Mid-October: Mount Shasta

It was just after six in the morning. I had reached the Helen Lake area of Mount Shasta after a brutally obnoxious scramble up about a thousand vertical feet of scree. I was expecting to find a few tents of fellow climbers, I found none. I sat down for my first break of the day. The earliest signs of sunlight were cresting over the horizon yet the stars were still on full display. I counted four shooting stars in total and took note of the few constellations that I recognized. I was cold, a little tired, and now seeing that I was the only one on the mountain, a bit anxious. But looking at the stars and the mountains now below me I felt entirely right. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. 

Mount Shasta is a very special place. In early 2021 I drove past it and was awestruck by its sheer size and grandeur. In the subsequent years, I learned that I was not alone in my unexplainable attraction to the mountain. The town of Mount Shasta is home to many spiritually inclined individuals and the entire area carries with it an energy that is undeniable. This added a certain element to this day that I had never dealt with before. The mountain felt alive underneath my feet and although I was the only person on the trail that day I did not feel alone. There was something else with me. 

I rested for over 30 minutes as I wanted more light for what would be the hardest part of my climb. I set off across the frozen Helen Lake and began my ascent up Avalanche Gulch. After another thousand feet of miserable scrambling I got my first look at what I was up against. I had two options. Either I continue up the soul-crushing scree at an even steeper angle or I try my luck on the ice in the gulch. I was not entirely prepared for climbing up steep ice but the thought of fighting up another foot of loose rock and sand was enough to make the decision for me. I only had micro-spikes and a single ice ax with me. As the gradient increased so did my uncertainty of what I was doing. I felt okay enough on the ice but was certainly pushing my limit of skill. I was also alone and a fall would certainly be disastrous. Painstakingly I got myself to the top of the gully only minutes before the sun crested over the ridge. Now, looking down, I felt scared. I had gotten myself up but how the hell was I going to get down? I told myself that I could always just deal with the scree but looking now I realized that even that would be a frightful ordeal. 

The familiar thought of “Should I turn around?” crept into my mind for the first time. This was not my first time dealing with this and I kept telling myself I needed to take my own advice and push through the fear. I decided to give myself a few minutes to calm down and then I would keep pushing on. As I sat on a rock 13,000 feet above sea level the sun made its first appearance over the ridge which had been blocking it from my view. Almost instantly the rockfall began. I heard in the gulch over a rock break loose and fire down the mountain. This was nothing new to me, but what was new is that once it started it did not stop. Rock after rock after rock began to shoot down the mountain like cannonballs. I quickly pieced together that the sun was responsible as all the rocks stuck in the ice above were now melting out. Soon the gully I now sat on top of would become just as much of a firing range. 

I knew I had to get down, and fast. I was alone and like an idiot had not brought my helmet. All it took was one rock. I opted to slide and stumble down the scree as it would at least not act as a funnel for any rocks up above. The descent was miserable in every sense of the word. The gradient combined with horrendously loose rock and sand led to the worst hour I have ever had out in the mountains. Rocks were now shooting down on either side of me, some the size of a mini-fridge. Every rock I tried to use for support would give way and become a speeding missile rocketing down the slope. 

I was as afraid as I had ever been. This was not the fear that I like to seek out and believe makes me a better person. The fear that comes from anxiety and regular human worry. This was a fear that something beyond my control could at any moment turn my lights off forever. I was entirely aware of this fear and yet somewhat paradoxically I did not feel afraid. I knew that now all I could do was get down the mountain and that it was a waste to think of anything else. I went into a sort of trance state where I focused on nothing except getting down. As rocks whizzed by me no more than 30 feet away I hardly paid them any attention. I turned into a robot stumbling down the mountain as quickly as I could. 

After roughly an hour I had escaped the worst of the descent and found a rock large enough to shelter me from any falling up above. I took a much-needed break and only then did the ordeal of what just happened hit me. I mostly felt anger at myself for getting into that situation but also frustration at the mountain itself. It now felt alive in a physical sense as well. Each rock that came shooting down the slope was a message being conveyed that today was not my day. 

Before my climb, while I was eating breakfast that morning I watched a short film titled Earthside. The film featured Hilaree Nelson who passed away last year climbing on Manaslu. In this moment of intense and unpleasant frustration for me, I thought of something she had said towards the end of the film. 

Being up high it feels like you’re so close to whatever it is that separates our spiritual world from our physical world. The higher you get in elevation the thinner the air gets, and I mean that metaphorically more than physically.

As I looked out over the mountains now a few thousand feet below me I took note of the fact that each mountain, the higher it rose in the sky, became more and more clear from the haze now filling the valleys. I know that this is a totally regular phenomenon caused by various environmental factors, but I am choosing to believe that what Hilaree said is also true. That there is an unexplainable spiritual aspect to the mountains. That the higher we climb, the closer we get to something that unlocks a part of the human experience that we simply do not understand but need nonetheless. 

Having had this moment of intense reflection all my frustrations with the mountain vanished. I instead focused on how incredibly lucky I was to be in such a position. I appreciated that the mountain had allowed me to get so far and taught me valuable lessons both physically and mentally. I allowed myself to enjoy the solitude for a few more minutes before starting up again and returning safely to the base of the mountain. 

Mount Shasta as a whole felt more spiritually enriching than possibly anywhere I have been before. As I drove away I thanked the mountain for allowing me to visit and reinvigorating that side of me which I had been neglecting for the past few weeks. I again felt extremely thankful. Shasta will forever have a special place in my heart and I cannot wait to return one day and attempt yet again to stand atop its summit. 

I spent the next week visiting friends and family in Northern California before heading to Lone Pine which acts as the gateway to Mount Whitney, my next big objective. Shasta had prepared me well both mentally and physically for what would be my biggest outing in the mountains to date. I was as excited as ever to keep climbing mountains and reaching for that spiritually charged air that resides only a few thousand feet above us.

Music from this time: 

“The Fade Out Line” – Phoebe Killdeer

“Evangelina” – Colter Wall

‘So Long Forever – Acoustic” – Palace

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