My Brother and I Discover a New Bond on Our Quest for the Top
(Excerpted from the 1999 short story,
North to Shasta: Excitement, Fear and Reverence Atop a Snow Covered Volcano)
By Rick Mannshardt
Part 1 of 4
Timeline: July 1996, Mount Shasta, Northern California
We were only half an hour from the summit. We could practically see it from where we stood. That was the good news. Then there was the wind. When Mike and I had left our high camp at 5:30 that morning, it was calm enough to whisper. Five hours later, at the edge of the 14,000 foot snow covered summit plateau, the wind we’d encountered further down had grown to an unrelenting howl. We now had to yell to make ourselves heard. A quarter mile away at the far side of the plateau stood the summit pinnacle: two hundred feet of volcanic rock jutting into the sky— its snow-clad face alluring yet defiant. I’d been up on that part of the mountain before; I thought I knew what to expect. But a lot had changed since the previous year. A different kind of beast was up there waiting for us this time.
We pushed ahead, following the ragged trail of footprints in the snow as the wind did everything it could to force us back. It wasn’t until reaching the base of the pinnacle that we were able to find any cover. We stopped to rest for a moment, surveying the final section of the route before continuing. The next several hundred yards were steep but appeared to be sheltered. After that, all we needed to do was reach the top of the summit ridge and then make our way east about thirty yards. The wind, however, had other plans. By the time Mike and I crested the ridge, it was positively frightening.
My Mount Everest
After that day in July of 1996, I’d never look at that mountain the same way again. But come the next year, I’d be back again for more.
It hasn’t been easy to get Shasta out of my blood—not that I’ve tried very hard to do so. Since 1989, I’ve set foot on its slopes no fewer than twenty times, reaching the summit on four of those occasions. But it’s never become routine. Every time I drive up the Sacramento Valley and catch the first hazy glimpse of its distinctive double-peaked silhouette on the horizon, I still get the same feelings that I got the first time: the excitement, the fear, the reverence. For me, this Northern California volcano holds a special allure, beyond her natural beauty and spiritual mystique. No other place I know possesses the same mix of attraction and repulsion– of the possible and the impossible. At 14,162 feet, Shasta, quite simply, is my Mount Everest.
It was no accident that 1989 was the year I first discovered the mountain that would dominate my life for the next two decades. That year saw the end of a ten year relationship with a woman that I thought I’d be spending the rest of my life with. After the breakup, I found myself needing a new direction; a new focus. Instead of jumping into another romance, I looked to the mountains, a world that had first caught my eye when I was an eleven year old Boy Scout.
The Story Behind the Story
It was early 1996. My brother Mike had recently asked me for a special favor. He’d been on our very first Shasta climb in ‘89: four of the five brothers and a family friend from our backpacking days. It was the first time this many of the brothers had gone on a mountain trip together, and it was difficult not to attach a certain symbolism to it. Consequently, expectations were high; we figured we’d all make the summit in this one attempt.
But when problems caused Mike to turn back halfway up the mountain while several of us continued toward the summit, he knew he’d missed an opportunity that was virtually impossible to recapture. And for some time, that was difficult for him to live with.
Still– regret and rationalization don’t add up to much when the whole world comes apart. Five years later, our brother Gary died of cancer at the age of forty. Things would never be the same again for our family and we all knew it.
Yet beyond the grief, we found the opportunity for some new beginnings. Soon Mike and I began to make an effort to do more things together, forging a relationship that we’d never had in the past. Prior to this, he and I rarely saw each other outside of the family holiday get-togethers, habitually using the hundred-mile geographical distance between us as our excuse. That distance was now irrelevant. Then one day, he asked me to take him back to Shasta.
In light of Gary’s recent passing, I took this request seriously, seeing it as both an honor and a responsibility. Since that first climb, I’d been back to Shasta five times, twice by myself, and had successfully reached the summit. Confident in my abilities as a trip leader, I said yes.
Yet I couldn’t keep from worrying about that upcoming trip. Seven years had passed. Mike was now on the verge of turning fifty. It wasn’t going to be any easier than it was that first time. He knew at this point the only way he could make the summit was if we were to split the climb into two days. This is actually the more popular method, but the requisite camping halfway up the mountain means carrying a full-sized forty pound backpack instead of a much lighter daypack.
I’d attempted that type of climb only once before. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and I vowed never to do it again, greatly preferring our traditional one-day dash with minimal gear. But there was more at stake this time; I was willing to break that vow for my brother.
Ironically, I failed to recognize that this would be the very first time Mike and I had taken a trip together by ourselves. I don’t know if he was aware of this at the time either, but this situation set the stage for a special type of outdoor experience.
A Campfire Chat without the Campfire
A few weeks later, Mike and I were sitting beside my truck at the forested 6800 foot Shasta base camp, preparing for our climb the next morning. As our conversation flowed from afternoon into evening, I knew that this was going to be a special trip. Unlike the emotionally restrained first climb with the five of us in ‘89, he and I talked about family matters and personal secrets, some things for the very first time. It was as if a window had been opened, allowing the long stagnant air to circulate.
I’d always looked up to Mike. As my oldest brother and ten years my senior, he had my admiration from the very beginning. Over the years he’d been a role model, a teacher, a surrogate parent, and a counselor. He was also the first in our scouting family to advance to Eagle. He joined the navy like Dad, and went to sea as an officer during the height of the Vietnam War. Always mature; always studious and serious yet at the same time unfailingly modest and devoted to a life of community service: one would imagine the model son.
But being the first born isn’t easy. He’d had more pressure put on him than the rest of us in those early days of the family. Yet he was often harder on himself, holding himself to a higher standard than those around him.
I had my own issues growing up. Small for my age, I was easily intimidated; often preferring my own private world to the grown-up one I was supposed to strive for. Life for me was one of daydreams and grand plans. Sometimes however, those plans took up more space than life itself.
As the two introverts in the family, Mike and I each developed the same cautious, calculated view of the world. Consequently, we developed the same unfortunate coping mechanism of worry. Separated by ten years in age, we weren’t really aware of these similarities growing up—and so it went for most of our lives. It took a trip together in the mountains for this to change.
Our conversation continued during dinner as the sun disappeared behind the snow-shrouded peak that we were preparing to face the following morning. Several other groups of climbers were camped among the trees nearby, yet their presence hardly registered. The mountain felt like it was ours.
That evening in camp I discovered we had more in common than I ever knew. Our reasons for climbing were very similar. We talked of the demons that haunted us—the demons that we needed to challenge every so often. It was reassuring to learn that the mountain scared him too. I’d always thought I was the only one. It was a battle I fought each and every time I came to Shasta—regardless of how many times I’d summited before. And I was ashamed to admit that fear to anyone; unwilling to risk being judged or ostracized. The result was an additional burden when I was already carrying enough on my back. Letting go of it now was truly liberating.
By the end of the evening, my doubts and concerns about the trip were gone, replaced by a sense of calm I’d never felt on Shasta before. Mike and I weren’t just a team; we were partners, and we were ready to climb this mountain together.
Part 2 of 4
Up the Mountain
The next day we awoke in the predawn stillness of 4 A.M. and started getting ready. Whether our neighboring climbers had already hit the trail or were still in bed was difficult to say; our rustlings were the only sounds in camp. By 5:30 we’d had a quick breakfast and were on the trail with forty-pound packs crammed with sleeping bags and foam pads, several layers of fleece and down clothing, a tent, a stove and fuel canisters, food and water, cooking pots and utensils, first aid kits, tool kits, toiletries and cameras, as well as our climbing gear—pointy steel crampons and ice axes.
Our goal today was to get ourselves and this eighty-five pound load of cargo to our high camp at 10,400 feet: a full 3600 feet of uninterrupted vertical gain. Bearing little resemblance to the familiar rigors of backpacking, this was something neither of us had ever accomplished before. I’d attempted it myself only once.
That particular climb, four years earlier, marked the absolute low point of my mountaineering career. Nothing on that trip looked promising: the late start, the abysmal lack of snow, or the explicit rockfall warnings at the ranger station. The stoic, competitive atmosphere that developed amongst the group only increased my unease. But I was reluctant to say a word to anybody. It came as no surprise that the group didn’t get far that day. Miserable and dispirited, I didn’t plan on ever returning to Shasta after that.
But here with Mike, things were already different. We’d begun this journey from a fresh perspective. With our unguarded dialogue the night before, we’d basically cleared the air. We’d given each other the permission to fail. More importantly, we granted the permission to be ourselves.
After an hour hiking through the thick alpine forest of red fir we reached the timberline, just beyond the Sierra Club’s hut at 8000 foot Horse Camp. Built in 1923, the rustic stone hut, with its naturally flowing clear spring, serves as a popular way station along the trail, as well as an emergency shelter in winter. The rest of the year the surrounding area serves as a base camp for the dozens of summit-bound climbers each day.
By now, the sparse patches of snow we’d been seeing had merged into a solid carpet. We’d be on snow for the rest of the climb. Horse Camp marks the end of the defined trail; the point where the slope steepens abruptly. You might say this is where the real mountain begins. We stopped to rest and strap on our crampons.
It was here that we ran into a problem. The boots Mike was wearing were so old and flexible that his crampons kept slipping off each time he’d start walking. Actually they were Gary’s old boots; Mike preferred them to his own for sentimental reasons. He tried re-tightening the straps several times, but the problem continued. Then he got an idea. As the eternally-prepared former Eagle Scout, he grabbed some of the parachute cord he’d brought with him and fashioned a second pair of straps. Boy Scout ingenuity strikes again.
But this didn’t work any better; he wasn’t able to take five steps without the crampons coming loose again. The same thing happened over and over, regardless of how many times he re-adjusted them.
This was no minor issue. Without properly functioning crampons, we wouldn’t have much chance of reaching our high camp, much less the summit. The slopes were too steep to make it safely without the additional traction. Unless we wanted to take that risk, we’d be forced to turn around and head home after only an hour on the trail. In the past, this was exactly the type of problem that might’ve defeated us.
But this climb was different from any of the half dozen that had preceded it. We weren’t going for the summit until tomorrow; we needed only to reach 10,000 feet today. That gave us plenty of time to deal with problems. Then I remembered that my own crampons were more rigid than Mike’s, so we swapped. This wasn’t a perfect solution, since now I was having problems with his pair. But my boots were stiffer than his. With the help of more parachute cord, we managed to come up with an arrangement that worked for both of us. After a final test run, we were back on the trail again; ready to face the steepening snow slopes of Avalanche Gulch.
The climbing on this particular route, up the southeast face, is not considered technical. Aside from crampons and ice axe, neither rope nor special climbing equipment is required. There are no glaciers or crevasses here. There’s no clinging to vertical ice walls or struggling for handholds on barren rock faces. The Avalanche Gulch route, by far the most popular, is basically a “walk-up.” But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Regardless of your age, stamina, or level of training, this mountain forces you to the edge of your abilities. Most of the time, you feel like you’re ninety years old. Today we were ninety year old pack mules.
For the next several hours we continued to inch our way upward, feeling every pound we’d loaded onto our backs. Perhaps the only thing that made it tolerable was the cool morning air at 9,000 feet; a definite advantage of our early departure. With frequent rest breaks Mike and I made steady (though sometimes imperceptible) progress, following the trails of frozen boot prints left behind by the many climbers who’d come before us. Occasionally we encountered another party on the slopes. Usually however, we were in our own world; ten feet apart, one step at a time.
By 1 PM, after more than seven hours of trudging up the lower half of Avalanche Gulch, we finally crested the last rise and reached our high camp at Helen Lake: elevation 10,400 feet. When I unbuckled my pack and threw it down on the snow with an unceremonious thud, the words “Oh God” spontaneously escaped from my lips. Mike, equally spent, and in a similar state of relief, somehow found the energy to laugh at my melodrama. After what felt like an entire day, we’d reached the enviable point on the climb where we knew we didn’t have to lug our packs even another foot up this mountain. Indeed, most of this gear would be staying behind when we went for the summit tomorrow.
The name Helen Lake is more than a little misleading. That’s because there’s no water. It’s not even a lake; merely a shallow depression in a football field sized shelf halfway up the mountain. Most of the year, it’s blanketed with several feet of snow and serves as the high camp for the majority of overnight climbers on the route. On weekends during late spring and early summer you can find up to several dozen tents staked out here. Adorned with hand-built snow walls, a communal pit toilet and the occasional string of Tibetan prayer flags, Helen feels like a tiny village. Climbing rangers are frequently posted here for safety.
That day we found only four other tents in camp. Though more people would likely be arriving later in the day, it promised to be a quiet afternoon. We found a spot to set up our tent, utilizing one of the shallow snow holes left behind by an earlier group. This particular hole had been trampled a bit since its previous owners’ occupation, so we used our ice axes to do some reshaping. Within a half hour, we were settled in.
Then we found ourselves with something that neither of us had ever experienced on the mountain before: free time. On every other trip, time was our nemesis, elusive and unforgiving; often singlehandedly determining our success or failure. Today however, there was no such shortage; time was no longer the enemy.
For the first time I was able to sit and relax, watching the sun arc across the sky as it lengthened the blue shadows falling on the snowy slopes below Casaval Ridge to the west. I was also able to take some decent photographs of the mountain, using light and composition in a deliberate manner; unlike the quick snapshots on the fly that I was accustomed to.
But it was more than just having the time. It was having the freedom to let go of the climb for a while—being able to leave the preoccupation and constant vigilance behind. We didn’t have to worry about our balance or our footing, or dropping a water bottle down 2,000 feet of irretrievable slope. We didn’t have to race down off the mountain before dark either. The tent was set up, our sleeping bags were unrolled, and dinner was cooking on the stove. We had everything we needed to safely and comfortably spend the night here at 10,000 feet. Having experienced only one-day climbs up till now, I’d always thought of Shasta like a bad part of town—not the kind of place to be caught after dark. But now for the first time, it felt like home.
Dinner that evening proved to be one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever enjoyed in the mountains. Our usual Shasta routine was to stand around for five minutes forcing down a bland energy bar with a few swallows of powdered drink mix before hitting the trail again. But now, we had the luxury of eating hot food. It may have been the most ordinary of packaged soup and freeze-dried spaghetti, but our seated banquet seemed almost regal. And afterwards I watched for the first time, the sun setting over Shasta while I was still on the mountain. It almost didn’t matter if we made the summit or not. There didn’t seem any way to ruin this trip.
It was past nine o’clock when the last traces of summer sun had faded from the sky. By the time we had finished our preparations and had settled into our sleeping bags for the night it was nearly ten. Tomorrow was summit day and we needed to be up by four o’clock. Pack-sore and preoccupied with tomorrow’s summit push, we didn’t expect to get more than four hours of sleep.
We’d just closed our eyes. Then we heard the unmistakable sound of someone shuffling into camp. This person was apparently just now catching up with the rest of his group who happened to be camped ten feet from our tent. From the conversation we could tell this was his first time camping on Shasta. And from the number of times we heard the word “Dude,” we surmised he was one of the many young snowboarders who climb Shasta each year.
It also became apparent that he had never set up his tent before. By the light of his headlamp he ventured into the project, narrating the learning process aloud as he went. His companions eventually lent him a hand, but this didn’t expedite things. What followed was a circus of folly and miscommunication that would’ve been humorous had it not been so late. Once they’d finished with the tent the discussion turned to that of dinner, thus launching another round of late night turmoil. Sometime within the next hour, the Dude managed to get settled and we were able to drop off to sleep.
Four o’clock the next morning was a new experience for both Mike and me. Outside our little tent, the mountain lay waiting for us: cold, dark, and silent. Inside, it wasn’t much better. Those first moments of lying awake in our sleeping bags were among the toughest on the entire climb: summoning the will to simply get out of bed. There were probably a hundred places we’d rather have been right then: washing baby diapers; shopping for drapes; even fixing the garage roof. The previous day’s courage and motivation had vanished, perhaps too cold to poke their own heads out of bed. The bravado we flung around in the weeks prior to the climb was gone as well. Indeed, four-o’clock-in-the-morning courage is the rarest kind there is. But somehow, through the mechanical actions of dressing and preparing gear, we found enough impetus to begin the day.
Stepping outside the tent, we found ourselves in the middle of a brisk wind and immediately climbed back inside, forgoing the option of an outdoor breakfast. We spent the duration straddling the cramped doorway of the tent with our booted feet sticking outside, as we tended the stove. The previous evening we’d melted enough snow for the several quarts of drinking water we’d need for today’s climb. So after our customary mountain breakfast of hot cocoa and instant oatmeal, we were in much better spirits and ready to do what we’d come here for.
As this was summit day, we’d be leaving a considerable amount of our gear behind in camp this morning. Everything we needed for today’s summit bid would easily fit into our day packs: an extra layer of clothing, water, sunscreen, a few snacks and our cameras. On our return from the summit later this afternoon, we’d stop off and pick everything up again.
We stowed our unneeded gear inside the tent, and then collapsed it to keep it from blowing away in the wind in our absence. Looking around the camp we could see by the state of the various tents, which groups had already left for the summit and which ones were still asleep. Here in the relatively protected area of Helen Lake, this precautionary measure was probably overkill. Still, we had no way of knowing that wind would be the single biggest issue facing us today.
After a quick photo we were off, ready to tackle the remaining 4,000 feet of Mount Shasta. It was 5:30; light enough to see, but still chilly from the previous night: perfect conditions. Above us now loomed the upper section of Avalanche Gulch, the longest single expanse of terrain on the southeastern face of the mountain. Hemmed in by Sargent’s Ridge to the east and challenging Casaval Ridge to the west, this 3,000-foot bowl-shaped ravine becomes the real test of endurance on Shasta. With slopes that eventually exceed thirty degrees, this section of the route defeats more climbers than any other place.
But we had a new weapon this time. Our night of acclimatization had given us a fresh set of lungs. Barely feeling the weight of our scaled-down packs, we found ourselves moving with an ease inconceivable the day before. With almost youthful energy and breathing that was strong and unlabored, we made healthy progress up the steepening slope.
At this hour the snow remained crisp and unyielding from the previous night’s freeze. Ahead of us lay another continuous sea of footprints from scores of earlier climbers. Each frozen impression provided a near-level platform on which to stand; an absolute blessing for weary ankles on the steeper slopes of upper Avalanche. Like ascending a 3,000 foot staircase, Mike and I made our way up the mountain, literally one step at a time.
During our first rest break I turned and looked back down toward camp and was astounded at the progress we’d made already; twice the distance I’d expected. Spending that one night at 10,000 feet had made a huge difference. I remember that moment being especially magical. The air was cool and crisp from the previous night; our pace was comfortable, and having Mike there to talk to made me feel both safe and needed. I couldn’t imagine ever climbing this mountain again without him.
At the top of Avalanche Gulch stand the forbidding lava towers of Red Banks, the prominent volcanic outcropping produced during Shasta’s last eruption. At 13,000 feet, Red Banks is the Rubicon of the southern face—the physical and psychological barrier that often separates the victorious from the defeated. Comprised of a long chain of separate lava blocks, it looks like the fossilized backbone of an enormous dinosaur sprawled across the slope. Its gritty orange lava juts out from virgin snow banks, contrasting dramatically with the brilliant cobalt sky. Throughout most of the climb, it dominates the horizon and appears to be the very summit. But for now, it was still several long hours away.
By the time we reached 12,000 feet the slope had climbed to an angle of nearly thirty degrees. Our pace had been slowing for the past hour, but now it was noticeably slower. Mike was starting to have some problems. Not only was he growing tired, but getting cold as well. Though it was nearly 7:30, the sun had yet to break over Sargent’s Ridge to our right, as the bowl-shaped gulch kept us cloaked in the full shadow of the mountain. It was time to take a serious sit-down break. We found a small shelf of rock on the west face of the gulch where we stopped to rest.
Barely eight feet across yet only half as deep, this was the same ledge we’d seen someone spending the night on when we were at camp 2,000 feet below. Our usual rest breaks were spent on our feet so it was good to actually sit down for a bit; the benefit being as much mental as physical. Mike threw on another layer of clothing while I dug into my food stash. After twenty minutes we were adequately warmed up, rested and refueled. We packed up and made our way back to the trail.
It wasn’t very long after we set out again that the sun finally broke over the ridge, instantly bathing us in brilliant light. The sunlight provided a welcome emotional boost, yet the 12,000-foot air was still too chilled for us to peel off any layers of clothing.
We were still tackling the steepening slopes below Red Banks when I noticed that Mike was having problems with the altitude. It wasn’t merely his slowed pace; he was now having trouble keeping his balance. Dizzy and perhaps hypoxic, he found that he could no longer safely stand. Seeing no other recourse, he leaned forward into the slope and dropped down on his hands for additional support.
He continued up the slope on all fours while I stayed nearby; concerned, but actually more impressed. It was easy to get discouraged on Shasta. But today Mike’s drive was stronger than the mountain’s efforts to push him back. It was ironic; I myself would’ve quit long before this, and on many occasions I had, suffering from something as petty as an upset stomach.
But there was a deeper motivation for Mike to reach the top of Shasta today. He wasn’t merely climbing this mountain for himself. He was here for our brother Gary as well. Nestled securely inside his pack was a small canister of Gary’s ashes that he had brought from home. It was Mike’s goal to scatter those ashes at the summit if at all possible.
Part 3 of 4
Encountering the Wind
It was sometime past nine o’clock when we finally reached Red Banks’ lower edge. Mike was back on his feet by now and was doing well, having regained his sense of balance. Psychologically, Red Banks has proven to be a major turning point on nearly every climb. With the interminable crawl up Avalanche Gulch finally behind you, it seems the summit is actually attainable at this point.
Navigating through Red Banks involves ascending any one of a number of ten-foot wide snow chutes that lie between the towering orange lava blocks. The snow in these steep chimneys is frequently slick and icy from lack of sun exposure, but that wasn’t an issue today. Scrambling up the closest one, we made it through with little problem.
Ten minutes later we stood above the Banks, taking in the ever-widening view of the hazy blue landscape below. As we crested its top, we could see massive Thumb Rock jutting out of the snow over our right shoulder. I remember this being an especially great moment of the trip. We’d left the steepest part of the climb behind us, and were now at a point where the incredible vistas of Shasta were coming into view. Beyond Thumb Rock, we could see the snowcapped summit of 10,000 foot Lassen Peak, seventy miles to the southeast. I was practically buzzing with optimism; it looked like nothing could stop us now.
After snapping a few well-deserved photos of ourselves in front of the Thumb we continued upward, soon coming upon a wide, sloped shelf; less steep than before but more exposed to the north. It was here we first encountered the wind.
The topography of Shasta often makes an enigma of Nature’s breath. Sometimes, the lower flanks will be howling, while the summit is peacefully calm. Other days, a fierce gale appears where you’ve never seen it before. Here, the wind was aggressive but certainly manageable; nothing that either of us hadn’t previously experienced. But we had no way of knowing that the conditions here above Thumb Rock were only a mild precursor of those occurring higher up the mountain.
Throwing on our last layers of protection, we headed up the slope of Misery Hill, as the winds around us began to grow. Starting from an altitude of 13,300 feet, Misery Hill represents the last major obstacle to the summit of Shasta. The name refers to the all too common disappointment upon reaching its crest, since it gives every indication of being the summit of the mountain from below. From one year to the next, it can be either snow covered or loose rock and ash, depending on recent weather conditions. Today, the 500-foot face of Misery Hill was a snowy one; a stark white pyramid stabbing into the sky.
But it was the wind that stole our attention, looming even larger than the Hill’s dramatic profile. Steadily gusting to nearly forty miles per hour, the gale followed our every step up the mountain; its constant presence soon beginning to weigh upon us. I never would’ve known such a thing as “wind anxiety” even existed. This certainly was no hurricane or typhoon; we weren’t being blown off the mountain by any stretch. But amid the rising howl, I found myself struggling to stay focused; struggling perhaps even to remain rational.
The Chaos Continues
Reaching the crest of the Hill, we now stood at the edge of the broad summit plateau, where the wind had grown to a steady roar. We could barely hear each other speak. A quarter mile in the distance stood the 200-foot summit pinnacle, still locked in its winter mantle of snow. The first time I caught sight of it in ’89—stark and craggy– it looked forbidding enough to turn our group of summit hopefuls back around. Today the unbridled winds had transformed that timber wolf into a grizzly.
We pushed on ahead, and soon came upon several climbers hunkered down in a shallow snow hole. They were the first people we’d seen in hours. Eager to escape the chaos, we climbed in and sat down next to them, hoping to gather our thoughts and plan the final section of the climb. Everyone was wrapped up like a mummy. They sat motionless and mute, consumed by their own thoughts. We couldn’t tell if they were on their way to the summit or were heading back down. Perhaps they didn’t know either.
I’d never experienced wind of this magnitude before—wind so relentless that it monopolized every thought and every emotion like an air raid siren. As Mike and I mapped out our options, it became the one factor around which everything else revolved.
Mike was hesitant about continuing any further. This surprised me. It was the first time he’d expressed any doubts about us succeeding; the first time his nerves had gotten ahead of him. We were so close at this point; too close to give up and turn back. He just needed some reassurance. I’d been up on the pinnacle before and was fairly familiar with the terrain. So over the howl of the wind, I tried to describe the landscape that lay ahead of us…
We were approximately thirty minutes from the summit. The route ahead passed through varied terrain, involving varying degrees of risk. The first three-quarters of it followed the level snow field of the plateau—exposed, but certainly doable. After that, it climbed a steep but sheltered slope up the face of the pinnacle. For that distance, I could reasonably guarantee that we’d be all right.
But beyond that stood the summit ridge. The route across it was rocky and terribly exposed. Up there, I could make no promises. We agreed to continue to that point, and then reassess the situation. If the wind became too dangerous, we’d turn back.
Summoning our remaining will, we climbed out of the hole and struck out across the plateau. Out in the open, we immediately found ourselves under siege. It was relentless. Yet it wasn’t the wind’s physical presence that became the real challenge, but rather the inescapable angst and mental noise that it manifested. As we shouldered our way through the gale, I found it increasingly difficult to stay clear-headed; the wind virtually consuming all of my mental bandwidth.
Verbal communication was nearly impossible at this point. Shrouded in our protective armor of hoods and goggles, we found ourselves trapped in two separate worlds– though only a few feet apart. That sense of being cut off, even temporarily, was unsettling.
We pushed ahead in single file, following the jagged line of footprints etched in the snow by previous climbers. Ahead, the trail vanished into the distance; I didn’t remember the plateau being this big the last time I was here. It seemed immense. It would take us some time to reach the other side. The thought made me uneasy.
Mike was somewhere behind me. Having him out of view, I got the sense that he might still be having doubts about continuing. We weren’t even halfway across when I felt a sudden need to check-in with him. Dropping to one knee to steady myself, I motioned him over to me. He knelt down barely a foot away; our heads practically touching. Struggling to make myself heard over the roar, I suggested we’d have some brief cover in the shadow of the summit pinnacle, where the route dropped into a depression near the volcanic sulfur springs.
When we finally reached that sheltered spot we did get a short respite, but it only served to get me to drop my guard at a most inopportune time. Looking up, I noticed three climbers coming down off the summit, walking abreast, locked arm in arm. How comical, I thought to myself, as if they were strolling down the Yellow Brick Road to Oz. I didn’t realize until later why they were walking in that fashion. After we passed them, I got the crazy idea that it would be fun to let the wind blow me up the mountain. Fun? What the hell I was thinking?!
As I started up the pinnacle toward the summit, I spread my arms to catch as much of the wind as I could, and was briefly amused by the lift it gave me from behind. My cockiness didn’t last long however, as a powerful blast hit me from behind and blew the wool cap clear off my head. Before I could even blink, this cap that was pulled snugly down around my ears had flown into the air, and continued upward until it literally vanished in mid-air. It was gone.
It was a sobering moment; all I could think about was the heat-loss ramifications. A sudden flush of guilt swept over me; I felt I’d just been punished for my stupidity. Fortunately, the down jacket I was wearing had an attached hood. I quickly pulled it over my head. But I was still a bit shaken. Fumbling with the snaps, I asked Mike to button it up for me as if I was a five-year-old in the school yard. When I realized that my cap was probably somewhere in the next county by now, I took it as a sign: We weren’t likely to get many second chances today. Don’t screw up again!
If my memory was correct, we were no more than ten minutes from the summit at this point. All we needed to do was reach the top of the ridge and make our way east about thirty yards. But the mountain had a surprise waiting for us. By the time we crested the ridge, the wind was positively frightening.
Part 4 of 4
To the Top
It was impossible to think clearly. Caught out in the open, vulnerable and off balance, we needed to find cover immediately. Ten yards to our right, a car-sized lava boulder stuck out of the snow near the edge of the ridge. We scrambled over and huddled up next to it, crouching in the leeward side. With a moment now to think, I looked around. Something was wrong. I then realized I was no longer sure of our exact location.
The recent snows had altered the landscape– everything was nearly unrecognizable from the last time I was here. I knew the general direction to the summit, but I couldn’t recall how far it was. An eight foot snow-covered rise stood in front of us, blocking our view. To get reoriented I needed to see what was beyond it. I was hoping we were on the edge of the summit saddle, the sheltered location where dozens of us had partied the year before. But I needed to be sure. While Mike waited in the shelter of the rock I crept toward the rise, keeping myself as low as possible.
Not five seconds after I got out into the open, a blast of wind lifted me clear off my feet and threw me to the ground, barely twenty feet from the edge. Just as I hit the snow, Mike leapt from cover, pinning me down by the leg to stop me from sliding down the slope on my belly.
I was stunned. That gust had completely caught me off guard—as if I’d been blind-sided by a phantom linebacker. Partly in shock and a bit short of breath, we scrambled back within the shelter of the rock.
There was no doubt in my mind at this point that this was as far as the mountain wanted us to go today. It would’ve been insane to try that stunt again. If my theory was correct, we could’ve tossed a penny (on a quieter day, of course) the distance to the actual summit. But that didn’t matter. Today, this was the summit of Shasta. We’d made it. After seven attempts, it was my second time here. But it was Mike’s first; a personal triumph, and well overdue. It felt good, but there wasn’t much time to celebrate.
The wind was showing no signs of abating. Mike was convinced that the gusts had actually increased in the short time since we’d arrived. When I heard that I became truly scared for the first time. This trip was far from over. We were alone and still had a long way back down the mountain: the exposed plateau; Misery Hill; the icy chutes of Red Banks; the steep slopes of Avalanche Gulch. A lot could go wrong, and judging by the last two hours, this looked like the kind of day where things could easily go all to hell.
Time was becoming a critical issue. I didn’t want to remain at the summit any longer than we absolutely had to. Struggling to stay focused we pulled the cameras from our packs and took a couple quick summit photos. I remember being very methodical, making sure to do everything carefully; virtually narrating the procedure in my head: watch your footing; don’t drop your camera or let go of the flag; don’t lose your glove; try to keep your back to the wind. I knew we couldn’t afford any more mistakes. We were right on that edge.
In my belief that there’d be other climbers at the summit to take our pictures, I’d left my ice axe camera clamp at home, so there was no way to include both of us in the photos at the same time. But photographic aesthetics were hardly a priority, so we settled for separate solo shots of us crouched down in front of the rock that provided our only shelter. I was so harried I didn’t realize that one of my crampons had come loose from my boot. It lay several feet away in the snow. The timing was almost spooky. If it had happened any earlier, it could’ve been a problem.
With the photos done, there was one last thing for us to do. Mike reached into his pack and dug out the small jar containing some of our brother’s ashes that he’d brought with him. Gary had made three climbs up Shasta, yet he’d never reached the top. We took this opportunity to honor his memory by scattering his remains amid the snow-covered summit he never touched when he was alive. The wind took him from my hands, and he was gone. Later in the summer, he’d follow the snowmelt down the Sacramento Valley to the Pacific Ocean. But for now, he could rest here.
Off the Mountain
A blast of wind jogged us back to the present. It was time to go. We packed up our gear and started down off the summit. We’d barely left the top when we saw a pair of climbers cresting the ridge. If they had arrived two minutes earlier, they could’ve taken our picture for us. It didn’t matter. Even if we hadn’t exhausted all our film we wouldn’t have felt like stopping. Offering only a quick hello we continued down the slope of the pinnacle, hoping to avoid any further problems. But the mountain wasn’t finished with us yet. My biggest scare on Shasta was still to come.
The wind had increased to an absolute roar by this time, and conversation was essentially impossible. The only good news was that we were on our way back down; we were finally getting out of here. The trail off the pinnacle was steep and exposed, but fairly direct. The route led diagonally down the south face, toward the snowy expanse of the summit plateau below. With this clearly visible landmark to guide us, it seemed obvious which direction to proceed. Yet these weren’t the most coherent of circumstances…
Mike was in the lead. I was less than twenty feet behind him. He was making the traverse across the pinnacle face when I sensed something wasn’t right. Not knowing if it was simply anxiety from the wind, I continued to follow him. Then I realized we were on the wrong trail. It seemed crazy that we could lose our way on this part of the mountain. But somehow, we had.
What I saw next was even more alarming. Mike was headed for the edge of a steep drop-off and it looked like he wasn’t even aware of it. I called out to him, but the wind overpowered my voice.
I thought he had lost his mind. What the hell was he doing? Perhaps in a panic to get off the summit he was racing ahead without seeing where he was going. I screamed into the wind again, but he kept moving toward the edge, oblivious; in his own world. In another twenty feet, he’d be over the cliff. Unable to get my feet to move, I watched for what appeared to be the last remaining seconds that I’d ever see of my brother. I screamed one final time. At last he heard me and stopped. He looked up and shook himself back to coherence.
It was alarming how much the wind had affected us. Obsessed with escape, we let judgment slip precariously out of hand. And now, with the two of us huddled on the exposed slope of the pinnacle, escape was still our biggest preoccupation. One thing was clear: we needed to get our shit back together and get re-focused. Correcting our course, we continued down the pinnacle toward the plateau. We didn’t need anything else to go wrong—we just needed to keep moving.
A hopeful mantra started running through my head: We’ll be all right once we get off the plateau, I kept telling myself. Then, we’d finally be away from this wind. That one thought kept me going, and it felt like I was holding my breath the entire time.
After a very long twenty minutes, we were off the pinnacle and back across the plateau. Cresting the ridge atop Misery Hill, we then headed down the slope toward Red Banks, leaving behind us a wind that neither of us would likely forget for the rest of our lives…
Four and a half hours later, after retrieving our gear at our Helen Lake camp, we reached my truck at the 6,800-foot trailhead parking area. Exhausted but adrenalized; accomplished but eager to get home; we found ourselves in a familiar state of dazed contentment. In fifteen minutes we’d thrown our gear in the truck, changed out of our sweaty mountaineering clothes and scrubbed the dirt-streaked sunscreen off our faces. We then climbed in the front seat and headed down Everett Memorial Highway toward town.
When we stopped in the town of Mount Shasta to grab a late lunch, Mike made a phone call to his wife. He wanted to let her know that we had made it safely down off the mountain and that we were on our way home.
I was standing far enough away from Mike to allow him some privacy, but close enough to hear the conversation. I admit I had an agenda; I wanted to know something, but I didn’t want him to know I was listening. When he mentioned to her without hesitation that we had reached the summit, I had my answer. I needed to know that he was giving us full credit for our accomplishment—without qualifying it—without any technicalities. Sure, we didn’t reach the precise geographical apex of Mount Shasta this time. But we were close enough to have it count.
I’ve heard that Nepalese Sherpas in the Himalaya traditionally don’t climb all the way to the summit of a mountain. They stop a bit short of it, out of respect. According to their cultural beliefs, the top is where the Gods live. Mike and I certainly found evidence of that godly presence there today, and paid our share of that respect ourselves.
This trip revealed a side of Shasta neither of us had ever seen before. It also showed us a new side of ourselves. In the space of three days, we’d found each other– and we’d saved each other. In the end, this trip possessed all the elements necessary for a great adventure, big or small: uncertainty and fear; struggle and perseverance; beauty and triumph. And there was closure: not only for Mike, but for Gary as well.
In turn, this closure precipitated another beginning; a new era. In the years that followed, Mike and I went on many more outdoor trips together, often with our younger brother Steve: mountain climbs, backpacking, bike camping tours, overnight canoe and rowboat trips. With each new experience we shared a bit more of our inner selves; witnessed more of the natural world and found more common ground. And each night in our tent we enjoyed a tradition of playing countless games of rummy over a generous supply of Fig Newtons and brandy. Those were some great times, and I never wanted them to end. Ultimately my brother Mike became the best friend I ever had.
Then came the day he needed to leave. After more than sixty years in California, Mike was moving back east. He and his wife had spent far too much time away from their daughter ever since she relocated to North Carolina to continue her education. Knowing they wanted to spend their remaining years with her, they pulled up their roots and headed east to start a new life.
Although it was one of the toughest transitions I ever had to make, I found consolation in knowing that Mike was genuinely happy among his reunited family. It’s taken me some time, but I’m finally finding some new friends to hang out with in my continuing travels. And before too much longer I need to get myself out to Carolina, where Mike and his newly-built sailboat await further adventures. We won’t need to worry about crampons this time.
Copyright © 2016 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb Everest.net.
Please Share on Facebook and Twitter!