Confounded in California
“Sometimes the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.” –Jerry Seinfeld
Waking up at midnight, we discovered ideal conditions. Leaving camp at Mount Shasta’s Lake Helen, the wind was calm, the sky was clear, and the snow was firm. After a quick breakfast, we packed our bags, roped up, and began moving up the mountain. It didn’t take long to for things to go wrong. In hindsight, I’m positive we left camp heading in the wrong direction and never really managed to point ourselves the right way. With the rise of the sun, we were able to ascertain that we had trended too far climber’s left, leaving us stalled out at the base of a large cliff, with our intended route a long traverse off to the right.
Off route and having already expended a fair amount of energy, we entertained three options: 1) backtrack and try to regain the proper route, 2) retreat to camp and consider this an acclimatization mission, or 3) climb the cliff and hope to regain the route higher up the mountain. At the time, option one sounded overly time consuming. Option two would have had us retreating all the way to the car at Bunny Flat, as we had only carried food and fuel for one night. So obviously we went with option three.
After climbing a steep 40-degree snowfield all morning, no one wanted to concede any of the elevation we’d already gained. We were motivated, the weather was great, and we thought we had a good grasp of the mountain’s terrain. We would head up the cliff and, if all went according to plan, soon meet up with Avalanche Gulch, our intended route. Sadly, all did not go according to plan. At the top of the first cliff, we discovered a second cliff. At the top of the second cliff we climbed a scree field. At the top of the scree field we came across another cliff. At the top of that cliff we crossed a snow field.
We were fucked. If we had backtracked originally, we most likely would have already summitted and probably would have been almost back to camp by this time. But we hadn’t backtracked, and at this point it was no longer an option. We had been on the move for almost twelve hours, and we still weren’t sure where exactly we were on the mountain (more accurately, we had a good idea of where we were, but we were unsure of where we were headed or how to get where we wanted to be). So far, the climbing had proved to be consistent and intense—alternating between crumbling cliffs, loose scree, and steep snow. It was beginning to take its toll on the group, but the only thing we could do was keep moving up.
We were all becoming a little unhinged. We’d been climbing twice as long as we had planned, and our food and water was running low, leaving us dehydrated and hungry. Making matters worse, you can only say “right over this cliff we’ll meet with the route” and be disappointed so many times before it starts to wear on you. The climbing, while never technically difficult, was insecure and with every extra pitch of it our mental toughness began to erode. Lastly, we had gotten over 13,000 feet and the altitude had begun to affect us; 48 hours ago everyone in our group had been at sea level.
The fun and joking of the early morning had long since disappeared, replaced with a resigned silence. The tension was not spoken, rather it was communicated through the rope attaching us together. With everyone locked into their personal bubbles of anxiety and suffering, we traversed another scree field and scrambled over a short cliff. We got lucky. Cresting the cliff brought us to a junction and, more importantly, it brought us to familiar terrain. To our left was Mount Shasta’s West Face, to our right was Avalanche Gulch, and straight ahead was Misery Hill. We were correct that climbing that cliff would allow us to reconnect with Avalanche Gulch. We were incorrect about how long it would take, how much energy it would cost, and how much climbing it would take to reach it.
For the first time in twelve hours, we relaxed. We sat in the snow out of the wind, felt the warmth of the sun, sipped our water, and nibbled what was left of our food. We tried to push higher and summit that day, but it was not meant to be. Hooking up with Avalanche Gulch, we descended the route we had intended to climb back toward camp at Lake Helen. From Lake Helen, we slowly made our way to the car.
Back at the car, a more civilized adventure began: we drove to town and found a restaurant. We all reveled in a gluttonous meal to reward a hard day on the mountain. We found a motel. We rested. We ate again. We prepared for another attempt on the mountain.