By Matt Johanson
Special to the Journal
Raging wind shook our tent so fiercely that it felt like a high-elevation earthquake. Four of us camped in two tents at Helen Lake, about halfway up Mount Shasta. But the screaming gale broke the poles of one tent, forcing all four of us to cram into the other. Sleep was impossible.
In its early hours, my first climb on Mount Shasta bore a striking resemblance to my family’s previous effort 25 years earlier. On that occasion, my dad and uncle tried to take my older brother and cousin (ages 10 and 12) up the same route, Avalanche Gulch. But a fierce storm struck them in the night too. Dad’s tent broke in the wind and he and my brother had to huddle in my uncle’s shelter. Then the gusts swept the broken tent away, never to be seen again. The four suffered through a wet, sleepless and terrifying night.
“I had my first serious conversation with God,” recalled my cousin Peter. Their party made a strategic descent the next morning.
A quarter century later, we saw many others going down too. But despite wind that felt strong enough to blow us off the mountain, we made a dubious decision to go up. Freezing cold and our poorly-chosen cotton clothes made for a bone-chilling combination. Only youthful vigor, stubborn determination and a healthy dose of beginners’ luck allowed us to muscle our way to the summit.
We stood atop the mountain for mere minutes before the icy wind chased us back down. After descending, we discovered the intense sun had badly burned our faces; failing to cover up had been another rookie mistake. Still, pulling off such a significant climb on our first try felt great, giving us an appetite for mountaineering that continues unabated.
Mount Shasta, a 14,179-foot dormant volcano that dominates the North State landscape, has inspired countless other admirers since well before the founding of the United States. Local Native Americans believe the mountain is the center of the universe and inhabited by the Great Spirit. Others say that advanced beings called Lemurians inhabit a city called Telos hidden within Shasta. UFOs and Bigfoot frequent the mountain, some claim.
One could also say that Mount Shasta’s supernatural power is its magnetic pull on climbers. Since Elias Pearce and eight companions made the first recorded ascent in 1854, hundreds of thousands have followed in their footsteps, or at least tried. In recent times, some 10,000 attempt the climb per year, with between a third and half succeeding, rangers estimate.
“Shasta was my introduction to mountaineering years ago, and I could see myself climbing it every year,” said my cousin Andy.
About 10 years after my first Shasta adventure, Andy and I climbed the massive and magnificent mountain together. The popular Avalanche Gulch route, which covers 10 miles round trip and gains about 7,200 feet, tested our mettle. But calmer skies (and a little more wisdom, I hope) allowed us to summit more easily than I had before and to enjoy the victory more.
“Standing on the summit was sweet, with a view for miles all around above the clouds,” Andy recalled.
That outing was the first of many for Andy and me including dozens of other California climbs and summits like Mount Lyell, Matterhorn Peak and Mount Whitney. In hindsight, it seems a little crazy that we started with the hardest one, but then again, a little crazy runs in the family.
My dad Tom and Uncle Ted introduced my cousins, brothers and me to pursuits including climbing, backpacking and skiing. Though we’ve laughed about the 1979 Shasta debacle for decades, many positive experiences and a few character-building miscues instilled in us a lifelong affinity for outdoors adventure.
Years after Ted and Tom had both passed away, I discovered photos from their previous Mount Shasta ascent, a 1969 climb on the mountain’s north face. Despite this route’s greater difficulty, the two appear on the summit smiling on a beautiful day.
In our family, that’s enough inspiration to launch a 50th anniversary climb by the sons and nephews. Peter, Andy, my younger brother Dan and I chose a warm June weekend with a favorable forecast. Peter, the only returning member of the 1979 team who remembers that stormy night well, still rented a four-season tent to be on the safe side.
“Shasta has been a life-long inspiration, instructor, motivator and adversary. My first trip was an eye-opener to challenges, beauty and danger of mountain climbing — and the unpredictability of high-altitude weather,” Peter said. “I was enlightened on that first trip on the importance of quality, well-engineered equipment, and need for serious physical and mental preparation. That one experience changed how I prepare for not just mountaineering, but backpacking in general.”
A long and bumpy dirt road delivered us to Northgate Trailhead, where the 12-mile, 7,200-foot trek began. After a half day of hiking and climbing, we made camp at about 9,500 feet.
Rising the next day at 4 a.m. (a moderate hour, by Shasta standards), we strapped on our crampons and started up Hotlum-Bolam Ridge. Like Avalanche Gulch, the route climbed steadily and steeply at times, requiring strength and endurance, but no ropes, protective gear or difficult route finding. It’s not tricky, just hard, and you have to keep climbing no matter how tired you are.
“I set mini goals for myself,” Peter recalled. “Take 50 steps, recover breathing for 30 seconds (was it longer?), repeat, over and over. On certain steeper stretches, it was only 25 steps, recover, repeat.”
Hours passed, the sun rose, and the air got thinner as we got wearier. But enthusiasm and adrenaline increased as our goal got closer. When we turned a last corner and the summit block came into view, cautious optimism gave way to euphoria. The four of us regrouped to summit together, with Dad and Uncle Ted along in spirit. Distant snow-capped peaks, green valleys and scattered clouds filled an especially grand and rewarding view.
“It was special to me that when the summit was in sight, we waited until all of us had caught up so that we could finish this climb together. There’s a unique feeling of facing adversity together that makes the experience all the more special,” Dan shared.
On the descent, Andy put on his skis he had hauled all the way from the trailhead, and relished his hard-earned turns all the way back to camp.
“That was something I've dreamed of doing for a while, and I’m looking forward to doing it again,” said Andy, who’s already planning a return trip to celebrate his 60th birthday.
Peter, Dan and I delighted in our descent by glissading, which is like sledding without a sled. Climbers slide down steep slopes on their backsides, using ice axes to steer and brake. Elevation that took hours to gain flies by in minutes.
Celebratory meals in camp that night and in town the next day capped an outstanding adventure and my favorite climb of hundreds I’ve experienced. To me, physical challenge, natural beauty and camaraderie with family and friends all contribute to the appeal of Mount Shasta. I’ve never spotted a Lemurian, UFO or Bigfoot, nor subscribed to supernatural beliefs surrounding the mountain.
But a curious encounter after our climb made me wonder. In town, a woman I’d never met greeted me as if she knew me. Her hippyish dress, hair and bare feet all expressed a Woodstock vibe. I told her we’d just climbed the mountain. “I have something for you,” she then said, handing me a polished stone, a crystal and a small bell.
Why did she feel a connection? What’s the significance of the items? Can I throw them away without risking the Great Spirit’s wrath? I can’t fathom the answer to any of these questions, so I asked some folks who are versed in the mountain’s spirituality. Their answers were as varied as they were thought provoking.
“That woman must have felt a connection to you and was guided to offer you the gifts,” theorized Andrew Oser, owner of Mount Shasta Retreat. “The crystal is to help you connect with your own inner guidance. The stone is to remind you of Mount Shasta and to help you tune in to the pure energy of the mountain wherever in the world you might be. The bell is for you to ring to call yourself back to the present when you notice you're getting lost in thoughts about past and future."
According to Paul Isaac of Mount Shasta Spiritual Tours, “the crystal holds information and the light you need to bring you back to the mountain, this time connecting to the heart of Mount Shasta. You have been invited. It’s an honor and a beautiful mission,” he revealed.
“Ask your intuitive self what all this means to you,” suggested Ashalyn from Shasta Vortex Adventures.
My intuitive self still draws a blank concerning the stone, crystal and bell. But like so many others, I’ve come to see Mount Shasta as a magical place. How else could our clueless party have summited on our first try 25 years ago? I’m glad we went up instead of down on that windy day.