Sorry for the delay in posting about how the climb went… I’ve needed a few days to catch my breath! I reached the top of Mount Shasta after around 8 hours of climbing and 2500 vertical feet of altitude sickness. It was the hardest physical challenge I have ever completed, but worth every step and gasp for air.
We were originally supposed to make our summit attempt around 2-3 am on Wednesday early morning. We were warned before we left the trailhead that a storm was on its way and that we might have to deviate from that schedule. We reached base camp at around 10,000 ft. in pretty good time and set up camp on a wonderful overlook at the base of the west side.
Tuesday evening the storm started up – winds blowing and dumping brief but plentiful dustings of popcorn snow. The winds picked up as the night went on to 60-70 mph, tearing through camp at a deafening howl… I thought our tent had ripped from the intensity of the winds! Around 7am I dared to open the hatch telling my tent-mates it “probably wasn’t as bad as it sounds.” I was greeted with an inch or so of snow, declared “it’s like Christmas!” and after spending a whole 5 minutes outside retreated to my sleeping bag again with numb hands and feet.
Since we couldn’t summit Wednesday morning, our awesome guides from Shasta Mountain Guides chose to spend an extra day on the mountain with us, giving up the much anticipated pancake breakfast that had been planned for Thursday morning. We walked around in the snow that afternoon with our crampons on as a dry run for the following day. We also had a prayer flag ceremony where we gathered and shared the names of those we were climbing for with the mountain. It was a healing experience to realize that all of these people were as affected by breast cancer as I was; it was comforting to see that other people couldn’t hold back the tears either; and it was empowering to stand at the base of the mountain and think of all of the hard work I had gone through to make it happen and how proud my mom would be of me at that moment as I stood holding her flag (along with the many you all dedicated) at the base of the peak.
After stuffing ourselves with as much food as we could handle, we laid down for sleep at 5pm. By this point the weather had turned for the better, which meant our tent was ~80 degrees inside and we couldn’t really sleep until the sun set at 9pm. At 11pm we got our wakeup call, strapped on our boots and gaiters, loaded our packs, stuffed ourselves with some more food, and prepared to head out. At 12 am our team began on our summit attempt, the 3rd of 4 teams.
Just as the sun was rising we reached the top of the West Face. This part of the climb was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be. Around 12,500, just as we were getting above Shastina (a satellite cone) I started getting really short of breath. This rapidly turned into dizziness and an inability to breathe. At one point one of the wandering guides commented that I was “stumbling.” I realized that I needed to focus on what I was doing and focus on breathing or I wouldn’t make it. After a warning from my guide that I needed to start pressure breathing and stay calm I regained focus and powered on. It was a struggle between gasping for breath and climbing up a steep icy and rocky slope, but as I reached the top at ~13,000 feet I was told the worst was over and got a second wind. By this point my snacks had frozen, my hands were numb from the cold, and my water was starting to freeze. The sunrise over the mountain as we rested for a few minutes on the top was incredible, a perfect pyramid.
After re-roping together with some new people who were ready to go on we continued across a glacial flat towards misery hill. The deep blue veins in the ice were amazing, I’m sad I didn’t get a picture of it! This part of the climb was fairly flat and combined with the beautiful sunrise I was rejuvenated and ready to summit! As we neared misery hill I tried to take a picture of the landscape during the early morning sun. As I reached for the gopro on my helmet I realized I couldn’t feel the button to push. I figured it was just lack of dexterity from the outer mitt, so I took that off. Still couldn’t push the button so I took off the rest of my gloves only to find that I couldn’t push it still because my hands were frozen and numb. Not only that, my skin had turned a disgusting greenish yellow and my fingernails were purple black. I panicked and quickly put my gloves back on, forcing myself to close and open my hands until feeling had returned. I thought this might have been frostbite, but after more thought I think it was hypoxia from the altitude sickness… or maybe a combination of the two. At any rate, it was bad and I’m glad it went away after a rest at the base of misery hill.
As we made our way up misery hill I started to fade again. I stayed with the group until we made it about 3/4 of the way through misery hill, which lived up to its name. It looked like a small hill, but every time we reached the top of a hump, there was another hump we couldn’t see before. As we got higher the breathing became more difficult. At this point I remembered some great advice from two people. The first was my mountaineering instructor in New Hampshire, who told me that the key to mountain climbing was very small steps with deliberate breaths and to just keep walking. The second was my friend Aaron, who days before the climb told me, “you’re going to hit 3 walls, just keep powering through them and you’ll be fine.” So I fell to the back of my team and slowly fell further behind. So after these last photos as we neared the top of misery hill with my lead rope team I told my guide that I would make it but needed to go at my own pace. I’m so grateful that he let me do that, the summit was now visible and it was just a matter of one step at a time across a very long snow flat and then one last scramble up to the peak.
Crossing the snowflat seemed to take forever. Every step I had to stop for a breath. My guide said I had classic mountaineering technique and that I was probably walking faster than I thought I was, I’m not sure how true that is, but the technique did work. As I made my way across the snowflat the second team caught up with me. After confirming that I was okay I continued on with them for a little ways before deciding I couldn’t keep up with them either at that altitude. I never thought it would be so difficult to walk on flat ground. The thought to quit never entered my mind, but it was becoming quite a struggle to make my body move at a reasonable pace and the psychological strain of not having had a deep breath in 4 hours was really wearing on me. All I could think was “I want to lay down here for a nap” and “I just want one good deep breath.” As I fell to the back of the second lead team I saw a fellow climber named Phi. He had the same look I imagined I had on my face. I’m not exactly sure what I said to him at that point (altitude made me pretty delirious) but something to the effect of “we’re going to make it to the top together.” I had decided unilaterally that I was going to make sure that we both got to the top, it gave me strength to see someone struggling as much as I was but still putting one foot in front of the other. So that’s what we did, all the way to…
When I got to the top I was so relieved that I made it around 9am. I had made it through my three walls and kept going just like my friend told me to do. As I sat down to rest I punched through the ice layer in my water bottle, had a bite of a frozen candy bar, and suddenly realized I had to make it back down too. As daunting as this was I tried to enjoy the moment. I thought we were only up there for 5 minutes, but looking at my gopro footage (to be posted soon I promise!) it looks like I was up there for much longer (30 min maybe?). I flew the flags at the summit and tried to get some good photos, but the wind was pretty strong so you can’t really read names. I promise you they all made it up there and flew in the wind!
After taking some photos and resting we headed back down on a loooong descent. Because it was so cold (they said it was the coldest Climb Against the Odds on Shasta they have ever done… and they’ve done this climb for 10 years!), we had to walk down instead of glissade (slide on your butt), the preferred (and fun!) way to get down a snow covered mountain. This was incredibly hard on us, we were exhausted and it is very taxing on your knees and ankles. Despite the pain I kept walking and surprisingly once I got to around 12,000 feet I suddenly felt rejuvenated – I could finally breathe after over 9 hours of gasping for air!!! At around 11,000 feet our guide decided the snow was soft enough to glissade, so we were able to descend the rest of the way to base camp on our butts 🙂 Glissading is a ton of fun and was a great way to roll back into camp! Once we reached camp we packed up and immediately headed down to the trailhead where our family and friends were there waiting. I made it back to Bunny Flat around 4:30pm. In total, I climbed 4,500 feet up and 8,000 feet down in about 16 hours.
Note: all photos are all rights reserved either by the Breast Cancer Fund or Kristin Winchell. Do not reuse.
(P.S. Keep checking back for more details about the climb experience and future plans!)