John Muir and Jerome Fay made it to the summit by 7:30am on that fateful day in 1875. That’s right about the same time I was warned off the mountain today by a Climbing Ranger, not to gain the summit at all this trip. I was bitter and conflicted, absolutely hating getting so close to the summit only to turn around and head back down.
As I began my descent my mind returned to John Muir. Muir had stayed at the Sisson and Fay Hotel the nights before and after his trek up Mt. Shasta. Both he and Fay were experienced mountaineers. Fay often led people up Mt. Shasta, and Muir had distinguished himself climbing in the Sierra Nevada range. I couldn’t help but reflect on the differences between climbing mountains alone, versus climbing with a partner.
I’d made two ascents of Mt. Shasta with climbing partners, and vastly prefer climbing alone. Whoever you choose to climb with, one person is bound to be in better shape than the other. This creates a situation where one person is constantly having to wait for their partner to catch up, putting pressure on the other to push themselves beyond their limits. The fact that Muir and Fay got into trouble on Mt. Shasta had a lot to do with the fact they were both involved in the decision-making.
The two gained the summit of Mt. Shasta by about 7:30am. Muir had a series of scientific readings to take at the summit, the last of which was to be at 3:00pm. In Muir’s mind he had a job to do, and it required staying on the summit until at least 3:00pm.
On mountains things very rarely stay the same for long. Muir described the morning of April 30, 1875 on the summit of Mt. Shasta as brilliantly clear with nothing but blue sky above. Eventually clouds moved in below them obscuring the view of the valleys below. Muir described looking south and recognizing the summit of Lassen Peak above the clouds like an island in the ocean. I remembered seeing that view once myself. Then the clouds started moving up the mountain.
As the clouds grew closer the men witnessed something only modern pilots might be expected to see, lightning in the clouds below them. By noon Muir and Fay were enveloped in clouds. There was a short downpour, but it soon evaporated. At this point Fay urged Muir to abandon his task and head back down the mountain. Muir refused, intent upon getting the last reading at 3:00pm. “I told Jerome,” said Muir, “that we two mountaineers could break down through any storm likely to fall.” At 1:30pm there was wind, snow and hail at the summit, but the men stayed.
Muir was able to take his 3:00pm readings and minutes later the men began what they hoped would be a quick descent. The temperature quickly dropped 22 degrees, and soon plunged to below zero. Soon the men were surrounded by darkness, hail, high winds and lightning all around. “The storm at once became inconceivably violent,” said Muir, “with scarcely a preliminary scowl.” And they were in the middle of it. The men knew they were in serious trouble.
To be continued…
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.