Nasty Shasty (Mt. Shasta 05/2016)

I first put on skis when I was seven years old. My mom took me to a local Connecticut hill and since then it has been a persistent passion in my life. Learning how to ski on resorts, I progressed from mastering blues, diamonds and then in my teenage years double diamonds. Later I learned of the joy of tree skiing, first in Vermont and then in Colorado and then for more adventure with lift access hike-to terrain. Every year I find a desire to push myself and this has lead me to pursue the next logical conclusion in taking up a back-country ski mountaineering trip.

Life as a Philadelphia physician does not afford the time to put in fifty ski days a year. I am usually limited to one or two trips per winter. But I do my best to work with what I am given and have learned that you can extend the ski season until the spring if you search in the right places.

Last year, I skied Tuckerman’s Ravine, below the peak of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, at the end of April. This year I took my exploration of spring ski mountaineering West and set out to tackle Mount Shasta.

Mount Shasta is a a 14,180 foot active, glaciated volcano in the southern Cascade mountain range in Northern California. It holds the reputation as being one of the ultimate ski mountaineering destinations.

I flew to Sacramento, rented a car, a drove up interstate 5. The first 60 minutes of the drive  is a boring rural flat landscape until Shasta pierces the horizon and comes clearer and clearer view for the drive.

In Shasta, I stayed in a motel. The downtown was lonely and quiet and I was surprised to find everything closed by 6pm on a Friday night. It seemed that every other store sold crystals and other spiritual amulets. Dreadlocks grew freely from the heads of the townspeople like corn waving in the breeze in Iowa. There was certainly a strong vibe in the area.

On the day of preparing my car for the trek, I was parked next to a retired couple from Oklahoma. Friendly yes, the wife had a big smile on her face, as she wore a 1995 pink track suite and an Amish style hair bun, but I was trying to get my mind right and focused for the adventure. We talked for some minutes as I tried my hardest to be polite. At the end of the conversation she wished me best of luck and that she hoped I would run into the inter-dimensional beings. I looked at her confused. “Oh you didn’t know?” she explained, “the legends say a super human race lives in the center of the mountain of Shasta and spiritual seekers pilgrimage here year round as we try to learn how to live in harmony with them.”

I had signed up to for a three day, two night ski trip with Shasta Mountain Guides. The small group consisted of myself with two other clients and two guides. We had very personal service and we were a tight group and we were prepared to communicate with any mountain spirits if needed (unless they were white walkers).

We left the parking lot near Bunny Flat Trailhead (6940′)and with skis on our boots, we skinned up the tracks to establish our tent near Horse camp (7,900′). As a beginner into randonee skiing or ski touring, I had to learn quickly about walking with my heal released from the bindings like a cross country skier and use “skins” which is a friction surface at the base which enables me to walk up the mountain on skis.

It was actually quite easy. After establishing our base camp at 8000 feet elevation, we then would skin up to variousgetting ready portions of the mountain and then lock in our heals and alpine ski down in the soft warmed up corn snow. Turns just feel like you are spreading butter on a fresh baked bread.

Ski mountaineering is a challenge of terrain and weather. The snow is at the mercy of the course of the sun. It is icy and unforgiving at night and in cold cloud cover, then when baking in the blue skies the surface softens and promises pristine turns. The extremes of temperatures change in the matter of minutes. At one moment a gust of wind will blow clouds through and induce us to bundle up up to our ski parka, and in a short while, it will clear out and heat up forcing all mountaineers to shed layers quickly or fog your glacier glasses and soak your shirt from sweat (which will later on freeze when it gets cold again).

Self management is the key principle to enjoying mountaineering. That and physical fitness. At high elevation, you need to breathe right, eat thousands of calories and stay hydrated.

Hiking consists typically of 60 minutes of steady climbing followed by a short ten minute “rest” which is anything but relaxing. In the ten minutes you need to add jacket layers because it gets cold quick when you’re not moving and then force feed yourself a descent snack, drink at least 1/3-1/2 Liter of water, reapply sunscreen and make any equipment adjustments for the next 60 minute push.

We simulated this pace for the two warm up days as we took it easy skiing the lower slopes by day and slept through the 50 – 70 mph gusting wind in our tents at night. Our first night it dropped to a frigid -5 degrees F causing me to shiver in all my layers of clothes I brought with me. That night sucked.

Summit night fortunately was not so oppressive. It was a pleasant 20 degrees when we embarked for the summit at 3am. We skinned as far as we could until the slope became too steep. Then, we attached the skis to our bags and we walked up the mountain roped together with crampons and ice axe.

I felt we had perfect conditions. We were moving at a descent pace and were approaching the summit, until, 1000 feet from the top, the winds picked up. Roped together one of my co-clients kept slipping in the wind and we were preparing to self arrest to prevent a treacherous fall and slide down the face of Avalanche gulche.

We all moved quickly for cover under a boulder near a ridge but this provided us with little shelter. Unfortunately, this was the end of the line for us. It was determined too dangerous to continue when it was too difficult to hear each other shout at each other from 10 feet away.

We replaced our crampons with skis and proceed with down the icy scree on a power turn of shame.

My disappointment was fleeting. I was intently focused on not falling, because loosing my edge with any bit of speed will lead to a long painful slide down a 40 degree 2000 foot slope. My guide admitted it was one of the worst conditions he had ever experienced in 69 summit attempts.

It was a total shock to experience such extreme, windy, treacherous conditions in rapid moving cloud cover at 13,000 feet because at 10,000  feet, it was a spring skiing wonderland. Thigh burning razor sharp turns on crust, turned into ballet carving on the soft corn snow at the lower elevation.

Shasta does not go as one for the books as a summit, and I failed the Oklahoma couple and could not find the inter-dimensional beings.







Mt. Ranier June 2015

I give infinite gratitude to my wife for letting me leave her and my nine month old daughter for a week to pursue a peak on my bucket list. I flew out to Seattle and joined Alpine Ascents for a guided tour of Mt. Ranier. We took a three day organized climb to reach the 14,411 foot summit. By elevation, Ranier ranks as the fifth tallest mountain in the lower 48 states, eighty four feet less than the tallest, which is Mt. Whitney. It is important to note however that Ranier is the most prominent peak by three thousand feet. Prominence refers to the distance from the lowest contour of the mountain to the highest point of the summit. It is massive and towers over Seattle.Mount_Rainier_over_Tacoma

Ranier is an active, glaciated volcano which requires preparation for volatility in the weather and terrain. Just like the George Martin Game of Thrones inspired novel series The Song of Fire and Ice, travel on the mountain exposes one to the extremes of contrasting conditions as blazing radiating sun is as much of a menace as frigid cold windy weather. Glacier travel sets it’s own unique set of obstacles. The safest means of travel requires foot crampons, an ice axe and walking roped to a team with a harness so if one accidentally falls into a crevasse, the rope can be taught and the team can save the poor soul from an icy and probably painful plummet into depths of up to 100 feet.

My tour group was a crew of seven solo adventurers, coming to Washington state from different parts of the country and world, with a healthy range of ages, careers and experiences. We first met our lead guide in downtown Seattle for the gear check and to get ready for 6am bus ride awaiting us the next day.

PANO_20150601_151915It was raining on Day 1. We took no time putting our hard-shell rain clothes in the parking lot for our snow hike up the mountain to Camp Muir base camp. This was a six hour fitness test that started at 5,000 feet elevation and ended at 10,000 feet to rest our tired shoulders from carrying 45 pound packs.

7 clients, 4 Alpine Ascents guides ready to take on RAINier
Getting our fill in the cook tent. Tonight will feature fresh made burritos. (I ate two and a half)

Day 2 was relaxed in the morning. We took a crash course in winter mountaineering where our guides gave a quick tutorial about up and down hill climbing with snow crampons, self arrest with an ice axe and roped travel. The lesson was brief and even though we may have wanted more teaching time, it did not take too long to find our comfort zone during the the hour and half trek across Cowlitz glacier to our second base camp on Ingraham flat at 11,000 feet elevation.

The trick in roped travel is to keep good tension by staying 35 feet behind your partner at all times.
Roped travel intends to save you in the rare chance that you or your partner meet a deep glacier crevasse.
Our base camp overlooking Little Tahoma peak (third tallest in Washington)

After an early dinner, we tried in earnest to get some sleep before the 11pm wake-up call for the summit push. Our first test was a steep climb up snow and rock via Disappointment Cleaver (named because when the first team that ever used this route climbed to the top of the cleaver, they mistakenly thought that they had reached the summit). I should say this was really the second test, with the first being the process of packing and suiting up in the dark and cold.

A waning gibbous moon (almost full) and clear skies brightened our climb through the night.
Looking in the dark to start our trek on disappointment cleaver.




Walking in the night through Ingraham glacier is simply surreal. I imagined that I was walking on the moon, navigating around massive craters and feeling like a speck; an insignificant particle in the backdrop of an utterly expansive universe. The climb required several leaps of faith over narrow snow bridges that were slowly fading into a creavasse. We moved quietly below avalanche potential snow fields and precarious above-hanging seracs and boulders. Eventually we were greeted by sunrise.

Mt. Adams in the background (the second tallest mountain in Washington). Not pictured is an also visible Mt. Hood in Oregon from this view.
The crater rim on top of Rainer. It looks like an infinity pool to the ocean of clouds.

The summit came in sight right about the time I lost feeling in my fingers due to the 14,000 feet of elevation cold. I started having severe bi-frontal headaches. It was tough to tell if this was Acute Mountain sickness or caffeine withdrawal. I tried treating both by breathing techniques and downing caffeine filled gummy chomps. It was just one foot in front of the other at a steady pace until we reached the summit at 6:30am.

I was able to warm up in the sun in the cone shaped crater rim at the top. The true summit required trudging across the 1,000 foot diameter snow field to gain a dozen feet to reach the high point. Rushing to the top was the most anaerobic I got during the climb and I feared that I was running out of gas just before the descent. Nevertheless, we made it to the top on a stellar visibility day.

Framer Ranier
It’s good to be on top. You can see from Oregon to Canada. Including Mount St. Helens and Mount Baker.
As a group we all made it to the summit. Statistically there is only a 50% success rate.

We had a 100% group success rate. Erin, one the fellow climbers had severe nausea and was dry heaving before we started, and to make matters worse she was celebrating her birthday. It was unclear if she would make it and many guides would have sent her back to base camp, but the Alpine Ascent team took great care of her, partnered her solo on a rope and paced themselves perfectly to make the summit around the time we did.

The summit celebration was sweet, but short. Most mountaineering accidents occur during the descent. Our lead guide Brent brought us together and spoke firmly about focus and moving quickly because a slow descent meant more time in the sun and a greater likelihood of “the wheels falling off.”

Going up is harder than going down, but going down is way more dangerous .

We pulled together and hobbled to the Paradise parking lot at 2:10pm. Fourteen continuous hours of trekking left us thirsty for beer and we had our final little celebration at a spot in Ashton before taking the two hour drive back to Seattle.