It was 8am on July 4, 2010 as I climbed the last few steps onto the frigid but breathtaking summit of Mount Shasta. I was greeted with triumphant cheers and hugs from my mother and sister, and a huge grin spread across my face. We actually made it! All the training and hard work had finally paid off, and I knew I was helplessly hooked. It was not long before, on a backpacking trip in the Stillwater Wilderness of middle-of-nowhere Nevada, when we decided to give it a try. Although we had a good amount of experience in the backcountry, I never imagined we could do something like this. We started training: weekly trips up Mission Peak with a 40lb pack. Interval training, weight lifting, and lots of cardio. And on that beautiful, magical day two months later, we did it . together. Little did I know, this would only be the beginning of my adventures.
Fast forward to February, when a mutual friend introduced me to Hubert and Luca . a couple of fearless weekend warriors who, to my good fortune, were willing to let me tag along on their adventures in the California mountains. By March we had already gone on a few outtings together: hiking and four-wheel-driving in the dessert, snowshoeing in Tahoe. And this three-day weekend was destined to be my first serious outting with them. Split Mountain was our target, and we would attempt it via the St. Jean Couloir, an intimidatingly steep, snow-filled gully climbing 2,000 feet up the mountain. I was beyond psyched. A new friend, Nic, would also be joining us for the first time. Nic is an extremely strong rock climber but had less experience climbing peaks at high-altitude, so I felt comforted knowing I wasn.t the only newbie.
Day 1: Friday . Warm up climb on Shark.s Fin
The road to the Split Mountain trailhead purportedly required a high-clearance vehicle, so Hubert and I went to rent a humungous SUV from the San Jose airport early Friday morning. We then picked up Luca and Nic, who had taken the Caltrain from San Francisco carrying a laughably monstrous amount of gear. By some miracle, we were able to squeeze everything in, and then we were off! The drive to the Eastern Sierras in winter is a long one, but it went surprisingly quickly. As we passed the Southern tip of the range and started to head North on 395, the weather was beautiful and the view incredible. And then we saw in the distance dark clouds starting to form. It seemed that the sky was sunny and blue everywhere except for our destination. Typical!
The plan for the day was to warm up by climbing a few routes on the Shark Fin, a (surprise!) shark fin-shaped rock in the Alabama Hills. On a clear day there.s a view of Mt Whitney directly behind it, but today the hills were completley encompassed in clouds, and snow flakes danced and flurried all around us. The climb was bolted, and rated a 5.9. We pulled out the rope, and Nic took off, leading the pitch with little difficulty. We each took turns up various lines on the rock, until we gave in to the finger-numbing cold and decided to retreat.
That night we shared a scrumptious, belly-warming dinner at the Italian restaurant in town. Unlimited amounts of warm bread, salad, and home-made blue cheese dressing. Oh, and red wine too! Definitely a decent way to prepare for the challenge ahead. The night was cold and cloudy as a light storm brewed in the mountains above. We checked into our little hotel room, and I immediately parked my bottom near the wall heater and didn.t surrender my spot until bed time.
Day 2: Camp at Red Lake (10,000 ft)
We woke up to find a dusting of snow covering the town as it slept peacefully. It was almost surreal. Since the forecast predicted a frigid night ahead, we were not in a rush to start our hike to our camp at Red Lake. Hubert, Nic, and I walked down the street to a small diner. (Luca, in true form, opted to sleep an extra hour, since he has serious trouble opening his eyes in the morning.) Hubert got one of the biggest waffles I have ever seen, and it was covered with whipped cream and berries. Nic ordered a similarly sinful stack of pancakes, along with scrambled eggs and sausage. Oh, what would I give to be able to eat like that?! I had coffee. Black.
After breakfast, we packed up and hit the road. Getting to the Split Mountain trailhead is a bit of an adventure in and of itself. There.s a myriad of private roads, and we had to backtrack several times. The road was in pretty good condition for a four-wheel-drive road; we only had to engage 4wd once or twice when it got pretty sandy, but other than that it was a straight-forward drive. Not suprising, ours was the only vehicle at the trailhead. The air was cool and crisp, and the clouds from the previous night.s storm were still lingering but not terribly intimidating. I wore light layers in anticipation of the heat I would generate on the long slog to camp.
There was a little bit of bushwhacking in the beginning as we made our way through the ravine, which was somewhat tedious; the branches kept grabbing the snowshoes strapped to my pack and I had to take the pack off at one point and drag it behind me. Once we broke through, we had a peaceful and beautiful hike up the snow slopes. Hubert took the lead on skis, and the rest of us followed in snowshoes. We spread out as we hiked, with maybe 25 or 50 meters between us. I often enjoy these slogs once I find a good rhythm; feeling my heart beat and my lungs suck in and push out air, one breath and one step at a time. It.s almost meditative for me, and all my problems and all of my worries just melt away. Nothing seems to matter anymore, and I feel light in a spiritual sense. (Sounds cheesy, I know.)
Several hours in, I round a corner and gasp at my first view of the mountain, with the sun setting behind it. Hubert is snapping some photos, and he points out to me the couloir we intend to climb. It looks like a vertical gully, and butterflies begin to flutter in my stomach. I.m excited and nervous at the same time. Am I really able to climb that? Is it safe? What if I can.t keep up? What if I panic or freak out? A million thoughts race through my head, but most of all I feel inspired and determined to conquer that line.
About 30 minutes later we arrive at Red Lake, which is completely covered in snow. We find a relatively shielded area in the trees to setup camp and immediately get to work. There.s only about an hour of daylight left, and temperatures are plummeting quite rapidly. There was a lot of work to do. We used the shovels to dig out a flat platform and build walls to protect from the wind. We also dug out a kitchen area with benches and a table. I started to become remarkably cold, even with all of the physical work. Eventually I am tasked with making hot tea for everyone, and I huddle around the stove as it starts to melt the snow. Once the tea is ready, I immediately started preparing dinner: angel hair pasta with pesto, sundried tomatoes, and chicken. Dessert would be hot chocolate, Mexican style. It was probably one of the more enjoyable meals I.ve had in the mountains. The excitement and tension about the following day permeated the air as we laughed and huddled around our make-shift table.
After dinner, the cold really began to grip me. The forecast that morning had predicted 2 degrees farenheit, and I think it was spot-on. Certainly it was the coldest temperature I have ever experienced. I started to shake uncontrollably, and nothing would provide relief. Hubert started melting water to fill a Nalgene bottle for me, which I could hug in my sleeping bag for extra warmth. As the boys cleaned up the kitchen, I crawled into the tent (with their blessing). I get into my sleeping bag, but I.m still freezing. Hubert hands me one water bottle, and he takes a spare down parka and wraps it tightly around my sleeping bag. I.m also wearing every single layer I brought: double socks, Capilne 3 baselayer bottom and top, softshell pants, an undershirt, a fleece jacket, an extremely warm down jacket, and a lined Gortex shell. I felt like a giant snowball, and I probably looked like one too.
Hubert was in the process of filling the next water bottle when I hear someone exlaim .uh oh.. I call out to find out what happened. The stove blew, they tell me. What? We ran out of fuel? That.s impossible. It was full this morning. At first they think it.s a problem with the stove itself, so they pull out a spare one and try it out. Nope, same problem. We then try with another canister, which burns for a few minutes and then dies out too.
LESSON LEARNED: isobutane does not work well in sub-freezing temperatures. D.oh!
Now this was potentially a problem. Split between the four of us, we had a little over a liter each of water. We also had a 4,000 foot strenuous climb the next morning at high elevation. Yikes! We talked it over, and we decided to give it a shot anyway. We could always retreat if things got too nasty.
By some miracle my body slowly stops to shake and I start to warm up. At some point in the middle of the night I feel uncomfortably hot, but I.m unable to remove any layers since Hubert wrapped me so tightly with the jacket. Certainly, this was a better problem to have than being too cold!
Day 3: Up the St. Jean Couloir
The alarm goes off just before dawn. I find a way to squirm out of my sleeping bag and reach for my boots. Since I.m already wearing all of my layers, all I need to do is put on my boots and go! The air is cold but the sky is clear. Within a few minutes we.re making our way across the lake towards the base of the couloir. It was hard to tell from our camp, but we actually had a solid thousand feet of snow climbing to do before we reached the couloir. The snow from the storm had not consolidated, and we moved very slowly as the slope steepened. Luca started out in the front, but shortly after he asked me to take the lead, since the soft snow made the climb quite strenuous. I accepted, though secretly I wasn.t thrilled about it either.
By the time I reached the base of the couloir, the sun was shining in full force. There wasn.t a cloud in the sky! The couloir was steep, and I was post-holing up to my knees. I felt strong though, and I continued onward. I focused on taking one step at a time. At some point the couloir was so steep and the snow was so soft that I would take a step and immediately sink back down to where I started. Thankfully, Luca showed me how to kick steps, and I started a long, arduous process towards the top: drive the ice axe into the slope in front of me with two hands, bring one foot up, stomp it down three times until the snow consolidates, step up, and repeat with the other foot. I continued this for the entire 2,000 feet of the couloir. At some points the snow got even steeper and a little sketchy, but I was able to bypass the sketchy parts by sticking to the walls of the couloir. About half way up I looked down and was surprised to find the other three way behind me. I couldn.t quite understand why, since usually they kick my butt on our climbs. (And don.t forget that I was kicking steps for them!) Luca was maybe 20 meters behind, and Hubert and Nic were trailing about another 20 meters behind him.
I couldn.t help but smile to myself, shrug, and carry on. As I neared the top of the couloir, turned around a corner and saw that practically every exit was covered by giant cornices. The only part that wasn.t corniced was an exposed rock wall that seemed to be low fifth class or a stiff fourth class scramble. Either way, I wasn.t really sure where to go, so I decided to wait for the others to catch up. It took about 20 minutes before Luca appeared, and I couldn.t help but tease him for being so slow. We debated weather to climb/dig our way through the cornices or take our chances on the rock. When Nic arrived, he immediately started up the rock wall, but backed down when it became quite sketchy. Hubert found a weakness in the cornice system, and we traversed across and up it. Exiting the couloir, we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the High Sierras. The Palisades were just across the way, and we all agreed that climbing them should be a top priority for the coming summer.
After a short break and snack, we headed up the final 500(?) feet to the summit. I took the lead again, and the others quickly fell behind me. As I stepped onto the summit, I couldn.t stop smiling. I felt like I was on top of the world! The sun was shining, there was a slight breeze, and everything was at peace.
It took another five minutes before Luca reached the top, and Nic and Hubert followed about five minutes after that. We exchanged high fives and took in the view, attempting to identify the different peaks surrounding us.
Eventually we make our way back down to the top of the couloir. Hubert decides he.s going to try to ski down it, and Nic, Luca, and I opt to take the slightly longer class 2 /3 summer route on the North slopes. We wish him luck and start heading down. At some point the slopes appear to cliff out in front of us. The only other option is to make a very long, exposed traverse along the side of the mountain, but it wasn.t clear where that would lead. We pull out the map and GPS and try to make sense of where we are. We walk back and forth for quite a bit, but we still can.t make sense of it. The slope in front of us is corniced on some sides, and appears to be a near vertical drop. Going back to the top of the couloir would include at least another 1,000 feet of climbing . something we weren.t too keen on this late in the day. Eventually, Luca decides this is the correct route and starts downclimbing the unbelievably soft snow. I follow, with Nic right behind me. The drop was at least 1,000 feet, but the runout was clear of rocks and cliffs, so it was relatively safe. Eventually the slope eased up a little, and Nic and I glissaded the rest of the way down (taking half of the slope with us).
It probably took us around 2 hours to reach camp, and it took Hubert around 6 minutes. Ah, to be a good skier! We pack up our stuff, strap on the snowshoes, and start making our way back to the car. After about 10 minutes I start to feel a stabbing pain in my left knee. As we start going downhill it gets measurably worse, and I eventually have to stop due to the pain; every step was agony. Putting any sort of torque and/or weight on the knee would make it worse, and going downhill was extremely painful. This slowed me down to a crawl, and it took me twice as long to get back to the car as it should have. We had to make our way through the ravine in the dark, which wasn.t very fun.
Halfway through the bushwhacking we ran into Hubert. He had lost his daypack, which was strapped to his backpacking pack. Inside it was his $500 skins, a down jacket, and several other pieces of expensive gear. Unfortunately we hadn.t seen it, but I was relieved to be able to hand my pack off to him as I limped the rest of the way to the car. (Hubert later posted a note about the pack on SummitPost, and by some incredibly good fortune the pack turned up a couple of months later!)
We got to the car a little after 9, and it took us about an hour to get to the main road. By this time I had several messages from my mother, was was worried since she hadn.t heard from me yet. I gave her a call to let her know things were fine. We stopped at Denny.s for a celebratory dinner (the only place open that late), and then commenced on the really long drive home. Trading shifts at the wheel, we pulled into San Francisco at 8am. We dropped Nic off at work (he was supposed to be there at 6! Oops!), and then Luca and I grabbed a delicious breakfast at my favorite bakery . Tartine. The others had to go to work after climbing a 14er and driving all night, but I, enjoying the wonderful life of a grad student, got to crawl into bed and sleep the rest of the day.