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Friday, June 01, 2007

Getting Blown Off Mt. Shasta

Five years ago this week, I set out to climb Mt. Shasta. This is what happened. Some of you have read the story passed around in email, but most have not, so I decided it was time to post it to the blog.

Getting Blown Off Mt. Shasta
By Rod Coleman
sudden.net at gmail

First, the official version:

Mt. Shasta Wilderness Avalanche and Climbing Advisory
Climbing Advisory, updated June 10th, 2002.


This past weekend was a doozy with cold temps, snowfall and full hurricane winds! A dozen tents were destroyed with one blowing downhill with an occupant inside! There was also one case of frostbite (wind chill well below 0F), and a rockfall injury resulting in a broken clavicle. Winds hit over 60 mph at Lake Helen and also in Hidden Valley. At times, crawling or rock hugging was the best mode of transport.


Very concise. Here's what it was like to actually LIVE it...

Getting Ready

I'd spent weeks preparing to climb Shasta. Hill climbs. Hill climbs with mountaineering boots. Hill climbs with full pack. Hill climbs with full pack AND mountaineering boots. I also of course made practice climbs with the other members of the team.

There would be five of us. Kathy who had attempted once and failed because of pace and conditioning, but the weather was great. This time she was in much better condition, but the weather would challenge us. That's how it is with adventure.

Mike, her boyfriend, who had climbed lots of peaks in Europe when he was younger, but had been away from climbing for years. He was probably our least prepared.

John was our leader with ten attempts, and five summits of Shasta. His summit rate was twice the average for this mountain where normally only one out of four gets to the top. John doesn't look the type, but when he gets his climbing shorts on, you can see the experience. He has calves that look like Popeye's. He's that quiet kind of hiker who just keeps going.

John also invited another friend of his who was in good shape. His name is Ron and he'd been a Ranger in the Army. He was ultra gung ho and had once taken his two sons (7 and 9) up the face of El Capitan because he couldn't find a baby sitter. Well, you get the idea - never say die. Impressive guy.

Fortunately for us, Ron was now in his fifties and mellowed a bit. My guess is he'd also mellowed a bit in his workouts but still looked like he could beat the rest of us up the hill. And then there was me. No experience climbing. Not much experience with a pack. No snow camping experience at all. The only time I had used an ice ax or crampons was in my first class a few weeks ago.

On the other hand, I DO hike or walk 50 to 70 miles a week. I'm also into the technology and had just read Ray Jardine's book, "Beyond Backpacking". I even bought one of his packs and plan to follow his advise. With no skis to carry (like John and Ron), I figured I should be able to keep up.

As it turns out, I actually got to lead most the way. John had me on the point from the beginning. I found out from Kathy later on, John told her I needed 50 more pounds in my pack. What can I say, I get excited. That's how I do things. I like to get there. Plus John was right, I was ultralight in the pack.

Anyway, I DID prepare. And not just my training. I also read much of "Freedom of the Hills" and the all of the two Shasta books. Then I cross correlated the equipment lists. With temperatures nearing 100 in Redding there was no way I would need all the cold weather gear but the books all warned - take it anyway. So I did.

If you're interested, click through:

I also built a collection of Shasta web links. I must have read 20 Shasta climb descriptions, many of them from people NOT summiting and why they didn't. But none of their stories were like this one. That's why I'm writing it down.

And no, I didn't forget the weather. In general it looked good. But there was a slight chance of showers on Saturday and winds of 20 MPH in town. The wind would be double that on the summit, but that's normal. Most of those pictures you see of people on tops of mountains are taken in the wind. A little wind didn't concern me.

When we got to the parking lot at 6800 feet, it was hot - 92 degrees and no wind at all. Everyone started the hike with a single layer. In climbing mountains (and other hiking) you dress in layers so you don't have to take extra clothing. Everything is cut big. As it gets colder, you simply add layers of different types for changing conditions.

Even when we got to Sierra Club's cabin at Horse Camp (the highest that horses go), it was still in the 80s. This is a general staging area at about 8000 feet. We made our first camp, had dinner and told stories. John and Ron had lots of them.

I was talking to John about emergency ice caves and how some students on Mt Rainier had collapsed their ice cave and died of exposure in 70 MPH winds a couple of weeks ago. He told me about a time a few years back when a group of school kids near Shasta had all suffocated in a snow cave because their vent got plugged. I would remember that very soon.

Lake Helen

The next morning was much colder than expected at 27 degrees. This would make the summit about 7 degrees. It had dropped over 20 degrees from the previous night's low. We were definitely getting a northern flow of cold air, weird for June. The wind had picked up a bit too.

I talked with John and he noted the forecast called for a little nasty stuff on Saturday but he figured it was OK. We weren't planning on a push to the summit until 2 AM Sunday morning. So we packed up and headed for our base camp at Lake Helen, which was at 10,400 feet.

Finally we were doing some real climbing. We had to use crampons right away but the snow condition was good. By the afternoon it got a little mushy but not bad.

The hike was great - blue skies and light breezes. But then we started seeing these wispy clouds streaming off Shasta's peak and then disappearing. There was definitely water in that highest layer of air. As the day wore on, the wispies increased and lowered. Not a good sign.

Then there were reports of wind. Soon, we began meeting climbers streaming off the mountain. They were coming down way to early in the day to have made an attempt at the summit. Soon we found out why. Last night Lake Helen had experienced 40 MPH winds, gusting to 50.

One guy who only used stakes on his tent literally was blown off the mountain in the middle of the night. He went about 100 yards down the slope before he was stopped by some rocks. He could have been in much worse condition. He needed stitches but was able to hike out with a Park Ranger. We took note. We would anchor from the high points on the tent to rocks buried under the snow as recommend at these altitudes and under these conditions.

The other reports were of even more concern. Climbers were being being blown off the hill before they even got up to Red Banks. Or indeed, even very far from the base camp at Lake Helen.

John told me "blown off" the hill is when the wind is so high it creates a white out condition from blowing snow where you can't even see your feet. Going on becomes dangerous. Above the cliffs called Red Banks is were you normally find the high winds on Shasta. There's a thousand foot climb called Misery Hill, not for it's steepness, but for it's wind. On Misery Hill, being "blown off" is literally not being able to stand against the wind. This occurs at about 70 MPH and many have had to turn back at only 200 feet below the summit when they get to this most exposed area.

Many of these people coming down weren't even going above base camp. Were they ALL wimps? It didn't look that bad to us. Most said they were turning back because they had such a nasty night at Lake Helen and heard it was even worse on the summit. Apparently, seven out of maybe forty that tried DID summit that day. At least that's what the rumor was. But I didn't manage to talk to any of them.

Not withstanding the funny clouds on the peak, the weather began to improve. When we made camp at Lake Helen it was dead calm with sunshine. Had we lucked out? Had the winds come through early? It was still a little cool for June.

John and his friend were behind us because of their heavier packs and skis. Even Mike beat them to base camp. I got the idea Mike was doing much better than he thought he would. When John and Ron arrived it was so nice, they didn't even bother to set up their tent.

We all had a late lunch then set up Kathy's tent where I went for a nap. I wasn't looking forward to getting up at 2:00 AM even if that was the best time to climb. I awoke to the strangest sound. It was the whistling of tent ropes. I looked out. It was five o'clock in the evening. The others were just finishing the high anchor lines on John's tent. They were just in time from the sound of the wind.

The skies were still blue, but the wind was howling. Then it got worse. I later learned several climbers weren't able to get their tents up that night. We heard one lost his tent altogether (official report - a dozen!). It just blew down the hill. Fortunately no one was in it this time. These orphans bunked with other people.

Noisy Night

We got back in our respective tents, melted water for the climb and later had dinner. The winds kept up. We still had several hours before departure. We COULD get lucky.

But the winds got worse. When I went out to pee, I noticed it wasn't even hitting the ground. It just went over the side of the mountain and kept going. I wondered if I shouldn't have put on my climbing boots before trying to relieve myself in this wind. I didn't have that much traction on the snow. It's how accidents happen. I very carefully walked back from the crest and got back in bed. Soon we were all asleep.

I was in a tent with Kathy and Mike. Kathy was in the middle. I was in John's tent the night before and had the middle spot. It was warm and I made the mistake of bragging about it. Kathy decided THAT was a good idea. She invited me into her tent for our second night. It was a tight fit but we were all on friendly terms. Sardines in a can is a good description.

I didn't sleep well that night but it wasn't the howling wind. You get used to that. It wasn't even the tight spoon with Kathy. That was kind of nice. It was the snow. Not long after sunset, it began to come down, or more accurately, sideways. At first we weren't sure if it was really snowing or just blowing snow off the peak. Later on it became a fine powder. We knew. This was fresh.

The snow built up in drifts. Unlike John's Gortex tent, Kathy's was a three season model with vents at the top. It let in the "fine" snow. If we'd had wet snow, it wouldn't have come in at all, but soon we had a fine dusting all over the inside of the tent. It looked like powdered sugar. Except it melted as we moved around. The bags started getting wet.  That wasn't the worse part. Snow began to drift and build against the walls of the tent. This small two man tent was becoming even smaller as the walls pushed in. It's a good thing none of us are big people. My butt was against this cold wall of snow all night.

My bag is an REI Sub Kilo and rated down to 20 degrees, but the compression destroys the effectiveness of down. It was not a good night for sleeping. Which is one reason I was really looking forward to getting up and climbing.

Now you might think I was crazy, but often when the snow starts, the wind dies down. And this was a north wind. The snow would be light. There was STILL a chance of summiting.

That silly thought was soon put to rest by the howling wind. The snow was light all right, but the wind kept getting worse. We all heard the alarm go off. Nobody said anything. Then the wind died down a little and I said, "Ahhh! Time to go" and acted like I was getting up. Just then the wind howled even louder. I guess it wasn't THAT funny. Nobody laughed.

We knew it was over. No summit for us. While still in sleeping bags, Mike and I both braced ourselves against Kathy and used our butts to push the snow drifts back away from the walls of the tent. This helped get a little more room and keep the cold away. We went back to sleep.

I was relieved in a way to have such a definitive set of conditions for our failure. It wasn't a "maybe" situation. You CAN climb in wind if you rope up, but we had not planned on that kind of climb. We had no rope. Plus these winds were getting near limits even for ropes. And this was base camp! The summit was TOTALLY out of the question. The Park Ranger later told me it was gusting to over 80 MPH (official report said sustained 60 MPH), and that it only got this bad once or twice a year. It had to be well OVER a hundred miles per hour on the summit.

Hunkered Down

I awoke to a heavy pressure on my back. It was quieter and totally dark. Shouldn't the sun be up by now? Was the wind dying down? It took me a minute to figure it out. The tent was mostly covered by a snow drift. And it had collapsed. Actually the walls had just folded in like a fish's puckered mouth. The poles were still in a distorted arc. I remembered John's story about bad air. Fortunately, the vents in this tent were at the top. The air was still fresh but VERY cold.

I pushed on the snow drift. It didn't move. I pushed a little higher up. It moved some. I pushed more. The noise of the wind got louder. There was a little light. Mike was pushing on his side. The wind was howling again. The snow had kept it quiet and dark. We'd been in a naturally-formed snow cave.

Everybody was awake and I needed to pee. I verbalized my need. Nobody said anything. Nobody wanted the door zipper opened. Not even me. I shuffled the double tent zipper around to the top of the door. It was now at least well above the snow, but I would have made a snowy mess escaping, and an even worse one getting back in. What to do? I needed to pee REAL bad.

Time for the Zip-Lock. I got it out of my pack and tested it by blowing into it first - good bag, no leaks. This is a VERY important test as you might imagine. I had to straddled Mike and Kathy's legs to get enough head room in the collapsed tent, in order to get the Zip-Lock low enough to fill.

It actually worked better than I expected. I didn't even get my fingers wet. I zipped it up and slipped it out through the top of the door. It would be an ice cube in a few minutes. And no, I never found it later, but I looked.

Anyway, back to sleep. Well, sort of half asleep. The next clear thing I remember was light on the peak of the tent. The snow had me squeezed against Kathy again. She later told me she could feel the wind buffet me from the tent wall. My ass was REAL cold. I whacked the top of the tent and got a little more room. But not enough to be comfortable.


"Shovel time", I said and dressed up - all four layers with Gortex jacket, rubber pants, PolarTec hat, Thinsulate gloves, and of course goggles. I only had the liners from the climbing boots in the tent but they were almost as good as regular boots. They would have to do until I could dig out the shells. We had put lots of stuff under the fly of the tent and it was all in the drift. Fortunately we kept the water in the tent and I had some before I went out.

It was weird. The fly created a protected area which was why the snow drifted so much. Other than the powder around the tent, it was all hard pack and blue skies. The top of Shasta was under a swirling cloud that kept changing shapes. That's where the snow was coming from. And the wind. Right down the mountain.

The wind made it hard to keep my balance but I got down on my knees and open the fly. Half the snow blew away all by itself. The rest I just kind of scooped up and the wind took it away. The head and the foot of the tent were a little more difficult, but I soon had all the snow cleared and was handing gear in to Mike and Kathy. That was a mistake. The snow on the gear melted and things started getting wet.

I walked out to the crest of the hill. A group had roped up and I was amazed when they headed UP the hill. I later learned they came back in about 40 minutes. Not one person summited that day. I was told this guided group didn't get paid unless they at least made an attempt on the summit. It was a token attempt apparently.

I tried to check my watch temperature, but my wrist was too warm. And if I stuck it out in the wind, the watch got cold REAL fast but the damn thing only updates every minute or two. I got one reading at 9 degrees but that was mostly wind chill and probably not all of that (official was below 0 degrees with the wind chill). It was cold enough that your finger tips went numb in only a few minutes WITH the glove on. I kept pulling them back into the palm of my glove. It helped.

Just then someone was behind me. It was Ron. "We can't get down that slope in this wind", he said. Did he know what I was thinking? I was wondering HOW to get down, not IF. For him it was WHEN, and when was not now.

"Exposed" is how climbers refer to any situation in which if they screw up, they die. Usually by falling. Shasta is not normally an exposed climb. Well except for maybe a little at Red Banks and a few other rock or glacier approaches.

But the storm had changed all that. Under these conditions, if you missed a step going down ANY of these slopes, the wind could drive you down the mountain like a bat out of hell - or into it. You LITERALLY would be blown off the mountain.

Self arrest would be even more critical in these conditions. This down-hill wind also made the slope "steeper" because you had to lean into it. The crampons had to engaged at a steeper angle. It's easier to slip on a steeper slope. This storm was making the whole mountain an "exposed" climb.

I went over to John's tent as Ron got in. He said we should wait a while and see if the winds died down. Ron agreed. Sounded good to me. My fingers were getting numb again. I needed to keep moving or get back in the tent.

When I got back to Mike and Kathy, they were shaking. Mike only had Gortex pants. With no rubber gear, he was getting wet from melting snow. Kathy's sleeping bag was wet too. She had laid snowy gear on it. She at least had rubberized pants.

Mike and Kathy appeared miserable. I was just glad to get back in the tent. Such contrast. It was MUCH worse outside. At this point, I didn't want to go anywhere.

And once I relaxed, I realize Ron might be right. At some point, it could be TOO windy to even go DOWN the hill. I hadn't thought of that before. Damn. And this tent was quickly becoming less that a good shelter.

I told them what John and Ron said, but Mike wanted to talk to them directly. He geared up and crawled out under the fly. Kathy and I scooped snow out of the tent. I began packing up just to keep things dry. Mike came back and we all scrambled to keep the snow out. The drifts were building again.

As I zipped up the door I said, "Nasty out there, uh? You can see how those guys died on Rainier last week when they lost their tent". I was again referring to the news account I gave John the night before. Now it was more real. But it was the wrong thing to say.

Kathy started crying and Mike gave her a hug. I said, "Sorry. Bad topic I guess", but I didn't really think things were THAT bad. It was just an observation. It WAS that cold.

Yes, we DID need to dry out the tent and keep it shoveled, but we could stay here for days if needed. For me being out on that slope was the bigger unknown. Plus there were 25 other people at this camp. And the Park Ranger had a REAL good tent. There were lots of options. This was not yet dangerous. Was hiking out? I wasn't sure. I would defer to John and Ron.


We sat there in silence. Doing nothing is no fun in such a situation. "When will the wind die down? What's the weather report?", Kathy asked.

"Let's go find the Park Ranger", I suggested, "He has a radio", thinking anything would help to distract her.

When we got to the Park Ranger's tent, he wouldn't unzip. We talked through the fabric. Now you might think this was rude, but I didn't blame him. His door faced straight into the wind. Snow would fill his tent in seconds. I suspected he had a back flap but it was deep in a drift but no point in digging that out.

He said the storm was to continue through Monday, one more night at least. That was it. That was all he said. Now THAT I thought was rude. What about suggestions? Was it safe to descend? What were HIS plans?

Kathy went to John's tent and I went back to check on Mike. One extra person in John's tent was enough. Kathy returned to our tent in just a few minutes. She said, "We're going down".

Someone told John the east slope was an easier way down. I went to check it out. It looked to have less blowing snow than the main approach as far as I could see, but what was below what little I could see? This was not the way we came up. How steep would it get? How low did we have to go before the wind died?

As I came back to camp, the others were getting their gear together. I unzipped the door to John's tent just enough to talk over the wind. I ask John if leaving was a good idea. He said, "These guys need to get
moving. We'll take it easy".  O... K...

Maybe John was right. Waiting was hell. It could get better, but it could also get worse. And it did. An hour after we left, the storm dropped lower and Helen Lake went into white out conditions. We watched it from below and got the reports later at Horse camp.

Getting the tents down was a pain, but packing up was fast. I think some of our gear got left in the snow. In those conditions, it's surprising how fast you get exhausted. By the time we were packed, I had trouble getting my crampons attached. I also couldn't see because my goggles iced up from breathing. John helped me with the crampons. I got the ice off the goggles.


Finally we had it all on our backs and headed east. Maybe the wind would die when we got below the crest. We started with long switchbacks which got steeper as we got used to the wind.

John and Ron had their skies sticking up and felt the gusts before we did. They would plant their ice axe and lay down flat on the snow to cut their profile. This "warning" gave the rest of us time to secure our position. We had to "dig in" every few feet. It was slow going, but steady.

I followed John about half way down the hill. The wind was still blowing almost as hard. I kept looking back to keep the others in sight but the blowing snow was getting thicker. At one point Kathy fell but was in self arrest before her ass hit the snow. Mike told me she only slid a few feet. I was impressed.

No one else fell but Mike said he felt like it. He said he had an extra 15 pounds of snow in his pack from the tent and was dead tired. For me the worst part was the sting of the ice chunks hitting my legs. Each one felt like a bee sting. Where were they coming from? They were to hard to be snow.  The wind was so strong it was picking up old ice and blasting us with it.

John had the lead, Ron brought up the tail. Us newbies were in the middle. We worked our way down the hill one step at a time. That's how we got down. One step at a time.

After an hour or so our confidence in our footing improved. The wind died just a little. Once things mellowed out, John told me to take the lead again. I headed out. The bee stings were gone.  The nicer it got, the faster I went.  The faster I went, the lower I got.  The lower I got, the more the wind died down.  I was having fun again. The worst was over. I saw patches of blue as the sun came out at the lower levels. The course was clear. I pushed on and got to the cabin at Horse Camp first.

The wind was now only blowing about 30 MPH and seemed surprising cheerful.  It was still strong enough to blow my ice boots off the bench as I change into my hiking boots. And it was still a VERY cold wind even on the lee side of the cabin. At any other time this would have been a nasty day, but for us it was almost tropical.  We were back to summer.  Everything's relative.

We were safely below the worst of the storm. We cleaned the snow out of our gear and had lunch. Everyone was hungry. We hadn't eaten much since yesterday.  Then we hiked out to the car, drove to town and ordered pizzas. Our appetite came back with a vengeance. Everything was fine. It felt good to be down. Everyone was in good shape.

Over all, it was a very interesting trip. I do regret not getting to the summit. I think I will go back and try it again in one big push. If I leave at two or three in the morning, I should be able to make it to the top before 2:00 PM. At least that way I can predict the weather a little better.

In conclusion, prepare for the worst you CAN'T imagine. A sunny June day in the 90s can become a sub-zero blizzard even at only 10,000 feet.

And take ALL your layers.

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