Lightning, heavy winds, hail and deepening snow pummeled intrepid mountaineers John Muir and Jerome Fay as they started down from the summit of Mt. Shasta. Muir had insisted on staying to get one last scientific reading despite the fact that Fay had all but begged him to abandon his task and get off the mountain. Now the tables were turned. Muir was ready to go, but Fay “positively refused.”
Meanwhile I was making my way back down the mountain, warned by a Climbing Ranger who insisted a storm was brewing, despite the cloudless sky. Since I didn’t want to think about not making the summit this trip, my mind wandered back to Muir and Fay surviving that night in 1875.
Fay concluded a descent under the prevailing storm conditions was out of the question. The ridge (Red Banks), he said, was too dangerous in the blinding snow and intense frost. “Here, said Jerome, as we stood shivering in the midst of the hissing, sputtering fumaroles, we shall be safe from the frost.”
You don’t hear the term “fumarole” very often, but it’s the scientific term for vents that spew hot, sulfurous gasses on volcanoes. There are fumaroles not far beneath the summit pinnacle of Mt. Shasta. According to Muir, these fumaroles occupied about a quarter-acre, and spread a narrow blanket of sulfurous warmth along the ground close by. These fumaroles would save the men’s lives. The wind became so violent that standing up would mean “certain death.” So there they lay, close to one another and the fumaroles, one side getting parboiled, the other freezing cold and wet. There they waited out the storm, not standing again for seventeen hours. It was the night from hell.
Unable to sleep, Muir suggested telling stories about bears or wild Indians. Fay wasn’t interested. At one point Fay inquired whether there was any merit in praying. Muir described experiencing a sense of “stupefaction” hallucinating about building a warm fire out of big pine logs. After 13 hours the sky finally cleared and the men could see the Big Dipper. Muir described suffering “violent, convulsive shivering.” Even though the storm had lifted the two were far too cold to move away from the fumaroles. Their clothing was frozen stiff.
Finally the sun rose and warmed them enough to move down the mountain. The summit had received two feet of new snow, but 5,000 feet below there was only three inches. The base of the mountain had received merely a light shower. The men had survived the storm on Mt. Shasta, and Muir later said the night “seemed all a dream.” A nightmare, I thought.
I was most of the way down the mountain when I turned around to glimpse the mountain I had failed to summit that day. Surrounded by perpetual, California blue sky, I was amazed to see the summit of Shasta was shrouded in dark clouds. Suddenly a crack of lightning illuminated the cloud from within, and I shuttered.
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.