This blog was written by a Backcountry Babes Scholarship Recipient, Lexie Gritlefield. Thanks to Lexie for authentically sharing what it’s like to go ski mountaineering for the first time on Mt. Shasta. So often we hear only about misadventures, poor planning, and summit fever leading to mountain disasters. It’s reassuring and refreshing to read that’s NOT how it has to be! Here it is…
I have a new term for you: summit apathy. It is the opposite of summit fever. It is the lack of interest, enthusiasm, or even concern to reach the summit of a mountain. I had never experienced it before we were on Mt. Shasta this past Summer and, man, it was depressing.
During the weeks leading up to my summit attempt for Mt Shasta, I trained every day and prepared mentally by researching the popular Avalanche Gulch Route online. I was originally planning to sign up for an all women’s climb with REI, but determined that it was too expensive for my budget. I had reached out to my friend, Ria, that had recently moved northeast of Mt. Shasta to tell her that I would be in the region for the climb. She said she was interested in climbing the mountain as well. We decided to go for it without a team.
Neither of us had used an ice axe or crampons before. After reading articles about the fatalities that had occurred on the Avalanche Route, I had a very sleepless night. I kept imagining an accident occurring; a slip, a fall, a rocky avalanche. I decided that we needed to know how to self arrest properly if we were going to attempt this climb. I contacted SWS Mountain Guides to inquire about an Ice Ax & Crampons Clinic and they were willing to help us out. (Want to learn basic ice axe and crampon use on a guided tour? Check out our Backcountry Babes Women’s Beginner Ski Mountaineering Course in Colorado, offered in April. Click for more info.)
On Friday, I drove up to northern California and stayed at my friend from college’s home in Roseville for the night. It was great to catch up with a couple of my friends from college that evening at dinner, but one of them kept telling me not to die. Even the next day, I received text messages from her telling me to be safe and not to die. I know she was doing this to satisfy her own nerves about her friend – a bridesmaids in her wedding two years prior – going into the backcountry, but it only contributed more to my nerves. I was already worried about the risks on this climb from the articles I had read a few weeks prior about climbers failing to self arrest at the Red Banks section. While driving up to Mt Shasta City on I-5, Mount Shasta came into sight for the first time. I almost peed my pants because my nerves were screaming.
I passed through Redding and around the turquoise and red sand beaches of Lake Shasta, crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, Dunsmuir, and ended up in Mt Shasta City. I was just below the Cascade giant of Mount Shasta and looking up was bewildering. I was going to climb that. Upon coming into town, I stopped at the Forest Ranger’s Station to pick up a Summit permit for Mt Shasta. I asked the female ranger on duty who looked like she had a lot of experience, “Are avalanches common this time of year on the Avalanche Gulch route?” She nodded. My stomach tied another knot.
A friend of a friend had connected about climbing Mt Shasta, but was unable to make the dates work with her schedule. She lived in McCloud and was working for the Forest Service, so we decided to meet up. I met her and her two male, outdoorsy coworkers up at McCloud Falls. McCloud Falls is a very popular Summer weekend hangout near Mt Shasta Ski Park.
In the late afternoon, we wandered into the Lumberjack Festival going on. The smells of kettle corn filled the air and I found myself with an ax in my hand, throwing it at a wooden board that resembled a dart board. “Just think of your ex!”, a local woman yelled at me. We all laughed and I learned that I completely suck at ax tossing.
In the evening, I decided to go on a solo adventure for dinner. My body was full of nerves and I felt that being alone would make me feel better. I tried to explore Mt Shasta Ski Park, but I arrived too late and the gate was locked. I continued on to Mt. Shasta City and grabbed a burger at Bistro No. 107. Dining alone is always interesting since our society has constructed it to be a social time, but I enjoy it as it gives me a real chance to people walk. I was seated at the bar outside and the couple next to me tried to make conversation. They hadn’t been able to find a place to stay in town and were looking for somewhere nearby to stay. I didn’t tell them that I had planned on sleeping out of my car that night for fear that it might sound weird. I also didn’t tell them that I was not going to sleep in my car since my new friend had offered me a place to stay at the Forest Service station. Primarily because it wasn’t necessarily allowed. You didn’t read about it here either.
In the morning, I woke up earlier than planned and drove to meet Ria at the SWS Mountain Guides Office in Mt Shasta City. (Editor’s note, another great guide service to check out is Shasta Mountain Guides. BcBabes founder Leslie Ross worked here in the beginning, back before 1996!) I arrived over an hour early and decided to back track to Seven Suns Coffee & Cafe for a bagel and espresso. The espresso was highly necessary. When Ria arrived, we waited for the local small town gear shop to open up. The Fifth Season has all the necessary gear that REI would have packed onto its small town walls. We rented our gear, crampons and ice axes, from The Fifth Season and met our guide, Tyler, back at the office. Tyler explained that the road was closed to where he would normally run the clinic and that we would have to hike up to 50/50 for the clinic. We decided to backpack our tent up with us and Tyler was very patient with that.
It was late July, which is the end of the season for the Avalanche Gulch route. The trail from Bunny Flat to Horse Camp was beautiful. Tree covered and unexposed; just how I like it. At Horse Camp, there was an out house and a hut that is cared for by the Sierra Club. This was also the last place to fill up running water. The trees started to disappear shortly after Horse Camp and the trail became exposed. The snow had melted away along the trail and started to show once we reached 50/50. I followed a path of foot prints behind Ria and Tyler across a snow field at 50/50. We put our packs down and took a snack break. I offered Ria and Tyler a piece of my EPIC bar, which is basically sriracha chicken jerky in bar form. We all agreed that it was a weird form for jerky, but it tastes pretty darn good as far as I’m concerned.
|Me, Tyler, and Ria after our Snow Skills Course at 50/50 on Mount Shasta.|
We put on our crampons and got out our ice ax for our Snow Skills Course.Tyler showed us all kinds of methods of snow travel up hill and down. We learned how the French do it, Germans, etc. We learned how to slide on our butts safely down a mountain with an ice ax (glissading). We practiced how to stop ourselves in the event of a fall. The course was over two hours and we learned way more than we would on YouTube. Tyler was also an excellent guide. He stayed late and didn’t make any mention of it. He genuinely just wanted us to learn the material and feel safe in the mountains. By the time we finished, the sun was starting to set. Tyler raced off down the mountain and into the light. Smoke filled the air miles away and the sunset was beautiful although we couldn’t see much in the distance. Here we were – two young women alone on the mountain.
While we set-up camp, a group of three (two young men and a woman) from came over the horizon at 50/50. We learned that they were from Sacramento and had seen Tyler “booking it” down the mountain. “Like only a true mountain guide could”, I thought. One of the young men had climbed Mt. Shasta before – in the Winter. I was already impressed. I watched as they setup their camp of sleeping bags and a tarp to lay over them. They were backpacking without a tent. While Ria has experience cowboy camping in the Utah Winter with below zero sleeping bags, I have never slept slept outside of a tent in a temperature that cold. In fact, the below 30 temps we were going to witness on Mt. Shasta were a bit too cold for me to imagine being outside of the comfort of my tent. Just another reason this group of three were so bad ass.
|Cooking dinner at our camp at 50/50. Photo courtesy of Ria Nochera.|
While attempting to cook dinner, I realized that I had made a huge mistake. My lighter was having trouble working at such a high altitude and my matches had somehow fallen out in my trunk. We needed fire to cook dinner and to melt snow for drinking water. Luckily, the group of three lent us a lighter for dinner and water that night. For dinner, Ria and I split GOOD TO-GO’s Pad Thai and it quickly became my new favorite backcountry meal.
We finally went to bed in our cozy tent around 9pm, which is really late for me when I’m going for an alpine start. This was the biggest mistake I made on this climb. I had a hard time falling asleep. Maybe it was the cold air or the altitude. It could’ve been my excitement or my nerves for the morning. Whatever it was – I estimate that I didn’t fall asleep until 10:30pm. I went outside my tent once before falling asleep to pee. I had taken altitude sickness prevention pills the day before and Tyler told me that it makes you pee a lot. It really does. The stars at night at high altitude always overwhelm me. This time, I didn’t feel as small or alone as I did the last time I experienced this at Thousand Island Lake on the John Muir Trail. I was just mesmerized by the beauty of the sky. My alarm went off at 2:00am.
2:10 am. Not out of my sleeping bag.
2:15 am. Still not out of my sleeping bag. Slow start for me already.
Ria finally braved the cold and got out of our tent to get snow to melt for hot coffee. Ria: a true life saver. I couldn’t have survived that morning without coffee. It was my first time trying Kuju Coffee and woah, do I recommend it!
By 3:00 am, we were strapping on our crampons and ready to go. Ria tromped ahead. Well, ahead. Over the next hour, I realized I was moving really slow. Just before sunrise, Ria made it up to Helen Lake and waited for me. I felt like I took an extra fifteen or twenty minutes to get up there. It could’ve been longer or less, but I was worried about how slow I was moving. Sleepy-eyed, Ria led me to a rock covered area at Helen Lake that was a bit warmer than the snow. As the sun began to rise, the wind started to pick up. A group of climbers were waking up at Helen Lake. It was getting late for an alpine start – 5:30am. We learned that the climbers had slept passed their alarms and weren’t going to go for the Summit. Ria and I continued to chew on our breakfast snacks. I was feeling the exhaustion from not sleeping. I honestly just wanted to go back down to 50/50, crawl back in my tent, and take a nap. I knew that wasn’t an option and we had come so far.
|Ria forging a path of her own among the sun cups on Mt. Shasta.|
But we had to face reality. It was the end of the season on Avalanche Gulch. We needed to descend the Red Banks and be down close to Helen Lake again before noon. Otherwise, we’d risk being in a rock fall zone at the wrong time. From the top of the Red Banks, it is about a 2,000 foot fall if you were to go straight down the incline. It didn’t make sense to take the risk that morning. It was sunrise and we were at Helen Lake. We should’ve been at least above the Heart at this point.
Ria asked me how I was feeling. There it was – summit apathy. I told her I wanted to go up more, but I didn’t think the Summit was in the cards for me today. I didn’t want to admit it, but it’s really important to be honest with your climbing partner. Ria decided that she didn’t want to go up farther if we weren’t going to go for the Summit. She completely made sense and she didn’t try to persuade me to go to the top. At that moment, I knew she didn’t want to push it either. As much as we wanted to go for the Summit, it wasn’t the day for it. We were new to mountaineering in snow conditions and we had learned a lot from this experience. It was time to turn around.
|Helen Lake on Mt Shasta. Photo courtesy of Ria Nochera.|
We walked down the steep section below 50/50 and eventually got to a spot where I was comfortable to test out my glissading skills. I removed my crampons, attached them to my pack, and sat in a spot where people had glissaded previously. Ice ax ready across my body, I scooted down the mountain until I started to slide. It felt amazing. I was doing it! I was glissading!
Glissading down to 50/50. Photo courtesy of Ria Nochera.
I pushed it all the way down to 50/50 and we passed a team of men climbing up the mountain. We also saw tent camps of people learning mountaineering skills. We were having so much fun glissading down. We finally reached our camp and took down our tent. No time for naps. We were ready to get down off of Mt. Shasta and find a restaurant for lunch in town. We had a new plan of grabbing lunch and then I’d follow Ria northeast out of Mt Shasta City to Ria and Nick (her partner)’s place just across the Oregon border but south of Klamath Falls. She was excited to have her first guest in their new house and I was stoked that my new road trip plan included Oregon. It had been a couple years since I’d crossed that state line.
|Ria packing up camp at 50/50.|
Once we packed up camp, we jetted down the Avalanche Gulch route to Horse Camp. While taking a water and bathroom break at Horse Camp, a man around our age came running up the trail. The Sierra Club volunteer at the Hut knew the man by name and asked him if he was going to run all the way up to Helen Lake. He laughed and said that running the trail to Horse Camp was enough. I have a serious appreciation for altitude runners, so I continued to eaves drop on their conversation. Mt Shasta City is a small town with big mountain dreams. It’s a beautiful place and has quite a lot of charm. The locals seem tight knit and a mix of outdoor enthusiasts, hippies, and State of Jefferson supporters that somehow find peace and harmony in this mountain town together. I fell in love a little bit with the community and Mt Shasta while I was there. I wouldn’t say it’s a love that it’s in my blood like Mammoth Lakes or Ojai, but it’s definitely a place I wouldn’t mind visiting more often.
When Ria and I reached the bottom at Bunny Flat, we high fived. We didn’t succeed in our Summit bid, but we succeed in every other way. We bettered ourselves as outdoorists, leave no trace advocates, and mountaineers. We learned a lot and we got down safely. It was time for lunch and we headed to have a delicious one at Hari Om Shri Ram Indian Cuisine. This place was definitely a treat and a great place to celebrate an end to our time in the mountains.
Next, we headed over to Lake Siskiyou to float in the water. This is all a part of Ria’s methodology to enjoying a life in the outdoors. Her favorite part of outdoor adventuring is jumping in water after or at some point on the journey. I have to agree with her. If you don’t include water in your outdoor adventures, you have to ask yourself – is it even worth it? We had a beautiful view of the Avalanche Gulch route on Mt Shasta from our float. We could see where we camped, where we stopped, and where we didn’t make it. This was definitely worth it.
|Ria enjoying a float in Lake Siskiyou and the views of Mount Shasta behind us.|
From this trip, I learned a very important mountain lesson – sometimes you don’t summit and it’s okay. The mountains are not about accomplishments. It’s about the experience. My first time on Mt. Shasta was absolutely a great experience. After our trip, we are both still hooked on going back. On a clear day, Ria can see Mt. Shasta from her home and I’m sure the mountain is waving back. As for me, it’s only a matter of time until the powder has settled and I’m ready to head back to the Cascades for another climb.
Blog Written by Backcountry Babes Scholarship Recipient, Lexie Gritlefield.
Want to learn basic ice axe and crampon use on a guided tour? Check out our Backcountry Babes Women’s Beginner Ski Mountaineering Course in Colorado, offered annually in April. Click for more info and signups.