Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mt. Shasta Casaval Ridge Attempt

With good weather finally hitting Northern California and everyone’s schedules permitting them to head south a group of 8 of us headed to Mt. Shasta to attempt its amazing Casaval Ridge route to the summit over a two day climb.   Although Emily and I didn't make the summit with the rest of our group we did end up having a great alpine night high up on a beautiful mountain and came home with a lot of beautiful photos.

This would be Emily’s first true 14,000 foot peak although Mauna Loa in Hawaii was pretty close.  But Mauna Loa involved a small pack with a t-shirt and snacks while this involved overnight gear, skis, climbing harnesses, rope, protection, etc.  We got a late start out of town on Friday after work and after stopping briefly at DQ near Medford to meet up with the rest of the group and encountering a “Nightrider Car” we made it to the base of the mountain around midnight.  The trailhead was absolutely packed with climbers so we wisely drove back down the road to a pull out for the night were I got some great star shots of Shasta rising into the sky above us.
On Saturday we got a really late start on the trail after shuttling vehicles and getting all our gear packed up.  With us was Kelly Rae Rice, Dan Miller, Cristina Matheus, Andrew Backus, Peter Gregg and Andrew Lafrenz.  We had been debating for a long time which way to approach the climb and where to camp.  When Aaron, Chris and I had climbed it in 2008 we had gone up the traditional Avalanche Gully route and camped at Helen Lake at 10,000 feet which gave us good altitude acclimatization over the night.  Because Emily and I had been at nearly sea level for so long I suggested climbing above Horse Camp to Hidden Valley around 9,000 as a compromise and to give us a better jump on the ridge and summit the next day.  It was a split decision between the group about whether to camp high and have a shorter summit day or camp low and have a longer ski descent.  In the end the group split in two with Dan, Andrew Backus and Peter staying at Horse Camp and I and Andrew with the girls pushing to a higher spot on the ridge.  
Emily had been feeling under the weather for well over week so I took it upon myself to carry most of the weight for us including the food, the big 3-person tent, and of course all my camera gear which weighted 8-10 pounds alone.  I would bet my pack was pushing 60+ pounds as I struggled to keep up with everyone under the hot sun of the approach climb.  We left the three guys at Horse Camp but they were able to set up their camp and then climb up PAST us on our way up the ridge to get some ski turns in before the day ended.  They are all animals for sure.  When we finally reached our high camp in a Window between the West Face and Avalanche Gulch after some boot packing and struggling with skinning up the steep slope I was exhausted.  

There were several other groups in the area and we were able to take over a spot that had been dug out a bit before us for the camp.  Emily ad I had a giant orange tent which looked silly next to the other three who slept in uber light weight bivys next to us in what looked like a grave pit in the snow.  Everyone who tried picking up my bag was shocked at it’s weight but it paid off a bit as Emily and I slept well out of the wind in warm comfort  within the walls of the tent.  

That evening we were treated to a beautiful sunset and views south to Lassen Peak and the Trinity Alps.  Andrew enjoyed some Chef Boyardee and Kelly shared some King sardines with me.  Having a lot of experience camping in alpine environments I had a lot of experience to share with the group about best practices at that altitude and temperature.  I took over the process of shoveling snow to melt in the jet boil and made sure that Emily and I ate enough Mountain House for the big climb the next day.  I then made sure that everyone knew to sleep with their boot liners and to keep their camel backs and water with them in their bags so they don’t freeze.  I then went around and tied up all the bags and pinned them to the ground with a spare ice axe so they wouldn’t blow away.  Once everything was secured we went to bed around 9 or so with clouds moving in over the summit.

At 4:30 I woke up to other climbing groups around us leaving camp to head up the mountain.  I hurried out of bed to take some early dawn photos of the train of lights heading up Avalanche Gully towards the Red Banks.  I’ve never seen so many climbers on a mountain before!  Dan, Andrew and Peter actually made it up to our sight just as we all were getting up to make breakfast so we hurried ourselves to get ready.  I was so excited to have a much lighter pack on Casaval Ridge for the summit push but when I bent over to pull it up over my back I heard and felt a large “POP” in my lower back and I knew my day was probably over.  I turned to Emily and told her I needed a minute to lie down in the snow and stretch.  She could tell I had hurt myself.  My heavy pack from the day before had now ended any hope of us making the summit with the group who started up the steep hillside onto the ridge well ahead of us.  

After a little while lying in the snow I managed to get my pack on and begin boot packing up the slope.  This type of climbing is what my legs are built for so I was making quick progress up the slope despite my painful back.  Unfortunately, this type of climbing is what Emily is the weakest at so she was lagging behind.  When we topped out on the ridge and looked up at the 4000+ feet of mountain ahead of us with our group far ahead we made the call to bail on the climb.  Ultimately, this worked out best because we later heard that there was a bit of exposure that Emily would not have been comfortable with and I’m sure my back would have been 10x worse if I had carried on which may have prevented my rafting trip the next week which I was really looking forward too.  We ended up waiting around on the ridge taking photos of the changing weather and shadows on the mountain and looking for our group high on the ridge.   I got some truly print-worthy shots while we waited for the snow to soften for our ski down.
After we packed up our camp and had a pretty enjoyable ski down the mountain back into Avalanche Gully from our high camp and out to the car we ate some food and got on the road around 11am.  My back was getting worse by the minute so I was super happy to be headed home to our comfortable bed.  We got all the way to Medford when I decided I wanted a DQ Blizzard and pulled over, which is when I heard Emily say, “what are these?” holding a set of car keys!  SHIT.  We had driven almost 2 hours with the car keys in our Prius for Andrews Truck.  I abandoned DQ and pulled a U-turn to head back into California to return the keys, averaging about 95mph to get there because I had a vision of 6 exhausted bodies slumped next to a locked truck...  Fortunately, we made it back before they made it down.  Apparently, they had a long, tiring but amazing trip successfully up the ridge and made the summit around 2pm.  From there it was an initially icy, but then wonderful ski down the peak back to camp and then the trailhead where they made it out around 4pm I think.

Even though Emily and I didn’t make the summit we had a good trip and it was good experience for Emily to get camping at high altitude on snow.  I was happy to share a lot of my experience and tips with everyone in the group and we got some truly amazing photos from the trip so I wouldn’t call it too much of a loss.  Emily and I will just have to return another year, in better shape and maybe with some more time to climb the peak.

No comments: