Sunday, April 24, 2011

Scouting Casaval

Sometimes when you climb, you reach a point where you know you’re not going to make the summit, but you keep climbing anyway, just enjoying the experience and getting as high as you can. The danger of course, is making the decision to turn around at the proper time no matter how close to that tantalizing summit you might be. Such was the case for me and my companions mid-day Saturday. Luckily, the fact that I am here to type out these words says we were able to make the right decision.

The climb started out well enough. We arrived at the trailhead, put our “angry midgets” on our backs, and started snowshoeing the approach to Mt. Shasta. It was a brilliant cloudless morning, which actually wasn’t perfect for us, a few clouds to keep the heat of the sun off of us would have been nicer at this point, but we felt like we had made a good choice for a day to climb nonetheless. Our route was to be Casaval Ridge, one of the most scenic routes on the mountain. I had scouted our route to camp just two weeks previous, but today I found conditions had much changed. Instead of hard packed wind scoured slopes which are easy to travel over at a good pace, we were trudging through deep powder, deposited there earlier in the week by a late season storm. Skiers may love their “pow-pow”, but for climbing it kind of sucks. When you are carrying 40 lbs packs, breaking trail through 3-foot deep powder is far less than ideal. We headed up Giddy Giddy Gulch (which being Family Guy fans we like to call Giggity Giggity) and were soon faced with this powder situation. It was slowing our progress down to a crawl, and as the sun gained more power through the day we were starting to boil in our cold weather layers.

The terrain in Giggity gulch is usually quite manageable, as it was two weeks ago, but we were struggling and it was getting hot. We kept inching up the side of the gulch, looking for more stable windswept terrain that would be easier to carry our loads on. Finally we made the decision to abandon this approach, and instead hop on the Casaval spur on the southern side of Giggity. Climbing this same route last year, we had gone straight up this spur, and it was a steep slog, hence why we had chosen an alternate this year. However, we had made it far enough up Giggity that when we traversed over to the spur we found ourselves high enough on it that we had avoided most of the truly steep areas. Most of the steep areas, but not all. The internal time management I had on our approach was completely out the window at this point though, and we slogged it up the spur, topping out near where we had camped last year, at about 9,800’.

This is a fine camping area, and many groups do choose to stop here. We both felt from our experience the previous year though, that it was far too low. I knew from my scouting trip that over the next hill, onto Casaval Ridge proper, there were much better campsites that would be much better choices for us. The only problem was getting our angry midget friends up there with us. But we trudged up that next hill, onto the ridge proper, and were rewarded with an incredible panoramic view of Mt. Shasta and her little sister mountain, Shastina. It was a fine place to camp, as earlier climbers had constructed rock shelters for protection against the high winds that can sometimes batter this area. We picked a site up about 10,400’ – the last tiny hill I felt like I should just drop my pack and rig a pulley system to drag it up there to, I was so tired of carrying this weight. Finally, at almost 2’o’clock, well past my goal time of noon, we got to the business of setting up camp. Although late, it didn’t really seem to matter too much, the weather was still fine.

With the tent set up, I then got to the business of melting snow for water. I’ve about had it with my old stove for this purpose. While my climbing partner with his Jet Boil had hot tea in a few minutes, there I was waiting, waiting, and waiting for my watched pot to boil. Usually, it’s preferable to wait for the water to boil, to make sure all the microbes and gnarly things are purified out of your brew. But since my stove just didn’t seem up to snuff this time, and it was still getting later, I figured bubbles on the bottom were close enough to a boil for me. I had drank my 2 liters of water on the way up, and all this time putting the tent up I had nothing to drink. I bring a MSR bladder – a water keeper – that holds 2 liters, when I climb, so I can fill that up with water, and also fill my regular Nalgene bottles up. That way, I can drink one Nalgene overnight, and refill in the morning before heading up the mountain. It also lets me have one bottle in reserve for when we get back to camp at the end of the climb, before we pack camp and head out. This time, however, due to my substandard stove action, I stopped at just 3 liters, leaving only enough in the reserve bladder to fill up my bottle in the morning. Not a perfect situation, but it would be good enough.

Because stove gas is heavy, I had made the decision not to bring food that I would have to heat up. This had a good benefit, I didn’t have to take the time to make dinner, and a bad side, my food really didn’t taste that good and I didn’t eat a lot. I hate freeze-dried backpacker food. Can’t eat it, can’t stand it, it gives me a bad stomach usually involving diarrhea or some other unwanted ailment. So I stuck to some canned and packaged stuff. The Spam sandwich I had was actually not horrible, although if I had heated the Spam I think it would have tasted better. My next course was a can of Vienna sausages. These were, in a word, disgusting. I had brought two cans for tonight, but after eating one I decided the second can was better to be kept in case we got stuck up on the mountain and had to spend an unscheduled extra day up here – food only to be eaten as a last resort. Although it was only six o clock when dinner was done, on the mountain the temperature drops fast and we figured it was time to call it a day, plus we had a wake up time of 4 am. The wind was starting to pick up too. There were a few clouds gathering, but it didn’t look like anything too threatening, and in fact it seemed a majority of the clouds were heading away from us. One at a time we hit the tiny tent, and hunkered down for a typical, slightly windy but not too bad, cold Shasta night.

When we had intended to climb this route last year, we had camped lower. A storm had rolled in overnight, snowed on us, we had awoke to completely bad conditions and ended up just breaking down camp and going out, completely denied from any worthwhile climbing. So the fact that we were camped on the ridge above where we were last year, we had already climbed further on this route than we had been before. So it was kind of a tricky situation, we needed light to see where we were going on this unfamiliar (to us) route, but we needed an early start on this route which we knew to be a long route. I figured 4 am would be good, the route from here starts with a steep traverse, but before we do any climbing up, the light would be greater and we would be able to route find and make sound judgements still having a good part of the day.

After a few minutes, I had maneuvered my body into a comfortable position, and the day of hauling an angry midget up to this altitude caught up with me and I went to sleep. As usual, I had my cell phone with me, kept in my sleeping bag. Suddenly, at about 10:30 that night, I was shaken awake by my Hip-Hop ring tone, and grabbed for my phone to hear the voice on the other side.

“Hi honey, where are you?”

It was my wife, Gineth, who had that day started her first rotation up the Khumbu Ice Fall on Mt. Everest, and was now speaking to me - perched high on Casaval Ridge – from Camp 1 on Mt. Everest. The breadth of the technological advances of the past few years is stunning, instead of weeks to get news out such as in the Hillary-Norgay days, my wife picks up her sat phone and calls me on my cell phone for instant news.

“I’m fine sweetie. How are you?” – I think climbing Mt. Everest calls for much more concern than a climb of Mt. Shasta.

“What time do you leave for the summit?” She was wondering about my climb. She had just gone through the most dangerous part of Mt. Everest, and she’s asking me how my climb is going.

“We leave at 4 am” – At that point, things got garbled. We’ve been having some trouble with the sat phone and the clarity of the calls. I couldn’t understand her response. After a few “can you hear me’s?” back and forth, finally the line was cut. I sat in my bag in the tent, hoping that she might call back, just so I could tell her that I love her before I fell off asleep again. The minutes went by, but it didn’t happen.

I really miss my wife. A Lot.

The alarm went off at 4 am, and the first thing I noticed was the wind which had been somewhat annoying last night had completely stopped. This was perfect, I thought, conditions would be just right. I dressed and got out into the frigid morning and saw the ridge laid out perfectly before me, ever so illuminated by the sparse moonlight. Soon my partner crawled out of the tent and we began the task of assembling our gear for the day’s climbing ahead, and he fired up his Jet-Boil for a hot breakfast while I opened a can of cold chicken, which although wasn’t thrilling, was certainly better than the wieners. We moved slowly though, in the cold. Finally, as I was just about to strap my crampons on I looked up towards the ridge. The moon was now completely hidden behind clouds but I could still make out with my headlamp that clouds now totally enshrouded the ridge. This was bad, we really needed visibility to see where we would be going. We stalled, and hoped that things might get better. Instead, the wind picked up again and a light snow began to fall. Reluctantly, we decided the best course of action, at least for the moment, was to crawl back into the tent and see if it would break soon. There’s not much to do inside a small 2-man tent, so I just took the chance to fall back asleep.

I awoke to the sounds of footsteps outside our tent, “crunch, crunch, crunch” through the snow. “Hello, out there” I cried, and they responded “hello, in there”. Immediately, I knew the weather had abated, and I popped my head out of the tent to the signs of much better skies. I looked at my watch and saw the time was 6:30 – a late start, to be sure, but not too late. Once again, we repeated the steps of gathering our gear, this time with the added step of brushing off the snow that had fallen. As 7’o’clock struck we were ready to go, we noticed another group of 2 climbers coming up behind us. We yelled good morning, but they did not react as if they had heard us. Whatever, we started on the route. The group that had passed us earlier was a group of 3, and they had not made much progress. I did not get a feeling they knew where they were going, but that was alright because we were fairly confident which way we needed to go. We started out on the traverse.

The traverse was steep and thrilling. Moving along the precipitous slopes, ice axe in right hand, step by step single file, it was truly the definition of fun mountaineering. The traverse isn’t totally horizontal, we were slowly gaining altitude, and the real work was making sure you didn’t place a misstep and go tumbling down the side of the mountain. We were catching up to the first group as we reached the first “window” – a hole in the great pinnacles that define Casaval. They weren’t real talkative as we approached, and in fact they were roping up. It didn’t seem like a smart move, and while we were positive the route went along the north side of the ridge slopes that we were following, this group headed out onto the pinnacles. I then got the distinct impression these guys had no idea what they were doing. As we rested, the group of two behind us caught up.

There is no real ‘trail” on Casaval. If you are lucky, you can follow the footprints of those who have been there before you, but we had no such luck, as the recent snow and wind made the hill like a virgin. We said hello to the guys behind us as they stopped and got a snack and a drink of water. Mountain style small talk revealed to us that they had partially climbed the route before. We quickly made a deal and a mountain partnership with them, as breaking trail would be required today. Even on these steep slopes, in places we were going through 3-4 foot drifts, and a trailbreaker would take the brunt of that effort. John, a 58-year old tank of man, took the lead first breaking trail. So we continued on our way, now a solid group of 4 instead of 2.

The wind was picking up as we made our way across the traverse. It was much longer than I had anticipated, but the going wasn’t so bad. Physically I felt fine, no angry midget on my back and my legs felt good. It was just slow going, as we were trudging through deep snows and moving one ice axe plunge at a time. The route was absolutely a ten on the scenic scale, with these towering pinnacles above us. At one point I spied the group of three, still meandering their way around them behind us, obviously too proud to admit they had no idea where the route was and follow us. No matter, if they wanted to be up in the wind (which was now starting to pick up again) then so be it. The wind was blowing hard on us too, and the clouds were moving in and out, our visibility coming and going with the breeze. The wind was good to blow the clouds out of the way, but bad because of the snow and ice it blew into us and slowed us down with.

We came to the “bowl” feature of the route at about 11,000’. The route descriptions all describe going up this seasonal snowdrift that forms there and through the notch on top. However, when we arrived at the bowl this 2011 season, we found not a little snowdrift, but a gigantic deposit of snow, with overhanging cornices and an almost vertical face ominously standing in our way to the passage above. Four heads being better than one or two, the group made a decision to skirt the left side of the snow deposit, and see where we could get. The wind was picking up, probably blowing in the 40-50 mph range now.

With weather like this, I knew that a summit was beginning to fall out of the question. If the weather was this bad where we were, at 11K and on the wind protected side of the mountain, then surely things were much worse up high, at 13-14K and completely exposed. All we could do was keep climbing for the experience of the route, and hope that somehow the weather would change and maybe let us sneak up to the top. We pressed on, gaining invaluable knowledge of the route for future tries, but still holding out hope deep within that we may in fact be able to make a run on the summit this time.

We curled around to the West Face gully. Much to our approval, we were now out of the punishing winds, and for a while the sun shone on us and warmed up both are spirits and our bodies. The oldest member of our group, John the 58-year old, and the youngest, my climbing buddy Brodie at 25, were taking turns still forging steps in the still deep snow. Had snow conditions been better, we could have made much better and quicker progress. But we still managed to make relatively good time. Eventually we reached a high point above a large cornice outcropping in the gully and took a break. Looking over, I could see we were above the summit of Shastina – which 12,500’. Looking back towards the ridge, I could tell we were slightly above the feature on Casaval known as the catwalk. Everyone in the group wanted to experience the catwalk, as it the most infamous section of Casaval. But here we had just realized we had climbed up the catwalk bypass, the way to go if the catwalk is impassable, as is what sometimes happens due to conditions. We rested and someone asked me what time it was. I looked on my watch and saw it was 12:15 pm. We had been making good progress certainly for the conditions, but we were still at least 2 hours away from a possible summit. And this was late in the day, for any summit attempt, although at the time we were still keen to go for it. As we re-hydrated and snacked, we chatted idly with our new friends and traded climbing stories. They were really interesting guys and had done some similar climbs than I had, so there was much to discuss.

Someone looked up. The ridge above us, that a few minutes before we were discussing climbing up to, was now completely hidden by angry gray clouds. The wind was not a factor, but suddenly we were being pelted by snowflakes. In just an instant, the notorious Shasta weather had flipped the switch on us. In just the course of 2 minutes, our hopes for a summit were reversed, and self-preservation took hold as we all came to the conclusion it was time to turn around. Disappointed, we started back down the way we came.

Under normal circumstances, one does not descend Casaval. Usually you will descend either Avalanche Gulch (should you summit) which is the main climbing route, or descend the West Face gully, where good glissading conditions can usually lead to a quick descent. Unfortunately for us, the bottom of the gully we knew to be socked full of deep powdery snow, the kind that would take hours to wade through. With Avalanche gulch not being a possibility due to the side of the mountain we were now on, we took on the tedious task of backtracking our steps down Casaval, exactly the way we had come up. The traverse, which had been a little arduous just due to the snow conditions on the way up, was made much more difficult on the way down, as the steepness and the fact that I was now using my ice axe with my left (non-dominant) hand to brace myself from a steep fall down.

At one point, the snow step I stepped into broke off, and I started sliding down the hill with it. Completely reactively, I was able to arrest, even with my left hand, kick a step in the side of the hill, and front point back to the route. It was not exactly text book, but it did the trick. Still, the descent was taking a long time and the weather was not getting any better.

By the time we reached back to our camp we were in the middle of a swirling snowstorm. We had only a few minutes to decompress and gather ourselves and beginning tearing down our camp. Up behind us came our two climbing companions for the day. We wished them luck and said goodbye, they were staying the night and we camped down below us, on the spur where we had camped the year before. Both me and my partner didn’t want to stay the night up here, even though we had the supplies to do so. Already 4-5 inches of snow had accumulated around our camp, and there was surely more on the way. We knew we had to get down, and get down fast as it was nearing 5’o’clock in the day. We hurriedly broke camp, but even as fast as we were moving, by the time we had our angry midgets re-packed, a full-on whiteout, one of the worst I’ve ever experienced on my years on Shasta, had enveloped us. Starting our next descent, Brodie broke trail in front of me once again. I couldn’t see him to follow him, and only could recognize his trail not by his snowshoe prints, which were getting filled up with blowing snow as soon as he made them, but by the holes in the ground from his trekking poles. I inched my way down the steep incline.

When we reached the lower camp area, we had a decision to make. We could either take the time-consuming, steep and snow-filled way down Giddy Giddy, or we could bail out over the other side of the ridge, into Avalanche Gulch. We made the decision to go over into Avy Gulch. Visibility was absolutely zero, but I know AG so well, I knew there was no way we could get lost going that way, even if it were to get dark on us. Brodie asked me if it would be better to snowshoe or glissade, and I realized the best way was to take our snowshoes off and just step down in our boots without glissading. So off the side we went, step by step, into the great whiteness below.

We struggled to find landmarks to orient ourselves. Even in ideal conditions, Avalanche Gulch is nothing but a big concave funnel of white. But I knew if we just kept walking west, eventually we would hit tree-line and from there could find the parking lot. I just couldn’t remember it being so steep of a descent from there. It seemed like we were going down forever. Finally, the clouds lifted enough, just for a moment, to allow us to see ahead and figure out where we were on the mountain. The rest was just an ordinary walkout to the parking lot from there, down the gulch that I’ve been down a hundred times. Although with my angry midget tearing at my shoulders, it certainly wasn’t routine.

We got back at the truck at 7:40pm. There was snow piled on the truck and we actually had to clean some of the windows off before we could get going. In the end, the best decision we could have made was the one to turn around when we did. Had we continued and tried for a summit, we could have easily been lost and disoriented and stranded up high on Shasta, during a storm. So thin is the line between surviving to climb another day and being another grim tale of Shasta disaster. We had been lucky, we had turned around just in time, and soon we were devouring two orders of “Possibly the Best Cheeseburger Ever” (It’s actual menu name) back at the Goat Tavern in Mt. Shasta City. Although thwarted in our summit attempt, we feel good that we have gathered enough beta on this stunning route, that next time, the third time – will be the charm and we will climb the route to its finish. All in all, it was a good day out in the hills. Mountaineering makes me feel alive, and reminds me why life is so precious. There is no better sport in creation.

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