It was over 5 years ago, in the early spring, when my friend Jonny and I made our first attempt to climb Mt. Shasta. We chose Avalanche Gultch route. A storm blew in while we were above the red bluffs that brought snow, and reduced our visibility to zero. At this point we aborted our climb, and headed back down. This was my 1st failed attempt on Mt. Shasta, and although I knew it would not be my last, I didn’t know at the time when I would return to try again.
In May of 2020 my friend Mika reached out to me about climbing Mt. Shasta. Given that my Denali expedition was canceled due to COVID-19, I had several vacation days to use. The idea of going back to climb Shasta simmered in my head for several weeks before I responded back to Mika in a text. “Lets go for it!”
Leira, Mika and I decided that the end of July was the best time for all of us to attempt climbing Mt. Shasta. The plan was to fly into Sacramento, rent a car and make the three hour drive north to the great mountain. We booked our flights and on July 29th we were on our way to Mt. Shasta.
We arrived in Sacramento International Airport around 8:00 AM, and rented a car. After two hours of driving north, Mt. Shasta came into view. It’s prominent peak towered above everything else on the skyline. We arrived in the town of Shasta just after noon. In the local gear shop we purchased our summit passes at $25 a piece, grabbed supplies, food, and then made the thirty minute drive to the trailhead on the southeast side of the mountain. The drive to the trailhead was roughly fifteen miles on back roads, and the last three miles on rough dirt roads.
We decided to take Clear Creek Trail to the summit. During the late season this was the safest option. There was minimal rock fall on this route ,unlike other routes. The more popular Avalanche Gultch route, which I took on my first attempt, was said to have more prevalent rock fall in late July and August. The trailhead to the summit of Clear Creek was approximately six and a half miles with 7,600 feet of elevation gain. On the first day we hiked two miles to Cold Creek Springs where we would spend the night. Once parked we packed our packs, ate, and began our hike in.
The trail began winding through the thick Northern California forrest. Moss covered coniferous trees towered over us and cast shadows on the trail. Eventually we came to a clearing where the mountain came into view. A huge waterfall below in Mud Creek could be seen and heard roaring through the silence of the forest. As we hiked on, the trees got smaller and more sparse. The trail veered to the left and a small small valley with a little creek among rocks and grassy knolls came into view. This was camp for the night. Just past the Creek through a small mountain meadow we found a perfect campsite in the low lying pines. The trees offered shaded shelter from the wind, and offered many broke branches where you could hang your gear, instead of having everything laying in the dirt.
We filled up our water, prepared dinner, and sat out and enjoyed the view of the mountain. From camp we had an unimpeded view of the entire Clear Creek Route to the summit. I stared up at it for over an hour in awe. From where we stood it did not look far to the summit, but I knew from so many past climbs, that perception of distances in the mountains can be deceiving. In the mountains distance is distorted and objects are much further away than they appear.
At 4:00 AM our alarms went off. To cover the distance and elevation we had ahead of us, an alpine start was essential. The early morning air was cool and dry, and not cold as I had expected. I decided to hike in shorts. In my summit pack I packed pants, a mid-layer, and light puffy jacket. Other gear I brought with me included a knife, headlamp, wet wipes, light gloves, a winter hat, helmet, 3 liters of water, and various snacks. I looked up at the mountain’s black silhouette outlined by the deep blue star lit sky. Three specks of faint lights from hiker’s headlamps were seen high above. At 4:45 after topping off our water at the creek, we were on the trail. We now stood at 8,300 feet, and had just under 6,000 feet to the summit. Within thirty minutes of steady climbing, the trail turned into an almost unbearable slog up extremely loose scree.
Scree is made up of small loose rocks and sand on mountain slopes where one step forward generally results in sliding one half a step back. Not only is this an arduous process, but climbing on this loose rocky gravel consumes energy and is also mentally demoralizing. At times I’ve felt like Sisyphus, from Greek mythology. His punishment in the underworld was rolling a boulder up the hill and never getting anywhere for eternity. If you can picture that than you will understand what climbing up scree is like.
Eventually our Sisyphean efforts paid off. For us, we pushed through and made it onto solid ground. Footing improved, as we climbed slow and steady up the steep ever increasing inclining slope. It was at 10,200 feet that we witnessed a perfect sunrise. We took this opportunity to stop and have a morning snack and live in the moment, as we witnessed the world below us become engulfed by the first light of the day.
By the time we reached 11,000 feet we came to a divide in the trail. We were told by a hiker the day before, at this point to stay to the right and attain the ridge. If not, we would suffer up another endless scree field. He was adamant about his instruction. He said on this section he had suffered the wrath of the scree latent route, and had learned about a more desirable option from a fellow hiker that he encountered on his way down the mountain. Taking his advice was essential to our success. As he so generously told us about this crucial route, we paid it forward the following day on our way out by informing several groups of hikers of the same precautionary directions.
We came to a series of switchbacks that felt like they continued forever. The trail was steep but our footing was on solid ground. Eventually we made it to UFO rock, also known as Mushroom rock. The rock looked out of place where it sat. Bright Red and the size of a bus, it stood out among the significantly smaller gray and white rocks littering the slope. It was lunch time so we joined several other hikers taking shelter from the cold wind up against the leeward side of rock. Enjoying our lunch, and looking down on what we’ve climbed, gave us a sense of accomplishment and gratitude for our hard work. The view from here was breathtaking. Blue mountain ridges which started well below our elevation and went on for miles and miles into the horizon was a feast for the eyes.
As we climbed on we came to a steeper section of 2nd and 3rd class climbing. This means that the incline was steep enough to scramble and use our hands while we climbed. Although it was the steepest section of the climb so far, the rock here was more solid, which made for easier climbing. We made it to a level section where the summit, which had not been seen for most of the climb, came into view and towered right before us. Its sheer wall of rock over 300 feet high shot straight up. To gain access we Circled around to the northwest side where a steep trail lead up the last section. Cresting over a small rocky knoll the summit lay right before us. We made it! After a few pictures and signing the registry we enjoyed the epic views, as we enjoyed our snacks. We took in and lived in the moment. Thousands of feet below the thick green forests went on for miles and faded into blue ridge lines on the horizon. Smoke billowed I not the air to the north from a forest fire in the distance burning up a ridge line. Silence fell over us for a bit as we dove into our own thoughts. After handout an hour and a half we all decided it was time to head down and back to camp.
To many climbers summits like this may be less impressive ,to others it is the culmination of hard dedicated training and perseverance. One climber who summited after we had dropped exhausted by the registry and said he did this for his father who had climbed it a few years ago and recently passed away. To him I believe his climbed had greater meaning than to just reaching a summit . For me climbing is always a very special experience and most always a challenging one. The euphoric feeling of standing above everything on a bright clear day, with the wind blowing into your face is one I’ll never forget. After climbing the many mountains in my life, I have found it’s not only summiting the highest peak that gives me satisfaction, but the experience and sense off adventure from the climb. It’s also the people you meet that share the experience with you, as well as the culture you’ve enthralled yourself in that counts. Such as in life, it’s not how long you live for but how much you’ve lived while on this earth.