Friday, April 27, 2012

Shasta Day 1962

Mt Shasta: Photo by Mark Muir
In April 1962, my housemate Chuck Buchanan, a fellow Stanford physics grad student, and I decided to drive up to the Seattle World's Fair in Chuck's Volkswagen Beetle. And on the way we planned to climb Mt Shasta.

At 14, 179 ft high, Shasta is only a few hundred feet short of Whitney (14, 505 ft), the tallest peak in the continental USA, but Shasta is more spectacular, rising as a lone volcano (somewhat resembling Mt Fuji in Japan) rather than being, like Whitney, part of a chain of peaks of similar size.

Another feature of climbing Shasta is the low oxygen content of the air. The magic number is 18,000 ft–the altitude at which half of the Earth's atmosphere is left behind. On Shasta we would be breathing air that was 30-40% less full of O2 than at sea level. This means more frequent stops to catch your breath and longer times to gain altitude than in more air-plentiful zones.

Chuck and I began our ascent at the Shasta ski lodge, arriving before it opened, and leaving a note under the car's wipers outlining our plans. The lodge was located at 8000 ft and featured large paintings of Lemurians (legendary blue-skinned refugees from the land of Mu, the Pacific version of Atlantis) behind the bar. I recently read in Wikipedia that the ski lifts there were destroyed by an avalanche in 1978 and a new Shasta ski park built at lower elevation.

We followed the ski lift up to the 9000 ft level, each carrying a light pack and sleeping bag, using ice axe and crampons to negotiate the winter snow pack still present at the end of April. Both Chuck and I had modest experience with ice and snow climbing including two unsuccessful attempts to climb Shasta in one day with a larger team. The day was bright and sunny and we made good time ascending to above 12,000 ft before dark.

We made camp at the head of Konwakiton glacier. To shelter ourselves from a cold wind that arose at dusk, we placed our sleeping bags down inside a slot where the glacier had pulled away from a rock wall. We planned to get up before dawn, ascend the remaining few thousand feet, witness sunrise from one of the highest peaks in California, then make a leisurely descent as the day warmed.

But Nature had other plans. When we awoke we found ourselves buried in snow. During the night an intense snow storm had come up and the wind had blown a snowdrift into the crack that served as our campsite. To make matters worse, as we gathered up our gear in the storm, melted snow seeped in around our clothing so we were now both cold and wet, not a good situation to be in so far from home.

Furthermore, as we emerged from our shelter next to the glacier, we discovered that the wind was blowing from the south–the direction of our descent. When we turned in that direction, our snow goggles were instantly covered with sticky snow so that we were effectively blinded. The only solution seemed to be to go down the mountain backwards.

So, to keep together (we had brought no ropes), Chuck and I joined hands–my left, his right–with our ice axes in the other hand, and backed down a slope against the wind and snow along a route which we hoped was Avalanche Gulch, which, on the basis of knowledge gained in previous climbs, should lead us down to Horse Camp cabin at 8000 ft where we could find shelter and perhaps dry our gear.

Despite the wind and blinding snow, this route should have been a long but easy walk (over snow drifts and ice but not rock barriers) except for one thing–Shasta's "dreaded Red Banks". The Red Banks are a tooth-like configuration of cliffs situated at about 12, 000 ft where up-coming climbers seek the gaps between the teeth. Chuck and I were now above the Red Banks and because of the zero visibility in the downward direction were in no position to find the "gaps in the teeth". We both knew that traversing the Red Banks blind was going to be a problem but hoped (at least I hoped) that the terrain would guide us to some gap in the big rock wall.

Hand in hand we walked backwards towards the Banks. And then suddenly fell over a cliff.

Everyone has moments in their life that they will always remember: the death of a pet, your first kiss, the birth of a son, that long-awaited promotion. I will always remember that moment on the top of Mt Shasta, falling backwards hand in hand with Chuck Buchanan over the Red Banks into the unknown.

We did not break our necks or crack our spines on a hard rock. We did not go sliding to our dooms down a steep snowfield. Instead we fell flat on our backs into a deep snow pack.

Then we got up, thanked whatever dieties we believed in, and began the long backward trudge down Avalanche Gulch. The trip was long, cold and exhausting–downwards was good, walking blindly backwards in deep snow was not–clumsy and slow going. The only incident I remember from that long, bone-cold stagger thru the Shasta storm was my sleeping bag unrolling from my pack and stepping on it with my crampons.

When we reached timberline (approximately 9000 ft) the snow and wind had subsided so we could now walk in a forward direction and did not have to hold hands. But both of us were cold and exhausted and had used up our first, second and third winds. Ahead of us was a small hill which I could not force myself to climb. Chuck said that he would climb it to look for the Horse Camp cabin. When he reached the top, he gestured me to follow. Not only could he see the cabin from the top of the hill, the cabin was actually situated on the top of that hill.

Once inside the cabin, we built a fire in the fireplace, dried our gear and heated a pot of dried chicken soup and snow water–one of the finest meals I have ever tasted. Then, after a few hours sleep, we set out cross country in the direction of the ski lodge.

We reached the lodge around noon and were lunching in the Lemurian Lounge when the Shasta Ski Patrol showed up. Finding our car, they had traversed the mountain after the storm looking for us. We exchanged stories, gave them a few bucks for their rescue fund, then motored down to the city of Mt Shasta for a big Italian meal. Besides our lives, we took from the mountain two cases of purple-skinned frost bite on arms and legs, and fingers which were numb for several days.

Today, April 27, 2012, is the 50th anniversary of our terrible descent down the south flank of Mt Shasta–hence Shasta Day 1962. A few years later we returned with a group of other climbers and made the summit.

After our Shasta adventure, Chuck and I continued our trip to Seattle where we camped with Chuck's parents on an island in Puget Sound. We also attended the Seattle World's Fair–site of the famous Space Needle. As physicists we viewed the science exhibits with a professional curiosity. But among the shows of new technology–lasers, particle accelerators, the history of electromagnetism–we noticed a huge crowd in the center of the science pavilion–something scientific was attracting people's attention like nothing else. We shouldered our way thru the crowd to a table-top three-foot plastic dome that enclosed the most popular miracle of Seattle-fair science–a bunch of living chicks hatching out of eggs.

1 comment:

RoseRose said...

Just the story I needed this morning.