Getting High on Mountains

How many ladies wear men’s size 11.5 mountaineering boots?

… just me?

But really, I think my feet were just swollen from a 10 mile road run in Five Fingers before heading out to rent gear. I still felt like a monster when trying them on.

Enough about my freakishly large feet. I climbed Mount Shasta this past Sunday! Due to a dark, lenticular cloud that formed at the top within a matter of minutes, bringing crazy winds, I had to turn around about 120 meters from the summit.

lenticular cloud

Here’s a nice photo of said cloud taken by Hike Mt Shasta.

I’ve been smitten with this mountain ever since the moment I first laid eyes on her. Last year’s super dry conditions led me to wait for a more ideal time to try to climb.

Despite weather advisories for high winds, with gusts up to 90 mph, my friend and I decided that Sunday, May 31 would be the day we shoot for the summit.

After a hellish week of scrambling to meet deadlines, I was looking forward to unwinding with some mountain energy. When we stopped in at The Fifth Season to rent gear, Leif suggested we leave Horse Camp at 3 or 4 a.m. to get to the summit before 11. I was not happy with that suggestion. I was thinking more along the lines of 5, but what do I know?

We picked up sandwiches at Shasta Supermarket, parked at Bunny Flat, and hiked 1.7 miles to Horse Camp with just enough time to set up the tent and scarf our sandwiches before it got dark.

Horse Camp is a lot prettier than I expected it to be. But let me tell you, that short hike between there and Bunny Flat was the only leg of the trip that I whined about- both on the way in and on the way out. I don’t know if it was all the crap I was carrying (I carried the monster boots strapped to my backpack for that part) or the fact that I was tired and hungry, but that little easy hike just drove me nuts.

We decided to set alarms for 3 a.m., and leave as soon as we were ready. That turned out to be 4.

I slept like a rock, and first woke up at 1:46 a.m., when I started hearing other climbers crunching through the snow. “Ready to go! Let’s climb!” said the voice in my head. But my friend was still asleep, and I had already changed plans so many times that I didn’t want to add another annoyance by waking her up over an hour early to start.

I probably should have.

When our alarms simultaneously sounded at 3, I was wide awake and ready to boogie. I mixed some chocolate protein powder into the lukewarm coffee that I had made the day before and brought in a thermos. If you’re gonna drink old coffee, might as well make it taste like a Dunkaccino!

That plus a few nibbles of a Pro Bar was my first breakfast. I’ve learned from past experiences that food, water and lots of caffeine are mandatory for staving off altitude sickness.

The first couple of hours were difficult. Slushy, dark, and sleepy. My friend wasn’t eating or drinking enough, and I knew it. There’s only so much you can do without prying one’s mouth open, though.

I continued eating energy bars and chocolate covered coffee beans while making the steady ascent, knowing I would soon feel unable to stomach anything.

The hike up to Lake Helen was a lot slower than I counted on. I was dressed so that I felt comfortable while moving, but began to shiver whenever we stopped for a break. Additionally, the slow and steady rhythm of the hike helped me feel grounded and present. Whenever I stopped, I began to feel dizzy and nauseous.

By the time we stopped at Lake Helen to put crampons on, the sun had risen. The light revealed the ghastly pale color of my friend’s face, which I decided not to comment on because I didn’t want to scare her, but I was starting to get worried.

“Just to let you know, I’ve already consumed at least 600 calories this morning,” I told her, hoping she would do the same. I watched her struggle to attach her gaiters and crampons, slightly concerned by how disoriented she appeared.

After Lake Helen, it was a steep and icy climb up to Red Banks. I felt great. Fueled by caffeine and invigorated by the sublime energy of my mountain goddess, I kept my steady rhythm going. I was taking the smallest steps possible, but every time I turned to look for my friend, she was stopped.

At one point, I thought I saw her walking back down the mountain, but I’m not sure that was even her. To my surprise, the slowest I could possibly move was pretty darn fast.

I started asking people making their way down to look out for her and maybe suggest that she go back to the tent if she wasn’t feeling well. I could tell she was getting sick, and the mountain wasn’t getting any friendlier.

At that point, I knew that if I got to the summit, it would be solo. Even though the climb made my giant boots slip a bit off my heels, I felt strong.

I felt the mountain’s heart beat pulsing through my body as I continued the small, automated movements that carried me upward. Step, step, ice axe, rest, step, step, ice axe, rest. I hadn’t taken much time to study the route or research the climb. My only plan was to show up and keep taking little steps.

I stopped for a moment and felt my own heart beating in sync with the rhythm of my movements. I have arrhythmia, and my heartbeat is almost never consistent. Sometimes, it’s scary. But on Sunday, as I was climbing, it pumped perfectly on time with my three mini movements, and then skipped a beat.

When I got to The Heart, I decided to go straight up the steep slope to Red Banks instead of around Thumb Rock. A descending climber suggested this, saying, “it only gets steeper after that, so you might at well get started!”

At the very top of Red Banks, the climb was so steep that I had to bend over to maintain balance. My face was inches from the snow, and I caught whiffs of sulphur though the never-ending stream of snot dripping from my nose.

I was so completely blissed out. I bent deeper and kissed a red rock.

After Red Banks comes Misery Hill. About halfway up there, the wind started getting fierce. I stopped to pull on my balaclava, then stopped again right near the top to get my puffy jacket and shell out of my backpack.

At that point, the wind was so violent, I had to crouch down to prevent my layers from being blown away. Actually, I probably should have been worried about my body being blown away. Even after I was safely bundled up, it was too windy to stand upright.

There was a small group right in front of me: a father and son team, and one solo dude right behind them. We were all huddled down at the top of Misery Hill, like a cluster of Gore-Tex freckles on the mountain face.

We waited several minutes for the wind to die down. Some kind of message seemed to be getting relayed down from the climbers at the summit. I couldn’t hear anything but the wind whipping the hood of my jacket.

Soon, the solo dude turned and duck-walked toward me. I tried asking if he was turning around, but my voice was swallowed by the howling wind.

Luckily, that didn’t matter. He made the hand signal for me to turn around, and I was able to make out the words, “TOO DANGEROUS”

When we were a safe distance down the hill, the father approached me and said, “I hope you know that cloud is no danger to us. We’re totally safe here.”

I didn’t know what he was talking about until I turned and saw the edge of a dark cloud, pictured above, that brought the stormy winds.

The top of the mountain is huge, and steep. Before glissading down, I found a nice rock to rest on while pulling on the old, beat-up pair of waterproof pants I sometimes used to farm in the rain. During this time, I took a few pics and ate a bag of beef jerky.

pretty clouds mountain selfie1 mountain selfie2

It was one of those times where you can’t see your screen so just take a bunch of shots and hope something turns out halfway decent…

I wasn’t disappointed that I had to turn around before reaching the summit. I had gotten pretty dang far, and had fun doing it. The views were incredible, the air tasted delicious, and I was deliriously happy.

Glissading down Misery Hill was the scary part. I’m a fraidy-cat when it comes to speed. I kept digging my ice axe into the snow to slow myself down… to the point of stopping. It was quite the upper body workout.

The father guy showed me how to hold my axe the right way, noting that the way I originally had it could have led to an unfortunate accident involving my face.

Grateful for this bit of advice, I promptly followed his directions. As much as I adore Tyrion Lannister, I’m not about to take an axe to the face.

I continued glissading down the mountain in a comically abrupt stop-and-go manner. Word of advice, if you’re going to slide down Avalanche Gulch, DON’T DO IT IN A THONG!


Eventually, I got too tired to be scared and just let myself go. “Nothing can hurt you here,” the father dude reassured me, again. “The worst that can happen is you hit a rock with your butt.”

I didn’t, but my rear end was so numb that it wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. Honestly, when you run 40-50 miles per week, soaking in snow feels quite nice. By the time I reached Lake Helen, I had snow all up in my everything.

It wasn’t until I got up and started walking that I felt how truly exhausted I was. I was also semi-aware of the fact that I was losing my mind. I tried singing to myself, but there wan’t enough oxygen in the air to make it past 2-3 words. So, I began mumbling jibberish to myself instead. Jibberish and random animal noises.

I felt ecstatic. This is common after I finish something really physically grueling. Once my body knows the hard part is over, I get loopy as hell.

I took a different route down than I had taken up, and somehow found myself on some rocks. After glissading for a long while, my legs didn’t seem to know how to work anymore. Between my foggy mind and uncooperative limbs, I took a tiny tumble and scraped myself on the rocks.

Deciding it was about time to have myself a little five minute sit-down, I filled my water bottle from a spring, and finished the coffee beans. Caffeine saved the day, once again!

I made it back to Horse Camp in one piece, and found my friend safe and sound in the tent.

The last thing I wanted to do was hike out and drive home, but we had gear to return and beer to drink!

All in all, it was an amazing experience. I started out feeling anxious that I wouldn’t be able to summit, but now I know that I absolutely can. And maybe I will, one day when the mountain lets me. The trip gave me a lot of confidence along with a sense of peace. It was the finale of a week of work that I feared I wouldn’t finish in time, but I did.

I would say that the lesson here is not to waste my energy feeling nervous about goals I’m perfectly capable of accomplishing. That, and remember to apply sunscreen before I get burnt!!

red face

Does your face hurt, cuz it’s killin me!


8 thoughts on “Getting High on Mountains

  1. Love this post. It really put me there with you. Made me wanna hike another mountain or two before I get too old and fucked-over!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.