This is a follow-up to the post I wrote last year with a lot of new information I learned from my last two climbs. Be sure to read the original post first to get a good overview about the mountain and the route.
The Tale of Two Trips
My plan was to attempt to climb Shasta twice in one week in May, with a few days in between to recover. It didn’t go entirely as well as I had planned, but I did learn a lot. Here’s how both trips went.
Note: The events in the first trip are not representative of a common climb up Shasta, but the risks are present. Be prepared and wear a helmet.
The first trip was with my friends Tracy and Karen and we decided to do a three day journey starting with the first night at horse camp, to acclimate to the elevation, and then to base camp at Lake Helen the next day. Summit morning was extremely difficult; there was ~40mph winds up at Red Banks, which kept dusting the climbers with snow and once in awhile pelting small ice balls at them. About an hour into the climb, at a 15 steps and stop pace, Karen started feeling hypothermic and couldn’t go any further. I told Tracy to keep going and I’d walk Karen back down to base camp and then catch up. After getting Karen into the tent and making sure she would be okay, I started back up the mountain, now at a ~35 steps and stop pace to catch up.
Before I caught up to her, and on one of the steeper parts of the ascent, I heard a climber up ahead yell “rock!” and everyone around me, including myself, dug our ice axes into the snow and crouched into safe fetal positions on the snow. About 3 second later I felt a medium size rock slam into my body. For the first few moments I went into shock and everything was a little slower and I was a bit dizzy. I went through the mental checklist: can I move my toes? Check. Am I still awake? Check. Still holding onto my ice axe? Check. I was lucky that the rock hit me square on the butt cheek, otherwise it could have been a much more serious issue.
After I composed myself and was sure that there weren’t any more falling rocks, I got up and caught up to Tracy close to Red Banks (see picture above). We continued over the ridge and started hiking up the next hill. The wind was insane and I was exhausted from trying to catch up to Tracy, not drinking/eating enough and still mentally recovering from the incident with the rock. Tracy’s was determined, but her camelback hose has froze and she had not been drinking or eating enough either. At that point I realized that getting to the summit and back to base camp wouldn’t be safe and we needed to turn around. (we weren’t even to Misery Hill yet) It’s always important to put the safety of the group ahead of hitting the summit. The mountain will still be there next year.
A few days later, with a huge bruise on my ass, I attempted the mountain with my Dad. The conditions couldn’t have been better — calm skies, no wind to worry about and a few clouds to keep base camp cool from the midday sun. We did the standard two-day trip, with one night at Helen Lake, and we were able to hit the summit without a hitch.
Before you attempt the mountain be sure to do the proper training so that you can complete it safely. Last season I trained too hard, too fast and didn’t balance my muscle groups, which led to a bad back injury and a trip to the ER for a mild vasovagal episode from the pain. To prevent this, make sure when you work one muscle group at the gym you also build the opposite group. For example, if you are building your pectoral muscles (pecs), make sure you spend as much time on your shoulders (bench press followed by seated rows). When working your abs also strengthen your lower back. Do slow, clean reps and watch your form. If you don’t do this, you will injure yourself!
Another good way to train is to find some good difficult hikes around your area and notice which muscles are weak on the hike and sore the next day. Those are the muscles you’ll want to strengthen at the gym. If you find that your calve muscles get tired easily or are really sore the next day, make sure to concentrate on building those muscles between hikes. Keep doing this until your entire body feels strong during and after the hike. In the San Francisco Bay area I’ve found that Mission Peak is a great mountain to train on. Whichever trail you pick for training, make sure it has a decent elevation gain. For example, Mission Peak has about 2000 feet elevation gain.
Another good trick that I tried before Shasta was to give up coffee three weeks before the climb. This lowered my tolerance to caffeine so that when I had coffee the morning of the climb and in food supplements like Gu it was far more effective. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I had that much energy. When we reached base camp, after a full day of hiking, we still had the energy to build a large snow shelter, complete with walls.
My Dad did the same caffeine trick, so when we got to base camp on my second trip, we went to work improving the snow shelter with bigger walls and a breakfast nook. Not bad at 11,000 feet.
One way to counter the affects of the high altitude is to get a prescription for Diamox, which you’ll need to start taking at least 24 hours before the climb. The standard dose is 240mg, which can cause you to urinate a lot, but studies show that taking 125mg (basically cutting the 240mg pill in half) is just as effective.
Here’s more information on altitude sickness, prevention and acclimation:
Talk to the rangers
The conditions on the mountain change daily and the rangers can alert you to things to look out for. Always talk to them and take their advice to ensure a safe trip. When you get your wilderness pass at the ranger station in town, ask them about the mountain, the climb, weather conditions and to show you their short mountain presentation.
When you’re on the mountain, make sure you ask similar questions to all the rangers you pass. Here’s a list of handy questions to ask:
- What are the current conditions like?
- Any avalanche dangers?
What should do I do if:
- I get caught in an avalanche?
- Someone yells “rock”?
- What is the best route up avalanche gulch?
- What should be our absolute turn around time on the summit ascent?
- How’s your day? Can I buy you a beer when we get off this mountain?
If you’re nice to the rangers, they’ll take care of you!
A lot of climbers will be tempted to push themselves as long as possible between breaks, but on the steep terrain and high altitude, this will wear you out really quickly. A good technique is to figure out an attainable number of steps between breaks and stick to it. When I was going up Red Banks my pace was about 35 steps per 15 - 30 second break. When we were on Misery Hill we adjusted it to 15 - 20 steps. Be sure to use some of your breaks to hydrate and consume solid nutrients, like Gu or trail mix. Counting off your steps will also give you something to concentrate on and off of how it looks like you’re not making any progress.
Turn around time
Hitting the summit is the goal of all the climbers on the mountain, but getting a late start or not turning around early enough can be dangerous. As the sun comes up and warms the mountain, it’ll turn nice solid ice to squishy snow and slides. It can make your decent more difficult and, at the worst, it can open up small crevasse or cause avalanches. Be sure to decide on an absolute turn around time for your ascent. If you don’t hit the summit by this time, you turn around — no exceptions. Ask the rangers what the turnaround time should be considering the current conditions. Ideally you should be back at base camp before noon.
The number one piece of equipment you should have is a helmet! You can rent one pretty cheap at The Fifth Season in town. Many climbers will think they don’t need one, but if I didn’t have one and the rock had hit me on the head, I would have been dead. There’s no question about that. If that doesn’t convince you, last year climber died on the Avalanche Gulch route because she was not properly prepared.
Make sure the rest of your equipment is fitted right for you and balanced in your bag. Ask the friendly people at the sporting good store to help you with this. Wearing a backpack that is not fitted for your height and size will easily injure your back. Get your back measured so you can get the right size pack.
If you’re not carrying skis and there’s snow at Bunny Flats, be sure to rent snow shoes for the decent from base camp. Otherwise, you’ll be “post holing” (i.e. your feet will sink into the snow about a foot or more with each step) all the way down to your car and you shoes will be filled with freezing water.
Planning for 2010
For 2010, we’ll be trying a different approach on the ascent to base camp, we’re going to ski up! This is called Ski Randonnée, or Alpine Touring, in which you wear skis with specially designed downhill-like bindings that allows you to ascend like cross-country skis. Attaching a special fabric to the bottom, called climbing skins, prevents the skis from slipping backwards when you are going uphill. Then when you pack up base camp you remove the skins, clip down and ski all the way to your car.