Mount Shasta and the Journey Home
Friday, July 24th. I woke up early, stoked and ready to seize the day. I’d successfully passed all of the Wilderness EMT tests and would just need to take the National Registry exam the next week in Portland. Today was the day that Maxwell Kincaid and I were going to hike up the trail towards Whitney Glacier and camp on the slopes before working on some mountaineering techniques (proper use of an ice axe, pickets, etc.) the following morning. We drove over to Mount Shasta City, grabbed some tamales from a street vendor, and rented a pair of crampons from Shasta Base Camp. Then we drove along the winding, dusty forest roads towards the North Gate trailhead.
We arrived in the early afternoon and after using the USFS comfort station, we collected a few poo bags to prevent brown falcons, and hefted our packs out of our dust-plastered vehicles.
We took a Last Seen Alive photo to keep up with an age-old mountaineering tradition and then began our trek towards the distant slopes of the 14,179 foot mountain.
The weather was splendid with clear skies and the crisp bite of fresh mountain air aided us up the steep trail.
Although we saw two other guys at the trailhead, they departed down a different trail through some low-growing manzanitas, and we didn’t see anyone else the whole way up.
About half of the hike was along a smooth, piney dirt trail through swaying dark green conifers.
The other half was mainly a rocky approach that was open to the sky and offered clear views of the mountain. The views became even more incredible once we got up past the treeline.
We took a few breaks to catch our breath in the thin mountain air, and Maxwell checked the map to find how much more elevation we needed to gain before setting up camp.
The trail became rockier and soon we were having to take care to not twist an ankle on the pitted lava rocks that had been hurled down from the mountain in ages long gone.
The summer sunlight was just beginning to sink down and fade as we approached a spot we deemed worthy enough of a place to pitch the tent.
The sky began to take on a beautiful blue and gray color as evening clouds began to wrap around the sun.
Hues of luscious reds. Vibrant yet subdued hints of orange and lavender. Blueish shades blanketing the atmosphere. All of it made for one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Way below us stretched the dusky land of Northern California and the distant ridges of Southern Oregon. Roads, those light brown, unpaved forest roads and the bolder grayish lines of highways, meandered their way along the lowlands in sporadic bursts of straight lines and curvy arcs with tiny pinpricks of light drifting slowly along.
We watched the sun sink below the horizon and bundled up as the mountain chill began to shiver across our skin.
After taking a few last looks at the mountain in the now glaringly bright glow of the moon and watching the headlamps of distant climbers make a summit push, we climbed into the tent and boiled up a liter of water with Maxwell’s MSR.
Dinner mainly consisted of tea and some of Maxwell’s dehydrated beans that he shared with me (they were absolutely amazing).
Then we set our watches for a 4:00 AM wakeup. “Why so early?” one might ask. Well, simply so that we could get enough time practicing on the glacier before the sun really starting warming things up and causing things to start melting. Our initial goal of summiting the mountain had changed to just doing some experiential learning on the nearby glacier, with Maxwell teaching me what he knew.
Morning came too soon, and the air was bitter cold. I peeked out of the tent and saw the distant glow of the sun beginning to rise.
While waiting for the water to boil, I went for a quick run up to the top of a nearby ridge to see if I could see the sun rising and was rewarded with being basked in that fine golden light.
Slipping and sinking into the slippery talus slope, I arrived back at camp out of breath and feeling warm from the run. I chomped down my breakfast of oatmeal and rooibos tea and couldn’t wait to get up on the glacier. The world was golden and alive and small grey birds chirped their morning songs in the nearby clumps of green mountain bushes.
We geared up and began the slow trek up towards the lower glacier. Without much of an actual path, we simply followed the footsteps of previous climbers, etched in the sandy ground.
About an hour later, we reached the base of the glacier and readied for the climb. Crampons were put on, ice axes were unstrapped, helmets were cinched tight and ropes, pickets, and harness were organized. The angle was awfully steep and, with horrendously jagged rocks at the bottom, Maxwell made sure we were anchored to the picket before practicing anything.
I went down as many times as I could, simply letting myself slide on my rear or stomach and practicing proper self-arrest techniques. Then I practiced traversing, slipping, and arresting. The hardest part was from a standing position and allowing oneself to simply fall and then begin sliding down the glacier, but with a bit of practice, self-arresting became a reflex reaction and I felt fairly confident in it.
Then Maxwell and I climbed up the steep talus slope toward the col high above us. We paused every few steps to catch our breath and eventually were at around 10,500 feet of elevation and the land stretched out far below us.
By now, it was getting to be too warm to practice at Whitney Glacier, so I left my pack by a large rock outcropping and began climbing up over boulders towards the next peak while Maxwell relaxed nearby.
I passed above the ridge where Marine Camp (named so because the Marines sometimes use it for training) was situated at 10,700 feet, and I estimate that I reached 11,000 feet, judging from the distance I was above them and on top of the ridge. Around the corner of an immense boulder, Mount Shasta loomed large overhead. I spotted about five other climbing teams with their tents below me near Marine Camp and the North Gate High Camp, but they were too far away to talk to.
With the day still ahead of us and clouds moving rapidly over the mountain, we headed back down towards our camp. We took a few last pictures and then began our trek down towards the North Gate trailhead and our cars.
We reached our cars sweaty and musty, smelling like typical mountaineers, and drove back towards the Mount Shasta City to return crampons and eat a hearty lunch. Maxwell and I were hoping to grab lunch at the bakery there, but it had just closed when we arrived. We stopped at a grocery store and grabbed some food for ourselves before deciding to split ways. I was heading up north to Crater Lake and he wasn’t going quite that far. I left the land of the Siskiyous and headed up north on Highway 97 for Klamath Falls and Crater Lake in Oregon. The drive was pleasant, and I spotted several lenticular clouds as I cruised by Upper Klamath Lake.
I arrived at Crater Lake with the hopes of meeting up with several of the other W-EMT students (Nash, Kevin, and Marissa) who had told me that they were going to be staying there for the night. Unfortunately, after entering the massive 183,224 acres Crater Lake National Park, all mobile phone service disappeared and I had no way of contacting them. So I drove up to one of the viewpoints and snapped some pictures.
I drove around the western rim of the lake and stopped at the trail to the fire lookout for a quick two mile run to stretch my legs. The view at the top was great, although a bit brown from where snow had stayed for months on the grass.
I realized that I could make it back home to the Portland, Oregon, area by midnight if I didn’t make any more long stops. So I decided to go jump in the freezing snowmelted waters of Crater Lake (and see if their claim of being the clearest lake in the world was really true) before driving north to PDX. I grabbed my dive mask and jogged down the mile long Cleetwood Cove Trail (with its 11% grade) to the water’s edge.
I slowly submerged myself in the choppy waters as a stiff wind caused waves to overlap me. Ducking under, I gazed around the clear blue waters and was amazed at how good the visibility was.
Then I noticed a party of three that I had jogged past on the way down the trail (one of whom had said to the others, thinking I was out of earshot, “Look at that guy, I bet he’s going to trip!”) getting ready to also go in the water. I ignored them and kept swimming around.
Then I heard a shriek as I was dragging my frozen body out of the water. I turned around. They had decided to go skinny dipping and apparently didn’t expect it to be as cold as it was. I left and jogged the mile up the steep trail to warm up.
Dripping wet and out of breath, I arrived back at my car and quickly changed into dry clothes. I grabbed my Jetboil out of the trunk, looked through my bear canister and seized some noodles and tea, and then jogged back to the overlook above the trail.
Dinner with the incredible view of the sunset over Crater Lake.
As I ate, the skinny dippers (somewhat clothed by now) came up the trail and asked if I wanted to camp with them at a campsite right outside of the park. I declined and mentioned how I was trying to get to Portland by midnight. They gave me their campsite number and left it as an open invitation. Then a family came by, smelling my noodles and tea, and mentioned what a great idea I had to eat dinner there. We chatted briefly about missions since their daughter was in Uganda with a ministry, and then they left and I was all by myself again. I finished up my dinner and drove off, leaving the old volcano behind.
Soon I reached the intersection that would lead me to either the campsite where I had an open invitation to stay, or to the main highway that I would take to go to Portland. I decided to go right and head to Portland. Just as I made the turn, my brake light turned on. Then my alternator light turned on. I realized then that I was in the middle of nowhere, with no cell service, and darkness was rapidly approaching. So I drove as far as I could until my car died. Let me back up briefly and mention a few fun facts.
First: I found out later that the campsite where my W-EMT friends were staying was the same one as the skinny dippers.
Second: I had never had an alternator go out, and didn’t exactly know what that light meant.
Third: I drove through a tunnel that was being repaired and traffic was being held up since the road had become only one lane. This meant that there was a crew of construction flaggers working 24/7 until the construction was complete.
Fourth: My phone still had no signal.
My car died two miles after I had passed through the tunnel. By now, it was about 9:30 PM. The console lights starting blinking and then all power just died. Including my brakes (at first). Even my sunroof wouldn’t shut. I coasted down the shoulder bordering a drainage ditch and finally came to a stop. I remained reasonably clear headed and took stock of what I had and what I needed to do. I was fine with camping for a week since I had all of my gear and a week’s worth of food with me, but I did have my NREMT test on Tuesday that I had already signed up for AND a flight to Israel that Friday…. and today was Saturday.
Then it started to rain. Since my sunroof was stuck open, I scavenged around my car and used my tent’s ground cloth as a makeshift tarp. Then I taped a note to my rear window saying that I had gone for help. I prayed, took my wallet, a light jacket, my headlamp, and a knife and set up a few cones and an emergency strobe to alert other cars. Then I began jogging up the steep road to the construction crew, hoping I could use one of their phones to call a tow truck.
Around 10:00 PM, as I’m trudging up this huge hill in the dark, constantly sticking my thumb out to every passing vehicle, I feel headlights on my back. I turn around and see a car slowly creeping up after me. I let them get a good look at me as I am blinded by their headlights and yelled, “Hey! My name’s John, and I need a ride up to the construction site because my car broke down!”
The driver, a middle-aged man, replies, “Sorry, we don’t have room.” Then his wife, in the passenger seat, yells out, “Oh, just jump in the back. We’ll manage!”
Confused, I walk over to them and realize that there are two little kids in the back. The father, being protective as all fathers should be, has his wife get in the back and puts me in the front passenger seat. I explain my situation again and they drive me up to the construction zone. Grateful, I thanked them and then presented my case to the construction flaggers. They were remarkably helpful and let me use their phone to call State Farm’s Roadside Assistance. Unfortunately, this was the second time I had to do this, and also the second time that the tow truck(s) failed to arrive. Long story short, I waited till 3:00 AM before jogging back to my car to go to sleep and deal with the tow truck in the morning (although sleeping on sandbags wasn’t too bad…just cold). Three tow trucks had been dispatched, and even though I was on a highway (although mountainous and out of the way), their dispatchers claimed that they didn’t know where they had gone (to which the construction flaggers claimed were blatant lies). Around 3:30 AM, the flaggers thankfully stopped a passing tow truck heading my way and pretty much demanded that he take me and my car to Eugene, Oregon to get it fixed.
So at 3:30 AM, I wake up to a loud diesel engine and a tow truck backing up toward my car. I bolt out of the driver’s seat and yell at him to hold up – my car was so close to the ditch that the tow truck was about to go rolling into it. After my car gets anchored onto the back of the truck and we start heading to Eugene, I learned that he, the driver, was not in any way connected to the other tow trucks who had been dispatched to help me, and that he was just on his way to Eugene to pick up a different vehicle.
By 5 AM, we reached Eugene and my car and I were promptly deposited right outside of Eurasian Automotive near the University of Oregon. Since it was now Sunday, the repair shop was closed and I spent the day reading the Journals of Jim Elliot, editing photos on my laptop, pretending to be a college student at OU, and hanging out at a Starbucks, Subway, and East Meets West. I spent the night in the passenger seat of my car, and on Monday I waited for the repair shop to open.
They finally opened and quickly replaced my alternator and charged my battery. The manager, Ryan Kossol, is a great guy who had also done a NOLS course (Wilderness First Responder) and was on a volunteer search-and-rescue team in the Eugene area. By 10 AM, I was back on the road and shortly after midday, I was back at my parents’ house in Vancouver, Washington, where I would spend a few nights resting between travels.
Special thanks to Maxwell Kincaid for teaching me some mountaineering skills and showing me that pine needles are edible.