New on Sidetracked:

Summer Winter Camp

Climbing Mount Shasta, California
Story and Photography: Chaiwen Chou
Produced in Partnership with Visit California

Sitting on my knees on my sleeping bag, I groan, suddenly overwhelmed by nausea and a rising headache. Shoot. Altitude sickness.

We had just set up camp at Helen Lake an hour earlier: at 10,400ft, our base camp before attempting to summit Mount Shasta the next morning.

I ungratefully push away the pasta Ewen offers to me and sink deeper into my sleeping bag, shutting my eyes. Bitter winds rattle the tent as Ewen eats dinner in silence without me. The last thing I want to do now – besides eat – is get up in a few hours to start climbing in the frigid darkness. My head begins to spin and an image of myself in front of my computer, warm inside my San Francisco apartment just 24 hours earlier, floats into my mind. What the hell am I doing up here?

* * *

‘Hey, you wanna climb Mount Shasta?’

Cristina eagerly explained that she recently met a group of experienced hikers who were planning a trip. Still glowing from the excitement, not to mention a particularly nasty sunburn, from trekking up Kili two months before, I said yes before she could finish.

As the date of our climb approached, forecast 45mph winds, snow, and subfreezing temperatures sparked conversations about avalanche safety. When the day came, everyone in the group – including the leader – had bailed, leaving just me, Ewen, Cristina, and her friend Sebastian. We were all new to Shasta, and fairly new to mountaineering. None of us knew what to expect. Still, we were avid backpackers who loved the cold and solitude, so we decided to go anyway and test our luck.

After a five-hour drive, Cristina, Ewen and I arrived at Bunny Flat trailhead at midnight. I opened the door for some fresh air, and was greeted by the most spectacular Milky Way arced brightly over the parking lot. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I grabbed my camera and ignored the chill air – I was still wearing shorts although now a mile above the city. Sebastian arrived a few minutes later in a ‘69 Montana Red Volkswagen camper he found on Craigslist. Perfect.

The hike up to Helen Lake was hot and dry the next morning, our packs full of winter gear weighing down every step. After a series of rocky switchbacks, the trail faded beneath snow, so we took a break to strap on our crampons. To her dismay, Ewen’s new boots fit her crampons awkwardly. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll fix it at camp,’ Cristina reassured her. The temperature quickly plummeted as we climbed to the top of a steep icy slope and reached camp. Helen Lake was not actually a lake, but a shallow field of snow at the foot of a steep incline, aptly named Avalanche Gulch.

The temperature quickly plummeted as we climbed to the top of a steep icy slope and reached camp. Helen Lake was not actually a lake, but a shallow field of snow at the foot of a steep incline, aptly named Avalanche Gulch.

The snow begins to fall more heavily as we reach an open plateau. All I see is white now, but in the distance, I notice a tiny orange blur. It is a flag, a sign of human life, validating our presence in this cold, vacant world.

3.00am. The air is still but the clouds are low, the faded light of the moon glimmering on the frozen snow. I drag myself out of my sleeping bag and pull on my boots and crampons in a daze. Is my nausea gone? I’m not sure. I take a few tentative steps, then continue. Even in the middle of the night, high on a mountain, I decide to walk far enough so no-one can see me pee.

As I walk back, I see Cristina and Sebastian shining their headlamps toward where the summit should be. Cloud blankets everything. My head feels light and I fear I’m about to be sick again. ‘Let’s go back to sleep and see how it looks in the morning.’ Relief. I head back to my tent, swallow an Advil, and sink back into my sleeping bag.

* * *

The tent shakes. ‘Wake up! It’s six-thirty!’ Cristina and Sebastian are already dressed and ready as Ewen and I crack our eyes open. ‘We probably won’t summit today but let’s hike.’

Cristina takes our bottles and boils snow as we pull on our jackets and toss snacks into our packs. I emerge from the tent into the dull grey light. The Advil worked; my head feels clear as I fasten my helmet.

We begin hiking in the direction of the summit. It’s surprisingly steep. There is no visible trail to the top; Sebastian volunteers to keep track of our location using his smartphone’s GPS, and I start my Garmin watch to track our progress. Eyes focused on the ground in front of me, I stab with my ice axe and kick each foot higher into the ice. We are heading into the clouds as I concentrate on pairing every other step with a deep yet half-empty breath. Several hikers slide down past us; they have decided to turn around. Christina’s voice drifts by me: ‘I feel carsick.’

Sunlight breaks through, blinding me, as the clouds dissipate, and we quickly traverse the Red Banks, a wall of bright orange rock. But as soon as we start the last major climb, Misery Hill, the clouds close in again. This time they bring snow.

The snow begins to fall more heavily as we reach an open plateau. All I see is white now, but in the distance, I notice a tiny orange blur. It is a flag, a sign of human life, validating our presence in this cold, vacant world. As we walk closer, head-on into intensifying winds, perspective shifts and I realise the flag is much smaller than I’d thought. I spot the next flag, fading in and out behind the waves of snow now blowing fiercely in the air.

Standard advice in a whiteout is to turn back. The thought doesn’t even cross my mind. I feel calm, falsely comforted by my fellow hikers and evidence of others ahead. We also have GPS.

Sebastian pulls his phone out of his pocket with his bulky gloved fingers, confirms that the summit is still in front of us, then slides it back into his pocket.

Five steps later: ‘Wait, I think I dropped my phone.’ I stop and look down. There is nothing. Only whiteness.

The freezing wind and snow swirling around us are deafening as we scatter, walking in small circles, hopelessly trying to find the phone. I look back with a jolt of panic, but am reassured – I can still see the last orange flag. As long as we stay between these two flags, I think, we should be safe.

I look ahead. The whiteness blinds me and I struggle to focus: there’s nothing but white all around, nothing to give a sense of depth or for visual reference besides each other. I see small rocks in the distance fade into view, waving. ‘Are those snowboarders?’ Ewen yells over the wind. I squint and shake my head. Are we going crazy?

Sebastian pings his phone with his watch and we pause. Miraculously, Cristina hears it over the roaring winds, and dives into the snow nearby, brushing until her fingers close on the phone. I can’t believe how this can be possible.

As we press onward, two hikers carrying a bundle of orange flags materialise out of the colourless haze. We thank them as they congratulate us and tell us we are so close – the summit is just around the corner.

Sebastian gives a whoop: ‘I can see it, I can see the summit!’ He heads directly towards some rocks about 20ft above. I follow him and don’t think anything of it as the ground steepens into an ice wall (we would later find this to be the unconventional path). I hammer the pick of my ice axe into the wall and start to climb, digging my feet into the steep ice. Sebastian grabs my arm and pulls me over the top. I stagger briefly in strong gusts of wind before dropping to my knees for safety. I turn around and look over the edge. Ewen and Cristina are right below, but Ewen is struggling, one crampon dangling off her boot. My heart sinks.

Hastily, I shake off my pack and grab a rope. Sebastian takes one end as I tie the other around an energy bar – the first thing that comes to hand. I toss it down to Ewen but the wind whips it right back up at me. ‘What are you doing? Use my water bottle!’ I see Cristina crawl next to me; she has made it. I am fading, low on energy, and can barely recognise the futility of my attempt. I knot the rope around the bottle and try again. This time it flies down decisively and Ewen catches it and pulls tight. We anchor ourselves and pull; Ewen scrambles up on one foot and triumphantly flops down beside us.

The heat is draining from my body as we cheer and take a few selfies in the furious wind. I crawl a few feet further to a rusted metal box screwed into the ground. I yank it open and find a notebook along with pens, stickers, and small knick-knacks left by other climbers. We sign our names victoriously, at 14,179ft, the second-highest point in the Cascade Range. Despite the whiteout, despite almost losing our GPS lifeline, despite Ewen’s crampon, despite everything, we have made it.

Finding our way back down out of this merciless void would be another story.

Chaiwen Chou is a designer turned software engineer working on IoT products in the SF Bay Area. She spends most of her spare time training for trail ultramarathons, hiking, camping, and taking photos of her outdoor adventures.
Instagram: @aehrwyn