Failure. It’s a terrible word and an even worse feeling. For me, the worst part is standing on the mountainside knowing that if I stop climbing before I reach the summit, I’ll have to admit that I quit to my friends and family back home. Regardless of the circumstances, I feel humiliated when I have to turn around with my tail between my legs. However, sometimes failure is necessary.
Princess Peach and I made it to about 12,000 feet of the 14,162 foot Mount Shasta – just a few hundred feet short of Thumb Rock and the final push to the summit. I was clearly suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) as low as 10,500 feet. While nothing is easy about climbing a barren, icy, 27°slope at that elevation, I would count 25 steps and be overcome by dizziness and nauseousness. Because I was afraid of falling backwards, I would immediately throw myself down into the self arrest position until the feelings of vertigo passed. To make matters worse, the winds picked up to about 30-40 mph above Helen Lake. Chunks of ice the size of golf balls were consistently pelted at us as we dug our axes into the ice and leaned our helmets into the repeated onslaughts.
I may have made it to the top of Thumb Rock or even the Red Banks, but with nearly 2,000 more feet to climb afterwards, I wouldn’t have been able to summit on the calmest day of the season. Looking back, I’m grateful that Peach and I were able to recognize the symptoms of AMS when we did. By continuing to climb, the risk of either exacerbating my condition or falling down the steep slopes would have drastically increased. When I got back to the car, I had a massive, draining headache, which reinforced the notion that I did indeed have a strong case of AMS. Despite the weather, I think Peach felt good so I’m grateful he turned around with me as any great climbing partner would do. I also can’t stop thinking that I ruined a summit chance for him. It’s a small comfort that about 60-70% of climbers did turn around when they hit the Red Banks saying that the wind was much worse above the ridge crest.
As disappointed as I am in my attempt on Shasta, I can’t deny that I learned quite a bit on my first alpine endeavor. I garnered practical experience using crampons, snowshoes, a mountaineering axe and the other mountaineering equipment I brought. I learned (the hard way) that glissading should only be done after the sun has warmed and softened the snow pack. I had a chance to actually navigate with my map and compass. I learned that I need to reevaluate my footwear setup as my toes were dangerously cold. Finally, I earned an understanding of how hard mountaineering actually is and the level of physical and mental strength required to summit true mountains.
Before Peach dropped me off and continued his drive east to Colorado, I had to admit to myself that this cross country mountaineering trip was a blast. It was 5 days of camping in random, beautiful scenery near lakes, rivers and canyons. It was licking the Bonneville Salt Flats. It was hiking the wild, majestic Castle Crags just off the PCT. It was exploring different parts of the country and sipping western beers with my good friend and hiking buddy. It was napping in a car off the side of the road so we didn’t fall asleep while driving. It was the strangely satisfying yet disgusting feeling of not showering followed by the amazing feeling of a hand soap shower in a KOA just off the highway.
Failure sucks, but is it really a failure given all we learned and how much fun we had? Regardless, I’ll be back in the mountains soon enough. This is just the beginning – a stepping stone to the next ascent.
Mountain Goat: 0, Mountains: 1