25 08 2008

So after a good summer of climbing, all successful with no altitude problems, in September 2006 I gave myself an early birthday present and booked a guided climb up Mt. Rainier. Not a California fourteener at all, obviously, but something high up on my general “to-do-in-my-lifetime” list. This was with RMI, the former monopoly operator of guided climbs on Rainier for many decades. Much more on them later. I flew to Seattle, rented a car, drove to Rainier and spent the night in one of RMI’s cabins. This was at relatively low elevation (5000 feet or so) and in retrospect I should have camped out along a dirt road high up in the surrounding hills. The next day consisted of self-arrest and glacier traverse training on the lower slopes of Rainier. Much of this was review for me, from my self-taught practice on my many Shasta trips, but there was new material and the course was well-taught.

Next day brings the approach up to the high camp, Camp Muir, at around 10,000 feet. Most of this was on snow, with relatively light packs as we’re sleeping in a stone hut and being provided with hot water for cooking.

Somewhere on the hike up, my brain fizzled out and failed to shoot any photos of the very strange community of hikers, climbers, guides, rangers, and clients at Muir. There’s nice toilet there, which is always welcome. The guides went over the basics for the summit day, which would be starting around midnight that night. Then ate a bit, and tried to sleep at around 7pm or so. I’m not sure I slept at all, being still quite early, despite earplugs and a bandanna tied over my face.

At midnight the lights come on, and I just about leaped out of my shelf, ready to go. Ate some ramen noodles, drank quite a bit, got dressed, and packed up my gear. The cold was intense and biting, probably around 5-10F. We tie into teams and hit the trail. The easiest route up Rainier is very steep, long, crosses innumerable crevasses and ice bridges and honestly puts anything in California to shame. You need to be back off the glacier before early afternoon, when the ice melts and starts to move. So starting at midnight and moving fast are key. The guides enforce that rule with a cruel passion. If you slow down the rest of the team, you are finished and they will force you to stop and park your ass. Sometimes they will assemble a whole rope team to be led down by one of the guides. Otherwise they’ll put up a tent and throw you in, and leave you behind. No arguments. Climbing as a private party, you are welcome to take however long you wish and be on the ice late. The guides however do not care if you summit, they already have your money and I’m sure they’d just as soon that you have to return and pay them again. Lots of fit and capable people get parked on this climb and I don’t have to tell you that this is highly frustrating. There was a couple on the climb who were unprepared and over their heads compared to the rest of the group, and could barely pace the rope team on the flats, much less the steep ice. They got parked in a tent at the first rest break, the head guide telling them “this is as far as you’re climbing.” Such tact! Further on, someone farther up the line was climbing strong but suddenly felt quite ill. One guide took him down, and collected the two in the tent along the way.

There are dozens of trails on the ice, braided together and impossible to tell apart in the dark. Many of the old trails still sport willow wands so it’s essentially a maze. Only one of them does not end at a crevasse too wide to step over, and it changes all the time. The guides know them by heart. We passed all the private parties on the ascent, all of them lost on one of the other trails and backtracking after cliffing out at crevasses. This is what you get for your $900 guide fee.

My HRM strategy of climbing slow and steady is not compatible with these guys, obviously. The guides are constantly agitating the team to move faster, don’t stop to drink, no pictures, stay focused. My heart rate was not crazy high, but definitely into my personal danger zone. My headlamp (an old school halogen Petzl Zoom) went dead – don’t buy one of these, and if you have one, get rid of it – and my backup 4-LED headlight was brighter anyway. Dawn arrived eventually but the intense cold stayed. At the top of the climb, around 14,000 feet, I just hit a wall and could not keep pace with the team anymore. But a hundred feet more and we were standing on the crater rim, looking down into the caldera of this dormant volcano.
We descended down into the bowl and I just about collapsed. Could not catch my breath despite trying to breathe deep and steady and pressure-breathe from time to time.

The summit caldera

Hard, dagger-like ice penitentes. Hard to find a comfortable place to sit.


The descent was considerably more relaxed. This being September, the snow cover was quite patchy in places and we were descending on lots of bare rock and loose scree in plastic boots and crampons, which is really, really far from ideal. My appetite was zero and I was surviving by continually sucking on jolly ranchers. Breaks seemed more frequent on the descent and we had time and light for photos.

More penitentes, and the broken and chaotic surfaces of the glacier far below. Note the tiny figures of another couple of rope teams.

We get down below the bare rock, cross the last dangerous bit of glacier, and are again on relatively level and safe ground around 11,000 feet. I took a bit of a Clif bar, needing solid food despite a tremendous lack of appetite. The mealy dryness of it just did not want to go down, and I forced it down my throat with a gagging revulsion I’d never experienced before. Of course a minute later, I’m vomiting bright orange Gatorade-colored puke in the snow and feeling like the end of the world. I got up and tied back in anyway. We get back to Camp Muir without any more drama. I’m drained from lack of calories and desperately need to eat and powernap. At this point the danger is long past, it’s about noon or 1pm, and all we have ahead of us is a leisurely stroll down to the visitor’s center and a celebratory dinner. The guides announced a one hour break before heading down, so I ate quickly, set an alarm, and laid down to sleep. Not fifteen minutes later one of the guides was shaking me, saying it’s time to go, everyone else is waiting. Very annoying. Of course I understand not wanting to delay the rest of the group. I offered to go down on my own, even to miss the bus back to RMI headquarters and hitchhike or walk, but “sorry we can’t allow that.” So I got up, and we walked out. Got to the bus with THREE HOURS of daylight to spare. And then WAITED at the bus for a full hour for another group to come down.
These guys have been running this scam for thirty years, and they don’t have these details down? I got the impression that above all, the guides want to be back home by 5pm so they don’t miss their TV shows or something. They were given an official monopoly by the Park Service decades ago, and like all monopolies, they really took it to heart. Flexibility and client satisfaction comes way down the list, at #10 or #15. I’m not the kind of guy who pays money to have someone show me how to do things. Usually I figure it out myself, and I often can’t even convince my friends to join me, so I’m out there solo. So these annoyances grated on me to an extreme degree. The Park Service broke their monopoly in 2006 in response to years of complaints about RMI. Of course RMI lobbied and wrangled and countersued and delayed implementation for two years. Plenty has been written in the outdoor press about that. But as I write, there are three licensed guide services going up Rainier. I highly recommend going with someone other than RMI, and let RMI learn to compete with more than a “our way or the highway” approach.

White Mountain

13 08 2008

White Mountain is the easiest of the California fourteeners, and one of the two non-Sierra outliers (with Shasta). It’s a pile of volcanic gravel east of Bishop, at the end of a long and very entertaining dirt road leading all the way up to 11,600 feet (3500m). There’s a road all the way to the University of California research station at the summit, but access is blocked except to hikers, bikers, and authorized researchers. You can actually mountain bike to the summit, which would save a lot of tedium traversing the long lonely stretch from the research residence to the summit. You might have to walk the bike up the last steep bit, or stash the bike temporarily. Not much to report about the hike itself, just a long walk.

The scenery is very different than the Sierra. Lots of burnt earth tones and swathes of volcanic colors, reds and ochres and oranges and yellows. Not much green up this high. The summit itself (#4 for me) has a little stone structure, some weather instruments –

and a colossal loose stone cairn, with a view out into Nevada:

By far the best thing about this trip is the night sky at the high altitude parking spot:

A few more photos here.

Mt. Whitney and Mt. Muir

7 08 2008

So after the success of Shasta, it was time to up the ante a little. Actually I had to apply for a Whitney permit in the lottery many months before Shasta, so I was counting on success or plain perserverence… And to be honest, Shasta is actually considerably more difficult than Whitney (via the standard Mule Trail anyway…) A former colleague at work with some mountaineering experience, upon learning I wanted to climb a 14er, got a big frown when I told him my plan to climb Shasta. He suggested White Mountain instead (the easiest one in CA by far).
Well regardless, the appointed weekend arrives and I drove to Lone Pine by myself. I couldn’t get any friends to commit in February to “any weekend in July or August, won’t find out until June.” Parked at Horseshoe Meadows for the night (10,000 feet elevation) to hopefully acclimate some. Only a 9 hour drive, leaving after work put me there at 2am or so. Slept on the asphalt in front of my car in the bivy sack. I recall sometime in the night hearing people shuffling around and seeing their headlamps, then hearing a loud whisper say “someone saw a mountain lion! Over there in the bushes!” Too tired to contemplate it, I went back to sleep and resigned myself to my fate.
Next morning, drove back to town to get my permit, drove up to Whitney Portal and started hiking. It’s a decent hike up to Trail Camp (~6 miles, and 4000 feet of elevation) but there was no drama. Saw a few marmots, set up my bivy, ate, and slept early. Set an alarm for early morning pre-dawn to look at the stars.

Started hiking just after dawn, with full gear (waterproof boots, crampons, down jacket, rain shell, ice axe). Turned out to all be unnecessary as there was just a bit of snow on the trail (though quite a bit of cold water running down the trail). Topped out over the switchbacks, crossed the one significant snowfield without my crampons, popped over Trail Crest. Traversing along the backside of the mountain at over 13,000 feet, a lean 40-something fellow JOGGED past wearing only trail runners, shorts, sunglasses, a hat, and a beltpack with some water. I churn along some more, sucking the thin air and watching my heart rate, and pretty soon he comes jogging back the other way, having summited and presumably headed back down to Whitney Portal. Sigh.
Passed by a legion of rangers keeping watch over the trail and the junctions. Passed a few portly fellows who should not have been up there and were somewhat the worse for wear. The summit of Mt. Whitney is a little anticlimactic, actually. The eastern faces of all the mountains in the Sierra are pretty dramatic – multi-thousand foot cliffs, sheer drops, very solid looking rock. The western slopes tend to be undramatic second-class hills, piled with boulders. The Whitney trail winds up a shallow slope through the boulders, then you’re there. Looked down the cliff, shot some photos, and started heading back.

I wanted time to climb Mt. Muir. There are four prominent peaks in the Whitney massif. Someone came up with some technical rules about prominence above saddle elevation, and distance apart, to distinguish which are true 14ers and which are merely “sub-peaks.” Somehow the much more impressive Keeler and Day Needles don’t count, but the next one over, Mt. Muir, does. Whatever. At a certain point back toward Trail Crest, you start up a 3rd class gully up to the top of Muir. Stashed my bag and stuff behind a rock, taking only my camera. It’s a 3rd class route according to the books, but the route I took had me making 8-12 foot vertical rock moves with substantial exposure and pretty skinny holds. In my book that’s 4th class, and if I had a rope and protection, I’d have wanted to use it. Regardless, I allowed no time for consideration or looking down, and just did it. It was impossible to limit my heart rate during this, so I just shut off my HRM. Soon I was sitting on top of a table-sized block of rock and signing the register left in an army ammo can. More photos, then the considerably more harrowing task of downclimbing those 8-12 foot vertical rock moves. Collected my things, back on the trail, and started making tracks for Trail Camp.

Got back, whipped up a quick dinner (this being around 4pm now), packed up and hit the trail. Ran out of food on the way down and begged a bag of trail mix off some other people headed down with excess food. Developed horrifying pain in my ankles from my full boots. I hadn’t worn boots for years before this and I think I’d gotten used to the freedom of low-cut shoes. Every step got to be agony and I strongly considered just cutting the ankles off the damn things. When I got home, those boots went straight in the trash. Darkness fell on the way down, but the trail is like a superhighway and one hardly even needs a headlamp. Got back to Whitney Portal around 10pm, drove down to town and ate at the 24-hour High Sierra Cafe. Slept, appropriately, at the Mt. Whitney Motor Lodge as I was in the mood for air conditioning and a real bed. Followed up with an afternoon at Devil’s Postpile the next day, sunset photos at Mono Lake, and got back for 4th of July fireworks the next night.

More photos here

Shasta: the Ur-mountain.

4 08 2008

This blog is going to be about my quest to climb all the mountains in California higher than fourteen thousand feet (4267 meters for my metric friends). All but two of these are in the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra are pretty high mountains – there are around 150 peaks in the Sierra higher than thirteen thousand feet. There are only fifteen 14ers (depending on definitions). Perhaps that’s a quixotic and arbitrary number coming from our odd choice of length units; still, fifteen peaks sounds like just about the right number for me. And it gets me out doing what I love, which is hiking, camping in beautiful alpine settings, and standing on top of peaks looking down in all directions.

Let me start with how I got into this crazy business. I used to play in a band, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. We would play in Portland, Oregon pretty frequently, as you could drive up there and back in a weekend without missing work. The music scene there was pretty active, so in 2000-2002 when gas was significantly cheaper, we could count on playing for a pretty good sized crowd and selling some t-shirts and other merch and having it be worth our while.

The drive from SF to Portland goes right past the flanks of Mount Shasta. This massive snow-covered volcano (it’s part of the Cascade range) rises up dramatically from the horizon as you drive up or down Interstate 5, ever higher and higher, its bulk and height completely improbable in the surrounding landscape. The impression you get of its size is extraordinary, being a solitary volcanic cone far from any neighbors, and rising out of a pretty modest landscape. Now I’ve always been into the outdoors, hiking, backpacking, biking, etc but I was never a climber in that time. But every time I drove past Mt. Shasta I would think “some day, I’m going to climb that monster.” The guys in my band would laugh at me, “yeah right!”

Soon I picked up a copy of Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” and completely devoured it. I think “Into The Wild” had been laying around the house, and I often have phases of following an author from book to book. I was hooked. I went to the Everest IMAX movie, I read Krakauer’s “Eiger Dreams,” got a copy of “Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills” and soon enough I was going to a seminar at the local outdoor store on “How to climb Mt. Shasta” and planning a trip.

That first trip I knew very little about climbing and mountaineering. I was in a big-time backpacking phase, wanting to be outdoors at every opportunity, ditching my parents’ hand-me-down gear from the 70s for modern ultra-lightweight stuff. I convinced my friend Justin to go with me. He had a bomber mountaineering tent (10 lbs… too bomber) and was pretty stoked. We drove up, rented our gear in town, and hiked in that day to Horse Camp, near a stone Sierra Club hut. This was mid spring 2003, and there was snow all the way down to the trailhead at Bunny Flat. We camped at Horse Camp under a tree, on the snow. My first experience ice camping, and melting snow to drink. Next day we hiked up to Helen Lake (not actually a lake, except once every 30 years in the late summer – usually it’s just a nice shelf on the mountain where a few dozen climbers can camp) at 10,500 feet and settled in for the night. We dug the tent into the snow like the others around us, and built up a short tight-fitting wall around the tent to block the wind. Seemed like a cool thing to do.

That night the wind started to pick up. Soon the tent was flapping like crazy, and spindrift snow was starting to fill the space between the snow wall and the tent (not enough gap to let the wind blow it out again). The wind picked up to insane levels – the tent would occasionally catch a gust and almost flatten out. Also, we both lived at sea level. We had run up the mountain in our excitement, and exerted ourselves like crazy digging snow and building walls. I started to get sick, and soon was vomiting in a big ziploc bag. The snow was piling up, and the walls were starting to pinch in under the weight. After vomiting all night, unable to sleep in the violently buffetting tent, it finally got light and we packed up in a hurry to bail and get down. Our boots and cooking gear were buried in snow where we had left them in the vestibule, and some of Justin’s gear got left behind when we couldn’t find it under all the snow. We could barely hear each other over the wind. I was still sick and hadn’t had water or calories since the night before.

We descended only a few hundred feet below Helen Lake, and were out of the wind. Looking up, we could see the wind still lashing the upper mountain in a solid fog of blown snow. Just below, it was calm and clear and sunny. We hiked out, me with my bag of frozen vomit (which I would forget about and leave in my pack until the next week – yuck – thankfully no leaks). The weather on Shasta can be like that, keep a close ear to the climb report from The Fifth Season (530-926-5555). Back in town, I already felt great and very, very hungry. Ate a completely redonkulous meal at the Black Bear Diner. Highly recommended.

I was undeterred. A month or two later, I wanted to try again. I had a new girlfriend who was into the outdoors and backpacking (we met on a backpack trip in Henry Coe State Park, I taught her how to skip rocks). Four of us went, the girl and me, Justin and his roommate George (a tall strapping lad with a mountaineer’s build). We rented all our gear in advance, drove up and got to Shasta town late, started hiking early the next morning. This time I’m taking Diamox, an anti-altitude sickness drug that is supposed to help you acclimate quicker. It was a three-day weekend so we packed for two nights at Helen Lake and potentially two summit attempts. Everyone had an equal share of the food, tents, etc. George, Justin and I are all big six-foot guys. Lauren is petite and slender, and she tried valiantly to keep our pace and not complain but it just wasn’t to be, and I’m ashamed to admit that there were tears involved. We rejuggled the loads to something more appropriate for each person, and continued on more or less happily. Camped at Helen under clear and still skies.

Next morning I didn’t feel right. I wasn’t nauseous, not vomiting, but very very bone-tired and just did not want to get out of the tent at 3am. I figured we have two days here, I’ll feel better the next day if I spend the day at Helen acclimating. Justin and George went on without us, Lauren kept a concerned watch over me. I slept. They returned, having been up as high as Red Banks (no small feat) before being too cold and tired to continue. Sat down for a while and told us about it. I was feeling better. Then George says, well let’s get packed up and go home. A confused period follows, and it turns out that he had to be home that night despite the long weekend and a just-barely-in-range cell phone call to home from the lip of Helen Lake. Just a simple misunderstanding. I was bummed not to stay, as I was feeling pretty good by now, but cheerfully resigned to try again. Having Mexican food in town, I discover the main nasty side effect of Diamox – it makes soda taste like you’re drinking battery acid. Somehow it blocks the sweet taste and amplifies the acid; it really feels like your face is dissolving away from the horrible chemical reaction in your mouth. Takes a couple days to fully wear off. Beware.

May 2004 comes around. I’d been backpacking around Southeast Asia for three months, jogging every other day to stay in shape. I was determined to head up to Shasta as soon as I got back, solo if I had to. Got home, put all the gear together, stayed in town for the night, got a colossal omelette and plate of potatoes at the Black Bear. I’d been eating eggs all the time in Vietnam – omelette over rice with chili for breakfast, omelette sandwich for lunch – and was still wild about eggs. By the time I drove up to Bunny Flat, I was feeling a little weird. Pretty soon I was vomiting in the toilet at the trailhead. This was a weird experience – never vomited with such a full stomach before. What came out was almost a solid extruded tube. Had a distinct choking sensation as it slid out in more or less continuous cylinder. Felt a lot like what happens at the other end.

OK, enough about that. In the following weeks, every time I ate eggs I’d throw up within about half an hour. The eventual theory had to do with the fact that I’d been on doxycycline as an anti-malarial prophylaxis during my Asia trip. The doxy killed all the beneficial digestive bacteria in my gut and irritated my stomach lining. This explained the constant indigestion feeling I’d had in the last weeks of my trip. In Asia, all the eggs I’d been eating came from chickens running around loose behind the guesthouse. Back home, they came from chicken factories where the raw animal density supports an endemic and permanent salmonella population across some 75% of store-bought chickens and eggs. Even well-cooked eggs have a little residue of salmonella toxin. A healthy gut can tolerate that; my irritated gut could not. After finally finishing the doxy course (two weeks after you return home, that’s the incubation period of the malaria parasite), eating lots of live-culture yogurt, and laying off the eggs, my gut was back to normal but the snow had melted on Shasta.

Attempt #4. Spring 2005. Dan and Sam and I attempt to summit as a one-day hike, starting from Bunny Flat at midnight. I figure this might help with the altitude problem, by being done and off the mountain before it starts. Joel and Turtle come along. Things go fine in the dark until near Helen Lake – I start slowing down and just can’t catch my breath. My heart is racing and trying to break out of my ribcage. Dan and Sam churn ahead, setting a good solid pace. Joel and Turtle are far below us, going so slow we figure they’re done for. We discuss it at Helen, while all the climbers camped there are getting up and ready to go. I’m talking about turning around back to the car or waiting for Joel and Turtle, feeling like crap. Two nearby climbers hear us, and offer to let me sleep in their tent while everyone else goes for the summit. I gratefully accept, and climb into a mountain of warm, fluffy Western Mountaineering down bag while Dan and Sam go on ahead and fall right asleep.

Well, of course the inevitable happens and soon I’m vomiting red Gatorade in the snow outside those nice climbers’ tent. A couple people look pretty alarmed at the color, just Gatorade though. A nice couple makes me warm Tang (very soothing, actually!) which helps but I’m still vomiting every 30-45 minutes. I tell them maybe I need to take up another sport. The climbing ranger has a look at me and asks, you a runner or a cyclist? I reply yes, and yes. He says “figures. Guys like you train your body to ramp up to 100% every time you exercise. Doesn’t work like that up here. Most of the guys getting sick here are runners or cyclists.” He’s right – whenever I exercise, my heart rate shoots right up to its 180 bpm maximum and a similarly high breathing rate. Problem is, at high elevation, the body doesn’t get as much oxygen as it’s used to but still defaults to consuming oxygen at its usual rate. Result is that blood O2 levels drop altitude sickness follows. Climbing ranger recommends hiking very slow and steady to keep the heart rate down, where my lungs can still keep up and avoid the blood O2 drop.

Dan and Sam return hours later, completely exhausted but having reached the summit. I fill them in on the situation. I’ve been sick for hours and have barely had any fluid or calories, so I’m not feeling my best. As we are about to get moving, the ranger comes over and sheepishly says “I hate to be the one to have to tell you guys, but you gotta pack out the vomit.” Hmph. I fill a white plastic trash bag (someone’s bag liner) with the red-orange Gatorade-Tang vomit-snowcone. We start down the mountain. I’m going slow and weak so Dan stays with me. Sam takes the keys and sets a good steady pace down the mountain, dragging the white trash bag behind him. He later reports that everyone coming up the mountain asks what’s in the bag. Sam says that his answer, “some guy’s vomit,” is a conversation-stopper. Meanwhile I’m suffering along, and regularly dropping on my knees to toss another red vomit snow-cone. Lots of alarmed faces on the climbers headed up, asking Dan “He’s going down the mountain, right?” Again, as soon as we drop below Bunny Flat, I feel great and demolish a gardenburger, fries, and milkshake at the Black Bear.

Spring 2006. Syvianne, my partner at the rock climbing gym, wants to give it a shot. I give her the full disclosure about my history. This time I’m on a double dose of Diamox and am using a heart rate monitor. I set the HRM to beep if I go over 140 BPM, hoping to stay in the aerobic range at 130 bpm. We drive up late on Friday, and this time sleep in the parking lot at Bunny Flat (7000 feet) to help acclimate compared to staying in town (only 5400 feet). This time I have a good camera with me:


Hiking up and watching my HRM, I realize that I usually have been hiking hard hard hard for something like 20 paces, then rest and catch my breath for 20 breaths, then again. Turns out this is the worst possible thing for me. Instead I start hiking slow and steady, backing off the pace whenever the slope increases. Sylvianne easily paces ahead of me, but I get to Helen Lake having never gone over 135 BPM and feeling great. I take it very slow and easy when digging in the tent. Melting snow takes way too long though, and it’s very dark before we eat and we run out of fuel to boot! Borrowed some from the rangers and all is well.

A guided group practicing mountaineering techniques on the slopes below Helen

Helen Lake

Sunset from Helen

Up at 3am, hiking at 4am, dawn hits us most of the way up Avalanche Gulch. We keep it slow and steady, and soon we’re through the Red Banks and looking out over a fantastic vista. Above us is the aptly-named Misery Hill, the steepest and most exposed crux of the route. Sylvianne’s hands are getting numb from the cold and she wants to turn around. My hands are toasty warm inside my double mittens. I trade gloves with her and encourage her to keep going. I figure, I’m finally doing well, I don’t want to give up now. A few minutes later her hands are back and we’re happy. We reach the flat at the top of Misery Hill, with the summit pinnacle overlooking us:

Shortly therafter we climb the pinnacle:

and I’m standing on the summit of my first 14er ever, on only my 5th attempt:

No drama to report, everything just worked. Good weather, good company. The HRM technique turned out to be a critical aid for me. Had some epic glissades on the way down. On the drive back (this is now Sunday, and we’re due back at work on Monday morning) we are so tired we have to swap driving duties every hour, then every half hour, then every fifteen minutes, then finally we stop at a rest stop and both nap for a solid couple of hours. Got home around 3am and made it to work the next day. What a massive relief to know that it’s not only possible, but when everything is going right, it’s not even that hard…

Photo gallery here