I have dreamed of summiting 14,179-foot Mount Shasta since childhood.
I made an attempt in May of 2015, but extreme winds and altitude sickness prevented my climbing partner and I from continuing past Lake Helen on the Avalanche Gulch route. On Aug. 20, the conditions were just right for my brother, Marty, and I to make an attempt.
Equipped with a helmet, ice ax, microspikes (in lieu of crampons), and the usual hiking essentials, we departed from the Clear Creek trailhead at 6:15 a.m. Our departure time was later than most other climbing parties that had bivouacked the previous night several miles up the trail.
The Clear Creek trail is maintained for three miles in a steady but moderate incline before opening up at a meadow base camp where there is a spring. We stopped to top off our water supply and drank the fresh spring water untreated. From there, the trail fades into a well used mountaineer route.
In the following mile of switchbacks, we gained 2,000 vertical feet, and while this section was not the most physically demanding, we could feel the shift in our bodies’ oxygen levels with every step. Just over four miles in, we arrived at our first significant snowfield.
It was still early in the day, so the snow was icy slick and we weren’t carrying crampons, so we crossed to the other side of the snowfield and continue ascending where dry scree paralleled the snow route. Once we rejoined the original route, we had our first view of the aptly named UFO Rock, a distinct red rock that sits at 12,800 feet, and the climb to get there was the hardest section of the day.
Each step accomplished only half of its intended distance thanks to the unstable, sandy scree made from volcanic ash. We paused more frequently to hydrate and snack to avoid the onset of any acute mountain sickness symptoms such as headache and stomachache. I was extremely thankful for my trekking poles, which kept me moving forward every time I felt ready to collapse from exhaustion. I lost track of time and space as I focused only on the next step, but eventually we reached the elusive UFO Rock, positioned at the base of a rocky, outcropped crest.
After a 20-minute repose, we set out with regained determination. There was a slightly more pronounced trail up the right side of the ridge, which we followed delicately, testing each rock before placing full weight on it. While the prior portion of our climb was the most physically exhausting, this section had the most risk because of loose rock above and below us. We put on our helmets at the base of this hill and kept them on until our return to the same location.
Once we crested, the summit awaited us straight ahead, with only a few minor hills in between. It felt like we flew through the remaining elevation gain in comparison to our slothful ascent up to this point. Just below the summit is an essentially flat glacier that connects the Avalanche Gulch route with the Clear Creek route. Our route required a short traverse across it, a well used portion at the base of the summit.
Another 100 feet led us past a fascinating, bubbling sulfur spring which indicates that Shasta is still an active volcano. From there, a short, 5-minute ascent landed us on the summit of the great mountain.
The rush of being on top of the world was hardly inhibited by the looming presence of wildfire smoke that blocked what would have been a 360-degree view. We were the last ones to summit that day, so we had the top all to ourselves. After celebrating, documenting with photos and video, and signing our names in the summit log, we began our descent.
The most tedious section was retracing our path back to UFO rock. From there we were pleasantly surprised to find that what had been the slowest portion on the ascent turned into a swift glissade through the volcanic sand. We braved some inevitable falls along the way, but the soft earth kept the impact gentle. When we arrived back at the snowfield, the snow was just the right consistency for us to slide on our seats, using our ice axes for control and self-arrest. It was a fun way down, and it gave us an opportunity to practice self-arrest.
After the snow, we continued down sandy terrain for another mile until reaching the bubbling springs at Clear Creek base camp. The water was cool and refreshing and tasted like the sweetest water in the world.
The remaining three miles to the trailhead passed quickly, and we kept looking back at the mountain. The sight of the summit was overwhelming, and it was a strange feeling to see how far we had gone in the course of a day.
It took us 8 hours to summit and 4 hours to descend.
We were mentally prepared for the task, but the 7,500-foot elevation gain was no easy feat. Also, we couldn’t predict how our bodies would respond. There is always some uncertainty regarding mountain sickness, and we were grateful to have evaded any complications.
— Sophie Stiles is a Medford native.