Mountaineering = Challenge
Mountaineering ≠ Fun
Last week, my husband Ron and I attempted to summit Mount Shasta in northern California. Mount Shasta, or “white mountain,” resides at the south end of the Cascade Mountain Range in northern California near the border of Oregon. This is the story of our adventure and the inspiration behind my new painting, shasta.
My painting "shasta," acrylic on canvas 36x48"
View from the drive to the North Gate.
Ron really wanted me to experience mountaineering in the snow, something with which he has always had a fascination. He asked me to choose a mountain to climb and I chose Mount Shasta. I chose it for many reasons, but mostly, because I’ve always loved volcanoes, and Shasta is more active than others found in the region. Mount Shasta is actually four volcanic cones all piled up on top of one another. One of these, Shastina, is the most visible evidence of this phenomenon. I was curious about the mountain because it is one of those sacred mountains like Mount Fuji of Japan and Uluru Rock of Australia, and there is a lot of folklore and legend that comes along with the mountain and its history. The stories run the gamut, from Native American creation stories to ancient mythology to new age religions that revolve around the mountain. The Native Americans of the region saw Mount Shasta as the place where the Great Spirit emerged from the heavens and landed on earth. From here he created the trees, the rivers, the animals and the humans. The mythical Lemurians, a super-human race of people, are said to live underground here in lava tube dwellings. There are many more recent beliefs that are tied to the mountain as well. It is seen as a cosmic hot spot and a place where UFOs make landings, probably as a result of the lenticular cloud formations that routinely appear over and near the mountain. Several new age religions have sprouted near the mountain, some that deal in crystals and other in buddhist-like beliefs. According to our mountain guide, Brady, there are over thirty local religions in Mount Shasta City. Now that I have been to Mount Shasta City, I would consider it more of a town; it has a population of only 3,500. I’m not sure I believe Brady’s claim that there are thirty religions, but I can believe that there are many to choose from by observing the diverse cast of eccentric characters who reside there.
At the trailhead...
Reaching the end of the forest.
Taping the tootsies.
Up into the clouds...
Ron pretty much planned the trip in between working long hours at his new job. He wanted to avoid the mainstream Avalanche Gulch route and was shooting for the more technical Casaval Ridge route. But, the conditions were deteriorating there so our guide chose the less-traveled North Face’s Hotlum-Bolam Route for us instead. This route was to pass between the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers along the North Face of the mountain. Can I just say, first of all, we were the only people there on that side of the mountain. The only other people we ran into were a group of men who passed us one day as they were hiking around the mountain. It’s a wonderful and equally terrifying experience to have a mountain to yourself. It reminded us of our honeymoon, when we summited El Misti in Peru. Even at the summit, we had the mountain to ourselves. Eerie, but wonderful. There’s a true peacefulness that washes over you when you feel you have really gotten away from civilization, and found a remote secluded location left on earth. But underlying that ecstacy, is the reminder that you are on your own out there, at the mercy of all the wrathful forces of mother nature. Even at 19,000 + feet, El Misti was appearing like a cake-walk compared to what I was now faced with. As I stared up at the beautiful white mountain mass from our base camp at the mesa, I could see this was a challenge I had never before faced. I wondered if I was really ready for something of this magnitude. I reasoned with myself. Maybe it just looks steep from here. Maybe it’s really much more featured and easy than it looks. I often have this feeling when I’m looking up at a rock climbing route. When I get into the climb, I realize there are many things I couldn’t see from the bottom that make my climb reasonable: hidden gems like finger cracks and ledges just wide enough to rest the ball of my foot on. I was nervous but still optimistic.
Getting steeper with every step.
Ron, on the other hand, was visibly excited, like a kid in a candy store. The night before our summit, he insisted on watching the sun go down while I passed out in the tent. The whole experience for him is joyful, and he easily forgets the pain, the blisters, the bruises, the sun burns, and the weight of hauling all that gear. For him, it is a privilege to suffer, for the suffering brings him a glory like no other he has experienced. He often says, “This is going to be so much fun!” I look at him strangely and repeat the word, “Fun?” I even asked our fearless 22 year old guide, Brady. “So what exactly about this is fun to you?” Even after a second opinion, I am not buying it. It is hard work! You are hauling up food, sharp metal objects, tent, stove, fuel, and a thousand layers of clothing to protect you at any possible temperature, because you will experience the range from a numbing freeze to core-boiling feverish sweat. Your feet feel enormous and it is as if you are marching on the surface of the moon in lead-weighted boots. There are spikes strapped to your shoes, so you have to walk like a cowboy to avoid stabbing your own achilles tendon. When all the layers are on, you feel like the Michelin Man and are expected to keep perfect balance as you step onto icy surfaces you might tenderly crawl across if you found them in your own driveway. But you’re not on a surface as hospitable as your driveway, you are on the steep slope of a mountainside. If you look down the mountain, you can see hundreds of feet of icy ramp that with one mis-step or loss of balance, you could send yourself sliding at unknown speeds towards that cluster of sharp volcanic rocks below, or worse, off a cliff or into an icy crevasse.
Home, home on the mesa. Where the ants and the wild mice play.
Brady, our guide and top chef.
Are we having fun yet?
Summit morning arrived and at 2 a.m. we were ready to move. I could tell the conditions were ideal. There was practically no wind at all, and the night’s sleep had been warm. Even I, the coldest of the cold, was comfortable. I felt encumbered by the layers and my oddly fitting backpack. The stomping of my feet into the crunchy snow seemed laborious, but I was not at ease with simply walking yet. A few hours passed and the sun was starting to rise. There was an orange glow on the horizon that I was mildly aware of when I stopped to turn back and look at where I had come from. We were switch-backing across a steep ramp and whenever I took the focus off of my next step I felt a little woozy. I could try to blame it on the altitude, but I think it was really fear creeping into me. A real problem had developed with the steeper terrain, as every ten minutes a crampon seemed to come off my boot. I also mentioned to Brady that my ankles were starting to feel wobbly like when you first learn to ice skate. Brady took a closer look at my boots. I could see it in his eyes that this was a deal breaker. I asked him what the rest of the terrain would be like, and he simply said, “like this, but steeper.” I wanted Ron to be able to summit, so I offered to go down. We ran a few scenarios through and decided eventually to send me down alone while they continued upward for the summit. Unfortunately they lost a few hundred feet while we switched our plan. They were a little worried that I was disappointed by not being able to summit, but I said it was okay by me, and that I was just here for the experience. As soon as I turned and started to walk down, I knew I had made the right choice. I was happy. I had tried something new. I watched my feet on every step, looking for the signs that my crampon would fall off. They did in fact fall off even more as I was descending. I definitely made the right choice! I tried to stay focused and not worry about my husband. It was all out of my hands now. I couldn’t be the nagging voice of reason for him any longer, but I hoped at least he’d think of me before trying anything stupid.
2 am start.
As the sun rises, Bonnie throws in the towel.
Ron's false summit. He is having fun!
When I got back to camp I took a nap. I woke to the sound of voices. It was only 10:30 am. I thought, “Wow, they really made great time!” I crawled out of the tent and saw that they were one-third of the way up the mountain about at the point where I had left them. They were coming down. I watched them glissade out of sight. When Ron came back to the camp, it was a wave of relief I felt seeing that he was safe and smiling at me. Turns out he did turn back before trying something stupid. To quote my teasing husband, he “turned back at the point when he knew I would have started to cry.” He knows me well and I’ve never been more proud of him! To realize when something you want is out of your reach is a tough pill to swallow. I knew he was disappointed, but he was still full of smiles and having “fun.”
As a beginner, I definitely was in over my head with this one. But, I learned a whole lot, and if I do try it again sometime, I’ll be much more prepared. The question is how long will it take to forget the hard work, the struggle, the endless gear and discomfort? Was it fun? No. But it’s not always about fun. Sometimes it’s about pushing boundaries, breaching your comfort zone, and taking on challenges you never imagined you would. Then there’s the beauty of the mountain. The mystical, magical mountain. The big white peak rising from the earth that cannot be ignored. Clouds dance around it at a furious pace, coddling it, concealing it, clearing dramatically from it all in the matter of minutes. Just to have a few days with an entity like that had a profound effect on my spirit. I felt humbled by it. I’m honored that it gave me such a gentle experience, because it could have taken so much if it wanted.
Glissading, kind of scary for me, but I can see how it could be considered fun.
In Sanskrit, shasta is a generic term for teacher. My approach to my painting, shasta, was to create it with the mountain in mind. I thought of Mount Shasta and the lessons I was taught there, by my husband, by our guide and by the mountain itself. I most enjoyed the sensation of awe as I watched the majestic mountain become obscured by clouds one minute and the next, silhouetted against a clear blue sky. Cloud formations swirl about it in my painting, making the dominant color white. To me this color represents the snowy mountain and the surrounding clouds, but also represents an innocence that becomes apparent and is lost when learning. I am always learning, and would like to give thanks through this painting to all the teachers on this earth, especially the ones that are mountains.
Big step descent.
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