Climbing Shasta: It's 14,162 feet of thrilling misery

The prominent band of rocks appropriately named the Red Banks looms 2,500 feet above me. Above that, Misery Hill stands as the last obstacle before the summit of Mt. Shasta. It's 6 a.m. in late July and the temperature is hovering in the 30s at Helen Lake, which serves as the popular base camp on the Avalanche Gulch route. A brisk wind is blowing down from the snowfield that stretches steeply between the Red Banks and Helen Lake. Except during unusually dry years, Helen Lake is invisible as its' always buried under a blanket of snow. I strap on my crampons, grasp my ice axe and step onto the ice. My climb to the summit has begun.

At an elevation of 14,162 feet, Mt. Shasta dominates its' surrounding landscape as only few American mountains do. Mt. Rainier. The Grand Teton. And Denali. These mountains have a special aura about them that radiates from their icy ridges, and turns them into regional icons.

In Mt. Shasta City, the quaint town that rests on the mountain's western shoulder, businesses have murals of the mountain painted on their walls. There are hamburgers, laundromats, and even a cheap soda named after the massive volcano, which is thought to last erupt in 1786. It has since been well behaved, except for a series of small earthquakes in the area between 1978-1981. However, history suggests that Shasta erupts every 250-300 years.

The Avalanche Gulch route on Shasta is one of the more popular routes in the country. Attempted by some 20,000 annually, it's deemed non-technical, meaning that ropes and belay devices aren't needed. But roughly half of those who attempt it each year, don't reach the summit.

Five minutes from Helen Lake, I trip over my crampons on a moderate snow slope. I look down at my left leg after a crampon point poked my left leg. No blood but a golf-ball-sized hole sliced into my gaiter.

Needless to say, I've never used crampons or an ice axe before. Prior to my trip, I was told that Shasta isn't the place to learn to how to use the tools. Perhaps, I should've listened. I've only gained maybe 100 feet and already tripped. If this happens in the Red Banks, where the slope steepens considerably, a fall is certain. And without immediate self arrest, which I've never attempted, injuries will follow. Blocking out further negativity, I hunkered down against the biting wind and continued towards the Red Banks.

I begin a rhythmic routine. Step, plant ice axe, step again. Sometimes I'd rest and look for my tent, just so I could see how far I've come. The first few times, my blue tent could easily be identified. The last time at a rock area just below the Red Banks called "The Heart," my tent was barely visible. Soon after, the sun illuminated an orange tint reflecting off the Red Banks, a pumice outcropping that was formed during one of Shasta's more recent lava flows.

Surprisingly, remnants of a volcano on the mountain are few. There isn't a crater on top or steam rising from inside the mountain. In fact, besides millions of volcanic rocks, Sulphur Springs, which bubble near the summit, are the only indicator of volcanic activity. Regardless, its' conical shape, which can be seen from over 100 miles away, provides evidence enough that Shasta is surely a volcano.

Climbing through the Red Banks looks steep. Maybe up to 55 degrees in spots. But this late in the summer, thousands have already stomped out a good route, with small steps kicked into the ice. Step, plant ice axe, step. I soon broke out of one of the ice filled chimneys and get my first look at the upper part of the mountain. As I sit down to take off my crampons, I look south towards Mt. Lassen, which looks more like a tiny bump on the horizon than the imposing volcano I saw the previous day on my drive to Shasta.

Up high on Shasta, it's hard to imagine that all these rock pinnacles, snowfields, and glaciers winding down from the summit appear as smooth as an ice cream cone from the valley floor, over 10,000 feet below. To my left is Misery Hill, just a steep scree trail. After that, the summit plateau and then, the actual summit.

For every two steps on Misery Hill, I slip a step. It's arduous and slow going but not terribly steep. About half way up the hill, a climber from Illinois lays sprawled out on the trail complaining of fatigue, nausea, and a headache. All signs of Acute Mountain Sickness.

I tell him to take his time and drink lots of water. Not exactly sound medical advice but sufficient for someone at almost 14,000 feet, who's also feeling a bit queasy himself.

As I surmount Misery Hill, I step onto the summit plateau, a smooth plate of wind-driven snow. I look back down at the sick climber from Illinois and notice he's moving upwards. A good sign.

Then there it was. The summit of Mt. Shasta, sprouting up from the snow as nothing more than a jumble of rocks. A quick sprint across the plateau, then another trudge up more loose rock and I was on top. A half dozen other climbers, who were resting by the metal summit register mounted to a rock, congratulated me on getting to the top. I drink some water and nibble on some crackers. Leaning against a coffee-table size rock, I savor the view because once I begin the 7,000 foot descent to Bunny Flat Trail head, it can never be duplicated.

"What a view," one climber says as I turn around. "I guess Misery Hill was worth it," the climber from Illinois gasps with a grim smile.

Indeed.

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