Mountains always remind you that you are not in charge

 

Shasta! Oh Mount Shasta!

What secrets do you hide

What dwells within that heart of yours

What Light does there abide?…

What Knowledge do you guard so well

From those who seek too bold?

  • Godfre Ray King (1878-1939)

 

We are four on a rope on the slope. Said like that there’s a certain poetic appeal to our ordeal. We are four on a rope – without hope? No, no; we have hope all right, hope born weeks ago when we, eager, decided to climb the 14,179-foot strato-volcano known as California’s Mt. Shasta. But here it comes: the rock the size of a Chevy Suburban. It rockets off a colossal shale outcrop directly above us, and with an eerie crack it crashes once, now twice on the steep, snow slope to which we cling for dear life with crampons. A searing flash of fear slices into me and I wonder if perhaps such hope is nothing more than our mistake. Our miserable mistake. Spinning, the boulder picks up sickening speed; it plunges, it charges, it lunges now dead ahead toward Camille, who stands frozen as the rock bears down. The advancing hulk seems to have decided: she, yes she, has been chosen its victim – the sacrifice expected for our conceit. Stricken with shock I watch the rock fall and in an instant know: this mountain of terrible beauty, where a dazzle of glacial seductions entice so many climbers to come prove their mojo as its match, may allow her slopes to be scaled and her summit won, but in the end? Shasta will not be conquered.

I am no mountaineer. Let Jon Krakauer climb Into Thin Air up Everest to taunt death all he wants. Let Simon Yates, broken-boned and bloody, disappear down a crevasse high in the Peruvian Andes; let him endure an ordeal arguably worse than death: the four harrowing days he crawled inch-by-inch through fear and pain and desolation to safety. The avalanches on K2, the falls off Denali, the high altitude cerebral edema enjoyed in the “death zone” above 23,000 feet – no, thank you. Sunny spring skiing at a chi-chi resort like Sun Valley? My speed. Still, when my sister Camille and our friend Mark, both avid climbers, conspired to summit Shasta in a three-day adventure that promised (they promised) terrific hiking, delightful camping and a wonderful excuse to get out in the wild for fresh air and fun, I would not be left behind. Neither would Camille’s 16-year-old son, Gabriel. And so we prepped.

Shasta, after all, is hardly Everest. Only the second highest peak in the Cascade Range, and the fifth tallest in California, hundreds of ambitious hikers a year scale its eight glaciers without too much to-do, despite the occasional bout of altitude sickness or not-too-serious fall. Crevasses and avalanches and a nose or toes lost to frostbite? This is not the stuff of Shasta. And so it was with excited anticipation I did what all actual mountaineers surely do: I shopped. Gotta gear up properly went Mark’s and Camille’s counsel. Boots, helmet, ice axe, crampons – these and other accoutrements of climbing, including a harness with which to attach myself to my “team” via rope, were on the list, as was an amped-up workout schedule of running and yoga and biking and weights. I mean, if no less a mountain man than John Muir can run into trouble on the mountain the first Spanish explorers of 1808 christened Jesus Maria, I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t be calling on either to save me from some unwelcome hell. It was during one of Muir’s three Shasta climbs in 1874-75 that he got trapped on the summit by a storm. He survived only by warming himself in the mud of the hot sulfur springs that bubbled near the peak. Lesson learned, Mr. Muir: I was not going to be caught without a proper mountaineering outfit, much less body, so help me Jesus Maria.

• • •

’Ho, ‘ho, yo!

Yo!, ’ho, yo!

 

The lyrics of Mark’s gansta rap music, such as they are, boom in the car as we pull in to the parking lot at Shasta’s base. Rather than climb the popular, easiest and typically crowded Avalanche Gulch route, we plan to summit via the less-publicized and more challenging Hotlum/Boland Ridge route on the mountain’s northwestern side – the glacial route, it turns out this late July day, of not one other soul. I gaze up at the glacier that awaits us, sun-sparkled and still. In the distance it looks none too steep and far from foreboding. Surely here there will be no falling into the void like can happen on Annapurna, and with today’s flawless azure sky, certainly no lightning strikes are expected to doom us like they do sometimes the climbers of Kilimanjaro. Doable, I decide. That will be our Shasta. After much fussing, we shoulder our massive packs and I stagger under the weight of the three-days’ worth of four-course meals, six-weeks’ stash of survival snacks (what if we get lost?), plus eight changes of clothes I simply have to have, but no matter: we will shuck the tent and all cooking paraphernalia, at least, once we establish “base camp.” So the crushing burden of mostly frivolous things will slow and cripple me for only a couple of hours. Never mind the sweaty and strenuous six it actually takes to reach the site of our first night’s camp: a flat-ish rock plateau 2,700 feet up that’s tailor-made for our tent. The hike is so lovely we hardly notice the time. It winds through luscious alpine meadow, pine-scented forest, rising slopes of scree. ’Ho, ‘ho, yo, I intone to myself with each footfall, an odd yet rhythmic mantra that adopts me as I stagger and step, Yo, ’ho, yo.

Step after step, higher and higher we rise up Shasta’s side. We’re climbing! I realize at some fresh vista where the view of the green, leafy lowlands we’re leaving is keen and my joy, too, rises. Shasta seems to be coddling us along, her weather perfect, her mountain breeze soft, and her stars – now spangle the darkening sky in a splendor so stunning it is almost enough to swerve my worry away from the hike’s first fierce bite of surprise. Almost. A short, nearly vertical slope of broken shale suddenly appears between us and the rock plateau.

“Uh-oh,” says Camille.

“Whoa,” gasps Mark.

“No way,” goes Gabriel.

Yo…oh…no! I intone and then stop to behold the specter: a climb certain to test our guts if not our luck. “Yikes, that sure looks steep and (gulp) crumbly.”

But we do it. And Shasta helps. We crawl and claw, crab fashion, up the sliding falling wobbly shale, our unwieldy packs threatening at every step to throw us off balance and send us crashing head over heels back down from whence we’ve come. It is said by legend that Shasta harbors a secret city within her core, a city of jeweled corridors home to a mystical brotherhood descended from mythical Lemuria. I hope the brothers can’t hear my panic-tinged yelps as I crawl and claw, and I hope the purity of Lemuria will be none the worse for Mark’s curses as he does, too: Damnyoudamnyoudamnyou. But Shasta does not pitch us off, neither does she nauseate us with her altitude-gain or conjure a wind so cruel it whips us into regretting our first success. In fact, upon the plateau the wind is kind in which we, too pooped to eat, hurriedly pitch our tent – so hurriedly that our first night on the mountain is spent sleeping with sharp rocks as pillows and poised at an unnatural angle: Shasta doesn’t deign to freeze us as we lie snoring side by side, stuffiness filling our sinuses positioned down-slope from our feet. Instead sweet dreams of Lemuria – is it beautiful? are the brothers handsome and, I don’t know, hot? – are borne to me on the night’s soft flutter of a breeze.

• • •

It’s 1:30 a.m. when Camille steps on my head to exit the tent. “Sorry,” she whispers. “It’s time.” In the silence and chill of the dawn yet far off, we knock about blindly to rig ourselves up for “summit day.” The mountain’s peak lies uncountable hours ahead, so dressing in harness, helmet and headlamp, we rope together, man our ice axes and head up. Step by slow, deliberate step we make our silent way from scree to snow, climbing ever and ever higher. As I rise and the slope steepens, a mild concern steals in. Trussed up as I am as part of a team, how will I maneuver the…well, the bathroom breaks? Pull the rope left and my fellow climbers follow. Ducking with discretion behind the right rock? A problem. It will be the least of them. As we climb the sky brightens in a brilliant rhapsody of roses and golds, and Shasta continues to beckon us toward her summit. We are lured higher and higher by her lack of difficulty, and we are beguiled ever onward by her apparent promise of a conquest easily achieved. I mean, Camille, Mark, Gabriel and I, we all feel great! We step and sweat and greet the rising sun without so much as the slightest high-altitude headache. ’Ho, ’ho, yo. Hour upon hour I place my crampon into each clear footprint Camille, ahead of me on the rope, stamps into the soft glacier snow, yo ’ho yo. Ten thousand feet, 11,000, 12 – at each elevation the volcano dormant since 1786 is proving itself a gentle soul free of cliffs or crags or crevasses; she offers no wretched hazards like ice to avoid. Possibly the New Agers and old legends are right. Possibly Shasta really is a sacred site where a powerful energy vortex calls to believers like those who, in the 1980s, gathered here for a “worldwide harmonic convergence.” I am definitely harmonically converging with Shasta’s happy absence of killer ice storms like those found on Mr. Ranier; I am blissing over its freedom from the deadly blizzards of Mt. Blanc. This mountain’s sweet terrain and sunny-day disposition make our climb feel graced by…here I’ll say it: grace. In fact, when we reach the summit – all 14, 179 feet of it – I am as elated as any real mountaineer dating back to Otzi the iceman. While his 5,300-year-old remains were found high in the Alps in 1991, thus making him surely the world’s first summit junkie, my very alive body thrills to the view (spectacular), the feat (we did it!) and the fact that Shasta has been so amenable to our success.

“Smile!” says the stranger we ask to snap our official summit photo. And we do, well-pleased with ourselves. We are oblivious.

• • •

I wonder if Petrarch, the 14th century Italian poet whose mountaineering exploits endeared him to many as the father of Alpinism, ever met a descent he didn’t like. The smallest slip on a chip of ice, the merest misstep on a piece of unsteady scree – these and other tiny climbing mishaps are all it takes to turn a perfect day into a perfect fright. And for Camille, Mark, Gabriel and I, the fright begins on a soft-snow slope that climbing up seemed benign but stepping down is – strangely – appallingly steep. Down and down it shoots to an insanity of rocks hundreds of feet below. How did we not see these on the way up? Its hold on our feet is tenuous. My overworked crampons cling to the slope with as much shaky strength as remains in my legs after our nearly 10-hour ascent. It isn’t a lot. We are traversing the slope with prudence for Camille and Mark, experienced, know the downside of climbing foolishness. I am the caboose on the rope – last – and moving with innocent confidence. ’Ho, ’ho, yo, I step. And slip. My foot slips and I sit. I think nothing of it. I’ll just get up, goes my thought. But to my surprise I find I can’t. Instead, I am sliding. Oh-so-slowly, but picking up speed, I am sliding – sliding with no way to stop, sliding with nothing to grab, sliding then spinning and thinking nothing but, Oh! Then: a jerk. The rope at my waist pulls taut and upside down, I stop. A little dazed I look up the slope to see Gabriel with his ice axe dug into the snow and his body flung over it to anchor its hold.

“Way to go, Gabe!” cheers Mark, impressed with the boy’s successful climbing “arrest.” Quickly, I am back on my feet and in the team’s single-file line, but with an awakened jittery sense that perhaps we are not as safe as all this time we’ve supposed. Step by (more careful) step, we zig-zag our way down the slope and then: Just like that, Gabriel is off his feet sliding and I feel my rope pull hard. My face hits the snow and it’s the two of us now, tumbling, sliding, spinning, picking up speed. Gabriel cries out but I am too stunned to utter even oh! Flailing, I try to grab what I can; there is nothing. I have no clue what to do with my axe because, like I say, I am no mountaineer. We slide, we spin, we pick up speed and it is forever, or maybe mere seconds, but I feel it: the jerk. Suddenly, I stop. Below me I see Gabriel has, too. My heart hammers, my face burns – the fear, the fear – but I glance up the slope and see Mark kneeling as if beseeching Jesus Maria. He has thrust his axe into the snow beneath him in classic “team arrest” fashion and stopped us all from falling down, down, tragically down to the murderous crags below. Camille hoots wildly in approval.

“You did it! Go you! Oh, my God, that was great,” she hoots. Mark just kneels, his attitude prayerful; his silence speaks for us all: Thank you. Gabriel, shaking, gathers his wits and I do, too, and we each reattach crampons come loose, readjust glasses askew, and ease back into single-file on the rope. The confusion of rocks at slope’s bottom seems now to issue a dare and the sun-sopped field of snow we have yet to cross feels newly treacherous, a peril for which we are unprepared. Suddenly, our footing is not sure and the slope is fraught with who knows what next? Step by step, each now agonizingly deliberate, we again get moving. ’Ho, ’ho, yo, I squeak and notice I am intensely, life-and-deathly focused on the right here, right now. Shasta is showing me something important, something it would be good to know. Is it that the mountain cannot be trusted? That it is not in the least what it seems? Easy. Neither to know nor to predict, Shasta tells me it’s got its secrets, and safety’s just another word for something I don’t own.

Especially now. “Mom!!” Gabriel screams. “Rock!!” And here it comes. The boulder that shoots off the outcrop above us seems ferocious in its intent. It bears down on Camille, faster and faster it rolls. If she runs right she will pull us all off our feet and into a sure sliding fall. If she stands still the rock will slam into her and drag the rope – with us – to some ill-defined doom that I, right now, am too, too stunned and confused to foresee. My eyes go blurry with fright and then: my sister with a jolt rockets left as Mark yells “Go!!” – her two or three steps fired by something unearthly in its potential for speed. Via angel or adrenaline, I’ve never seen anyone move as fast as Camille. The rock whizzes past by mere inches and crashes its wretched way down the slope. Its whine carries on the wind; its moan is a heavy thud on the snow. Later she says she felt its breath, the life of Shasta thriving.

• • •

Sixteen hours, 30 minutes and however many seconds it takes to strip off the gear – pack, helmet, harness, rope – and collapse in the tent in a delirium of both achievement and relief becomes the official time of our summit. We four on the rope make it back to base camp safely, sanely, and after the fun of some high-speed glissading that goosed up our moods. Yet even as I dropped to my bottom to slide sled-like and laughing down the glacier’s lower slopes, I felt somehow that Shasta was allowing me the thrill only because…well, because. In her wild caprice, in her willfulness almost wanton, the merry moment might have transformed just like that into one altogether not so, with the mountain itself deciding how it would go. A hidden crevasse that yawns open, a seemingly solid rock shelf that gives way, any sudden and unexpected whim can, indeed, catch us unaware, with only Shasta herself in on the understanding.

Still, the satisfaction is sweet for Camille, Mark, Gabriel and I, snug in the tent our final night on the mountain before we hike out and rejoice in the sight of the car. We did it! We came, we climbed, we…survived. We had tons of fun, in fact. The evening air seems more lusciously scented, with our success, and the stars that shyly show themselves with the setting sun wink especially bright. Is it my pride in our awesome accomplishment that makes Shasta’s charms seem so delicious, now that all danger has passed and we are free to feel so pumped-up with triumph? A breeze rouses itself to whisper good job and clouds, just a few, gather to tell us, you guys are hot. Happy, sore and exhausted, I drift off to sleep to the lullaby of the melting glacier snow that rushes bubbling down the mountain in a nearby stream of soothing music. Back to those handsome Lemurians…

• • •

It is 10:15 p.m. when the first flash of light ignites the dark and the low rumble of – what? – jolts me bolt upright. “Oh my God,” moans Camille. “Oh. My. God.” The flashes come fast now and, too, the booms – explosions that shake us from our sleep with a slap of shock. Lightning! Thunder! Yes, thunder and lightning and now, the rain, buckets of it, and hail, hail that hammers the tent and drowns our gear and our clothes outside. The bitter wind joins in with its ire – all arrived out of nowhere.

“Camille?” I croak from deep within the cocoon of my sleeping bag, now pulled over my head to hide me from the truth of our predicament. “Is this tent waterproof?” Gabriel croaks his own, oh, great, from the depths of his bag. “No,” she says in a tone so bleak I swear we’re in for it now. No. And the soul of Shasta opens to us, the enigma we take home.

• • •

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