“You get to the top of a wall, there’s nothing up there. Lionel Terray, the great French climber called it ‘The conquistadors of the useless.’ Yeah, the end result is absolutely useless, but every time I travel, I learn something new and hopefully I get to be a better person.” – Yvon Chouinard, 180 Degrees South
Upon reflection of my first mountaineering adventure I find myself at a loss for words on how to express such a life altering experience. The journey of climbing Mt Shasta hurt every part of my mind, body, and spirit, but upon reflection that pain made me stronger. It was a peaceful path where everything about me only had one point of focus and that was survival and that next callous step. All of the typical thoughts that run through ones mind were dropped as mere trivialities and the true nature of our being was brought forth. I find myself reflecting back on it as almost a dream like state as I really pushed myself harder than I have ever in my life. I understood what the now was.
To put in perspective we climbed from 6,940 ft to 14,179 ft or 7239 ft in elevation gain over two days. This is the most I have ever hiked as far as elevation gain and we had to do it through a combination of spree, snow, and rocks hurling at us downhill. I had to learn new equipment that I had only seen on in pictures in Crampons, snow shoes, and ice axes all at an altitude of over 10,000 ft which is the highest altitude I have ever hiked at. So all senses were heightened and every step mattered as an injury up this high met a very hard and long trek back to civilization.
It was a slow pace that set the tone for most of the hike as we did about 7 hours of hiking the first day up to Lake Helen at 10,433 ft on the famous Avalanche Gulch Trail. This was to be where we setup our base camp and rest for the next day’s summit attempt. We really did it up here as we had an amazing meal of cooked cheesy pesto pasta and fresh veggies courtesy of our team lead Geoff who was a great friend to take us up and show us the ropes of this amazing sport. After dinner we cleaned up, chugged some water and tried to sleep. Unfortunately for Kristin and I we pretty much tossed and turned all night and couldn’t sleep. Not sure if it was the altitude, anticipation, or the fact I had to pee like 5 times that caused this, but it is all part of the fun. I will say though upon waking up post midnight a lot of hikers started up the mountain already. It was quite a site to see these head lamps marching up the hill with some of the most incredible star formations above head. It was so surreal to see, and daunting to know we would also be starting our trek in the next few hours.
At 4am we all arose and started to gear up with our crampons, and clothes in the silence of the night. I said goodbye to Kristin, as she was feeling the altitude and decided to get some rest and not overdo it on her first such experience. As we started up the mountain it is very deceiving to first look at as it seems so close to the top of “The Red Banks” which is more than half way up. As we started up the mountain the sun started to rise and all of the sky turned this purple red color which was amazing to look over your shoulder and see how far we had come from only 1 day earlier. It took about 3 hours to get to the red banks and along the way we stopped for breakfast and had to constantly dodge rocks that shot at us like bowling balls which got the heart pumping. One rock actually hit Sam’s ice axe and bounced downward. Some of the technical aspects we learned was a toe hold as we switch-backed our way up.
Red banks was a different type of hike I have never experienced before. It was so steep going through these chutes that you almost didn’t want to look back for fear of seeing what you had just hiked up. Pain shot through my legs with every step, but each step taken was that much closer to the top. The trail was so narrow you could only really just walk straight up and power through the hike. The unfortunate thing is that this area was so beautiful as the rocks were bright red and it almost felt like you stepped onto Mars, but you couldn’t really enjoy it as your mind was focused on that next step. After completion it was a relief to know the steepest part was at least over and our day was more than halfway done.
Up next was the much anticipated misery hill. It really didn’t seem that bad at the base of it, but I realized soon after starting my ascent it would take a lot longer than expected. As I baby stepped up this path my mind was on one thing and that was after we completed this barrier we could then see the summit and it was that much closer. You really lose track of time when you are up on the mountain so I am not really sure how much time misery hill took but it seemed like quite the long trek. This hill was slow going and you almost felt at times like the peak of it was the summit which is why I think people refer to it as misery hill.
Last up was the summit which we ascended fairly quickly after misery hill and we exhaustively strolled up to the top. It was amazing just the amount of psychological pressure that was lifted after the summit was reach as we knew it was literally “all down hill” from here. All though we all realized that 80% of most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent, we basked in our achievement. After signing the guestbook I just lied on the rocks bathing in the amazing sun that had helped guide us on our journey. This was the first time I really could just sit back and realize what I had just accomplished.
The way down was very quick as we were so excited to get down to lower altitude and be able to glisade (Slide) the rest of the way down. There wasn’t much time for contemplation or recognition of what we did. We just went as fast as we could and I looked forward to seeing Kristin waiting for us in the base camp. I would say it was pretty uneventful though otherwise on the way down except we really got to take in all the views we had been missing based on the pain the way up. It was one of the most beautiful sites I had ever seen.
Now some weeks later looking back on this experience and trying to put it down in words was very difficult. I wrote this at least ten times trying to really express what it was like for me on Shasta. I honestly think there are some experiences in life you just can’t really put in words and the best way to express those experiences is to do it yourself. For me this meant more than just a hike as I was hospitalized about 8 months before and had some complications with my lungs. I got tears in my eyes and really broke down realizing just how amazing the human body and spirit can be to return from such an ordeal and triumph over this in such a short period of time. I can only hope one day to be able to do give such an experience to my child.