5:40 am, Sacramento. Isaak is parked in his van, waiting outside my apartment. I am late, as usual. Internally, I justify my lateness,
Unlike Isaak, who lives in a van, I have to get out of a bed with a plush, two inch mattress pad. Of course I’m f*cking late. Why do we have to wake up so early anyway?
I loaded up Isaak’s van with a backpack of camping gear and a sled. The sled was of the cheap, brightly colored variety that you find during the holiday season in bins at the front of the store. They are the type that no one actually really needs or wants, the type sure to last only a few runs, maybe less. But they are cheap and conveniently placed, so I bought one the day before at an electronics store.
I had met Isaak rock climbing at Phantom Spires the previous weekend, and through a mutual friend we had planned to climb Mount Shasta, the fifth highest peak in California (14,179 feet), and a straightfoward summit if the weather is right.
We hit the road from Sacramento with 4 hours ahead of us, but I didn’t offer to drive. There was something about taking responsibility of Isaak’s home that I didn’t quite feel ready for, and we had only met once prior. Plus I could catch up on some sleep-eye that I missed out on the night before. Not wanting to be dull, I stroke up some conversation which inevitably turned into a vanlife inquiry.
Isaak’s van setup is simple enough: the model is a Ford E-series, the classic plumber’s van; there’s a bed in the back where one can sleep diagonally; hard flooring and cabinets; a mini fridge and lots of books. 180 watts of solar panels power the fridge from a 12 volt battery, which can hold its own without solar for about a day or so. It wasn’t an idealized version of living out of a van that you might see online or on social media — it was just the bare necessities of life to keep one fed, sheltered, and — for Isaak — climbing.
My inquiry revealed that vanlife is not only about free spirits frolicking about in the great paved-by environments of the West, but also about trying to keep cool in the summer, keep warm in the winter, and find peace of mind in the form of a parking spot before hitting the ol’ sack. Isaak says the most stressful thing about living in his van was finding a safe place to park for the night.“The first year was hard,” Isaak says, “there’s places in Sacramento that definitely don’t feel safe to park in at night. In nicer neighborhoods people call the cops on you.” Uncomfortable to say the least. And this is coming from someone who wedges their hands into granite cracks for fun. Now though, he is relatively settled, with a famer’s consent to park on his land at night.
At some pause in the conversation I dozed off, later to wake up as we arrived in Redding to pick up Cliff, the last of our party. We switched vehicles to Cliff’s more fuel efficient and accomodating SUV. Then it was another hour to the town of Mount Shasta which sits at the base of the mountain, a town of transients and PCT’ers alike. At the gear shop in town I heard it is “pretty easy to tell them apart”. In my head I envisioned a gear-laden PCT hiker contrasted to a ragged and grizzled hitchiker sporting torn clothes.
On the highway way to the Mount Shasta the town, we had our first glimpses of Mount Shasta the mountain, which was surrounded in clouds. Only the girth of the lower slopes laced with snow patches was visible. Our route, Avalanche Gulch, the simplest way to the summit, was clearly visible. It was a large snow patch on the south face beckoning up the center-right side leading up to a ridge line that traversed left and further up to the 14,179 foot summit. Only a mountaineer’s ice axe and crampons are required for this approach, as it avoids the northern glaciers and is free of its namesake avalanches in the summer.
We arrived at the town and I picked up my mountaineering boots and crampons from the rental shop. Stopping at a grocery store for a moment, we looked back at the mountain. Just for that second it was clear at the summit with no menacing clouds in sight. Seconds later the clouds had rolled in, again covering up our objective. It seemed the mountain, not endeared to the emotions of mere humans, would not clear its skies just because a few climbers aimed to achieve the summit views.
Heading up Everitt Memorial Highway to the Bunny Flat trailhead we directly confronted the inclemently weathered, potentially active volcano, staring at the visible line up the south slopes. One imagined being able to pick out the glissade trails carving butt-sized scoops out of the snow. Yet higher up the line was yet blocked by clouds. Arriving at the trailhead we filled out our $25 summit passes of which the money goes towards maintaining the trail and limiting impact to one of the most travelled mountaineering routes in California. On the trail, stones the size of suitcases are laid down to create a artificially natural staircase protecting the trail leading up to the steeper sections of switchbacks.
The Bunny Flat trailhead sits at around 7,000 feet and it is another 3,400 to a plateau known as Lake Helen, where many climbers make basecamp. From there normally climbers will attempt a summit starting before dawn, when weather is likely to be better.
We grabbed human waste bags to pack out what we would normally “leave behind” in the wilderness. Here, like many other high places around the world, the cold and rocky alpine environment cannot handle the natural excrements of so many humans. With my sled on my back I imagined myself as Gimli heading into the Mountains of Moria as our small unit of three began our journey into the trees.
There was something about the forest at the trailhead that struck me as slightly different from what I was used to near Tahoe or Yosemite. The trees seem more green and luscious, tighter together but with the lower branches starting higher up. Moss is prevalent on the shady north side of the tree trunks but seems to spiral up in rings instead of a contiguous clump. The volcanic rock particles, eroded by years of wind and gravity, crumch softly underneath our feet. This was certainly different than the knee-shattering granite trails of the higher Sierras.
The surprisingly level ground at the start gave way to steeper terrain after a mile or so. 1.6 miles from the trailhead sits the Horse Camp, a cement block building that provides a watering hole for the crews of prospective climbers and casual day hikers alike. Equipped with running water and solar digesting toilets —
My poo will dissipate into thin air?
— the camp is the last stop for anything resembling an amenity on the mountain.
It’s near impossible to stray off the Avalanche Gulch route; well laid out signs and rock path funnel hoards of people up and into the gulch, an obvious snow-laden slope visible from far away. On this weekend when the weather was questionable, I counted at least 30 others ahead of us on the trail. There were likely more already at base camp. The well-placed rows of stepping boulders soon weaved left and right up the mountain-side, giving us our first views of the foothills below as we climbed above the tree line. Small towns like Mount Shasta were scattered about, unidentifiable to the foreigner’s eye. The forest surrounded them like a felt carpet, with rolling hills beneath. Granite spires caught my eye, and I imagined traditional climbing routes much less traveled than those of Tahoe and Yosemite waiting to be discovered.
Compared to a multi-pitch alpine trad climb, where one needed to find places to slot gear and keep a straight line to avoid rope drag, walking up a mountain in crampons seemed trivial. Route finding was a matter of following the obvious line (of people in this case), and one needs only the will to keep moving upward, instead of years of developing vertical climbing technique, to reach the summit. But maybe this was where I underestimated the essence of mountaineering, especially in high alpine environments. This essence? As I would later discover — the mindset to withstand uncomfortable situations, including freezing temperatures, face pummeling gusts of wind, and the most uncomfortable of all: failure.
Continuing the climb to basecamp, the switchbacks on volcanic sediment quickly disappeared once we hit snow, and a beeline path towards the plateau of Lake Helen was established. A group led by a guide, one group of several, exited onto a lower plateau where many of the guided camps grouped together establishing their own little mountain community for the night. The next morning they would be up and climbing before 3:00 am, limited in climbing speed by their short rope tied to one another.
We finally came up and over the slope to Lake Helen where dozens of snow walls had been dug out to shelter tents from high winds and snowdrift. The plateau was unexpectedly expansive since it couldn’t be seen or envisioned from below. We were lower than the worst of the clouds and were able to see impressive colors from high up as the sun was setting.
Dinner was a potpourri of quick to boil camping food: instant mashed potatoes, ramen, fettucini, pre-cooked curry. As soon as the dried noodles became chewable, they were eaten. We didn’t hang around in the tent too long after. Not that we were exceedingly exhausted from the short day, just that there was no point in staying up and getting cold.
It was an awful night of sleep for me, although I never sleep well at altitude so I wasn’t completely surprised. I placed my water outside of my sleeping bag, hoping that it wouldn’t freeze, but it didn’t take long for it to turn into a slushy ice compound mixture. I returned it to the inside of my sleeping bag. Even though the wind was unusually calm for this elevation, I would wake up every 30 minutes and change body positions. I tried lying on my left side, but with not enough cushion to avoid my shoulder shoving into my left cheek and my weight awkwardly crushing my left arm. I turned onto my back. But my lower back didn’t want to lie flat and instead took up a tense, arched position, ready to leap up and defend the evolutionarily compromised belly-up exposed position. A few minutes later I tried the right side, my head in the cradle of my arm, but this soon stifled my breath. The night, and any chance of sleep, slowly slipped away.
Half awake, I hear zipping and low voices.
Are people getting up already? It better not be almost 4:00…Well maybe it is better to just get up if I can’t sleep… I bet it’s cold out though, and it’s pretty warm in here…
I turn on my watch and it blinds me as it lights up. 3:00am. Another hour until our agreed wake up time. I turn the watch back off and forefeit any hope of sleep. 30 minutes later it is quiet again and I doze off.
Now it’s 4:00am and I hear Cliff and Isaak rustling. Sensing that laying in my sleeping bag any longer was frutile, I slipped on my jacket and boots, stepping outside my tent into the cold dark morning to see several clusters of white lights bobbing up the slope ahead of us. It took me a sleepy half-second to realize what they were — the headlamps of climbers already started up the slope. We put our own headlamps on in the dark and soon added our own tempo to the lights slowly dancing up the mountain.
The slope started gradually upward from the plateau, a thin layer of snow on a denser snowpack that had not iced over yet. We zig-zagged a painstakingly slow course up the gulch, a journey expected to last at least 7 hours if we were to reach the summit. One boot in front of the other for twenty or thirty yards, then a pivot, ice axe switching hands to the high-side, and repeat. The morning slogs along and there’s nothing to look at.
Why am I doing this?
Soon alpenglow breaks and headlamps are no longer needed. The slope turns steep and icy so we put on crampons. The added traction feels safe and secure. The forefoot muscle exertion required to stick the crampons in the icy snow begins to bring back feeling in my toes. Later I realize why we didn’t put crampons on earlier: my feet would get tired of their awkward pressure points and heel-tugging. But for the moment my spirits are lifted.
I look back at a surprising view. The mountain is fully visible as a shadow on the landscape below. A giant’s outline covering a swath of land to the horizon. Any time I was cold or tired, I would turn around to remember why I was up here.
The morning slowness wears off and I feel like I can sustain the mind-numbing slow-drip effort required to ascend, even as the slope gets steeper yet. We’ve passed some of the guided groups already and begin to pass others, heading in the direction of the rock formation made of red-orange volcanic rock known as the Red Banks. The gulch narrows into a 35° gulley, the steepest part of the climb. Rounding the banks on our left, we find a snow cave as a reprieve from the harrowing wind. Visibility has dramatically decreased at this literal and figurative turning point of the climb. The guided groups decide to wait 15 minutes for the weather to clear or else turn around.
It is 9:00 now and I think about how much we still have left to climb. From the top of the Red Banks it is two to three more hours of gradual climbing to the summit. The route passes left over a short ridgeline where the northeast side of the mountain is visible, and then up a snow covered scree slope to Misery Hill. As snow whips around the side of the banks I try to stay warm by walking in place, but the temperature of my extremities gradually slips colder. At 15 minutes the guided groups decide to turn around. We decide to forge ahead for the time being, hoping that visibility clears.
We cross a narrow ridge behind the banks onto a wider slope again angled upward. High speed gusts of wind intermittently pelt us with snow particles as we drive our ice axes into the slope. At times we perform full self-arrests and crouch down lower to the snow for stability. I look back to mentally note the return path so we don’t choose the wrong gully on the way back. My fingers quickly lose feeling and I jam one hand into my armpit to stay warm, with the other holding my axe. With the decreased stability, I am less able to hault a slide down the slope, but in the moment I’d rather my hand be warm.
We round a bulge to see Misery Hill lie ahead, but are forced to throw ourselves to the ground as a huge unrelenting gust pummels us once more. The sun can be seen sporadically as a soft-white glowing orb, but it doesn’t dissipate the clouds. We lay down for a minute or two, waiting for the wind to die down or the sun to come out. The huge gust that threw us to the ground resigns, but the visibility doesn’t increase.
As Cliff proposes that we turn around there is no argument from me or Isaak. I take off a glove to unzip for a bathroom break marking our high point. My urine sputters off the north side of the mountain symbolizing our summit chances gone with the wind. I look back down and my glove is gone.
Shit. Not good.
Cliff informs me he saw it irretrievably disappear down the north slope. I’m annoyed, but not too worried since the gloves were too light for the conditions anyway. And thankfully we were heading down, not up. We gingerly head down the slope from whence we came, stopping at times to let the gusts of wind die down. Soon we’re back at the shelter of the banks to regroup.
For the descent, we mostly follow the glissade tracks as the quickest way down, which whisk us along like the vacuum tubes of a drive through bank teller. A few times I try breaking out the sled on the icy steep slope, but I only succeed in breaking the cheap plastic handles off, and then putting a huge dent in the blue undercarriage from slamming down on a suncup. I quickly learned to prefer glissading— place your butt in the tracks, pick up your feet and whoosh. We make it almost all the way to basecamp like this, descending in 20 minutes what took 4 hours to hike up.
At basecamp it is sunny and quiet, the opposite of where we had just come from. Tired, I quickly find the inside of my sleeping bag, but unfortunately we’re up and moving again soon. Hacking at the snow with my ice axe to dislodge my tent stakes, I tear a hole in my ground tarp. I think of all the things that have gone wrong over the weekend — a trivial hike turned into a gloveless failure with a kid’s toy on my back. But I don’t have much time to reprimand myself. I’m once more the last one packing up. Soon I’m forgetting all of my mistakes as I peer across the wide open blue sky at the hills and downs below. I see the granite spires of Castle Crags in the distance, begging to be climbed. The curvature of the earth wraps around the horizon. I stop to take it in one last time. It’s a familiar yet always unique feeling that I’ve had on top of other mountains or mountain passes.
I’m so high up, higher than anything around except this mountain. Compared to the length of my life, this mountain will be here forever.
The vantage point is both empowering and soul crushing. The feeling of insignificance stares you in the face. You are nothing compared to this mountain, no more significant than a gnat to a human, and soon you will be smaller than a speck of dust on the valley floor below.