Ready to leave from Bunny Flat. No idea what we're in for.

Ready to leave from Bunny Flat. No idea what we’re in for.


As lone as God and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up suddenly from the heart of the great black forests of California.

You would hardly call Mount Shasta a part of the Sierras; you would say rather that it is the great white tower of some ancient and eternal wall, with here and there the white walls overthrown.

It has no rival! There is not even a snow crowned subject in sight of its dominion. A shining pyramid in everlasting mail of frosts and ice, the sailor sometimes, in a day of singular clearness, catches glimpses of it from the sea a hundred miles away to the west; and it may be seen from the dome of the capitol 340 miles distant. The immigrant coming from the east beholds the snowy, solitary pillar from afar out on the arid sage-brush plains, and lifts his hands in silence as if in answer to a sign.

~Joaquin Miller, Life Amongst The Modocs, 1874


Sunday, June 14, 2014 – 2:00 AM


The image returns to me again and again like a talisman. I don’t want to mete out this story in terms of training plans, fancy gear and climbing logistics. I want to conjure it as if I was still tottering in the thin air at 14,179 feet.


I am woken, if in fact I was ever sleeping, by low voices and the sounds of tents unzipping. Since moving makes me gulp air like a fish flopping on shore, I lie still on my back and listen to the growing chorus. The ranger was right: Once a few climbers woke up, we’d all wake up. But for the past seven hours, my brain has been painfully pulsating thanks to our base camp altitude of 10,600 feet. Even though it was unusually calm and I was toasty in our tent nestled in a half cave in the snow, I spent the night turning the thought of quitting over and over in my aching head like a polished stone.


After half an hour, someone calls my name from a nearby tent. My 13-year-old son is fast asleep. I had oriented myself in the opposite direction at some point in the night, wondering if I got my head above my feet the pounding would stop. I wiggle awkwardly back around, unzip the door and look out. I’m not prepared for what I see.


Mount Shasta’s snowy flanks glow by an enormous moon hung high. Avalanche Gulch rises, then disappears into jagged black sky edge. There is no wind. Tiny bluish lights are scattered like fireflies on the mountain.


“Oh my God, it’s so beautiful!” I gasp, realizing the lights are climbers making their ant-like ascent up the sleeping volcano. I wake up my son and the wondrous look on his face when he pokes his body out of the tent and sees the procession of headlamps is priceless. This view is the antidote, erasing all the exhaustion from yesterday’s climb with heavy packs to this snow camp. We both feel tremendously motivated.


My headache is gone. I take two Advil anyway, then fuss around until I find my human waste bag. There were a lot of jokes when we got them the previous afternoon from the ranger station. It comes with a paper target with numbered rings. “So you can say ‘I scored 10 points!’” my son had laughed.

Snow camp

I clamber over the snow bank to the ledge overlooking where we had ascended the previous day, until I get to bare rock. Under the full moon, there isn’t much privacy, but I don’t care; I place rocks on the edges of the paper target, pull down my snow pants, squat and take aim. I look down the mountain and see another pilgrimage from below: Scores more headlamps are progressing up the wicked gulch that tested us yesterday, from people who camped lower than Helen Lake. Others are doing the entire climb from the parking lot at Bunny Flat to the peak in one day instead of acclimatizing at 10,000 feet. I put my poop in the paper bag of cedar chips the ranger provided and seal it in a zip-lock.


When I get back to the tent, we’re struggling to heat water, as none of us had brought quite enough fuel to boil snow and cook the next day. Thankfully my son and I had spent hours boiling snow once we arrived at base camp, and I kept the six liters of water we made in my sleeping bag so it wouldn’t freeze again, thanks to another dad’s tip.

Boiling snow at Helen Lake

I eat a sad breakfast of a moistened oatmeal packet with my fingers and slurp half a coffee a scout dad offers to share, and then it’s time to go. We’ve emptied our packs of everything but water, sunscreen and snacks. Our crampons are affixed, ice axes in hand, helmets snapped on our heads over hoodies or hats. To his embarrassment, I’m wearing my teenager’s giant, stained and ripped blue jacket, along with a pair of oversize snow pants from my sister-in-law, my massive fake Prada sun glasses and my younger son’s ski gloves, which my hands can barely squeeze into. I’m glad my son relented and is wearing his dad’s jacket, which he’d rejected the day before. I’m warm, and excited.


Our group of 11 boy scouts and leaders circles up. Rick, our troop leader, is an experienced mountaineer; he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as well as Shasta. He gives us a quick lesson on how to self-arrest if we start sliding down the mountain. There are four ways to fall: Face down, head uphill is the ideal. Face up, head uphill requires flipping to your belly, then slamming your ice axe into the snow above your head. Face down, head downhill requires you to swing your legs down under you to get you to position one, then deploying the ice axe. And the worst, face up, head downhill, requires you to flip on your stomach and swing your legs. Not sure which you do first.


I’m glad I asked him about this yesterday — because I did nothing to prepare for this, from a technical standpoint. I didn’t read about the mountain, or how to climb it. I didn’t worry much about altitude sickness. I went to REI once, got upset about their ridiculous prices and walked out muttering “nature is free.” The only thing I did do was exercise hard, including at altitude up in the Plumas National Forest. Over a few months, I worked up to a 12-mile long run once a week and went on a number of practice hikes with the boys. I’d only just read about the “deep burial” avalanches could provide at the Sierra Club stone lodge at Horse Flat that we stopped at on our hike to base camp. The ranger had assured us that climbing this popular route is safe at this time of year. However, there is less snow on the mountain this spring than there has ever been before. And snow is the glue that holds the rocks together so that we don’t die in an avalanche.


4:30 AM – 10,600 feet


We begin our attempt to summit Mount Shasta. I laugh out loud that we have started so late, after breakfast’s comedy of errors. “You laugh at everything, Alexa,” says Michael, one of the dads on the trip. The ranger had recommended we start climbing at 3 AM. And we must turn back at noon or 1 PM, no matter how far we’ve gotten. The risk of a storm coming in and disorienting us on the top of the mountain is serious.


We begin climbing in a line straight up the mountain, feet angled out like a dancer’s second position. Our “dash and crash” pace soon thins the group, with leaders in front and stragglers in back. “We’re going to get to see the sunrise in an hour,” Rick says. The moon is so bright, we don’t need headlamps. Our crampons crunch the snow and we fall into silent individual rhythms, stabbing the handle of the ice axe like a pole into the steep hill.


There are many different groups on the mountain. A few are led by paid guides with four or five well outfitted hikers on a rope behind them. They take a diagonal path up the mountain, marching extremely slowly. I decide to try it this way instead of straight up, and it agrees with me.


6:30 AM – 11,500 feet


Each time we stop and rest and contemplate how far we’ve come, the misty blue horizon expands before us. Already we are higher than any other peak nearby. But off to the left, a snow-capped volcano pokes up on the horizon: Mount Lassen.


My son is not doing well. His toes are killing him in his rented boots, which may be too big or too small, he can’t tell. This is also the hardest thing he has ever (sort-of) trained for, and he is bent over his ice axe, resting after every step. You wouldn’t guess it due to his man-sized physique, but he’s the youngest in our troop ever to leave base camp and attempt the ascent. On previous trips that Rick has led, several scouts his age and older simply stayed in their tents at base camp, felled by altitude sickness. We start telling my son that he may have to turn around. Since none of us is ready to quit our summit attempt just yet, we flag down a teenage girl who is going the other way. “I don’t have food or water. I’m not going to make it up,” she explains when we ask if she’s going back to base camp. “Can he go down with you?” we ask. She agrees.


The next day, my son will bark at me that he was upset we pressured him to turn around when he felt he was just getting into the swing of it. “What were we going to do? It’s dangerous, and we had to choose a time and a place for you to go down that would be safe,” I will argue.


8:00 AM – 12,923 feet


Enormous grey stalagmite-type formations poke up at the edges of Avalanche Gulch. They are far away from us. When we rest on the scree, we notice how the rocks clink against each other when we jostle them out of place.


The wind chaps our faces, though it is not too strong, luckily. I wish I had thought to bring a bandana, or borrow my son’s balaclava before he went back down. I try to climb while holding one gloved hand over nose, mouth and chin.


We’ve completed what feels like the hardest part so far: coming through the nearly vertical chimneys at Red Banks, which are aptly named formations at the top of Avalanche Gulch. So many have come through the narrow chutes that the snow is neatly ridged like stairs next to the red rock walls.


At this juncture another young scout informs us, “I think I’m done.” As we stop for one of our frequent snack and water breaks, we agree that he will wait in the sun, possibly ascend to the top of the ridge so he can see Misery Hill, and then go back down to base camp. Some of the guys remember a previous trip where a very athletic scout got halfway up Misery Hill, then decided he was done. Rick emphasizes that altitude sickness is dangerous; it’s wise not to push yourself past your limit.

Avalanche Gulch


9:00 AM – 13,300 feet


At Misery Hill, we take off our crampons because we are on gravel, not snow. That feels like a relief. I fall into a rhythm: three steps, pause and breathe. Some scouts are feeling more altitude sickness: nausea, loss of coordination, headache. To my amazement, I feel great. Could it be the fruit and the nuts and the salami and the cheese and the french bread I’ve been eating? And that boiled snow. And the pace. It’s all about pace.


I had zero aspiration to climb mountains until Rick told me he was leading this climb six months ago, and it sounded like a fun/scary goal. Years ago I read Into Thin Air, the book by Jon Krakauer about a fatal Mount Everest expedition. I remember two things: His emphasis on the importance of a glacial pace (something the ranger had reminded us of this morning), and his description of the shit-covered base camp. I think the waste targets are brilliant, because they force you to contain your poop rather than scrape it half-heartedly off the rocks after the fact. I wonder who invented that.


The Miley Cyrus song The Climb, with that hook that goes “There’s always gonna be another mountain/I’m always gonna wanna make it move” and “Ain’t about how fast I get there/Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side/It’s the climb” keeps running through my head. Also I keep singing out “What does the fox say?” and James Brown’s “I feel good, nah nah nah nah nah nah nah, I knew that I would…” and “Di por qué dime abuelita/Di ¿por qué eres viejita?/Di ¿por qué sobre las camas/ya no te gusta brincar?” which is a lullaby I used to sing to my son.


10:00 AM – 13,700 feet


Oh my God, there it is. We can finally see the peak.


The view below us is incredible. Clouds dance around peaks. To my right I can see what I later learn is Whitney glacier, California’s largest. It’s a blueish mass of ice falls that cling to the side of the mountain but look like they’re beginning to crevasse, if I’m using my mountain terminology correctly. Bottom line, I am glad to be on solid snow.


We have just crossed a snow bridge, which triggered my only moment of fear of heights. I tried to push the sickening feeling out of my head as I walked in an instinctive crouch while simultaneously maintaining forward momentum. Now, across a vast flat snow plain, a collection of craggy monuments spiral up, and we see tiny colorful hikers swarming through the cracks. Once across the cratered plain, we clamber over tumbled boulders. To our left we spy a wisping sulfur pit with greenish edges. A final ice-parapeted trail winds up to the summit pinnacle like a staircase in a Disney castle. As we climb, it tears of joy well behind my eyes.


10:30 AM – 14,179 feet

Alexa Weber Morales Peaked!

Six hours after we started, we have made it to the top. We are above the clouds. We are done. I take picture after picture of the vaporous forms that well and unfurl just below these peaks, like that famous Japanese painting of a wave. The sky is so blue.


There are a few dozen people up here. An iron box holds a ruled college notebook that many are signing. After resting and recording a video, I go over and write my name and in it. There are no empty pages left. We are eating lunch and relaxing and laughing and marveling that we all made it. “I thought you guys would bonk with that pace,” I tell the young posse of three scouts who were our fast group. “We thought you would never make it,” they say. “I trained hard,” I boast. They shrug. I’m just a mom.


Incredibly, the ranger is here in his yellow Forest Service slicker and bandana’d face. He apparently climbs up and down several times a day making sure people are OK. He tells me that a recent rescue had involved a group that lost track of one of their members. They called 911 from their cell phone and forged on — not the proper thing to do! The climber had fallen into the wrong chute at Red Banks and ended up spending the night there. He was found alive the next day by a black hawk rescue helicopter. He also tells me that the youngest hiker to ever summit was seven years old.




It’s time to turn around and go back down the mountain. I’m in the lead for most of the way, as I’m pretty fast going downhill for some reason — perhaps my short, sturdy legs? We get lost at one point and can’t figure out which chute we went up. But once we get past that point, it’s time to glissade, and glissading is wonderful. You take off your crampons, sit on your butt and bare-bobsled down a track many before you have carved, whoop-whooping all the way. Your ice axe becomes your brake. At one point I go too fast, panic and lift my axe in the air, then flip myself out of the luge path and self-arrest on my stomach.


It takes two hours to get back to base camp. The last 20 minutes do me in. Walking on the giant moon craters left in the snow is murder on my legs. By the time I get to the tent, where my son is relaxing in the sun, I am whimpering. He pulls out a sleeping mat for me and I collapse for the next hour.


2:00 PM – 10,600 feet


I get my second wind and we start packing. One of the dads keeps asking my son to get things for him. “I’m sorry to bother you, it’s just that I’ve taken off all my clothes to dry and I’m naked in here,” he calls from his tent.


Miraculously, we get our camp all stuffed back in our rucksacks. “I scored 10 points!” my son says, handing me another human waste bag. He’s carrying the heavy stuff, so I’m carrying the poop. We meet up with the other scouts who had camped on the windy ridge, for the descent to Bunny Flat. It’s fun at first, but eventually becomes a depressing marathon of rocky switchbacks. Our knees are pummelled and we all curse at the stone causeway back to Horse Flat. I’m not sure how long it takes, perhaps another two or three hours with breaks and refilling on spring water, to get to our cars.


6:00 PM – 6,783 feet


We set up camp again just a few miles down the road from Bunny Flat, then meet in Shasta City for a celebratory dinner. I’m so tired, I can’t muster good conversation. We drive back to camp and my son and I sleep under the stars. As a consolation for being too lazy to set up our tent again, he lets me sleep in the new zero-degree bag we bought him, and it’s fluffy and warm. Though I feel like I don’t sleep at all, the next morning the dads are complaining about partying noise coming from cars on the road, and I realize I didn’t hear anything. I must have slept.


We circle up after breakfast and do a little round of appreciation. I love this ritual our scouts have. It’s the kind of thing I’d be inclined to skip, but in fact it gives a ceremonial close to the whole endeavor. We praise each other, our leaders, and even the forest service for keeping the mountain pristine despite tens of thousands of (pooping) climbers per year. We pack our cars, hug goodbye, and go back to town to return our rented helmets, boots, poles, axes and crampons to Fifth Season. I buy two commemorative Mount Shasta ball caps, and we start the five-hour drive back home.


Though my son is frustrated that we turned him around after base camp, we talk about the importance of knowing your limits. “It’s great to have mental focus, but you also have to train. You don’t want your mind writing a check that your body can’t cash,” I say, along with a lot of other boring mom stuff that I hope he will find inspiring and enlightening.


We both keep turning around to marvel at the hulking snow-capped mountain we are leaving in the distance. “Can you believe we climbed that?” we keep saying and laughing. I assure him that making it to 11,500 feet is no small feat!


The car rushes forward and the magic begins to dissipate in the valley sun. Crop dusters buzz by and I cry when a great country song called “The Good Stuff” comes on the radio. Soon we are 200 miles away from the trembling trees and the mountain weather, gassing up in a minimart and buying junk food and it all feels like a dream, over too fast.

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