Almost Climbing Mount Shasta: A Story of Misery and Life Lessons at 14,000 Feet

by Chip O’Brien

At four thirty in the morning no one saw the light from my tiny headlamp inching uphill in pitch darkness on the snow-covered flanks of Mt. Shasta. Overhead, a vast array of stars spilled across the ebony sky as wind sent ice particles prickling across my face. They didn’t call this part of the mountain Misery Hill for nothing. Shivering with cold, exhaustion and something deeper still, my legs suddenly buckled and I collapsed on the hard snow surface.

They didn’t call this part of the mountain Misery Hill for nothing. Shivering with cold, exhaustion and something deeper still, my legs suddenly buckled and I collapsed on the hard snow surface.

Gasping for breath, my heart pounded as I watched the fire that was my dream of standing on the summit flicker and die. I was done. I wasn’t going to make it. My head ached with altitude sickness and my body was thrashed, but something in my heart ached with an even greater pain. It was the conviction that I was a failure. There was no glory in almost climbing a mountain.



As I lay there I realized that events from earlier that day had set me on a collision course with that awful moment. My mind drifted back to that morning, 24 hours and a thousand years before. My day job was teaching high school English, which at that moment seemed to belong to someone else’s life. I was a rugged, virile mountain climber, wasn’t I?

Climbing Shasta was not new to me. I’d been doing it for years, and I had a routine. I’d been to the summit nine times before, and had let that pride help define who I thought I was. Only this time I had broken my own rules about success on Shasta, and some might say I deserved the misery I was in.

I’d always thought that it took a finite amount of effort to get to the top of a mountain. You can try to do it all at once without any training, one mad explosion of energy, or spread the effort out over months of cardiovascular conditioning. I figured the more pain experienced in training, the less pain on the mountain. But being a teacher, I also knew I had earned an honest C- on the preparation for this trip.

You can try to do it all at once without any training, one mad explosion of energy, or spread the effort out over months of cardiovascular conditioning.

The next most important thing after training was equipment. At least I had not failed there. I had rented plastic mountaineering boots, an ice ax and crampons (metal spikes you lash to your boots for climbing on snow and ice). My snowboarding pants and jacket with various layers of clothing underneath worked well. Snowboarding goggles also helped to protect my face from wind and sun. A warm hat, gloves and bright headlamp rounded out my wearable gear. In a small backpack I carried high-energy snacks, candy, iPod and iPhone, my Wilderness Permit and extra batteries for the headlamp. Last but not least, I carried one precious quart of water.

I got away with carrying so little water because of my hydration routine before the climb. Several hours before starting the climb I began chugging all the water I could hold. By the time I started climbing my body was so saturated with water I sloshed when I walked. I knew I could drink all the water I wanted when I returned to my car. I knew the Avalanche Gulch route pretty well, which began at the Bunny Flat trailhead parking lot.



Some people climb with much more gear than I do. It’s common for climbers to make the ascent in two days, spending the night in tents and sleeping bags at Lake Helen (there is no water there). Since hauling that much gear even halfway up the mountain had never appealed to me, I tried to keep my burden as light as possible. A lot of people take a first aid kit, which is never a bad idea, but I chose to forego that and gamble on a quick trip, good judgment and putting safety first. Considering my current predicament of lying wasted on Misery Hill, maybe I had good reason to rethink a few things.

The timing for climbing Shasta is fairly simple. Watch the reports for a good span of clear weather. Start in the dark between midnight and 2:00 a.m., and climb on snow. Without snow to hike on, much of the surface of Shasta is scree, loose rock fallen from up above. With every step you take on scree, you slide at least halfway back down again. Hiking on hard snow requires much less effort. Depending on the snowpack, the best combination of snow and weather is usually in May or June. The reason midnight is good is because it’s easier to climb on hard snow, and descend on soft snow. An early start puts you on the mountain during the coldest part of the day, and by the time you’re ready to descend the sun has begun its work softening the surface again.

From Bunny Flat trailhead you follow the path to Horse Camp and the Sierra Club Cabin. From here the trail leads up Olberman Causeway toward Lake Helen where there are usually tents full of other climbers. Next, the route leads up The Heart and through or around the Red Banks to Misery Hill.

There are two false summits on Misery Hill tempting unsuspecting climbers to think the summit is in sight, when it’s actually still a long way off. When you finally caught a whiff of rotten eggs from the hot springs below the summit pinnacle, you could be sure you were close to the top. Successful climbers who achieved the summit may write in the covered book kept on top, and the views can be amazing. Few people stay there for long, since the summit is not a comfortable place to be. Staying wasn’t the point anyway. Bagging the summit was the point, feeling the endorphins coursing through your thrashed and broken body. This was the definition of success I understood, and that day I had come up short.

Clinging to that hard snow surface, my mind struggled back to the events of that day as if I were in a trance, and a morning that seemed about a thousand years before.




Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! The warning bell rang signaling five-minutes until the start of first period and I blew through the classroom door in the nick of time. One of the toughest things about being a teacher was having your entire life dictated by a bell system.

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Students swarmed into the room like ants marching toward chocolate cake; only this was a forced march. Romeo & Juliet and high school kids would be a challenge, I knew, especially with this class. It contained a few kids who not only couldn’t read well, but also were passionate about their disdain for reading at all. Knowing they would never read Shakespeare on their own, I decided the only option was to read the play out loud as a group, which pretty much captured a high school boy’s definition of hell.

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! “Welcome to English class,” I announced, trying to keep things positive. “Today we will begin reading Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and I know how much you guys have been looking forward to this!” Of course they were not, but I hoped a little humor might lighten things up.

“Do we gotta’ read this,” moaned a kid in the back of the room. “It’s all about love and men wearing tights, and no one understands it anyway!”

“It sounds to me,” I said, “like you know some of the story already. Tell me what it’s about.” A few hands went up.

“Beth.”

“It’s about two families, right?”

“Right, the Capulets and the Montagues were sworn enemies.”

“Like the Crips and the Bloods!” gushed Paul.

“That’s right,” I smiled. “The families were something like gangs. Not only that, but Romeo and Juliet were about your age.”

“That’s gross!” shouted a red-headed girl with a sour face.

“People use to marry much earlier in those days because they didn’t live as long,” I said. “You boys would have been considered men in those days, and men carried swords and daggers.” There were some murmurs of approval from the groups of boys.

“Cameron,” I said. “You be Romeo today.”

Nooooooooo! Do I have to?”

“Cameron, listen. Today’s the big fight scene where Romeo runs Tybalt through with a sword. Are you sure don’t want to be Romeo?”

“Do I get a sword?”

“A cardboard one; but it’s better than nothing, right?”

“OK,” he said cautiously. “I’ll do it.”

Cameron was a high school student who struggled with reading and hated every minute of it. Being the best athlete in his class, he enjoyed the attention he got on the basketball court but didn’t like to feel dumb in front of his friends. He was often willing to put twice as much effort into not reading, so this was a good start. A student was dispatched to grab a few props from the Drama room, and brought back a crown, a few capes, a cardboard sword and (!) a rubber chicken. Another student was given a video camera and the job of capturing the action, and it went better than expected. We hadn’t finished the play, but the kids hadn’t hated it either.

“OK, class,” I announced at the end of the period, “class is almost over. Austin, will you be Romeo tomorrow?”

“Hey,” objected Cameron. “I’m Romeo!”

“What do you say, Austin. Would you mind letting Cameron continue being Romeo tomorrow?”

“I don’t mind,” said Austin. “Cam’s doing a great job.” Cameron brightened, and all eyes were on him.

Then squinting at the script, Cameron proclaimed in his best stage voice, “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!” Then, with all the swagger and flourish of his newfound persona, he bowed from the waist and the room exploded in applause. It was a hit, but I sincerely doubted if anyone had ever seen a Romeo with a rubber chicken taped on his head. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!





Like a slap in the face my trance was broken. I was back again on cold, dark Mt. Shasta with an ice wind whipping my cheeks. I was angry with myself for thinking I could summit Shasta after a full day of teaching. What an idiot I was. Those feelings nagged at me as I lifted myself up, turned around and took my first step downhill. No one, I thought, almost climbs a mountain. Yet it occurred to me that maybe there was something in the word “failure” that didn’t quite fit either.

I thought again of Cameron, the kid I had successfully conned into reading Shakespeare that morning. Later in the day I had caught a kid cheating, but after learning what he was dealing with at home, I decided to give him another chance. Several kids throughout the day had also said to me, “You’re my favorite teacher,” at least in so many words. That was the world I lived in while not trying to climb Mt. Shasta, and there was a different sort of glory in it. I mused about which world was the more real, but decided nothing. In my teaching world success and failure were more difficult to define than when climbing mountains. In the teaching world a small compliment or simple treat or just a smile could communicate to a kid, “You’re OK,” or “You can depend on me,” words we all need to hear.

Even though I had stood on Shasta’s summit several times before, I realized that something in me had changed since the last time. Teaching had become my new mountain, something I had obviously come to value more than standing on top of a 14,180-foot rock. Mt. Shasta seemed to shrink a little in that moment.

I had traded one kind of summit for another, mountaineering boots for rubber chickens and, after all, it was an acceptable trade.

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