Survivor Shasta by SHMG (Team Leader: Mike Brinkley)
Aug 21, 2010
|On August 21 there were 12 climbers who left the Bunny Flat TH, Shasta National Forest. They were from The Sacramento Hiking Meetup Group, with one goal, that is the Mt Shasta attempt on August 22.
Few weeks before the lead up to final selection of hikers, there were supposed to be 2 groups, the one day ascent group and the two day group. I was the sort of climber, like an eager kid, with lots of energy, but deficient equipment. Others were experienced climbers, few were slow and few others were like rockets.
Mike has instructed the group that every ‘ounce counts’ prior to driving off to the TH. I was a designated driver that day. Mike and Brian were in my carpool. At first I thought if Mike is in my carpool, the thought of delays crossed my mind. I prefer to be late than waiting and with Mike in my carpool that means I would be waiting. Leaders always assist the weakest or unprepared hiker. I also like driving even if it means I would be very tired after this whole Shasta attempt. So there you go, off we went.
By past noon we arrived at Fifth Season to rent our climbing gears. After that we were headed to a lunch buffet (a pizza buffet actually) or so I thought. But we stopped by at the restaurant where the other climbers were waiting. I did love the idea that ‘thanks god I don’t have to eat pizza” but the thought of time running out crossed my mind. As far as my hiking experience goes, time is of the essence. By the time Mike, Brian and I sat down to order, it was almost 2pm.
We were supposed to be leaving the Bunny Flat TH no more than 2pm but we were still in the middle of our ‘bon appétit’ tasteless lunch. It was enjoyable actually having lunch with the rest of the group. You get to know the hikers more. We talked about the weight of our backpacks. My backpack was probably over 30 lbs including the gears and my 8 liter water supply. It may not be necessary to carry 8 liters but as the Australian saying goes, “ it’s better to safe than sorry”. Gosh the food must have sucked but I didn’t mind, I was hungry. I had an over cooked spaghetti. By the time we left the restaurant, it was almost 3pm. On top of that it was another 30 minutes drive to Bunny Flat.
We arrived at Bunny Flat 3-ish PM, parked the cars, unloading our gears then chat chat chat. We then filled the registration and dropped our fees. The next thing, climbers re-arranged/re-packed the bags. As for myself, I don’t need to fix my backpack, just tied the gears to it and I can leave Bunny Flat if I only know the route. But wait, I actually didn’t know how to get up there. This must be a bummer, I wish I have a GPS.
Then the rearranging/repacking went on for too long. Some hikers did not realize how heavy their backpacks were. Some stuff had to be left in the cars. It was almost 5PM but the group has not left the Bunny Flat yet, and to think that by this time, the group should be almost or half way to Helen Lake.
Brian Keith left, then Vickie, I wanted to follow but I hiked with Vickie and Brian before and they were like rockets. Also I’m a good follower so I’d rather stay with the rest of the group. Back in the restaurant, I realized that I forgot my poles. I borrowed Holly’s poles. Thanks to her generosity. Anyway, other hikers are still not done with the repacking backpacks. I decided to go, as long as I can see Vickie, I should be fine.
This is my very first backpacking that I have to carry a heavy backpack in my back. I did so many travelling overseas but it was nothing like this. It was sort of “In-style”. For me this is very adventurous, my first time and it would be epic. It was not even 1 mile I carried the heavy backpack, that I could already feel my back hurts. I had some prescription of diclofenac sodium that I could use to alleviate the pain but as I remember, the bottle was in the bottom of my bag. So forget that.
Horse Camp (our first stop)
It seemed like the next destination before Helen Lake, Horse Camp, took forever. It was already past 6PM. Horse Camp was our first stop. In this stop, hikers have to re-stock water from here. For me, I don’t need this because I will carry my 8 liters of water all the way to Helen Lake. But I did stop anyway. I had no energy to take pictures. Holly asked me to take some shots of her. She has a nice camera. I always wished to own one of those DSLR camera but I heard it’s pricey.
I realized that we stop for more than 20 minutes in Horse Camp. I told Mike that I should be going. I was very tired and that we are not even half way yet to Helen Lake. Mike asked Brian that we would buddy bushwalk. Off Brian and I continued to Helen Lake.
Destination: Helen Lake (our Base Camp)
While continuing my hike up, I realized that I was walking straight up but struggling to carry the heavy load. I’ve always watched adventure shows and always fascinated to do it. However after this experience, it makes you think twice whether you would like to do it again.
About over 1000 ft to go, I can see a plateau. It is a flat area before Helen Lake. My backpack is taking a toll on me. Brian was so ahead of me now, then Holly is about to pass by me over, then Greg. I should be okay since Mike, Rini and Jone were still way down. It is getting dark, I checked my watch and its past 7:30PM. On a normal day, I’m past my dinner time already but I hadn’t had food. The big lunch was not enough fuel to go on this hike. I passed by teen-agers camping below Helen Lake. I asked them where is Helen Lake. One eager kid answered to me, “there on top of that killer hill”. My adrenaline started flowing but my sugar level was so low to the point that I needed to eat right then. I had to stop and eat. Luckily I had some trailmix bars in my pants' pocket. I learned this habit not long ago and it is effective way to kick sugar back to its normal level. I had about over 700 ft of elevation to go but it seemed to be taking forever. Hiking Training Hill is very different than hiking at this altitude. It felt like your entire load is 5 times heavier.
Dark is just 5 minutes away as I estimated. I stopped and open my backpack to look for where my headlamp was. Just in time that it got dark, I was using my headlamp. I was kind of novice using headlamp. I don’t know how to wear the thing. I was not too far from Brian. Vickie and Holly were way ahead up there. I can see that they split up but I can’t tell who of who. One is hiking off trail but she could make it to the top of Helen Lake. One is almost to Helen Lake. Brian called me to use the trail. I am one of those who love doing short-cuts but nevertheless I headed for Brian’s advice. I looked back and that 4 hikers were behind me, Greg was not far, then Mike, Rini and Jone were way down.
Only almost 300 ft to go to get to to Helen Lake but it was also almost 9PM. I had to set-up my tent. Greg’s headlamp was shining above his head while my headlamp was a blur. I was fuming and panicking as I really don’t want to stumble upon the big rocks. I reached Helen Lake past 9PM. Someone was calling Holly. I said that’s not me. He said, you sound familiar. It turns out to be it was Matt. He was looking for Holly. So I said, she was way ahead of me, Holly should be here somewhere. Matt confirmed that there was no sign of Holly. I found it hard to believe but at the same time I couldn’t be bothered as I badly wanted to just lie down and sleep.
Setting Up Tent
The Helen Lake ground was actually not a lake but a ground for setting up tent. Some tent grounds have great fortress formed to protect the tent from strong wind howl. Some tents were no lights on, possibly, campers were already sleeping. As I looked for a ground to set-up my tent, Kris and Brian Keith were there to help me. The two did an awesome job, my tent was up in the dark in just 10 minutes. A very big thank yous to Kris and Brian Keith – greatly appreciated.
The guys told me to rest early and asked where Mike was. I pointed that the illuminating light so down there was Mike, Rini and Jone. I then proceeded to go inside my tent. Throw all my gears inside. Whilst I was inside my tent, I did not sleep immediately. I readied my daypack, clothes to wear for the Shasta ascent, and food to eat before bed and food for tomorrow morning. I called my family first to let them know that I was okay, checked emails and surf the net. It’s hard to get rid of the internet surfing habit after years of being online. It’s like addiction.
The Shasta Summit Day (Aug 22)
I heard around 2ish AM some commotion and talking. I can tell that they were not in my group. I heard of the name Sam giving instruction to the hikers and explaining where their group should be heading. I also heard another group that he wanted to join Sam’s group. I heard these 2 terms, the “heart” and the “chute”. I thought I don’t know where that is. I continued to listen. I was waiting for my group to get-up but unfortunately no one did so I tried to get more sleep.
6AM – I thought everyone left me. I went outside my tent and yelled “HELLOOOOO”. Someone answered, “did you just said “Yellow”? I replied “ yeah – its 6AM now”. Greg responded that we do not have to get up until 8:30ish. I thought what the heck and why. It turned out that Mike et al did not arrived in Helen Lake only after midnight.
It was almost 7AM and that there were still no one moving around Helen Lake except me. Other campers already left and I can see them in half way to the “Red Banks”.
I had to find Mike even if it means I’m gonna asked every tent occupier. I woke up Mike as soon as I saw Mike’s backpack outside the tent. Mike told me however that, we don’t have to leave until 9.
I thought errrrrrr. I honestly don’t have the problem as I have water but the rest of the group were still sleeping and it suck to be waiting for them to get ready. Thirty minutes past, almost 8AM, everyone was busy melting snow. I myself was busy looking around what everyone was doing. Some were getting ready and some were trying to do their business.
I learned that Holly actually got lost on her way to Helen Lake as she went off trail.
Almost 9AM and the group was still in Helen Lake. No one had left the yet for the summit. I am already cold, not because I don’t have much layer but doing nothing in the cold would get you really cold. I had to go inside back to my tent. I surfed the internet again to kill time. Then I heard Mike tried to gather everyone. Brian was heading to do his business. The Ranger was demonstrating how to use the ice axe and self arrest. It was easy to watch than done. I haven’t done much snowshoeing, let alone self arrest me for the first in that steep hill, in the heart of Shasta. I remembered my grandmother told me that whatever happens to you up there, that I don’t have to be stupid and do the right thing. My grandmother was born prior to the baby boom and therefore she is expected to be ultra-conservative. So okay, I will not take the risk. Mt Shasta would always be there. There is always next time but I should play safe.
Past 9:30AM we started to leave for our Shasta summit attempt. I really did not know where we are heading. I thought I would just follow everyone. It can’t be difficult since the ground was nothing but white.
I was born a curious person. Looking at the top, I still don’t know where Red Banks was. It was so wide up there. The climb itself is sheer drudgery. It is simply one foot in front of the other plus ice axe to lift you up. Using crampons and ice axe is not only a necessity but life saving.
Was there any other shortcut to the peak? It would be very helpful to know where the route exactly or where do we pass, in order that we can save time. But I don’t know any of that information. I know that Mike has been to Shasta before but it was over 20 years ago. If it was me I wouldn’t even remember how to hike up to Horse Camp.
Anyway, like I said I am a good follower. I respected Mike a great deal. Think of all the organized training for us just to make it easier for us to attempt summiting Mt. Shasta.
I was one of those who left Helen Lake later. Not that I was slow but I had second thoughts of ascending due to that, at this time of the day, the snow would be slushy. It’s not only difficult to climb but it can be very dangerous as well. I passed Mike, Brian, Rini, Holly, Matt and Greg. I was trying to catch up with Robyn then my crampons loosened and Robyn had to climb down to fix my crampons. Thanks Robyn for being there. It’s the reason why it’s important not to hike alone. When emergency occurs, someone could get help. Robyn then climbed fast up. I got scared that my crampons loosened again so I slowed down. By then Robyn was way ahead of me, until, Mike yelled to stop Robyn from further going up. I asked what’s wrong? Mike told everyone to climb towards the left. Few minutes before Mike called Robyn, Mike had an unpleasant exchange of conversation with Matt (again!).
It is one of those moments that you don’t like your leader to be delayed by pity subjects. Our goal was to summit Mt Shasta and here our leader got stuck again. Last night our leader got stuck with the hikers who were carrying cargoes they couldn’t bring all the way to Helen Lake.
I wished that we had a detailed briefing before we left Bunny Flat. I mean a detailed graphic detail about Mt Shasta. I could have printed the whole Mt Shasta and its different routes and Mike could just explain to all of us the plan and what to do.
So we climbed up all the way to the left where the chute was passable. I assumed that we were heading towards Red Banks. A novice Shasta hiker like me is out of any idea where to go next. Before embarking to climb up the chute, Mike asked us to stop. I stopped whilst waiting for the rest to be closer.
By this time, each time I touch a snow, it gets my gloves wetter and wetter. But it was still alright. I started to feel cold. The weather changes every 5 to 10 minutes. Having to stop at this altitude I risk the danger of getting too cold that I might get a frost nip. I learned from watching Everest attempt shows that once you stop moving, you get cold and then your body freeze except the core of your body. Shasta may be different because it is of lower altitude but the key here is the time. How long do I have to stop before the chills consume me?
Then Mike ordered us to climb the chute. The Red Banks chute was steeper and longer than thought. I was ahead of everyone and then I heard that we had to stop. Matt and Holly were not far from me and that they choose to ignore Mike’s request. After that, another drama occurred between Matt and Greg then Matt and Mike. Matt seemed to be always involved in a drama. When we were in White Mountain, another soap opera occurred there.
Anyway, Matt and Holly continued to climb. After 20 minutes Mike requested that we all climbed and stop at the top of Red Banks. I should not have stopped and just continue but it reminded what happened to us in Mt Tallac. Em and I got lost for following a maverick.
I reached the top of Red Banks past 2:30 PM. I looked at Misery Hill and to me it was another Training Hill. You combined that with an altitude this high, it would take me about one hour to pass Misery Hill. My estimate was 3:30PM or more, then a switchback next? By the time we head back down to return to Red Banks point, it would be past 6PM. I decided right then I will not take the risk. My grandmother repeatedly told me not to take risk.
At this situation, a responsible person has to exercise caution. I have my dog kids and my family to take care of and that I thought of my entire financial obligation. I may not die in Shasta but if something goes wrong, it would put such a huge burden on my next of kin.
The Red Banks
Past 3pm, everyone is at the top of Red Banks. We all decided that we do not have enough time. Then Kris showed up. We all asked him if he did summited the peak. Kris said no. Kris informed us that Dale, Vickie and Holly and Matt were on their way. Kris decided not to take the risk and descend before it gets dark and very slushy snow.
California days are different compared to other parts of the world. The peak of the day or the hottest time of day is typically from 3pm to 7pm depending which day in the summer.
Brian Keith just returned to Red Banks. Brian K informed us that Vickie and Dale are on their way and that they summited Mt. Shasta.
I thought if Kris choose to return due to the lack of time and before the snow gets very mushy and soft, then we all should be alright to return as the “time” is not really in our favor. After all Kris could have made it first to Shasta summit but he is no peak hog. Kris played the card safe and I saluted him for that. Mt. Shasta would always be there.
Our chatting and picture taking at the top of Red Banks cost us more than 1.5 hrs. We could have, would have, should have, and just hike at the top of Misery Hill if that was the case.
Return to Base Camp
At this time past 5pm, Kris and Brian K glissaded the Red Bank chute. I was at the coldest ever in my life. Several stops we made consumed me which resulted to my knees and hands shaky. My gloves were totally wet and we had no other routes to climb down but the same way how we got up.
By this time, Vickie and Dale just returned. The two actually glissaded first before we attempted to glissade ourselves. Slowly, we brave ourselves to glissade. At this moment my knees started to stop functioning the way I wanted to, including my hands. Holding the ice axe to break the glissade speed made it worse.
Fast forward, luckily those who I heard around 2AM were actually volunteers in Shasta. Sam Novey’s team stabilizes me, put layers around me and even gave me Diomax. As soon as I warmed up, I wanted to glissade. I forgot I did not like glissading in the beginning. It took only less than 30 minutes to go down 3000 ft. I reached Helen Lake too soon than I expected. However, I was wearing nylon pants not the foam pad or stuffed-up insulated clothing makes a much-desired cushion for my rear, that until now my rear is still healing. My physician confirmed that it was indeed a frost nip, just that I was lucky it healed on its own.
The rest of the group was already packing. Few wanted to stay one more night. I prefer to go home regardless of the long drive. In the end, we left Helen Lake almost 9PM. Yes it was already dark. We had to use flashlights/headlamps. Brian Rothery led the way, while Mike and Greg were catching up.
We left Bunny Flat returning to Sacramento past 12 midnight. I was the designated driver and was so tired. What I do know though was that I don’t fall asleep if I am not in my own bed. It’s the reason why I volunteer to drive. In between though, Brian R drove for about 1 hour while I get some rest.
After dropping Brian R and Mike, I reached my home almost 5:30AM.
In conclusion, all of us in the group could make it to the peak only if we choose to. The lesson I learned here is that it’s not only the leader should follow the scheduled plan but the rest of the members as well.
Later on, I learned that Jone actually did not attempt to summit. Had I only known that Jone was not there, I would probably do the same and stay around Helen Lake. After all, the mountain would always be there. For next Shasta attempt, I hope that the summary of event should serve as a guide.
Overall, I’m glad that Mike organized a group going to Mt. Shasta. Many don’t realize that finding participant alone is a big challenged itself. It requires lots of skills and effort to summit.
The mountain is beautiful, beastie but friendly giant.