Travel Journal No. 5: Shasta's Backcountry

I heard them before I saw them, their slow, sodden steps crunching rhythmically through the icy snow from the trail ahead.

“Are we close?” a young man’s voice called from the direction of the footsteps.

“You have about a mile before you hit the parking lot at Castle Lake,” I called back.

“Thank God,” a young woman said as the two of them approached. “We thought we were lost.”

Emerging from the trees in the afternoon sunlight they looked to be college-aged, their clothes were soaked through and clung tight to their bodies, which made their shivering noticeable. Neither of them carried any gear. I put down my pack and pulled out a water bottle.

“Do you need help?” I asked, handing her the bottle.

She shook her head. 

“Just some water,” she said before taking a long draw and then handing it to her partner.

“The guy in town told us that it was only a short hike to the upper lake,” he said.

“That guy must not have known the trail is completely covered in snow up here and that the upper lake is still frozen,” the woman said.

“Did you make it?” I asked, offering them some almonds and raisins.

“I think so,” he said. “Hard to tell with all the snow and ice up there.”

“I think we took the wrong path, and at one point I was scared we were going to die,” the woman said. She paused and her eyes became glassy and her lips tightened.

The boy shook his head.

“At least you have the right gear,” he said, looking at my snow pants, trekking poles and micro-crampons that I’d fitted over the soles of my boots to grip the snow and ice.

“Do you need me to walk you back?” I asked.

“No, we’re OK, we’ll just follow your steps,” he said.

I hesitated. They were cold and scared, but the trail back wasn’t that challenging and they would be at the parking lot in less than an hour. We exchanged cell phone numbers (amazingly there was service) and parted ways, with them promising to text me when they reached the trailhead where they’d left their car or if they needed help.

After they left I hoisted my pack and headed up the trail. I planned to follow their tracks. I was curious to see how precarious their path had been, and it would also provide a sure way for me to get to the frozen upper lake.

The snow deepened with every step, to the point that only the tops of small pine trees protruded, their stiff green needles bushlike against the snowy carpet.

As I followed the hikers’ tracks it became clear why they’d struggled. They had taken a particularly challenging route, nearly straight up the mountain, and there were large indentations and scuffs in the snow where they’d fallen or sat for rests.

The path was tough going. Even with my experience and specialized gear I often found myself thigh-deep in icy snow, my feet slipping into crevices made by some hidden rock or shrub beneath. My legs burned and my chest heaved. My gear and camera equipment seemed to gain weight with each step of higher elevation. I paused and contemplated heading back. I felt guilty about leaving the two young hikers, and anyway, perhaps it would be better to come back when the snow had melted.

The phone buzzed in my pocket.

“We made it!” a text read. “Thank you for your help.”

After a long pause another buzz: “Beautiful view up there. It was worth it.”

And then another, “Please send us your photos!”

I put the phone back into my pocket. It would be sunset soon, and with the two of them safe I decided to continue on.

The slope grew even steeper to the point where their tracks shifted from being footprints to areas where they must have been on their hands and knees. I put my head down and pushed forward, counting my steps as is my habit when climbing gets difficult. When I finally paused and looked up I realized my path had inadvertently veered from that of my fellow travelers and instead had led me to a point where turning back was not an option. The snowy slope ended thousands of feet below me in a rocky ravine, and above it only became steeper.

I paused to consider my options. The sun had slipped behind a mountain and the slushy snow was becoming icy.

“Stay calm,” I thought.

I took a deep breath. To my left was an outcropping of rocks, and if I used my gear and strength with deliberation, I would make it. There was no other option.

I shifted my body slowly around and planted my right foot deep into the ice to create a small ledge before I drove my left pole into the downslope while using the other pole to lodge it into the snow above. After checking for stability I inched forward, each step creating a small avalanche of ice that slipped down in waves, the shifting weight of my heavy backpack pulling me toward the abyss below. My mouth dry, heart pounding, I leaned into the mountain and took another step. And then another.

When I finally reached the stone outcropping my legs shook. I scolded myself for not being more careful. With all of my experience I should know that hiking, especially alone, always means taking extra precautions.

I sat down on a rock. The setting sun cast a pink glow on Mount Shasta directly to the east, and only a few hundred yards away I could see my destination, the frozen expanse known in the summer as Heart Lake. I had made it.

Later, after putting up camp and eating a dinner of beans and rice I set up my camera and waited. An oddly warm breeze lifted from the valley, bringing with it the soft aromas of pine and wildflowers. Spring was on its way. The final light of the sun had gone, and now the moon reflected its soothing glow on the world around me. I lay back on the snow and looked up. Below me I heard the trickle of melting snow, and above thousands of stars blinked, their pin-points of light disturbed only by a slowly passing cloud and a bat as it swooped and then swooped again, its body barely visible in the dim light.

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Originally published in the Napa Register, June 2017