Summiting any mountain is no small feat. Upping your hike game to the more challenging summiting adventures can truly test your mental and physical limits. While it can be trying it can also offer of rewards, from stunning views, bonding with fellow hikers and a butt-kicking workout experiences. There is something otherworldly about exploring nature in its extremes. Before my trip, I spoke with a woman who had tried to summit Mount Shasta on two separate occasions only to have ended her ascent a few miles off base camp both times.
After training and eventually summiting Mt. Shasta myself, I saw firsthand how vital a role the mind plays when asking your body to perform to such a degree. But to me, there really is nothing better than being part of the exclusive club of climbers who conquers a mountain.
Day 1: Gear Check, Base Camp and Snow School
9:00 am: Gear and Group Meeting
Climbing a glacier requires tons of equipment that must to be checked and hauled up the mountain. This includes ice axes, sub-zero sleeping bags, tents, crampons (metal spikes that attach to your boots), ropes and helmets—all skillfully packed into a mountaineering backpack that can weigh 50 to 60 pounds. Along with our inspiring guides Sarah and John, I met my fellow climbers, who included a fireman and his wife (who was so petite they had to tie sweaters to her waist to fit even the smallest pack on her), an attorney and an FBI agent. As the kindergarten teacher recovering from bronchitis, I clearly fit right in.
10:00 a.m. – Hike to Base Camp
Once we were geared up, we began the 5 -hour hike from the Bunny Flat Trailhead (ironically not bunny-like or flat). We climbed 3.3 miles with an elevation gain of 3,000. Although there was snow on the path, we found ourselves stripping down to tank tops from the exertion as we ascended to 9,400 feet with a short break at a horse camp about halfway up the climb. Even at this lower altitude, our breathing became more jagged with every mile.
3:00 p.m. – Snow School
After landing at base camp and setting up our campsite against a beautiful backdrop of snow-patched mountain, we headed to an icy mound for “snow school.” Our guides taught us maneuvers that are vital to keeping us safe and meant to save us from potential mishaps on the mountain. For example, I learned a self-arresting technique that involves throwing oneself down a steep hill of ice, flipping over and driving an ax into the ice precariously close to one’s ear. “Pretend like you’re answering your phone,” joked one of our guides. “Except don’t chop your ear off.” Sage advice. We also learned how to climb while being roped to three other group members, which would soon become our reality for some of the more treacherous legs of the climb.
7:00 p.m. – The Last Supper
The guides skillfully cooked a high-protein meal for everyone over a single camp burner. The major topic of dinner discussion was how altitude would affect our pace and our overall health. Then we were sent to our tents early to “sleep” in preparation for our alpine start.
Sleeping on a glacier means sleeping in dead silence with no heat source. This provides just the right circumstances to question why you ever thought climbing a huge block of ice was a good idea.
Day 2: Summit Day a.k.a. Don’t Die
2:00 a.m. (That’s right, A.M.)
We didn’t know it at the time, but our summit climb to 14,180 feet would take 18 grueling hours.
The intensity of the trail paired with the strain of increasing altitude were definitely more taxing than I had imagined. Traversing steep ice faces on the ascent ended up being the most difficult leg of the trip; however, the beauty of the climb did not escape me, even in the thick of it.
Because we used the less frequently traveled trail to the west, we did not run into another person until the last 500 feet before summit. This solitude—on such a giant of nature—had all of us in awe of the journey. And as it cast a formidable shadow on the world below us, we soaked in the reprieve of shade as we caught our breath and regained what energy we could.
We traversed miles and miles of ice and scree, always upward, catching our anxious breaths at every misstep. We climbed the switchbacks of the aptly named Misery Hill, then were treated to a flat snow field just 15 minutes away from the summit. This was by far the most breathtaking portion of the climb. A natural foot path had been cut out with snow walls up to our knees on either side. They call this area a false summit, since you only think you’re at the top… but it was more beautiful than the actual summit, which ended up being just a pile of rocks.
After reaching our goal and taking in the enormity of our accomplishment, we began our descent. Soon after, our guide started showing signs of severe urgency to get us off the mountain. A bit of bad weather had been spotted, and our safety would have been compromised if we hadn’t gotten down quickly. Lead guide John roped us into pairs and had us glissade down the steepest part of the mountain while using our ice axes to control speed and direction. (A glissade is a controlled slide on the feet or butt to quickly descend a steep slope.) This was was safer and admittedly way more fun than walking down the steep, icy surface.
One of our group members was uncomfortable with glissading and chose to walk down, which led to an unfortunate misstep and tumble down the mountain. With hazards like sharp gear and rocks everywhere, he used the self-arresting skill we had learned to finally halt his harrowing fall. I watched in slow motion from the base of the hill as our guide screamed, “Answer the phone!” at the top of his lungs.
They say the altitude can put you in a fog and make you start doubting your abilities. And there was a time during our descent that I felt as if I had nothing left in the tank. I made our group sit every few steps during the steepest part so I could catch my breath. I wasn’t sure what was more debilitating, the exhaustion or my fear.
With a look of determination, our guide told me plainly that I had to get down eventually and that doing so before bad weather hit was preferable to all parties. From then on, it was a blur… but somehow we made it down the mountain before the storm rolled in. The next thing I remember vividly was nearly skipping with relief along the flattened rocks of the last half-mile. I also remember beans and tortillas for dinner and a deep sleep dusted with the giddiness of one of my greatest accomplishments.
Day 3: Back to the Bottom
On our last day, we packed up our belongings and hiked four hours down an easy path to the bottom of the mountain. The guides gave us certificates as proof that we conquered the snowy Mt. Shasta beast. My body felt almost instantly uplifted at its familiar altitude—until the next day when all of my sore muscles reminded me of my hiking endeavor.
I had seen what few would see in their lifetime. I breathed the air of one the highest summits in the United States; I experienced the power and beauty of nature in its most solemn form; and I had a steak dinner and slept like a baby the following night.
– The air at the summit is so thin that climbers stay there for only 10 minutes tops.
– Bring food you want to eat. Altitude makes your appetite do strange things, so think chocolate candy bars over protein bars. I learned this lesson by watching my guide eat chocolate-covered pretzels as I stared down at my electrolyte blocks.
– Pack out everything to abide by the mountain’s strict “no trace” policy. This means all trash, gear and… wait for it… poop. Don’t worry—you will be given special bags for it (I lied, it’s still gross).
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