The Hotlum-Wintun Ridge

Mount Shasta - Pink Dawn

Race to the Summit

As the first rays of sun glow pink on the Wintun Glacier, the sky seems momentarily to clear. The clouds dissipate. Perhaps I'm wrong about the weather.

The snow unfortunately softens the instant the sun touches it. Yes, I guess it is July after all. Despite the moderate incline, and the softening snow, I stubbornly remain on foot, hiking in crampons, using my ski poles for balance. No doubt about it: I'm running behind schedule. I'd hoped to be on the upper snow fields by now.

Siskiyou County Pastels Mount Shasta - A Long Way to Go Exhausted Andy Nearing Shasta's Summit

Like most volcanoes, Shasta's size is deceptive. The gradually-sloping angle fools the eye. Moreover, the gently-sloping base requires climbers to travel a substantial distance horizontally.

As the snow continued to soften, and the air began to thin, my pace slows. I find a boot track. By staying in the footsteps, I don't tend to sink as far.

I don't recall who first said it, but climbing offers as much travel within the confines of one's own head as without; I've come to treasure these moments of introspection, when all life is reduced to the simplicity of pressing onward, onward, for no reason other than because you can.

The heart races; the lungs protest. Below, the magnificent sweep of Shasta's girth extends outward. The wind picks up, blowing squarely into my face.

The weight of my skis makes my shoulders ache. The passing time also clears up any confusion regarding the weather: cells of concern are sprouting across the eastern horizon.

As for Shasta, the summit remains clear—for the moment—but a menacing Lenticular is forming about a mile away. Urged onward by the building clouds, I will myself to continue.

As planned, I break with the traditional ascent route. Rather than traversing left onto the Wintun glacier, I instead veer right, following the steepening snow pack below a band of rocks and cliffs.

At last, I've reached the upper snowfield. The slope steepens. Now, I'm sinking into the snow with each step—bona fide post-holing. The effect on my pace and my morale is devastating. I stop, looking north toward the nearby Hotlum, admiring the glacier's three impressive ice falls.

The weather continues its schizophrenic character. The sky overhead is blue, but the horizons grow darker. Shasta's summit inexplicably remains clear. The cloud formation to the north has returned, darker and more menacing than ever. Meanwhile, the softening snow has degraded to the point that good travel on foot is all but impossible. I head for the rocks to scramble up raw talus rather than continue this dismal post-holing.

The soft snow, however, has extracted its price: I'm wasted. Overhead, wisps of clouds suddenly streak from Shasta's summit. Still on the rocks, I veer toward the Wintun glacier. A short traverse shows I'm within perhaps two or three hundred vertical feet of the summit. To the southeast I now see a horizon darkened with rain clouds, all of which are rushing toward me.

The lead offender is perhaps 30 minutes away from the summit. I look upwards, gauge my possibilities. Given my energy level, I doubt I can reach the summit in time. Still, I give it a try. The cloud and I jockey for position, trying to be first to the top of the mountain...

next: The Descent

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.