On the way to Virginia lakes, in the Eastern Sierras a few weeks ago, I stopped at a gas station, just on the Nevada side of 395 to fill up on Twinkies and Gatorade. I was working on the assumption that a quick jolt of sugar and electrolytes would give me just enough nervous energy to drive the final 60 or so miles to the trailhead without falling asleep at the wheel. My plan was ultimately successful, in that I made it to the trailhead awake, however, this unholy cocktail also kept me tossing and turning for hours in the back of my truck, unable to fall into a comfortable slumber.

Having purchased my snack and arranged the gas pump handle to fill up my truck automatically, I made a break for the restroom. Upon entering a stall, I reached for a sanitary seat cover, getting prepared for some serious business. I noticed that there was a barely readable message etched into the sanitary seat cover dispenser; “Free Hats.” I tried not to laugh audibly, afraid of alarming the other occupants of the bathroom, and I pondered the nature of the comic genius that designed this bathroom art. I was even moderately jealous of not having dreamt of it myself… tossing through daydreams of where and when I might also spread this joke.

This past Friday, immediately after work, my wife and I drove to Oakland to my climbing partner, Jef’s, house, where we picked up Jef and Darin, jammed all of our gear into the back and back seat of my truck, and headed North to Shasta. Great, weekend mountaineering trips, based out of San Francisco, inevitably star with a few key elements; a car filled to the point of overflowing, maddening traffic for the first hour, and dinner at a fast-food restaurant followed by moans of self-disgust, a car full of bad breath, and dehydration. This trip was no different. My Jeep Liberty was packed to the ceiling and Jef and Darin had to share the back seat with various backpacks and mountaineering tools. For the first hour of driving, I was in a combative rage fueled by a combination of loud punk music and complacent drivers. The dinner of “choice” was Burger King, in a small town on highway 505, and immediately after polishing off more saturated fat and slat than my body had been subjected to in a month, I began to experience the corporate scourge of our day; Acid Reflux Disease… IE. Heartburn exacerbated by stress, a sedentary life, and unnatural food sources.

Friday night, after having made great time on the highway, we bedded down at a free campsite about 20 miles South of Mt. Shasta, next to a small river that boils and rustles through a series of small rapids and surface disturbances, giving off a gentle, background hum and charging the air with positive ions and a cool humidity. Darin was familiar with this campground from his years of fieldwork in the area as a biologist. What he didn’t seem to have recalled, though, was the fact that an active railway sits about 100 yards from the campground. The first freight train that passed through at about 10:30 was charming, but the following 5 or 6 that passed through during the night ruined any chance of uninterrupted sleep.

Saturday morning, we re-packed the truck and emerged onto Interstate Highway 5, headed north, and were treated to the majestic view of Mt. Shasta glistening in the early morning sun, towering over the surrounding mountains and landscape. The following afternoon, while relaxing on its’ summit, I would overhear a guide explaining to his clients that Mt. Shasta was named one of the world’s 7 holy mountains by the Dalai Lama. Approaching the mountain, on Saturday morning, I was overwhelmed by a sense of comfort and benevolence.

Mountains have a powerful affect on me. There are many exciting and physically demanding activities to be engaged in, in this world, but none draw me as inexorably as mountaineering and snowboarding. I have no truly good, solid or logical reason for this. I am simply aware that I am never as at peace or alert or, for that matter, instinctively fulfilled, as I am when I place my feet upon the flanks of a mountain. I was born in Texas, a place nearly as flat as is possible, so my longing for high places is certainly not a regression into childhood comforts. Mountains provide me with a feeling of belonging and purposefulness that were actually absent during my childhood and for the majority of my adult life.

Mt. Shasta, in particular holds an irresistible attraction for me. I have been to places such as Yosemite Valley that are compelling climbing environments, but that also seem to give off an underlying feeling of malevolence and danger. These are places where I can find the serenity that I seek in climbing, yet they only offer this feeling as a brief reprieve resulting from struggle and exhaustion. Mt. Shasta makes me feel welcome and comfort starting from the moment I can smell the sharp, ozonated fragrance of the springs and streams that issue from it’s melting slopes to the moment that I gain its’ summit plateau and come to rest on its’ final rocky step.

It appears also, that I am making a tradition of coming to Mt. Shasta at times of turmoil in my life. Last year, I succeeded on my first attempt at its’ summit, while on vacation from a terrible working environment in New York City. At that time, I was considering the possibility of relocating my wife and myself to San Francisco, where I would take a different path in my career and try to advance my climbing goals. My experience on Shasta left me with a sense of well being so powerful that I was able to take the risk of changing my life in ways that have brought immeasurable joy to both my wife and myself.

Over the course of the past few months, I have been wrestling, again, with some difficult choices in regards to the direction that I should take in my life. I have been obsessively drawn to Mt. Shasta during this time, and as before, my trip there has given me enough focus and clarity to take some actions that are both risky and frightening, but which are necessary for the development of long-term happiness in my life, as well as in my marriage.

We stopped at the Black Bear Diner in the town of Mt. Shasta to fill up on piles of pancakes, eggs, and fatty pork products, and then we casually stopped in at the 5th Season to acquire a few last-minute supplies, and to rent some climbing skins for my wife to use for the weekend. More than once, on the drive north, Jef had sought confirmation that we would be stopping at this store before we went to the mountain. Knowing Jef, I should have been aware that some serious gear shopping would ensue. 4 or 5 hundred dollars later, and after having waited tensely by the car for him for roughly 30 minutes, Jef emerged with brand new boots and crampons. We were all certainly happy for him and perhaps a little jealous, but waiting had spurned us all into anxious impatience. Speeding up the approach road, random hoots and expressions of excitement rang from the open windows of our truck.

At the trail-head parking lot, a massive slide of gear, backpacks and skis formed around the back of the truck, as we frantically sorted through our belongings and made final organizational arrangements of our loads. Summit-pass purchased, nervous bowels emptied, packs shouldered and skins affixed, we began the pleasant ¼ mile approach from the Bunny Flats parking lot to Horse Camp, at the base of the Casaval Ridge. During the approach, we worked out the various one-liners and insider jokes that are the staple of mountaineering trips and that would invoke spontaneous laughter for the next few days. It is important to work out standardized humor at the beginning of such a trip, so that joking and laughter can be accomplished with the least amount of oxygen consumption, once higher elevations are reached. Humor in the midst of discomfort is one of the keys to a successful climb, but like everything else on a mountain, must be accomplished efficiently.

That afternoon, we set up our camp at around 7,900’ and played around at elevations below 9,500’. By 4:00, we were comfortably idle in our well-excavated snow-kitchen, boiling and drinking water and concocting a single-pot, stew-like meal of couscous, broccoli, onions, cheese, and canned chicken. We lounged around for a few hours full and happy and continued to hydrate in anticipation of what was to follow the next day. By 8:00, we were all beaded down in our respective bivy-sacs, and I dozed off peacefully under a pleasantly cool and clear sky.

At 1:00 AM, my alarm clock jolted me awake, and we all set about boiling enough water for hot drinks and cereal and to top off all of our water bottles. We also all attempted to get our bowels moving, but as is often the case with an ‘alpine start’, relief would have to wait until later in the day. We were stomping crampons by 2:40 AM, heading up the Casaval Ridge, and I was trying to establish a respatory rhythm that would carry me through the rest of the day. We were able to carry on mostly without headlamps, as the sky was clear enough for the moon and stars to provide adequate lighting. All 3 of us were charging strong, but we learned later in the day that our starting pace may have been too aggressive and had sapped some vital energy from Jef. I have suspicions that a breakfast consisting of a brownie and tea were more to blame, but who can argue with a fit European and his dietary habits, especially one who gets 3 times as much exercise as I do, by virtue of his profession? Jef throws around more weight in wine crates during the course of a week than I can duplicate in the artificial environs of a gym.

We were forced to slow down our pace at about 9,500’ and to wander around a swath of the ridge, as Darin had left his ice axe somewhere out there the day before. Despite a sell-spaced search pattern, we were unable to recover his tool. After a brief discussion, we agreed that Darin would continue on with us in the hopes that he could push to the top with just his ski poles. We also confirmed our decision to escape the more exposed, upper section of the Casaval Ridge, in favor of the final headwall of the West-Face. Our most serious concern on this route would be the possibility of an uncontrolled fall down a semi-steep, frozen slope that could result in massive burns and/or broken limbs due to tumbling or crampons catching in the ice. We were unroped, and each responsible for every step, but we all felt solid and alert.

As the moon sank over the horizon, and the sun lingered below the mountain, we made a few, minor route-finding errors. Fortunately, they only cost us a few hundred feet and 30 minutes of climbing. There is a notch, just below a craggy feature at about 10,500 feet on the ridge, which must be traversed under and towards the West to gain the climbable ramp just below the Western spine of the Casaval Ridge. Once through this notch, we were on course, and on familiar terrain, as Jef and I had been up this route the year before.

The next 2 or 3 hours were composed of deliberate steps, cramponing, and ice axe placements. We kept a strong pace of about 1,000’ per hour, until we got to 12,500’. Here we stopped at a finger of pumice that punctuates the final field of the West Face. We slugged down some fluids, ingested as much food as was comfortably possible, and individually began the final 500’ push of the face. There are few things that I find more satisfying than “French-stepping” with crampons on a semi-steep slope. My mind and my body worked themselves into a meditative focus of breathing, stepping, and weighting my ice axe. I gained the top of the West Face just as the sun was rounding the corner, and I was able to relax in its’ warmth, eat some Gu and slug some Gatorade, while I waited for Darin and Jef to follow me up.

While I was waiting, I had the distinct pleasure of setting a personal record for high-altitude defecation. Suitably relieved, I packed my ice axe away and arranged my ski poles for use. The remaining 1,500’ to the summit plateau are all relatively safe and non-threatening. The only real obstacle is the psychological crux of having to down-climb 200’ feet to then be faced with the mild, yet at that point enormous feature of Misery Hill. Aptly named, this 1,500’ of low-angle climbing is a dull trudge that saps the final energy reserves out of people like myself who live at sea level.

Having crested Misery Hill, I was now on the summit plateau and left only with a 200 yard march to the base of the summit cone, the final few hundred feet to the top. Both times that I’ve been to the top of Shasta, Misery Hill and the remaining reaches to the summit were social and festive. I was in the company of 10 or so other climbers the whole time, some with skis, some just climbing. At the base of the final summit cone, many people stop and take off their packs, drink a little water, then continue up a wind-hardened slope to a catwalk and rock step that are the actual summit. I left my pack and snowboard, and trudged up the final steps to the summit. Darin followed, once I hade descended back to the plateau, borrowing my ice axe, and Jef chose to forego the actual summit in favor of a short nap… and a resultant, viscous sun burn.

Both times that I have been up Shasta, I have found myself crying uncontrollably and sporadically once above Misery Hill.

We gathered our gear, collected our strength, strapped on our boards, and began our descent from the base of the summit cone. Between the summit cone and misery Hill, the snow was wind packed and barely edge-able with patches of blue ice. We stopped briefly at the crest of Misery Hill to search out a safe route and to take in a stunning view of some of the hanging glaciers on the North face of Shasta. A block of blue ice, the size of an office building clings to the upper face of the mountain, overhanging like a hunched vulture, supported by the lower expanse of the glacier.

We found a ride-able patch of slushy snow and made our way down below Misery Hill to the ridge that runs East-West between the Red banks feature and the West Face. After hiking along the ridge we peered into the Trinity Chutes, which line the upper, skier’s-right portion of Avalanche Gulch, the trade route on Shasta. These were the features that we had originally planned to snowboard for our descent, but they had been baked into unrideable slush fields by the unseasonably warm temperatures that Shasta had been experiencing, coupled with a dump of heavy snow a few weeks prior. We decided to traverse back to the West Face and take this as our descent route, as the sun had just begun to soften it up.

We made the right choice! While heavily textured in some sections, the snow was generally rideable, and we were able to open up some high-speed, long, arcing turns in some sections. The struggles of the summit behind us, we were all able to relish in the simple pleasure of smooth turns on a big mountain. I cannot imagine a better way to descend a mountain, especially one as open and negotiable as Shasta. Each time that I shifted my weight forwards and backwards on my board and engaged my edges in the snow; I could feel the mountain returning all of my efforts and multiplying them into an electrifying energy. Snowboarding gives me the feeling of drawing upon the natural power stores of snow and inclination, and channeling them into an experience of a pure, physical flow of excitement. When I allow the mountain to dictate the velocity and angle of my turns, I become a mere passenger, allowing the mountain to show me its’ wonders. This, to me, is the ultimate expression of my respect and adoration of such a mountain.

We worked our way down the face and traversed Eastward towards the Casaval Ridge, as the snow conditions began to deteriorate. At about 9,000’ we traversed across 3 minor ridges to gain the slopes above our camp, then we sledded through the final slopes of slushy snow into our camp. To my great fortune, my wife was waiting for me there, with a bottle of Gatorade and a smile!

After packing up camp, we rode down to my truck with full packs… more than once, I found myself, having fallen on nearly flat terrain, flailing with my ski poles trying to raise the weight of my body and the weight of my board back into an upright position. After such a successful day, these moments were comical interludes that even I could enjoy.

Once we had reloaded the truck, we drove back into town and settled into a massive meal at a local restaurant. Our hungers satiated, I slammed a latte, and we hit the road. I have never driven through the section of highway between Redding and Mt. Shasta during daylight hours, so the experience was amazing. This is an astoundingly beautiful area, with lush forested mountains with the stunningly blue Sacramento River winding along next to and beneath the highway. For the first few hours of the drive, we were also entertained by watching Jef snore, mouth-agape, and making half-hearted attempts to marshal the courage to throw Gummy Bears into his mouth… None of us could stop laughing long enough to accomplish this.

For most of the drive, we listened to various CDs that I had in our truck, but as we neared San Francisco and its’ congested interchanges, I switched over to the radio to listen to a news station. An article began to air about a huge loss of money that our economy is facing. According to the reporter on the radio, and his much lauded research source, our health-care industry is losing unaccounted tons of money every year as a result of adults taking care of their ageing parents….!!!!

How demented and twisted have we become as a society that we perceive the basic caring and nurturing of a parent by their child as a dent in our economy? Given the general appeal of the radio news station that we were listening to, I have to make the assumption that this is the type of logic that is generally accepted by the public of this country.

I showed up in my office on Monday morning and was forced to sit through a weekly meeting, regarding various team-building ideologies and general corporate indoctrination. The theme of the meeting was instruction on how to arrange one’s daily schedule such that all customer-facing activities are managed during business hours, so that paperwork can be completed “after hours.” What
Happened to quality of life, the 8-hour day, and the pursuit of happiness? I looked around the room at the overweight bellies, bulging over expensive wool pants and listened to the rasping breath of a roomful of unhealthy people… Air sucked in and out irregularly of lungs that are clearly not satisfied with the results… It is oddly reminiscent of the sounds I heard coming from my own throat, just the day before, as I crested Misery Hill. These people are so unhealthy, mentally and physically, that it’s a struggle just to sit still.

Monday mornings are always hard for me, as I try to readjust myself to the reality of corporate America and the petty concerns of my peers. By lunchtime, I couldn’t tolerate it any longer. I snuck out of my office and found a table for myself at a burrito joint around the corner, facing a park. I brooded over my plate of chicken, rice and beans and watched the people around me. I juxtaposed the confident, satisfied, beaming faces that I had encountered the day before on the summit plateau of Shasta with the nervous, greedy, expressions on the faces of the people around me, catching snippets of their conversations – positioning, selling, attempts at dominance.

The contrast brought up in me a deep feeling of unease, bordering on paranoid dementia, and I gazed out the window at the local lunatics who live in the park. They stumble around in maniacal isolation or in groups, plotting world domination or trying to uncover police conspiracies and the reasons behind their exile from society. The article on the news, the untruths spewed in my office conference-room that morning, even the horrendous drivers on the highway… it was all beginning to make sense. I found myself unable to make sense of the reality that I had been dropped into, after an experience as enriched and compelling as my weekend on Shasta, the simple purpose of one step in front of another. I literally felt myself bordering on paranoia and identifying almost entirely with the lunatics stumbling around the park….

Then it occurred to me; Free Hats!!!

I spit refried beans out of my mouth and both laughed and cried in the middle of a full restaurant. I may look nuts, but I know where to get a free hat.
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Give me liberty, or give me death!