Helen Lake was empty, though not for want of water. Ice and snow had covered the bowl which – at 10,414’ – is typical. Nay, Helen’s dearth was in one of humanity. In better times of the year, climbers and tents will embower this shoulder of Mount Shasta by the dozens – if not hundreds – yet here I was, alone.
Utterly alone. I’m really good at it, but not because I want to be. I’m just weird. You’re an idiot. Bull-headed. Naive. Why didn’t you wait for Elliott to teach you? Why didn’t you wait for that Beginning Mountaineering course? Who decides to solo Mt. Shasta’s Avalanche Gulch as their first exercise in mountaineering, and in the winter? You’ve never even been to 14,000’. You’ve never worn a pair of crampons, or snowshoes for that matter. Do you know how to use that ice axe?
Doubt and optimism: I wield the two like plastic swords.
Granted, I had done some homework. I’d watched dozens of videos on skills and techniques, took eight pages of notes, and watched them again. Countless articles rolled up my computer’s screen, and my eyes desperately absorbed every word.
Why-people-climb is a dead horse that’s been flogged so badly, it’s blood and guts lay strewn across the whole of the world. They’ve rotted, soaked into the earth, and fertilized the growth of a multi-billion dollar industry that pumps out more young, white social-media-exhibitionists than you can shake a “like” at.
Was I a part of all that? Let’s not go there.
Mountaineering isn’t even climbing. You’re god-damned right it isn’t, but if I can slide at full speed down 35-degree ice for hundreds of feet, fail to self arrest, and explode onto a pile of rocks, then it’ll do just fine.
My personal yard sale covered the asphalt at Bunny Flat Trailhead. I looked up at Shasta, the route, and to where I would be sleeping for the night. How the hell am I going to do this? Returning to my gear, I chuckled. Beanie; balaclava; goggles; three jackets; gloves; snow pants; headlamp; sleeping bag; sleeping pad; tent (floorless); space blanket; map and compass; food; more food; water bottle; jetboil; collapsible mug; battery charger; two packs of American Spirits; one copy of Jack London’s Call of the Wild; ice axe; crampons; snowshoes; snowboarding boots and- that’s right- a fucking snowboard. We’ll get to that later.
Somehow, I made it work with a 40-liter daypack (you are free to roam about your imagination). Throwing the monstrous thing over my shoulders forced an audible laugh from my chest, and I started up the white-crusted trail. The snowshoes were easy to figure out; lift, step, crunch, and repeat ad nauseum until gaining 3,549’ feet of elevation at a speed of one mile-per-hour exactly. Route finding was easy too: just follow the gully. If you get lost, simply retrace your steps to the car, drive to the nearest Big-5, by a gun, and blow your brains out immediately.
I soon caught up to an elderly couple on skis. Following a few smiles, we joined forces for a bit. They lived locally, and were heading up the gulch to cut right (East) and ski down a different slope for the day. The three of us shared lofty nods and big grins over various topics like skiing and snowboarding, and mountains. Still, I carefully guarded my full itinerary, divulging only that I planned to camp at Helen Lake, and snowboard down in the morning. If conditions looked good, I “might make an attempt at the summit.”
In no way would I have been dumb enough to tell them the truth. I was an idiot (I still am), who had every intention of attacking the summit despite my complete and utter lack of experience. The last thing I needed was to worry these nice strangers, who would have certainly recited the Tome of Always. Always seek professional instruction. Always climb with a partner. Always belay off three-piece anchors. Always rappel with a back-up (actually, having rappelled off the end of my rope and fallen 80 feet towards certain death – saved only by my partner’s quick reflexes and calloused hands – I acquiesce).
Still, I do not deal in absolutes. Not in climbing, nor anywhere else. Adventure requires a spectrum, and sculpting any feeble attempt at self-worth requires that you live somewhere in it. Stay at home, lock the door, and live through episodes of Doctor Who; or steal a car, rob a bank, and die guns-blazing in a shootout with the law. Turns out, there’s a whole lot in between.
Eventually, the two split off, and heartfelt well-wishes echoed back and forth. Their figures shrank, and my solitude grew. I envied those aged creatures while they disappeared into wood, rock, and snow: galloping through a beautiful world they had built together. Then there was me. I have ruined nearly every good relationship I’ve ever been in. Loneliness built on selfishness, and maintained with ego in my plight for bohemianism. I am really good at being alone.
Step. Crunch. Step. Crunch. Elliott was right. It’s just stepping. Step after step, and after that – oh look – another step! Ever my guru – my sensei – Elliott Robinson dabbled in high-altitude decades ago. He had given my silly mission his blessing by loaning me his crampons, ice axe, snow shoes, tent, sleeping pad, space blanket, and his sleeping bag.
“Anatoli used that,” Elliott had pointed at the sleeping bag with a smile while I stuffed it into its sack on his front porch.
Elliott Robinson and Anatoli Boukreev used to be good friends. Used to be, because the latter was buried by an avalanche on Christmas Day, 1997, a year and a half after his involvement in the famous 1996 Everest Disaster – for which he was castigated by John Krakaur in Into Thin Air. Conversely, legendary climber Galen Rowell described Boukreev’s rescue of three stranded climbers in that same storm as, One of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history performed single handedly a few hours after climbing Everest without oxygen.
What does this have to do with me? Absolutely nothing, but don’t tell me you’ve never name-dropped.
Suddenly and some how, I arrived at Helen Lake. Perennially buried in ice and snow, it marks the halfway point for summiting Shasta via Avalanche Gulch, and makes a popular campsite for two-day climbs. I caught myself mouthing a certain lyric from the Talking Heads. God, I hate the Talking Heads.
Desolate. Helen’s famous crowds were nowhere to be seen, and for good reason. Winter conditions had deterred the sane and at present, the snows were shit. Even from the parking lot, I knew I wouldn’t be snowboarding from the summit as originally planned. Too much brown, not enough white, and judging by the forecasts, what little snow that was up there would pretty much be solid ice. But hey, at least you wouldn’t get buried in an avalanche. Another hazard was strikingly clear from Bunny Flat: rockfall. Shasta is a giant mud castle, who’s snow is a double edged sword. Too little, and the walls crumble. Too much and, well, the route is called Avalanche Gulch.
Whatever. You’re here. You’re stoked, and it’s all lightweight from now on. Using the ice axe, I chopped a flat spot against a large boulder, and set up the single-poled, floorless tent as best I could in the wind. I made camp just in time to watch the sunset with a few cigarettes. Orange and purple irradiated the surrounding peaks, most of which I was already far higher than, and darkness gradually traded vibrant colors for breathtaking stars and pretty city lights. Cities – I thought – are best appreciated at night, from as high and as far away as possible.
With a sigh, I turned my attention towards looking within. Why was I here? Why do people climb? No. Shut the fuck up; we are not doing this. Okay then, let’s just stick to the facts. I was alone at Helen Lake. I was going to wake up at 2:00AM, and gun for the summit. I missed every girlfriend I ever had, and I hated everyone – most especially myself. Climbing makes me forget all that. Board sports used to do it too, but while a good ride might last minutes, climbing can carry me away for hours, even days at a time. Somewhere, at the summit of Mount Shasta, was something I needed, though I had no idea what it was. It called to me, and I looked up at it like a hobo on the night of Christmas, gazing into the window of a glowing house while its occupants sipped hot cocoa by the fireplace, and the smell of turkey spilled over the lawn like laughter at my inadequacies.
Mountaineering isn’t even climbing. I know – we’ve been over this – but it’s close enough, and I like mountains. Besides, it’s time for bed. I crawled into the tent, and slithered into Anatoli’s bag. Celebrating my shelter’s lack of flooring, I carved a deep hole in the snow to piss in, and used the excess to make water.
Some time later, I lit another cigarette and checked the time. 1:47AM. Shit, was that a win or a loss? I had set my alarm for 2:00AM, and had obviated it with my sleeplessness. Might as well make breakfast. With my right hand, I dug another hole, and commenced melting more snow. Ninety minutes later, I crawled out from the tent, throwing a now-lighter version of my backpack over my shoulders, and started stepping.
One step. Two. Then another. And another. The slope kicked up, so I broke out the crampons, and strapped them on as if I had done so before. My world became a tilted plane, and I could imagine that even down town, cars and people began to slide towards their doom as reality bended downhill. Clouds moved in as forecasted, and so too did the wind. When I moved, I sweat. Sitting still, I froze. Just keep it going – slow and steady – you have all day. Turning off my headlamp, I could use the few stars in the clouds to survey the broader features of the mountain. A silhouetted ridge here, a streak of white there. I could see my target: a narrow band of snow leading up and right next to a dark island of rock known as The Heart. Higher up, patterns arose. Glassy knobs of ice studded the snow like marbled crystals, glistening in the light of my torch, and grew denser with my every step. Zig-zagging up the slope reduced the angle, leading me into vertical bands of varying composition that looked as if some great painter had slashed haphazardly down the whole of Shasta’s face. Sometimes rock, sometimes snow, and sometimes something in between. Running down the left side of The Heart, and far below it, was a band of near-solid ice, encrusted with dirt. Something had eaten away at the softer stuff. I looked up and down with scrutiny. The slope below swept away for hundreds of feet and disappeared into the darkness beyond my headlamp. Turning off the light revealed the truth, Make that thousands. The snow was so hard, I couldn’t have kicked steps into it if I tried. Thank god for crampons. Dropping my ice axe would be a death sentence. Thank god for leashes. Was this climbing? Close enough.
Step. Crunch. Zig. Zag. My hands and feet emulated every video I had watched and every page of notes I had written. Somewhere – down town – someone stumbled out of a gas station with a cup of coffee – rubbing their eyes – and spit out their coffee as they looked up at Mount-Fucking-Shasta. Holy shit, there’s somebody fucking up there! I was sure of it.
I switched off my headlamp again. My eyes adjusted, and I could make out the white ramp I was aiming for, way out right. The base of The Heart was over there too, and even slightly below me. I had come a little too high, riding a vertical band of good snow, zagging back each time I reached the icy-brown one. I knew what that that strip meant, and I didn’t want to be in it any longer than I had to. Now I had to cross it, traversing down, around, and up the right side of The Heart.
Up until now, my every step had been deliberate, in and out of balance with rhythm and caution. I knew what I was doing. Not literally. I was an idiot. What I was doing was dumb, and I figured that placing such a fact at the forefront of my mind meant I was less likely to screw up. As I crossed into the band of dirty ice, that awareness entered into full focus. Doubly so. Axe, step-step, and look.
Halfway through the strip, something caught my ear. Tunk. Tunk-tunk. Tunk. Zzzip!
Shit. My head snapped upwards, and the beam of light stretch only so far. The band of cliffs above The Heart, known as The Red Banks, loomed in black like turrets on a castle wall. The archers notched another arrow, and sent the next volley.
Tunk. Tunk. Tunk-tunk. Zzzip! This time, I saw it entering my bubble of light for half of a second before whizzing past. Climber’s usually describe falling rocks in terms of household items, or anything else that might convey approximate size. What I saw was somewhere between a golf ball, and an apple. With quicker reflexes, I could have reached out, and caught it.
I froze – silent – and a tingling sensation ran up my scalp, over my head and down the back of my neck. My breathing was controlled – softened – to better listen to my surroundings. I was an animal – wild – like a deer caught in headlights, perceiving the truck as a predator and waiting for a sudden increase in velocity. Pounce. Everything about an oncoming car would be too gradual for me to understand – splat – so I waited.
Tunk-tunk. Tunk-tunk. Zzzip!
I saw that one too, a racquet ball, barely grazing the right-side of my light bubble as is shot into the darkness below. I waited some more. Nothing. I took another step towards the ramp – fast and quiet – and fired my headlamp back up the mountain. Nothing. Another step. Wait. Then something.
Thump. Thump-thump. Thump. Whoosh. A football. Maybe even a soccer ball. It was way out left, towards where I had come from. Somewhere to my right, another golf ball whizzed by. Then a marble hit me in the leg.
Shasta was poking me. This! This is how dumb you are, and where the fuck is your helmet, anyway? Go home! Come back when you’ve fucking learned something for once.
Obstinate, I held my animal gaze. My eyes shot left, then right, and back up the mountain. My head never moved. I took another step towards the summit. Then another. I was past half way through the firing range, and figured that if I could get back into white snow on the other side of The Heart, I might get out of danger.
Step. Look, and listen. I repeated this sequence all the way into the white ramp, balancing speed against caution. Beneath my feet, the surface softened perceptibly, shining brighter in my bubble. I waited some more, and listened carefully. Was I safe now?
A ping-pong ball hit me in the chest, and another zipped by my head.
“That’s enough.” I chuckled.
I stepped left, back towards where I had come from. Retracing the band of ice-dirt, I watched a few more stones whiz by, heard a few others, and got the Hell out of Dodge. Halfway down towards camp, I paused. I had so much energy. I was hungry, and looked back up Shasta for a morsel of something. Anything. Could I find a way onto Casaval Ridge? Would that be any better? What if I ran back across the brown band in daylight so I could better dodge the rocks? The wind was supposed to pick up. Sunlight would only further deconsolidate the Red Banks. I hadn’t had enough, but I had seen it. I continued down.
Back at camp, I made one last cup of coffee, and enjoyed the sunrise with a few cigarettes. The snow on Casaval Ridge glowed in vibrant pink, and it’s rocky spires grew somber red as the sun crept over the eastern horizon. Various ranges followed suit to the south while a million tiny street lights slowly faded under a turquoise haze. I shook my head, and smiled. With a last breath of smoke, I smiled again, nodding this time. I’ll be back.
I packed up, strapped in, and started down.
Ice had ruined all, and I stopped many times to rest my legs, but I enjoyed every second. I grew up snowboarding at Yosemite’s Badger Pass, so I am used to short runs – ninety seconds at best. These were endless switchbacks, up one side of the ravine, and down across the next. Sure, it was solid ice. No, I couldn’t get a proper edge, and the whole ride down was one continuous scraping cacophony of metal on ice.
Still, there were no lines. No crowds. Just me, the trees, the crows, and the goddamned mountain. Like I said, I am really good at being alone. I wish I wasn’t, but – for now – I am, and I’ll make the most of it while I can.
There are three exaggerations in this story. One, I do not hate everyone – relax – and two, I do not hate myself (usually). Throw together a few girls, a mental disability, and a drive to be something more and – sometimes – you’re just fucking angry. Three, I did not enjoy every second of the ride down from Helen.
If summits truly are the yardstick of success, then I have wasted your time. True hard men would have either gone for the summit, or would have had enough sense to have not gone at all. I am not a hard man, and I will never be. Though in many ways I consider Elliott Robinson my mentor and sensei, I will never be him. I will never be Anatoli Boukreeev. Pedestals upon pedestals torment any climber with a sense of history, and often the hardest summit is the one within yourself.
I should have never gone up there. Wrong. I had fun. I came, I climbed, and I learned. In better conditions, I have absolutely zero doubt that I would have made the summit and returned safely. I did not “fail” because of my own physical capabilities, or even technical ones. Mount Shasta simply said, “No,” and I had learned enough of her icy tongue to hear it. I did not turn tail at the first sign of rockfall, nor did I ignore it outright. I gave the mountain a chance, and gave myself one too.
I’ll be back. Maybe even with a partner. Maybe even on another route or season. It matters not. I will get up there, and that is that. Anything I find on that journey, I expect to be nothing different than from every other rock I have ever climbed. Nothing. Only yourself, and if you are truly blessed, someone to share it with.