Climbing California’s Mt Shasta

By Rich Crowder 27 May 2014
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Northern California’s Mt Shasta is steeped in legend. Spooky stories claim it’s home to survivors of a sunken continent, but what really gets climbers up at night is the prospect of bad weather.

SPANNING THE Pacific Northwest of the United States is the volcano-riddled mountain range simply referred to as the Cascades. This series of peaks runs from the Canadian border all the way into the vacant territories of Northern California.

The northern portion makes a formidable backdrop for the hip and trendy city of Seattle, including mountains such as Mount Baker, with its famed ski field, and the domineering massif of Mount Rainier.

Measuring as high in elevation as 4392m, the Cascades demand attention from mountaineering enthusiasts around the world.

Legendary mountaineer Fred Beckey, who has more first ascents under his belt than any other climber, called these mountains home for many years.

During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Beckey ticked off nearly all the prominent routes of the Cascades. His extensive knowledge of the variety of climbing options led him to author a three-volume guidebook that includes thousands of rock climbing and mountaineering routes.

Just before the range seems to peter out to the south a final prominent mountain towers above the relatively flat surrounding landscape. Mt Shasta is nearly 3000m taller than any feature around.

On a clear day, it can be seen from 250km away. This creates a natural stirring of excitement for mountaineers. It is such a dominant feature, it practically begs to be climbed.  

The myths of Mt Shasta

When most people think of California, they envision the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in Southern California. Most perceptions of Northern California involve the rolling hillside trolleys of San Francisco.

What few people realise is that San Francisco is closer to the geographical centre of the state’s coastline, with hundreds of kilometres of beautiful wilderness to the north, right up to Oregon’s southern border.

Surrounded by a half dozen national forests, the drive into the quaint town of Mt Shasta was inspiringly scenic. The moss-covered trees and the late evening alpenglow make for an almost mythical experiences. It was not until I was walking on the track to our base camp that I found this wild landscape really was full of folklore and tales.

For mountain guides, it’s part of the job description to keep the client entertained. Part of their repertoire are local tales, outlandish stories usually met with a slight chuckle of disbelief from both parties.

But in Shasta’s case, there is a tinge of seriousness. Shasta has been in the limelight of mythical stories ever since its known existence with the Native American population. The most prevalent myth is that of the Lemurians.

The ancient “lost continent”, Lemuria, has sunk below the Earth’s crust, with access throughout the wilderness of Mt Shasta.

Or so they say.

Camping at the base of Mt Shasta

I thought it was one way to keep your mind off of the long walk ahead. From the car park, we hiked into Horse Camp, a common base camp for our objective, Mt Shasta’s Avalanche Gully route.

But my scepticism was met with introductions to first-hand accounts. I talked to many people that day about various Lemurian legends. Large, 5m-high, stone carvings appearing and disappearing without explanation. Mysterious hooded white figures chanting and trudging through the woods. Ghostlike projections floating above climbers’ tents throughout the night.

The unsettling part was these tales weren’t just coming from the local crazy hermits.

Needless to say, my dreams that night were quite imaginative.  

I woke to a violent shaking of the tent at midnight. My first thought was the Lemurians were attacking. Then, a welcome suggestion from outside the tent of “Coffee anyone?” from the mountain guide kicked my excitement level into high gear.

Big mountains are unforgiving. An intelligent mountaineer intently watches for weather windows. We had planned a three-day ascent, but the weather service was predicting high winds in our near future. We consequently decided to make one long push to the summit on our second day.

This meant we needed a true “alpine start”.

Mt Shasta ascent

One concept most people do not commonly think about when it comes to mountaineering is that the majority of climbing actually happens in the dark. At high altitudes, winter ascents are few and far between for the common mountaineer.

The conditions are often too harsh and the bitter cold bites at your skin. Early summer and late spring are the ideal times to summit in the Cascades. The routes are generally still covered with thick and settled snow, allowing for minimal danger of avalanches, a climber’s worst enemy.

We hit the track at about 1am. With hours of darkness ahead, it seemed to make the hike easier as you could not make out the surrounding landscape, only the shallow depth of field from my head torch, which allowed for complete concentration.

The burning of both your lungs and legs is the only thing you can think about in the dark. Faint sounds of crampons kicking in along with whispers of light from neighbouring torches filled the lower valleys. Numerous parties were vying for the summit because of the unfriendly weather predicted.

Toughing it out on the climb

Implementing the classic mountaineer’s rest step is a must for setting into a successful pace. One foot after another, the sharpened 12-point crampons take advantage of the hardened crust atop the snow. Midway up the highly trafficked Avalanche Gully route, a member of out party got sick.

The high altitude was squeezing on his sea-level brain, causing him to become disoriented and spew his breakfast. In the mountains the general ethic is to leave no man behind. We were in luck.

Our professionally guided group was split into two ropes and two guides. With a little bit of re-arranging, the group combined into one short roped team, while I elected to free solo so we could push on.

As this little ordeal sucked the life out of our group, the sunrise came to our rescue.

First light on the climb

The bright orange glow is especially impressive high up on Mt Shasta. Because the surrounding terrain is relatively low compared to the peak, the mountain casts its shadow to the west. A deep triangle amid the lush, glowing forests below.

This sight alone was more of an energy boost than any of the caffeinated beverages we had consumed hours before back at camp. Ascending the gully route brings you to an amazing site of crimson volcanic bluffs along a ridge.

When the sun is still low in the sky, this rock glows, unveiling the loose conglomerate we had heard of through screams earlier.

Although Mt Shasta’s trade routes are generally deemed safe by mountaineering standards, the multiple incidents of rock fall whizzing by my head and crashing into fellow climbers below was unnerving to say the least, especially as I was un-roped.

Reaching the summit of Mt Shasta

Happy to be on a ridge system, everyone seemed to have a hop in their step.

The summit was in sight, or at least we thought it was. Mt Shasta is one of those sinister summits. Multiple times, what appeared to be the top was a false summit. When I found out a feature dubbed “Misery Hill” was still in between us and the top I settled back into my rest step pace and put my head down.

Climbing mountains is a funny activity. Even though I find myself cursing the whole way up and my muscles cursing me for the days to follow, I keep coming back for more. The draw of the mountain lifestyle is contagious.

The satisfaction of a summit supersedes all others in everyday life. The Cascades were now on my radar.

Much later, contently sipping coffee in the quaint township below, I decided the summit of Mt Shasta was the perfect starting point for a long career of mountaineering in America’s Pacific Northwest.