Getting High on Mt. Shasta with John Muir – Part 1

“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.

Photo by Sébastien Goldberg

“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 Magazine describing 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.” 

The “Father of the National Parks” John Muir

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. 

To be continued…

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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