Wednesday, May 9, 2012

That Was A Long Day - Casaval Ridge 2012

Me on the "Knife-Edge" section of Casaval
“Epic” is probably the most over-used word in tales of mountaineering that you will hear. Sometimes though, it’s just hard to find a better sounding way to describe a climb. If I use the synonym function on Microsoft Word, the words it suggests - heroic, marathon, classic, larger-than-life (is that all one word?), ambitious, impressive and grand - none of those words quite capture the description of a climb the same way. Certainly no one would self-assess themselves as “heroic”. To do that would be paramount to admitting you’re a pompous twit. The word marathon just sounds like something that went on a long time, not necessarily something out of the ordinary. The word (words?) larger-than-life and impressive don’t seem to fit well either, especially if one is describing their own adventures. The word “grand” just sounds like what a person in a 1950’s movie might say. “Ambitious” comes the closest, but seems to miss the first-person intimacy that only the word “epic” is able to convey.

So we had a climb, and it was really grand, haha.

Brodie at Camp around 10,500'
Once again my friend Brodie and I were attempting Casaval Ridge on Mt. Shasta. The climb started out ordinarily enough. In fact, having attempted this route in both 2010 and 2011, I feel like I’ve pretty well documented the approach to camp sufficiently. (Reference this report of our 2011 attempt here Scouting Casaval) I took very few photos on the first day, which was Saturday, simply because they were the same photo opportunities that I’d taken before. So there really was no need. We did get lucky with very consolidated snowpack conditions, which allowed us to walk most of the way to Giddy Giddy Gulch just wearing our boots, and snowshoes were unneeded until we reached the gulch itself. It was a bit windier this time, something that I had been watching closely in the weather forecasts for the previous few days.

Wind whipping off the top of Shasta as we arrived in the morning
It seemed like for a while it was going to be a weather repeat of the previous year. Then, I had gone up the route the week before to reconnoitre conditions. I did the same thing this year. Both of those times conditions had been perfect for climbing. But last year, during the week in between my reconnaissance climb and the climb itself, a storm had moved in and dumped 2-3’ of new snow on the route. This year the same thing had happened, only the storm was nowhere near as strong, leaving on 4-6” of new white powder. The weather forecasting people were confident that conditions would be fine by the weekend and the time of our climb, but were equally confident that a low pressure system would move in, creating the infamous “north wind” that from time to time ravages the State of Jefferson. That would be bad for our climb if those predictions came true. If there is one thing that will make Shasta unclimbable, it is high winds on the summit. I checked all the outlets I could - the NWS point forecast (it has a Shasta summit block option),, - whatever site was giving me the best forecast for the weekend instantly became the site I trusted most. I just was not going to accept that would we not be able to summit due to weather this year. The consensus was that it was going to be windy Saturday and less windy Sunday (our summit day). Just how much less windy? Well, that would be the weather question of the trip. We gambled on the forecast that showed the best chance that the winds would be right around 15 mph on the summit, and we knew those were conditions we would be able to handle.

But it did start out windy. We looked up at the ridge above us and saw almost constant spindrift coming off as we approached. It wasn’t a huge concern for us, and it would prove over the weekend to not be much of a factor at all. While the wind did whip a little overnight, enough to make it a little hard for me to sleep Saturday, on our summit push the wind was almost no factor at all, and beyond about a one hour period from 8-9am, it hardly blew at all. The conditions for our climb stayed clear and sunny, and actually in the end a little breeze would have been nice. But more on that later.

We made it up to high camp at 10,500’ eventually and found a snowbank to dig out for our campsite. The ridge is exposed at this spot, but nothing a snow wall can’t knock down really. In short order camp was set, and I pretty much spent the rest of the afternoon melting snow for water the next day. The night was supposed to bring the “Super Moon” the one night out of the year when the moon is closest to the earth. So we wanted to stay up for the that. Unfortunately, once the moon did rise, it was not over the mountain as we had hoped, but was well of to the south. So all the “super moon” turned out to be good for was just a natural night lite.

Sunset - Shastina (on left) and Mt Shasta

We awoke at 2am to no wind and absolutely clear skies. It was On Like Donkey Kong. By 3am we were geared up and moving, on our way to a hopeful summit.

The "Super Moon" over the ridge
The route starts out with a traverse of some very steep terrain, and gains little altitude. We had camped high due to this, so that we could start our morning with the traverse, instead of a 600’ hill climb. Immediately it was apparent to us that the conditions of the route were not the same as last year. In 2011, Shasta had well above normal snow fall for the season. This year, there was almost no snow at all until March, then in a flurry the snowfall had almost equaled what would be termed a “normal” year. The high winds of the past few days had been busy scouring the ridge of this “normal” pack, and we found the route to be a great deal steeper than it was in 2011. Most descriptions of this traverse section say it is about a 45 degree angle - yet this year in many sections we were crawling along, front-pointing with our crampons and utilizing the business side of our ice axes to get across. We still managed to make good time across this, but the extra effort required certainly was greater than the expectation I had set from my previous experience. We were joined by a couple, Norbert and Edwina, who had camped a little higher than us but had set out at the same time as we did. We traded breaking trail and this seemed to work for efficiency purposes for a while.

We came to our first major obstacle, a large wall with a protruding bowl of wind blown snow. Above this bank is “the notch” which leads to “the hourglass” or so my research on the route tells me they are so named. All I knew was that it was a big ass wall of snow, and damn looked nearly vertical. It wasn’t, however, filled with the overhanging cornices that we saw on it last year (and had made us detour onto more the West Face route). Brodie took the first assessment, and thought that climbing to right of the bowl and staying close to the rocks was the best option. I came back with something like “No way!” or something to that effect when he told me that. It looked 90 degrees at the top from my vantage point. To me, going to the farthest left of the bowl seemed like the surest way up, and that was the tack that Norbert and Edwina started out on as well. Brodie that way up looked ok, but preferred his own initial instinct and started up right. I felt a little torn. When I am climbing with someone, I always remember what I’ve been taught about climbing and that as “always stick with your partner”, yet my instinct was telling me that I should go left. In the end, I ended up sort of in the middle, but definitely closer to the side Brodie was on.

Pretty soon I was front-pointing again and digging into the bank with my axe. The going was actually pretty smooth, the windblown sides of the bowl meant that my foot and axe placements were firm, something like they would be ice climbing. Now and then though, I would hit a fluffy section. It would be at these times I would become acutely aware of the steepness that I was getting myself into, and tried not to think about what I might try to catch myself should I start to fall. I didn’t want to think about it. I saw up ahead a rocky point sticking out of the middle of the bowl and made for that, thinking that maybe at least I might be able to take a rest right there and give my calves a breather. I reached the big rock, but to my dismay found nothing but ice sheets surrounding it and no proper place to stop. Pushing on up the slope, the “I should be roped up, I should be roped up” mantra played through my head and I tried not to look over to the left at Norbert, who although was climbing a steep area, was merely climbing as usual and had not had to resort to front-pointing. I did manage to catch up with Brodie at last, and about that same time I started traversing at an angle, and managed to turn my ice axe around and walk normally. All said and done, the way up Brodie and I had picked was faster than Norbert’s way, although not by a whole lot. Brodie and I rested before proceeding up the notch, and unfortunately Norbert and Edwina told us they were turning around, due to being too cold. The only other groups on the route were well behind us, so from here on out it would just be Brodie and myself.

I led us up through the notch. Rounding the corner I came to what they call the hourglass. My reaction to it was “sweet” and Brodie remarked that after that last section he was ready for some sweetness. This climbing turned out to be relatively easy and straightforward. We traversed across and up, avoiding the “ratwalk” or “false catwalk” as I term it. We wanted to climb the ridge, not be gung-ho idiots and see how well we could rock climb crumbly volcanic rock. The wind was picking up now, and we slowed our pace substantially as we watch snow devil after snow devil spindrift off the top of the mountain. I knew that it was likely by the time we got up there the wind would die down, but we weren’t really rushing to get up there, with the wind blowing like it currently was.

Heading back up towards the ridge
At last we spied the outcropping of red rock that we knew from photos led to the catwalk. Having never climbed the route before, we were a little uncertain if this was indeed, the right place. I knew there was a feature called “the knife-edged ridge” but I couldn’t see it. Did we traverse to far underneath and miss it? Our hearts sank a little as we nearly convinced ourselves that somehow we had climbed this challenging route and missed the most famous features of it. Then, just as we were about to merely chalk this one up as a summit climb nothing more, Brodie - climbing ahead - shouted down to me that “Hey, I think this is the catwalk right here.” I climbed up behind him and took a look at where I was. It was unmistakable, I recognized the place from all the photos I had seen of the route before. I was ON the knife-edge ridge, and Brodie was standing right before the catwalk. We had found the route.

The Knife Edge
 The catwalk was in awesome shape. I have seen photos of it in years when there is barely any snow on it, and the drop into the gulch below is precipitous. However, for us this year, it was a pretty wide walkway, easily six feet across, although the outer half edge looked to be merely a cornice of built up snowdrift. Thinking that it was, neither of us got too close and mainly we stuck against the wall. We took plenty of photos here, the catwalk being the star of the show easily, the classic finisher of the route.

The Catwalk
It was like the Mountain Gods had smiled upon us. As soon as we came upon the catwalk the wind almost completely stopped and we immediately felt the high temperature of the day as the sun shined bright upon us. We removed our Gore-Tex and then climbing in our base layers. Actually, at this point, a little breeze would have felt nice. It was almost too hot now.

Brodie on the Catwalk
We thought we were pretty much home free here, and really we were. But as we walked away from the catwalk we came upon another obstacle, a large ice covered outcropping in between us and the walk over to continue the way up. To be honest, neither of us had really done our homework this year, and I had forgotten any descriptions of how to get around this. The only thing we could figure would be to climb around to the left, and hope that spilled us out onto where the west face meets the Whitney glacier. Brodie went first, but stopped when it appeared to him that around the corner was a dead end. He briefly tried to ascend the wall, but that too looked like it was going to take a lot of effort. I knew there had to be a way, so I swung around underneath to have a look for myself around the corner. It did drop off pretty steeply, but I felt like I could probably downclimb it and for sure this would put me in a good position to get around this hurdle. I climbed out no problem, and after gaining a small hill I saw perfectly in front of me our ultimate goal - the summit! (Of course I also saw Misery Hill, and from this perspective it looked even more miserable than usual.)

I stood and waited for Brodie to join me. And waited. And waited. Finally I called out. Brodie answered finally that he was Ok, but clearly he was shaken by something. I soon learned that downclimbing the same section that I had to get around the corner, Brodie had slipped on the brittle ice and gave himself quite a scare. We were finished with the ridge now, but very aware that this route was not a route for the novice climber. The difference between success and catastrophe was very, very thin, and both of us had moments where we had caught ourselves going out past our comfort zones, even as fairly experienced climbers.

Our approximate route up Casaval Ridge

Joe Simpson’s line from Touching the Void went through my head, something like “Well, we did the ridge. Do we really have to go all the way up to the summit” (paraphrase). And yes, we did want to summit. The remainder of the climb was just a slog up Misery Hill, and then as the altitude was starting to hit me a little, a waltz over the summit block to get to the actual summit. We stayed on the summit just long enough to take our pictures and take a short rest - maybe only 15 minutes on top, then started our descent. It was just past noon, so the climb here had taken us so far 9 hours. But we weren’t done yet...

Climbers heading up the regular route
Now we had to get back to camp. We now knew there was absolutely no way, for sure, that we could go back down they way we came up. It’s not even an option. We had two choices, and neither choice really seemed like a good one. We could go down the West Face Gully route, a way neither of us had ever been before, or back down Avalanche Gulch, a way both of us knew very well and was very populated by other climbers that day (there was no one on the West Face route, to my knowledge). The problem with going down the AG route was that if we went too low, we would end up having to climb back up to our camp area. The problem with the West Face was, we didn’t know the route, how the conditions might be, and likely we would also have to climb back up to where our camp was. What we decided on, was that we would descend Avalanche Gulch, but not all the way to Helen Lake. Instead, we would try to traverse across the bottom of Casaval, on the gulch side, trying not to lose too much altitude as we did so. The difficulty in this was, it could be very steep, and we would end up down in the gulch anyway.

Going down the gulch was easy, but we were getting pretty tired as it was. Brodie started to glissade when conditions allowed. I tried, but could not get enough steam going for a good glissade, so just gave up and high stepped down. Eventually I started cutting across the bottom of Casaval, and at first it seemed like a solid plan. I could see the ridge where our camp sat, and I felt like I had a bead on getting there without having to do to much climbing back up.

Then it started to get steep. It got really, really steep. Brodie had traversed a little higher than me, and now caught up to and passed me. I followed up into his footsteps, and realized he had donned his crampons, whereas I had taken mine off to attempt to glissade and had not put them back on. I was so tired though, that I didn’t want to stop and take the time to get my crampons on. The snow was soft, and except for the steepness factor, I felt like I would be Ok without them.

The traverse went on and on though, and just seemed to get steeper as we lost altitude more and more. Then finally, when my footstep was not level enough to balance my body, the snow slipped out from underneath me and I was falling. Quickly I gained velocity. I instinctively punched my ice axe into the snow in a well-executed self-arrest to stop myself. Well, that must have given the folks below a good show - I thought to myself. They must be looking up at me and wondering what the hell those guys are doing up there. Practicing for a snow school, perhaps? Who knows. I regained my feet and went some distance before it happened again. And then it happened again. And then it happened yet again. I was really getting worn out, and our situation was becoming more and more hopeless. It looked almost certain we’d have to descend to the bottom of the gulch and climb back up again to our camp.

The sloping traverse on the way back to camp
We ended up finally just below our camp area, probably 300’, but down a hopelessly steep face. Brodie traversed over and was able to launch himself onto some rocks. I knew there was no way I had the energy left to attempt such a maneuver, so I told him I’d meet up with him at camp, that I would have to go around. I was finally able to get myself onto the slope leading up to our camp, a slope that I could ascend. Tired as I was, I was so anxious to end this day that I found myself climbing that last 500’ of uphill rather fast. At last I met up with Brodie in camp, as he was busy doing his best to start tearing camp down.

We were beat. For whatever reason, my pack seemed like it grew 5 pounds heavier than the one I had taken up here yesterday. I wondered how that could happen, but I’m quite sure it did. We trudged out and at 7pm at last I was back at the truck, to finish a 16 hour climbing day. I had downgraded my plans for the “Possibly the Best Burger in the World” at the Goat Tavern back in Mt Shasta City, to “I just want a Coca-Cola” at the Chevron. I was so sick of the mountain, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Brodie mentioned that he felt no desire to ever do that route again. I agreed, although I know my wife, Gineth, will want to try it, maybe I won't have to be back up there until next year, or who knows when. 

I finally finished the video with the GoPro footage. And, if you're at all wondering, yes the batteries on the GoPro's died just before we reached the Catwalk. Sorry:

I wouldn't mind doing the route again, as I think about it now. But Casaval Ridge is a route that is springtime only, it will melt out before summer, and with 90+ degree temps forecasted for the next week, it's quite possible the route will be done for the season very soon. It definitely is a more challenging route than the "normal" Avalanche Gulch route, and as I think about it, I will be doing it again sometime. For now though, I'm happy that finally after 3 attempts, we made it. We climbed Casaval Ridge.

Summit of Mt. Shasta

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