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Getting High on Mount Shasta with John Muir

“If I were you,” he said as he passed by, “I’d head back down the mountain. Storm’s brewing.”

His words hung awkwardly in the air while I felt like he’d hit me over the head with a board. 

I stood there stunned, trying to figure out what to do. The steepest part of the climb up Mt. Shasta, the Red Banks, was just behind me. Two false summits and the hot springs lay ahead before ascending the summit pinnacle; maybe ninety minutes to the top. I was close, so damned close, yet the guy who potentially ruined my climb was a uniformed Climbing Ranger. I took a seat in the snow to catch my breath and think.

“How in hell could a storm be brewing,” I wondered. “There wasn’t a cloud in the whole damn sky.” I’d been on the mountain plenty of times before, yet had to consider the possibility the Ranger might know something I didn’t. A Climbing Ranger’s job is to keep climbers safe on the old volcano. Everything inside me screamed that he was wrong, and then the name John Muir flashed across my mind. 

Sometimes called “John of the Mountains,” sometimes “Father of the National Parks,” over a century ago John Muir was considered our country’s foremost naturalist, mountaineer, glaciologist and environmentalist. I had run across his 1877 article from Harper’s New Monthly Magazinedescribing the harrowing 17-hours he’d spent trying to survive a violent storm on Mt. Shasta. He’d experienced hell on that mountain, and lived to tell of it.

People climb mountains for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is “because it’s there.” But on April 30th, 1875 John Muir set off to take “barometric observations” at the summit for scientific purposes. He was accompanied by Jerome Fay, whom Muir described as “a hardy and competent mountaineer.”

Finding Muir’s exact route is sketchy today, by his description a likely starting point might have been close to Hidden Valley Camp north of Horse Camp. Muir and Fay encountered deep powder in the timber, but finally found a rocky area protruding from the snow, made a rough camp there and left their livestock behind. They pressed on to timberline with backpacks and one day’s provisions. At timberline they grabbed “two hours of shallow sleep.” 

They roused themselves at 2:00am, had coffee and boiled venison and began their assault on the summit at 3:20am.

I on the other hand, realized I was done. Though I disagreed with the Climbing Ranger’s warning, despite the fact that I was looking at nothing but blue sky, even though the hardest part of the climb was already behind me, I gave in to that faint intuition people develop in the wilderness. This was about safety, and when climbing mountains you don’t mess with safety. Even the smallest decision can mean the difference between coming home and not. 

I was pissed and I was conflicted. Nevertheless, I stood back up, secured my crampons and started back down the mountain. But John Muir wasn’t quite through with me. 

Muir on the Mountain

The “Father of the National Parks” John Muir

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. 

That Fateful Night

Illustration of Mount Shasta by John Muir

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

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.

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