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later climbed Sat, May 25, 2002|
Highway 89 between Lassen and Shasta is a very pretty drive. The elevation between the two varies from 3,000 to 5,000 feet, is heavily forested, and offers some of the more isolated, open-road driving you can find in California. There is evidence of logging all around, patches of trees removed in the standard clear-cutting method. In most places the "visual corridor" (the trees within 100 feet of the road) is left intact, but in some places the cuts were done right up to the road. Perhaps to give you a better view of Mt. Shasta?
The first views of Shasta come while still 30 to 40 miles off. Mt. Shasta climbs 10,000 feet above the surrounding area, one of the largest mountains anywhere in the world when measured in this way. It's bulk is so massive, and reaches so high into the sky, that at first it appears as an apparition, looming white and large above the forested terrain. I pulled off at one straight stretch of road that looked to drive right to the mountain's center, and at another scenic viewpoint. The mountain is very intimidating from a distance -- it is hard to imagine climbing it, let alone in a single day. It only grows larger as one approaches, and doubts about this venture creep in ever so slowly. As I was to find later, the mountain is much less intimidating when one actually gets on it. Then it becomes a series of objectives, each reasonably attainable, which when strung together, provide a clearly obtainable path to the summit.
I pulled off highway 89 and into the town of Mt. Shasta around 5p, and went about looking for accomodations and a place to eat, although not in that order. There seemed to be dozens of motels in the town, so finding a room would be not problem. I still hadn't decided whether it best to drive up to the trailhead and sleep there or at Horse Camp, or whether to bed down for the night in town. The former would allow me better acclimatization, and if I hiked into Horse Camp I'd be a thousand feet higher and almost 2 miles closer. On the other hand, a motel room would offer a hot shower, comfy bed, and a controlled climate. I would think about it while I ate.
Halfway through town I came upon a place called something like Pedro and Leibowitz (I forget the exact name, but the first was spanish, the other decidedly un-spanish in origin). It's a local joint specializing in Mexican fare and gourmet hotdogs. An odd combination to be sure. For $6 I bought the most expensive thing on the menu called, "The Works," thinking this would be some sort of super-mondo burrito plate. Not so. It was a basket of store-bought chips smothered with nacho cheese sauce, beans, chicken, lettuce, and salsa. Not exactly what I would call "authentic," or even "Mexican", but it had volume going for it. I ate most of it with a quart of Gator Aid (from the magic cooler, of course) while I listened to really bad music over the speakers and watched some of the locals chat over food and beers at the outdoor tables.
After I had had my fill, I went looking for your basic cheap motel, no pool or HBO necessary. Didn't matter since most of the places had both pools and HBO, although the pools weren't yet open for the season anyway. None of the places advertised their rates, so it was impossible to compare them by simply driving by. What did a room go for in these parts? I hadn't a clue. I went into one called the EconoLodge, figuring if they wanted more than $40 I'd go elsewhere to get a better price comparison or possibly consider camping at the trailhead. When the clerk said "$55," I didn't even hesitate to produce a credit card. It became instantly clear that I hadn't really had my plan straight, that in fact the price was of little object, and my body had no intention of camping out that night. It didn't even want to drive around looking for a better price. I brought all my gear into my room, and spent the next hour showering and arranging gear for the big climb early in the wee hours. I intended to get up at 1a and be at the trailhead for a 2a start. By 7p I had everything arranged for the following day and went to bed. It was still plenty light out, and even with all the shades drawn it was far from dark in the room, but I rested and eventually fell asleep after an hour of tossing and turning.
The alarm going off at 1:10a had me up in a flash. Now it was payback time for the noisy neighbors that had come into the room next door in the later evening hours. I ate my bowls of cereal, rechecked a few things, and loaded up the car. As I drove out of the motel, it occurred to me that I didn't really know where the Everett Memorial Highway was, other than it started from town somewhere. I drove all through town to the north end without finding the road, then turned around and drove the length of town to the southern end, again without finding a sign or other indication telling me how to get to that g-d mountain the town was named for. So I drove back to the Econolodge where they had bright lights in the parking lot, and got out with intentions to get my book out of the trunk to see if it offered any hints that might help me. Instead I flagged down a passing policeman and asked him directions.
I wanted to give him a smart-alecky response since I wasn't in my happy place at the moment, but instead I simply replied, "Yeah."
"Oh, just turn right at the light up ahead and it'll turn into the highway leading up there."
"Everett Memorial Highway?"
I thanked him and got back in my car. At the flashing yellow light I turned right dutifully and drove up the hill. After about a mile and a half I came across a sign that said "Pavement Ends." I stopped and turned the car around. I am very unhappy at this point. I could hardly believe I couldn't find my way to this mountain that fills the sky in daytime, so huge the excessive gravity should just suck me towards it. Instead I'm driving around town very fast but getting nowhere and looking like an idiot. Down at the main road I turn right again. Maybe he meant a real streetlight with red, green, and yellow, I think to myself. A few more blocks and just such a light appears. This has to be it, otherwise I intend to burn the entire town down like Clint Eastwood in "High Plains Drifter." The road says "E. Lake," not exactly an invitation to the mountain, but it was no worse than any other street I had driven in the last half hour. This turns out to the be the correct road, and after half a mile and a 90 degree turn to the left, it becomes Everett Memorial Highway. Whew.
The road winds slowly from 3,000 feet to nearly 7,000 feet in about 10 miles. The moon had just risen a short while ago, and hung low on the eastern horizon. It was less than a half moon, but still provided plenty of light. A sign indicates the road ends a few hundred feet ahead, and suddenly I'm in a giant parking lot with perhaps 60 cars. I have arrived at Bunny Flat. My cursory drive around the lot reveals no open sites. I found several folks sleeping out in the open by their cars, catching them in my headlights before I switched to just the parking lights. This seems a miserable place to try to sleep before getting an alpine start on Shasta. Further back down the road I found a place (actually across from the self-registration area) to park. There were more folks sleeping in the dirt another ten feet further back from the road. I tried to be quiet as I got my stuff ready, but I'm sure the doors closing and the alarm chirp were annoying enough. The weather seemed quite pleasant, maybe in the forties, no wind, thin high clouds. At the last minute I decided not to take my extra jacket, and instead tossed in a second quart of water -- I might get thirsty on this one. Altogether I was carrying about 15 pounds, water, axe, and crampons making up most of that weight.
I walked to the self-registration area and went over the warnings, instructions, and as much as I could within the limitations imposed by my headlamp. $15 for a climbing permit if travelling above 10,000 feet. How do they enforce this, I wondered. Do they have a ranger at altitude checking for your permit tag? Since it's self-registration, how do they know you've paid even if they check that you have a tag? Seems they'd have to radio down to someone at the Bunny Flat and see if proper payment was received. I think the 10,000-foot rule is to separate the skiers from the climbers (who are more likely to need rescue, which I'm guessing the fees are intended to help offset). Much is left to the honor system that the climbers will comply with the climbing permit fee request. Two other cars were idling nearby, the occupants discussing their course of action. I saw a couple of headlamps out where I guessed the trailhead should be, just starting on the trail. I headed off in that direction. It was 2:30a.
There were a few bare spots near the trailhead, but after about 20 yards, it was snow the whole way. The snow was very hard. Clearly it had frozen over during the evening, even though the air temperature was well above freezing. That seemed odd to me as I expected the air temperature would have to go below freezing to get the snow to freeze. Perhaps it can freeze from below if the underlying snowpack is well below freezing? Something for me to ponder. I had plenty of time at this point.
This was my first experience hiking in snow at night. It seemed very awkward. I liked my new high-tech Petzl headlamp illuminated by three very bright white LEDs. But the light was insufficient to clearly delineate the fine details of the snow surface, making it tough to walk confidently. The large numbers of footprints in the snow made for a trail maybe ten feet wide. Hundreds of boots, skis, and snowshoes had trampled the snow in a haphazard fashion. Many postholes six to ten inches deep keep things interesting. Several times in the first mile I flat out fell down, and found out just how hard that snow can be. Ouch. In places I could just make out the central path that was flatter and smoother than the areas on either side, but it was inconsistent and frequently petered out.
I was wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and hiking pants, fingerless gloves, and sun hat, and felt plenty warm. It was a fine evening. I passed several small groups of climbers all on their way towards Horse Camp. After about 40 minutes I found myself above treeline and looked around for signs of the Sierra Club Stone Shelter/Museum, but found none. The trail had splintered into a myriad of diverging routes, and picking the most popular one (to stay on the main route) proved more difficult than I had expected (that is to say, "I lost the trail."). Now and then I would spot a light far ahead of me that let me know I was probably still on route, but once I passed them I began to lose some confidence in the route I was following. A group of four had stopped ahead of me to consult a map, and I asked if they knew if Horse Camp was to the left or right. They shrugged, as clueless as me. The moon was well above the trees, and provided enough light that I could turn my headlamp off for good, even though it was not yet 3:30a. The mountain was wonderfully illuminated, and I could see what I guessed was the standard Avalanche Gulch Route ahead of me. The rocks to the left I (correctly) guessed were the Casaval Ridge. Far up on the mountain I could see several faint lights to the left on Green Butte Ridge. I headed up the middle, up what looked like the main route. I shortly fell into the used tracks from the previous weeks and knew I was on course. I never did find a stone hut, campers, or anything that looked like Horse Camp.
It's a long hike up to Helen Lake at 10,400 feet. The route curves to the left a bit, coming close to the Casaval Ridge before angling back to the right more. I past one flat area that I thought was the lake only to be disappointed -- it was a small bump on the gradually steepening hillside. I came within 10 feet of a rock before I realized it was a person sitting quietly facing downhill, almost zen-like. He didn't seem much interested in conversation. He failed to laugh at my lame joke. The altitude and 2 hours of climbing had done little to improve my already weak witty bantering abilities. He didn't seem much funnier either, in hindsight. I left him sitting where I found him and continued up. Just below and to the west of Helen Lake I found some flat rocks and took a break. I actually thought I was at Helen Lake (never having been there before) when I took a rest, but I was still about 100 yards off. I decided to put on the crampons here. I could see quite well now and no longer needed the headlamp (which I left on my head until I returned to Horse Camp hours later). I could see up towards Red Banks that the slopes would get considerably steeper, the steepest part of the climb. Better to put them on now I thought, than wait until I was precariously perched. I drank some water, put on my insulated hat and additional gloves, and got out the ice axe as well. I made the mistake of handling the axe before I had my other gloves on, and it behaved like a perfect radiator and nearly sucked the life out of me. Disgusted with the thing, I strapped it back on my pack -- that thing could wait until I needed it.
Onward. From Helen Lake it's a bit deceiving how high it is to the top of the Red Banks. They are clearly visible and seem only about an hour away, but it took me twice that. As the slope began to get steeper I paused to take in the view behind me. I could see where the real Helen Lake was, and saw a number of folks milling about their tent sites. A group had just started out, there were five of them bunched together. Higher on the eastern slopes, a party of three were making their way out of Avalanche Gulch up onto Green Butte Ridge It looked quite steep up that way. There were a few others ahead of me under the Red Banks, but by now most of the activity seemed to be below me. As I climbed, I looked for the steps of others to make the climbing easier. I was successful about half the time in this section. The snow is too hard for the earlier climbers to leave good steps. Only those getting a late start in the previous days would have reached these slopes while the snow was soft. Many of the steps that are created get wiped out by those descending who can use them to help anchor the feet while plunge-stepping. Unfortunately the descending parties generally have a wider gait, and the downward momentum tends to smears out whatever steps were created underfoot. I did not believe this to be inconsiderate on the part of the descending parties, as I know I would do the same if it helped at all. I continued up without using my axe. I kept my gloved hands in my pockets to keep them as warm as possible. I judged that my crampons would be more than sufficient to stop me in a fall, provided I didn't gain too much speed before arresting. This might have been a false sense of security -- and I was not about to test it unnecessarily, of course. Upon looking around at one point, I noticed the clouds had a soft pink glow, indicating sunrise was underway. There were a few climbers in the wide expanse of Avalanche Gulch below me, but rather quiet for the most part.
As I realized the underestimation I made concerning the time it would take to get through this steepest section, I broke the problem up into a number of small goals that were achieveable in 15-minute increments or so. Concentrate on getting to that boulder. Take a short rest when I reach that turn in the slope, etc. I considered briefly taking one of the steeper routes either through the Red Banks or to the left. As I got nearer, the slopes looked steeper than they had from below, and I decided if I could continue without an axe, all the better. So I headed up the standard route, to the right of the Red Banks. There is another well-known feature here called "The Heart," located on the wall opposite the Red Banks. I did not know if the feature referred to the shape of the rock of the snow, but try as I might, I could not make out anything on that entire ridge that remotely resembled a heart. To the west, behind Casaval Ridge, Mt. Shasta cast a huge shadow that covered half the landscape. Day was breaking quickly now.
I had hoped some hours earlier that I might reach the top of Green Butte Ridge by the Red Banks in time for the sunrise. I missed that by nearly an hour as I topped out at 7a. No glorious sunrise, but at least I'd have the warming rays of the sun. Ever since leaving Helen Lake the wind had begun to increase gradually, blowing quite strongly in the last several hundred yards below the ridge. I had hoped that the opposite side of the ridge would offer some refuge from the wind which was blowing directly at my back. It felt great to reach the ridge and be treated to a fine view of the steep Konwakiton Glacier on the eastern side. But there was no refuge from the wind. I could not climb low enough to get out of the wind without purchasing myself on the slick slopes of the glacier. I tried to hide behind some rocks, but the wind seemed to find every side of them. I briefly removed my crampons to put on my overpants. I was frustrated that I could not remove the crampons with my mittens on, and had to remove them to work the straps. My fingers froze up in a matter of minutes, and were fairly worthless by the time I had put the crampons back on. I donned a third pair of overmittens and a face mask as well, but could do little with my hands until they warmed up. Oh well. The slope ahead was moderate, even if it was along a narrow ridge. The axe would stay strapped until later. My whole body felt cold now, colder than I had been all night. It seemed strange that once I got in the sun I would be so cold. My toes were numbing a bit (something they rarely do while I'm climbing), my face nipped, limbs chilled. But I had all my clothes on, so I would need a little help from the warming sun if things were going to improve any.
I had been quite worried beforehand about getting sunburned, and had brought a more-than-adequate supply of SPF 40 sunblock. While it was dark there was no need for it of course, but even now, I was almost completely clothed from head to foot, that there was no place except around my eyes that were exposed. I had tried at this rest to put my sunglasses on as well, more to help insulate my eyes from the wind than from the sun. But with the face mask on I could not keep the glasses from fogging up, so I removed them permanently after a few attempts.
Onward. When I had reached the ridge I had seen a party of three climbing out of sight ahead of me. I do not know if they were the same that I had spotted on the steeper section of Green Butte Ridge, but it seemed likely. Behind me, one of the climbers from the group out of Helen Lake had moved ahead of the others, and had caught up almost 30 minutes on me. He was now maybe 5 minutes behind me. "Damn," I thought, "that guy's moving fast..." I negotiated the ridge above Red Banks pretty handily, made easier with a more moderate slope. My hands had warmed up nicely under three pairs of gloves and inside my jacket pockets, and my toes seemed fine. I don't think the weather was any nicer than earlier, but the roar of the wind kept my body more occupied with staying upright than with being cold. I reached the base of Misery Hill in about 15 minutes, much faster than I had expected (because it was closer to Red Banks than I thought, not because I was moving swiftly). Misery Hill is really more of a hill than a misery, and it's not really that high (about 400 feet). The wind was blowing ferociously now, over 40 mph if I had to estimate. Time for the axe. If not for the wind, I'm sure I would have climbed all the way to the summit without using it, but it was quite handy now to keep me from getting blown over. I hunched over as I climbed the hill, trying to reduce the amount of area at my back that I presented to the wind. Near the top of the hill I saw the other three climbers ahead of me. One was crouched down on the southwest side of the hill, and the other two were descending from near the top down to the first. At first I thought the immobile one had been injured, but as I got closer I guessed correctly that the wind had forced the retreat.
I reached the other three now huddled together about 30 feet below the summit of Misery Hill. They told me the wind had been too strong to get over the top, and were waiting to see if the wind would subside any. Blowing as it was, I was surprised to see very little cloud. Some clouds were streaming up from below but were dissipating just as quickly as they flew by. I hadn't seen the famous lenticular clouds of Shasta which I would have expected with the winds as strong as they were. It was blowing over 50 mph now, as fierce as any wind I've faced before. My years of skiing had provided me with many occasions to get wind-blasted, but this equalled the worst of them. And none of them were near 14,000 feet. But I was highly motivated. I didn't take the time to evaluate the collective experiences of the others to judge whether I was being rash or not, but I figured if I could crawl over the top without getting blown away, then I'd go on. I had images of WWI movies in my head, particularly Galipoli, where the Aussies had to climb out of the trenches to almost certain death, getting blown away by machine guns manned by the nasty Turks. No machine guns here, but the wind carried small ice crystals in the blowing snow that cut most effectively. As the others mulled over whether to try again, I quickly bid them goodbye and climbed upward. My crouch got lower and lower until I was nearly prone to the ground. I had turned my head into the wind, crampons downwind, the better to bite into the snow and hold me. I used the pick of my axe to hold the upper part of me down. As I went over the summit mound, I was literally crabbing sideways, only an inch off the ground. It had to be 60+ mph in this stretch, as it had the full brunt of the wind racing up from below.
Once over the top, I cowered down the other side and found refuge behind some rocks a good 20 feet below the ridgeline. This gave me a chance to catch my breath and regain my sanity, shaken asunder by the tempest. Surveying the situation, I could now see the summit and noted that the wind blew almost directly from Misery Hill across the summit plateau to the summit. I also found the huge lenticular cloud that had been missing earlier. It had been hidden from view behind Misery hill, but it was quite large, looming off to the north of the summit. My main danger now was to make sure I didn't get blown into the the very steep upper reaches of the Whitney Glacier on the west side of the summit plateau. This meant I would have to get back up to the ridge and face the wind again, and then press to keep far enough to the east to keep me from being blown to the steeper sections on the left. Before I left my protective rock, I took in some more water (my bottles were now partially frozen), took in the tremendous views of Shastina and the Whitney Glacier behind me, and snapped a few photos. No telling whether I would have another chance to use the camera...
Out from my rock, I headed for the windier flats of the summit plateau. I got well away from the edge that falls into the Whitney Glacier, and fairly let the wind blow me across the plateau. At the other side, nearer the summit, the ice is sculpted into fantastic shapes by the wind. I had to slow down to keep from stumbling about the ice formations and the rocks strewn among them. I saw no sign of fumaroles that were supposed to be near hear, no rotten-egg gas smells, just the sharpness of the wind. I headed for the northwest side of the summit to begin the final climb. I stumbled at one point and caught my pants with my crampons as I fell to the ground. I noted briefly that the pants were cut only through the outer fabric for a few inches, nothing that couldn't be repaired, but also nothing I could do anything about at the moment. I chastised myself for being clumsy, mostly for the damage to my body I was causing than my clothing. I smacked my elbow on who-knows-what when I fell, whether it was ice or rock was of little import - everything around here was hard as iron. I got up and began climbing the last few hundred feet. Looking back I saw the other lone climber coming across the plateau. He had found the other three retreating but had continued on regardless. It appeared no one had been to the summit today, at least not from that side, other than the two of us.
The northwest approach to the summit had the advantage of providing a windscreen at the very top. This gave me an opportunity to pause briefly before climbing the final block. As I reached up and began to pull my head up over the windscreen, I was met by the fiercest of winds. Tiny ice crystals stung the few inches of my face that were exposed. I could not climb up facing the wind and ducked back down. I made a second attempt, this time turning my head away, but my neck muscles weren't strong enough to allow me to bring my head upright, and my arms were barely able to keep me from being ripped from the rocks. As I raised my body the exposed area to the wind increased as did the force pulling on my strained arms. This must be the top I thought, but I could not stand on it. Whether I even got my head above the summit rocks is hard to say since I could not open my eyes in such conditions. I slumped down again behind the protective rocks. Just then the other climber came up to join me, and we both sat there, crouching behind the rocks, winded.
Through the roar we could just hear each other if we yelled, though we were but two feet apart. He told me he had been to the summit just the previous week, and confirmed we were sitting below the uppermost rocks. After I related my attempts to breach the final rocks, he made no attempts on his own. We were through climbing up for the day, and we both knew it. It was 8a now, a solid five and a half hours from Bunny Flat to the summit, only half an hour longer than I had hoped to do before hand. Not bad, I thought, considering the efforts of the last hour. My summit friend estimated the winds at 80 mph, but I had no further reference to judge by. They were over 60 I guessed, but they could have well been 100 mph for all I could tell. We took photos of each other while we rested before descending. The only scenic photos I took were a view looking to the west, and another to the north (There are three summits on the top of Shasta from what I could tell -- we were perched on the southernmost, and highest of the three). The other climber suggested we stick together for safety reasons for the uppermost part of the descent. I heartily agreed. Not likely we could save the other if one of us got blown off the mountain, but at least the surviving climber could point authorities in the direction to look for recovering the body.
We got down to the plateau easily enough, having some protection from the wind on this side. Once on the plateau we had to cross a hundred yards of fairly level ground heading straight into the wind. I looked at the ground to protect my face, and leaned into the wind at almost 45 degrees. The crampons provided the only counterforce to keep us moving forward. I found that my arms were best held straight behind me, creating a dihedral like the leading edges of an airplane. This provided side-to-side stability and kept me facing into the wind and heading in the right direction. Before we reached the top of Misery Hill, I motioned to the other climber (we never did learn each other's name) to follow me to the more protected north side that I had used on the way up. This worked so well that we chose to stay low and contour around the top even though the slopes were fairly steep here. I had strong faith in my crampons now, which had served so well. As we got around the west side, I began moving faster, climbing downward while still contouring around. Already the strongest winds were behind us and it was getting easier. We were out of the worst of it, and looking back the other climber motioned me to keep going and not wait up. I waved goodbye and sped on my way.
As I reached the top of the Red Banks I noticed that the clouds were beginning to stick to the summit, and cloud over. We had picked a good time to (nearly) summit, it seemed. I met no other climbers until I began the descent into Avalanche Gulch. Now I could see perhaps two dozen climbers stretched out below me, all on the way up. Several had skiis with them, but this would not be a fun day for a ski descent. The winds died down more and more as I descended, and were hardly noticeable when I was a few hundred yards below the ridge. One climber asked me if it had been windy on top, and didn't really believe me when I said 60-80 mph. Oh well, he'd find out soon enough. I removed my face mask and donned my sunglasses as it warmed up. Tired of descending the steep slopes in crampons with my ankles bent at an uncomfortable angle, I tried to do some glissading. This was only partly successful. The snow was still pretty hard, and thus hard on my bottom. In addition, the steepness combined with the slickness of the snow to necessitate some rather forceful exertion on the head of the axe to keep me from gaining too much speed. My arms and shoulders soon gave out. In addition, my hands were strained from the force of the grip I used to hold onto the axe head, as I knew if the axe got stripped from my hands the leash would bring it back in a hurry to wreak havoc on my poorly protected body as we bounced and sped down the glacier in a bloody mess. It only took a minute or so for me to give up the effort and go back to walking, but every 10 or 15 minutes I'd start thinking the snow was a little softer, or a little less steep, and maybe I could try it here... Without exception I regreted every one of my half dozen or so glissade attempts. It was just a bad glissade day, and I should have had the sense to acknowledge it earlier. For my troubles I managed to wear out the seat of my gortex outer pants, clear to the gortex inner layer, only to be discovered upon my return home.
Down at Helen Lake I intentionally chose a path through the middle of it as I wanted to get a close look at how crowded the camp was here. There were perhaps a dozen tents sprawled among the rocks, but not enough to make it feel cramped, and certainly not the crowds that are seen later in the season. Most of the tents were deserted, but a few people hung around, fiddling with gear and such. One of them recognized me from above; he had been one of the three that had retreated from Misery Hill. He asked how we faired and seemed a bit disappointed at our success. I asked if he was going to attempt again, but they had no time left and had to return. We bid goodbye. There were more and more climbers and skiers as I descended further, but now the majority were skiers or snowboarders. A few were carrying full packs, presumeably on their way to Helen Lake. A couple of skiers came down from behind me, the loud scratching of their skis on the slopes announcing their descent well ahead of them. It did not sound like much fun. One of them made some large sweeping turns that looked quite good as he came down, but he groaned quite loudly when he stopped, having endured more chatter and shaking than could remotely be construed as fun. He remarked to another skier nearby who was on the way up that the snow was hardly worth the weight of carrying the skis today. The sky was not cooperating either, and now the whole upper part of the mountain above the Red Banks was in the clouds. The cloud cover was spreading, and the sun was having a hard time getting through to warm the snow. Near the bottom, somewhere before Horse Camp, the numbers of people climbing up diminished markedly. It seemed that most people that were going to climb or ski today were on the mountain above me, either on the way up or way down. The sun had been able to work on the lower elevations and the snow was now getting soft. For a short while I enjoyed the downward plunge-stepping, each step sinking two to four inches, but this soon became close to postholing up to my knees and I sought the shelter of the more worn paths.
I somehow passed by Horse Camp again, even though I followed the well-used path down Avalanche Gulch, and I began to question its existence. Perhaps it's a local joke that they play on unsuspecting visitors. With all the snow around, it didn't seem like much of a place for a horse, anyway. I reached Bunny Flat at 10:30a, two and half hours for the descent, eight hours round trip. Not even close to the record of an hour and fifty minutes (from Horse Camp, I believe), but I was happy. And tired. Very, very, tired. The lot was just as full now as it had been in the evening. The upper part of the mountain was covered in clouds, but these started to dissipate, even in the 30 minutes I remained in the lot packing up. Perhaps it would be nice at the summit in a short while. There was almost no wind to speak of, and looking back up it was hard to imagine the intensity of it a short while ago. I wondered if wind had maybe let up some, but the huge lenticular cloud overhead suggested otherwise (photo taken from 30 miles away to the south). No matter, I was done. My legs got a rest for the long drive back to San Jose (only made possible by the ingestion of several caffeine-laced beverages). I had a long time to think about the next adventure on the drive, and began to hatch plans to challenge Rainier in the following month...
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