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February 7, 2006

Lost on Shasta


"Take that big piece of equipment off." She said; her disdain for all things inorganic was expressing itself. I took the chunky Suunto X6HRT off my wrist and put it in my shoe. Little did she know that this piece of equipment from Finland had saved my life.

In the summer of 2005 I was sitting in a café in Mount Shasta City. It was lunchtime and I was eating an omelet. I couldn't believe that Saint Germain was eating his lunch there also. He sat at a table across from me reading. He had golden hair and a golden beard and his large eyes were scanning the local paper. He was wearing a Hawaii-style shirt. There are stories of people meeting this Ascended Master on the mountain, but in a café? I suppose he has to eat somewhere.

"Excuse me" I said, breaking his concentration. "I'm thinking about hiking on the mountain. I'm only here for a day. Do you think it's too late to start?"

"Oh no, you should be fine." He responded, his voice smooth and calm.

"Can you recommend a place to walk up there?" I asked him.

"Sure, go to The Hidden Valley. There'll be less tourists that way." He told me and then went back to reading about the trout fishing.

"Excuse me." I said again. He looked up at me and seemed a little irritated. "Do I need to take crampons?"

"There's patchy snow up there and you'd probably be alright without, but if you're going above eight-thousand feet then it's probably a good idea." He said and then looked down.

I decided that I'd take some crampons. "Thanks." I said and finished up my food.

I filled up my bottles from the free spring water on the high street and collected crampons from the mountaineering store. "What's the altitude here?" I asked the guy in the shop. He pointed to a sign on the wall that read: Altitude 3,536 feet. I programmed that into the new titanium-clad toy on my wrist. I bought a topographic map of Mount Shasta and couple of bars of chocolate.

Mount Shasta is a 14,163-foot-high volcano. It's almost as high as Mont Blanc (15,780 feet). It's the second highest peak in California outside of the Sierra Nevada. Consider that Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevada stands at 14,505 feet, only 342 feet higher than Shasta, and is the highest point in the continental United States.

Native American Indians of the Shasta and Modoc tribes believed that the Great Spirit created the mountain from the sky and used it to step down onto earth. There are many spiritual groups based around the mountain that have various beliefs about it. Some hold that the mountain is the home of seven-foot-tall Lemurians while others believe that the mountain is visited regularly by UFOs.

I drove up the long, winding road to the Bunny Flat trailhead at 6,800 feet. My ears popped as I ascended rapidly in the car. I parked, loaded up my pack, and put on some lightweight trail sneakers; I didn't have my hiking boots with me. I then set off through the sparse pine forest, guided between soccer-ball-sized granite rocks, along a soft carpet of pine needles. The sky was deep blue and the heat was drawing herbal scent out of the trees and plants. I felt full of nature as I greeted people coming down. Those who passed me looked exhausted but happy with eighty-pound packs on their backs and sunburn on their faces.

I hiked the short distance to Horse Camp. Here I waited for a while to acclimatize, urinate, and look around inside the cabin. I found a list of The Ten Essentials for traveling in the wilderness:

  1. Map: I had this.
  2. Compass: Yes! My new watch.
  3. Water and a way to purify it: I had about three liters, but I couldn't purify more.
  4. Extra food: I had some chocolate; probably enough for a day.
  5. Rain gear and extra clothing: No; I just had my T-shirt and lightweight pants.
  6. Firestarter and matches: I didn't have either of these.
  7. First aid kit: I didn't have this.
  8. Army knife or multi-purpose tool: I had a Leatherman Micro; good for slaying ants.
  9. Flashlight and extra bulbs: I had a Petzl Zipka LED head-torch.
  10. Sun screen and sunglasses: I had these.

So I realized that I wasn't really properly equipped and I was feeling a little bit scared about that but I decided that I would just be careful.

Earlier on, I had been playing with my watch and I'd seen that it had a setting called Compass Declination. I had a sense that this was for calibrating the difference between geographic north and magnetic north; I later learned that the two vary significantly with location on the earth, and also over time. I found "declination" on the map; it said about fifteen degrees east; so I programmed that in. I asked the ranger to take a look and see if I'd done it right; he seemed to think that I had. I asked him about getting to The Hidden Valley. He told me that the trail was covered by a lot of snow and that he hadn't had time to put the markers in all the way yet. He seemed to think that I could figure it out though. He explained the route to me but I couldn't keep it all in my mind. He also told me how to dig my shoes into the snow to form footholds.

So I set off towards The Hidden Valley. As I ascended, the matted trail became increasingly covered in shallow banks of snow, which I hiked through. After passing over a few ridges I came to a large gully filled with pristine snow. It was a baby-glacier where the snow had collected and seemed to flow in a chute down the side of the mountain. I wandered up and down the bank of this steep snow-river trying to find the crossing point. Eventually I saw some prints a couple of hundred feet below me and I climbed back down and crossed at that point. On the other side, I picked up the trail again.

A family of hikers were on the same trail as me; they were about half-an-hour behind. As I climbed through scree and boulders at about 8,000 feet, I looked back and saw them trying to negotiate the snow-river. I called out to them and pointed to the crossing. They saw it and moved toward it.

I came to another massive bank of snow. It flowed down through a gully and then over a sharp drop. By that point I had completely lost the trail. Looking at my map and the terrain, it seemed that I needed to climb up the snow-bank. I mounted it and started to hike a steep ascent along what became the ridgeline. I didn't put the crampons on, I don't know why; they dangled off my pack, banging against me, and irritating me. I used the technique that the ranger had described of driving each foot into the snow to form a foothold before placing my weight on it gradually.

Climbing that ridge was really hard work. The cold from the snow was eating into my feet, and the high-altitude sun, reflected off the snow, was burning my face. A drop of several hundred feet was to my left and the bulging mass of uphill snow was to my right. A couple of times I slipped and skidded down a little way before I was able to jam my feet into the snow to arrest my fall. I started to wonder if it was really a good idea. But it was too late because I was already doing it. The climb seemed to last forever.

Finally I got off the snow and onto the scree and boulders again. The scree gradually got more solid until I was bouldering. I felt like some kind of animal climbing up over those boulders. I would stretch up, grab hold, pull myself up, and then brace myself for the next stretch. It was a lot of fun. I was like a monkey.

I was approaching 9,000 feet and was some way up the truck-sized boulders when I looked back and saw the family approaching the snowy ridgeline. They were 1,000 vertical feet below me and further in distance. I wanted to tell them to go back; I knew that it wasn't good to follow my route. I called to them and told them not to follow me. I don't know if they heard me but they seemed to look around for a long time and then give up.

It was around this time when I started to realize that I didn't really know how to read a topographic map. I could understand the contour lines and the gradients but I was finding it really hard to correlate those with the terrain in front of me. I was trying to connect the nearby peaks on the map with the peaks on the mountain but I was not getting the feeling that I really knew where I was.

I continued to climb over the boulders until I got to a large, flat, rocky plateau at around 9,200 feet. From there I could look down several hundred feet into a massive bowl filled with packed snow; I think that might have been The Hidden Valley. Someone was camping down there in the base of the bowl.

The view from the plateau was magnificent; it was a panorama of almost three-hundred-and-sixty degrees looking out at other mountains in the distance: members of the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada, no doubt. I sat on a flat rock and meditated. It was 3 p.m. and it had taken me about three hours to get there. I figured that it might take two hours to get back. I planned to be safely in my car at 5 p.m.

[unfinished - End of part I]


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