The object of this exercise is to understand how to use nature settings effectively. We are to describe the setting of a man-against-nature story, using as much detail as possible.
Mount Shasta is not dormant. It’s one of the active volcanoes of the Cascade Mountain Range, and like its sister Mount Lassen they are geological anomalies. They lie well within the Sierra Nevadas, a non-volcanic range in Northern California. It’s rare to have a volcanic range intrude into another non-active range. Mount Shasta is an anomaly in other ways, as well. It rises from the valley floor as high as Everest does from its neighbors, a pimple in the landscape. It’s unusual to have such a tall peak standing alone without other mountains next to it. It stands in solitary splendor, an object of worship to the five tribes who lived in the area before the whites came. The whites didn’t know about it until about 1840, since the Spanish didn’t come this far north and the Russians and French fur trappers didn’t come this far south. It stands 14,000 feet high and is covered with five glaciers, named for the tribes whose land this was, before the whites came.
Before the whites came.
I stand at the stepping-off point, a small parking lot near a devastated area from the last season’s avalanche. A mile-wide swath of twisted trees and upended boulders, it’s mute testimony to the power and glory of Nature. It’s one thing to read about an avalanche or see one on television. In person, it’s stunning. I’m speechless. It looks like a demilitarized zone, like a bomb went off and took the pastoral woods and made them this twisted mass of roots and mangled greenery.
I turn my back and look up the trail. It’s innocent. It looks like any other trail I’ve climbed in these mountains. I grew up in the Sierra Nevadas, I know their forests well. This looks no different, even though the rocks and magma below me are quite alien to my experience. Up here, in the open air, all is as it should be. Sequoias and pine, and the occasional oak, greet me. I set off up the trail, gravelly rocks and powdered dirt under my feet. It’s a two-and-a-half mile walk, starting at 8,500 feet, straight up to the Sierra Club cabin. It will wind through the chaparral and forest almost to the tree line at 10,000 feet. I can already feel hypoxia waiting to claim the unwary. I slow my pace.
The trail ascends for a few hundred feet, rocks making steps out of the path. An alpine meadow opens out in front of me, curiously nestled within feet of the trail of the avalanche. I look up, craning my neck to see the peak, but it’s hidden by trees. Innocent. I wonder if anyone was on the mountain at the time of the avalanche and have a sudden mad wish that I had been. What would it have felt like?
The trees thin, the sequoias the first to disappear. The pines get shorter, only thirty feet instead of fifty or even a hundred. The underbrush gets thicker, gnarled branches and thick leaves to take in the sun’s nutrients this high above the valley floor. After a few hours of walking, my heartbeat pounding in my head from the elevation, we come around a last string of boulders and see it.
Built in the 1920’s by an old mountain climber, the Sierra Club cabin is the real starting-off point for the ascent to the peak. Climbers hike in here, spend the night, and get an early start. Mount Shasta is a training peak for places like K2, and is not a novice mountain. I’m not trained in technical climbing, which is what they call it when you use pitons and ropes. It’s a dangerous climb because part of it is on rock and part on glaciers. You need to have a number of skills to make it safely, and the elevation is nothing to sneeze at. Even at 10,000 feet I feel thready and weak. We walk up to the cabin.
I’m startled by how small it is. Only about fifteen feet square, it’s foundation is rock from the surrounding area. The rest is wood. I wonder suddenly if the wood was cut from the trees up here or hiked in. I’m sure I could look it up, but for now just stare at it. The man who built all this was a hermit. I know about the rock walk on the other side of the building from me, but take my time getting there. Each step makes my heart race and I feel dizzy. Hypoxia. I sit down on a nearby bench and drink some water, letting my heart slow down.
It takes longer than I expect and I feel fear stir in my gut. Maybe this wasn’t a good climb for me. But I’m stubborn. I’m here already, I don’t want to just turn back with my tail between my legs.
After I can move without wheezing, I get up and wander inside the cabin. The Forest Service runs it now, and there is literature in cases around the walls. There’s equipment too, for use by hikers and Search and Rescue. I am suddenly disinterested. The peak appears out the far window, white and immense.
I walk out the back door and don’t quite realize I’ve stopped dead. I see the peak every day from my kitchen, far below us at about 6,500 feet. We had to drive up the flanks of the mountain just to get to the stepping off point. So I’m about 3,500 feet above my house. I didn’t realize how much a difference that would make.
The glaciers seem close enough to touch. I suddenly don’t want to see an avalanche. My throat closes as I stare at them, looming overhead like great white hands of God. All it would take is the right combination of weather, a thawing here, a crack there. I quell the urge to run. Besides, if I run, I’d faint from the hypoxia.
After a moment or two, or an hour, I’m not sure how long I really stood there, I lowered my gaze to the rocks. And stand in shock. These aren’t rocks, they’re boulders, easily 500 pounds a pop. They are laid out in a path leading to the first wall, a half a mile or so straight in front of me. No one knows how he put them there. He would hike out with a six-foot metal staff and bring the boulders out of the forest, nestling them here like paving stones. He never told anyone how he did it. How the hell could he have? It would take a crane and a team of men! I set off along the path, and it’s much less like paving stones than I expected, more like walking a riverbed. I move from stone to stone, amazed by how flat their tops are. What makes a man live for years in the woods, building a path like this? I can understand the hermit impulse, but not the urge to expend such effort at altitude. I reach the first wall and look up.
It goes straight up the rock face about a hundred feet. It’s not yet a technical climb; I can see the footholds. I look back at my climbing partner and he shakes his head. He doesn’t think I should do it, with my knee. Stubborn suddenly, I put my foot on the first step.
Halfway up I nearly pass out. My heartbeat is so loud I wonder if other people could hear it. It pounds so heavily in my ear I am getting a headache. I collapse against the boulder I’m climbing and look up to where my partner is, the mountain goat. He’s a good twenty feet above me, hopping lightly from rock to rock.
He looks down and his expression goes blank. I blink. He walks down to me and tell me calmly, I need to get off the wall. I’ve come too far. I nod, nausea building in my stomach from the movement, and shrug. I can’t move my legs.
He advised me to wait until I can feel my feet. It takes longer than I want it too, about ten minutes of breathing slowly, trying not to let the panic claw its way into my breathing to take the last of my oxygen. There just isn’t enough up here. He tells me slowly it’s hypoxia.
The danger with hypoxia is you don’t know you have it. It’s one of the biggest dangers of exposure, along with hypo- and hyperthermia. Once you have it, it takes the oxygen in your blood away from your brain and you can no longer think. He guides me back down the wall to the valley floor, and I collapse on one of the boulders. There’s more air down here. He gets me some water and tells me to go sit somewhere, he’s going to go up again and see what’s there. Up to the end of the non-technical climb. Jealousy flares in me but when I look up the wall, I can hardly breathe from fear. I nod, defeated.
After I could move, maybe a half hour later, I walk over to the devastation caused by the avalanche. I can see where it started, to my left below one of the glaciers. A crack started at some point and the glacier broke off, thundering down the mountain to take everything in its path. I look down the flanks of Mount Shasta and can see for several miles. No, I don’t want to be up here when one of those mothers cuts loose.
I lay down on my back in the light dusting of grass and wildflowers. I lay totally flat and don’t even have to run through my relaxation exercises. My body doesn’t have any energy left to be tense. My heartbeat pounds in my throat and I imagine an observer could see the skin jumping. I lay there, my arms out and palms flat against the flanks of this mountain. I don’t know how long I laid there, a couple hours at least. I never quite dozed off, but I floated in some kind of connected haze. I began to imagine I could feel the engine of the volcano, buried miles beneath me in the rock and sediment.
The clouds floated by overhead, peaceful.