A First Attempt on Shasta, via Casaval Ridge
Chris Cloyd is a TMS ambassador athlete based out of Truckee, CA. He and Steven Benesi, a distance runner and mountain athlete from Truckee, are attempting to run and climb all of the peaks on the Western States Climbers’ OGUL List by the end of 2016. Their successes and shortcomings will be recounted in this space – subscribe to the TMS blog RSS feed to follow their story!
Living in California, Mount Shasta possesses a particular mystique. If you’ve ever driven down I-5 from Oregon, you’ve laid eyes on Shasta’s imposing bulk and (if you spend any time in the mountains at all) considered what it must be like on its summit block. Many visitors every year climb or skin to the top, and you can ski all the way from the summit (conditions allowing) to your car for a 7,000 foot descent that is truly unique. This past week, I went up for a first attempt for Shasta’s summit with my friends Michael Jaskot and Matt Hardwick, and it was a trip to remember.
We arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and Matt and I chose to reconnoiter our route (Casaval Ridge, one of the more popular and exciting alpine routes up to the summit) with a skin up to about 10,000′ via the Anaconda Bowl. We were rewarded with some phenomenal corn turns on our way down, and we were able to lay eyes on much of the route we intended to climb the following day. The views of the valley below were remarkable – Shasta is a stand-alone volcano with over 2,000 feet of prominence, so you can see for miles in every direction from the higher slopes.
We planned on an alpine start on Thursday for our climb, and rose at 2:20 AM to get some breakfast down and start our climb. We hadn’t planned on our snooze alarm/breakfast/get-your-kit-together session taking over an hour, though, and after trips to the bathroom and gear checks we left the parking lot just prior to 4:00 AM (much too late, given the conditions and rising temps during the day).
The hike out to Horse Camp (home of the Sierra Club hut on Shasta) took about 40 minutes, and was very pleasant with a clear sky and starlight. We dumped a few layers there and took a bit more time reconfiguring our packs and gear (again, burning too much time in hindsight, but that’s what first attempts are for), and headed up our route. The ridgeline starts almost immediately, and our hiking required crampons and axes from this point on. After an hour plus of steep ridgeline hiking we gained the ridge proper and enjoyed the sunrise from a tremendous vantage point just below 10,000 feet. A sunrise in the high mountains is always spectacular.
From the window at 10,000′, the Casaval Ridge route ascends via an interminable train of rock gendarmes and snowfield traverses to over 13,300′ before joining the Avalanche Gulch routes on Misery Hill just before the summit. The route is highly regarded as a classic and a peer of some very famous routes in the Alps – these truths led us to choose it as our route of ascent on this trip. Although I don’t have any experience climbing in the Alps, I can see why this route is so popular.
Our climbing started off with good pace, and we alternated leading pitches up the route in good style for some time. A few exposed traverses took some time, but ,for the most part, we moved fluidly and quickly. The climbing was highly enjoyable. This was our first time climbing big mountains together in winter, and we savored every bit of it when we could. As we progressed higher, we arrived at a steep ( “IT MUST’VE BEEN 70 DEGREE ICE, BRO” ) wind-scoured section that was absolutely demanding for our group. The surface was very hard, and our progress slowed down immensely here – none of us have enough experience to front-point up a slope like this, and we resolved to move within our means. In this instance, than meant kicking steps and double checking axe holds, which Matt did wonderfully from the front of our group. After a lot of time and more than a few profanities, Matt topped out and Michael and I were quick to follow him. We probably dug a little too deep there, and stopped to hydrate and eat some food before continuing on.
Michael led the next pitch, and his work was no less impressive than Matt’s efforts on the previous slope – he navigated some mixed (rock and ice) climbing and some less-than-ideal traverse sections with style, and we followed in his steps very gratefully. I am very fortunate to be able to climb with such great partners in the mountains, and Michael and Matt were able to help me navigate the final bit of mixed climbing at the end of this pitch, which I struggled with initially. I appreciate their experience and eyes for climbing very much.
We were starting to slow down (altitude, lack of hydration, other various amateur hour mistakes), and I resolved to lead the next pitch with some energy in an effort to do my part for the team and repay my teammates for their hard work on the pitches below. The first bit of climbing here was a fairly straightforward bootpack across a small saddle, which then split into (3) options: a snow-filled chute with an apparently-steep topout, a shorter chute with some rock lining the last 20 feet or so, and a totally unappealing traverse over notable exposure to gain the ridge higher on the climber’s-right side. I chose to lead up the 2nd option, and used the rock to facilitate the last few moves up to the top of the chute. For me, this was exhilarating climbing and definitely required most of my skill set. I was fortunate to get up first, and I was able to photograph Michael and Matt as they (much more easily) climbed up the last few vertical feet of this pitch.
At this time we pushed on a bit higher to the next window, and took stock of our situation. All of us were feeling the fatigue of our poor route-finding earlier, our hydration and nutrition gaffes, and the altitude. Moreover, the high temperatures (in the 50s) were making our progress much more challenging – post-holing to knee deep is not a fun experience that high. It was also about 12:30 PM, and we realized that the summit was out of reach before our predetermined turnaround time, so we decided to start our descent at this time. It’s never an easy decision to turn around, but with threatening clouds and low energy, it’s always a decision I’m comfortable with. We enjoyed some great glissading down into Avalanche Gulch, and strolled down to the car with ease from Horse Camp. We all definitely hit a wall somewhere in those last few miles, and I don’t think a word was said as we walked head-down to Bunny Flat. Shasta, 1 : Us, 0.
A great experience climbing with friends, to be sure, and I will look forward to our return – that’s the best thing about the mountains: they’ll always be there for us to test our skill and resolve.
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