentiment of rain in the wind.  It is an intensity of purpose you feel.  Wind like that has inertia to it.  Like an intent or a promise.  It blows and it will blow.

Standing in the trail head parking area packing up my backpack and anticipating the necessary sequence of events that would lead to our group’s prompt departure and our safe hike down the canyon, I found myself glancing distractedly up canyon every minute or so.  The view was clear far up canyon to the sheer walls and the serpentine road that had carried us here.  I could see the clouds darkening above the red rock cliffs of Upper Hack Canyon, but they had not touched us yet.  And then, in the span of a moment’s glance at my backpack and the stuffing of another bag of gear, it all disappeared.  Where there had been sheer canyon walls, rusty red and layered in blacks and yellows, there was now only a white cloud, a great pale smear of thickening haze.  An erasure of topography.  It was not quite cold enough to snow, but I felt the air chill as I watched the squall sweep down canyon toward us.

“Let’s hurry it up, folks.  We want to be out of here in ten minutes,” I thundered.  “And keep your rain gear handy.”  There was little chance of avoiding the weather, and ten minutes was less than half as much time as we needed to get on the trail, but it was important to hurry my students along.

More motivating than my exhortation was the rain itself.  As the first drops began to fall heavily on head, hat, and backpack, I saw my students begin to pack with urgency, and sure enough, in haste we were off.  It was still raining as we began hiking, but it had lightened a bit and the clouds blew through, squall upon calm, in broken formations.

An hour later, we stopped to hydrate.  Finally we had settled into a hiking rythym.  We weren’t preparing anymore, not driving or cogitating about road conditions or our lack of a map.  In a stroke of providence that I had mistaken for good fortune but didn’t yet know it, we had gotten a map.  Like a gift from the desert itself, Ranger Todd had shown up, in the dark, with lights blazing, at just the right moment with everything we needed.  A map, information, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and with all that, we had come away with a plan.  And now it was happening.  I felt triumphant and, yes, it is true, I confess it, bad ass.

Audaces fortuna iuvat, I couldn’t help thinking.  Fortune favors the bold.

It was time to step it up, to put the kids in charge of the map, and to assign a leader for the afternoon.  We had been on the run, off balance and trying to gain our footing for more than a day now.  But it was finally happening.  Finally, it was time to go live with the curriculum of the trip.

I checked in with my co-leader.  “You got the map?”

It was a rhetorical question, a bad habit of mine, perhaps, a weak attempt at comical nonchalance.  In a more straightforward mode, I would have said, “Give me the map so I can brief the kids on the afternoon.”  But what came back threw me.  Again.

“Nope.  You have it.”  My co-leader thought I was messing with him.  And admittedly I do.  In eight out of ten situations he is right.  But not this time.  The thought flashed through my mind that he was messing with me, but I knew, somewhere deep, even before I was aware of knowing, that he was not messing with me either.  He didn’t have the map.

And I didn’t have the map.  That damn map that first we didn’t have and then we had and now we didn’t again.  I expected, no, I knew he had the map because I had seen him take possession of it.  Standing in the dark the previous night, basking in the illumination of Ranger Todd and the restoration of hope, he had accepted the map, had taken it from Todd’s hand, had acknowledged the gift, and had confirmed with me, as we watched Todd disappear back into the darkness that he had the map.

It was inconceivable that we were now without it.

“I thought you had it,” my co-leader said and I could sense the slight evasion of responsibility.  Embedded in his words was don’t pin this one on me. So, I didn’t.  Fact was, I didn’t have to.  It had already been pinned.  He knew he had taken the map from Todd.  I knew it and he knew I knew it.  Nothing more at this moment needed to be said.  We would process the moment in time.

I also knew where it was, where it had to be.  “Give me the keys to your car,” I said.   The map, surely, was on the dash just where he had left it the previous night.  “I’ll go get the map.  You and Hannah take the group on down.  Try to get to the junction but find a good camp before dark.  I’ll catch up.   Just be conspicuous.”