Having backpacked extensively, I assumed climbing the 14,162 foot Mt. Shasta -- about a 4.5 hour drive from San Francisco -- would not be that hard.
Yet while I grasped a rickety boulder around 12,000 feet, pummeled in the face by fierce snow-laced winds of 40 mph and shouting obscenities, I reconsidered that. Shasta was not the idyllic gem I camped under the previous September -- it was an icy beast that wanted to kill me at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
I'd much rather be sleeping in, I thought.
Still, 48 hours and 23 bruises later, I wanted to make the climb -- the ultimate scenic adrenaline rush -- again. California boasts eight mountain ranges and over 40 mountains with an elevation beyond 8,000 feet. It's all too easy for nature nuts like me to visit one, whether from the warmth of a lodge in town or forging towards the summit. The following are some basic tips I surmised for other newbie mountaineers from my experience.
Take inventory and hang on carefully to your gear: If you drop a glove while backpacking or hiking, it's usually no biggie. Just pick it up. If you drop it while on a mountain, it can slide thousands of feet into an abyss, while your fingers quickly turn to icy pinnacles. Several climbers have gotten frostbite this way. While tying up my ice axe, one of my gloves fell out of my hands, sliding down a slope faster than Johnny Moseley in the 2000 Olympics. I was able to retrieve it since it was buffered by a boulder, but not everyone is so lucky.
For advice on essential gear, check out a comprehensive list from Trails.com. Note that no two mountains are the same: for some, crampons are essential, whereas for others there is so little snow that you could likely blaze to the top in trail runners. When you do get on snow or ice, practice a self-arrest with your ice axe: it's better to make mistakes when you can afford them. Lastly, dress in layers even on the most sunny and serene days. You never know when a windstorm will hit.
Wake up early and multitask: I wondered if the lack of oxygen had made my climbing partner delirious when he told me at 9,000 feet -- where we set up camp early due to a wind storm -- that we'd be waking up at 3 a.m. the next morning. "That's sleeping in," said my partner, an experienced mountaineer who has bagged most of the major peaks in the Pacific Northwest and Europe. Yes, many sleep-deprived climbers emerge into the frigid 2 a.m. darkness -- while the snow and ice is still hard -- to make the ascent to summit.
Why so early? In the afternoon, ice bridges are weaker and storms are more likely to set in, hence making a morning ascent safer, my partner told me. Climbers also lose body heat when they head down the mountain, so it's better to do so when there's optimal sunlight.
Because their morning hours are limited, they don't have time to dawdle: they eat their energy bars while simultaneously taking down the tent and putting on their boots and reading Tolstoy.
Once you do make it outside, the landscape is surreal: I felt like my boots were digging into slippery moon soil as we pushed upwards into the bleak, stark landscape. When the sun finally did rise -- a solace from the frosty winds -- it coated the sky in deep pink and red hues.
Stay warm and nourished: When I looked at weather.com, Mt. Shasta seemed pleasant enough for June in Northern California: in the low to high 60s. But when I was on the mountain at night, it felt like the inside of a meat locker. I no longer thought I was crazy for wearing four layers of thermal pants.
With your body working hard and quickly losing energy, take pride in being a glutton. Consuming double your normal calories is a good rule of thumb, said my partner as we downed our seventh energy bar. The only diet you should be on is the "See-food" (and eat it) one. Drink water even when you're not thirsty: it's an insurance policy for when you begin pushing yourself harder at higher elevations. Feeling thirst is a sign of dehydration, which at high altitudes can quickly translate to Acute Mountain Sickness.
Mark your trail: Footsteps in the snow are no doubt the best indicator of your trail. The problem is that fresh snow usually covers them within a few hours (or, in our case, sometimes minutes!) This is where the magical cairn -- or trail markers you make through stacking rocks -- comes in handy. A simple set of three rocks stacked on top of one another usually does the trick, but some climbers got more creative: I eyed a "Stonecastle" on the way down Shasta.
Know your limits, but also try again: At first I was disappointed I didn't make it to the top of Mt. Shasta. A couple thousand feet short of the summit, I slipped, injured my foot and had to make a premature descent. Now, I am glad I not only attempted the mountain, but also admitted when it was time to turn back. I had not only a much better appreciation for flat ground when we finally made it to the car but also for towering geological formations and what it takes to tackle them. Mt. Shasta, I look forward to seeing you again soon!