When I first caught sight of it (Mount Shasta) over the braided folds of the Sacramento Valley, I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since. – John Muir, 1874
Unlike John Muir, I don’t recall the first time I saw Mt. Shasta. Having been born and raised in the nearby town of Yreka, the 14162 foot tall Cascade volcano has always been a part of my life. It was only after I left Yreka to attend college that I could return to Yreka and begin to appreciate the wine that flowed in Muir’s blood. It is hard to describe the majesty of Shasta: the way the volcano dominates the sky, the very different mountain presented to viewers from different perspectives, the white wonderland after a winter snow. Like most people spoiled with such beauty, it is easy to grow accustomed to the mountain. Easy to grow used to a unique gem.
My dad, Larry Bacon, climbed Shasta somewhere around ten times. Almost all of these climbs where before I was old enough to accompany him. I retain vague images of his climbs, shown to me on old slide-shows and told to me in humorous stories, but we never climbed the mountain together. A bad back, age, and time conspired, but this father’s day weekend, my dad and I finally made our joint ascent on the majestic Mt. Shasta.
My dad was full of strange little songs, whose origin, content, and tone were always of a quite questionable nature. The strange songs he would sing during his morning shower were a constant source of bemusement to all who had the luxury of hearing his rhapsody. One of the songs he liked to sing was a version of “On Top of Old Smokey”:
On top of Mt. Shasta
all covered with snow
we lost our hike master
to the rock piles below.
All blood and guts
he lay there below
our poor hike master
had stubbed his toe.
It was with this song, then, in the back of my head, that I stood in the parking lot of the trail-head Bunny Flats on the morning of Friday June 18, 2004, staring up a the dominating southwest side of Mt. Shasta:
The forest in this picture is clearly obscuring “the rock piles below” where, I could easily imagine, legions of hike master’s bones lay in their final resting places. To crack this mountain would require an elite team of experienced climbers ready for the challenge of a two day ascent. Mistaking the word inexperienced for the word experienced, however, our climbing group consisted of three first time climbers, myself and my two friends Luis de la Fuente and Patrick Hayden and a geologist, Luis’ dad Juan, whose last climb of Mt. Shasta occurred before all three of us newbies were born. Fresh blood be damned, there is nothing like the arrogance you can feel in your hiking skills just before a big climb. Here I translate this arrogance into my best Babe Ruth intimidation:
So, at about 11 a.m., we left Bunny Flats, loaded with gear to our day’s destination, Lake Helen. Our first rest came at Horse Camp, where we filled up our water bottles with “the cleanest water in the world” from the spring beside the Sierra club cabin. Here Luis rests under the shade of the cabin:
Luis, unfortunately had a cold equating to a fraction of his normal lung capacity and was therefore in much pain throughout much of our trip. Here we find this pain written into the creases on Luis’ face:
In the above photo, Patrick is hidden behind his hat and Juan is hidden behind Patrick.
The hike to Helen was quite fun with big packs on and medium soft snow. Here two lone hikers ascend away from the main path to the campsites at 50/50 flats:
After some trudging up some 3500 feet, which looked something like this
we finally arrived at Lake Helen, elevation 10400 feet.
Here are our two tents at Helen:
There is nothing much nicer than the feeling you get after setting up your tents. This is clearly why three quarters of Patrick and I have such big grins on our faces
Arriving early to Helen gave us plenty of time to stare up at the Red Banks, and wonder, where the heck is the rest of the mountain?
To bed at 8 p.m. for an early start of 4 a.m. the next day. Sadly I did not know that the tent I shared with Patrick had a window and that indeed this window was open during the night. I snuck in 4 hours of good hard sleep and then a lot of freezing off of my toes to rise at 3:45 a.m. After a bagel and some frozen Gatorade, we left camp at 4:30 a.m. There were about 10 headlights already proceeding up the hill below the Heart on Shasta, and as we left and looked back we counted around 30 more following us up the hill! Truly an amazing site all of these lights climbing up the mountain in front of you. Indeed the site must have inspired the still sick Luis who summoned some sort of superpowers from his quarter lung and made a massive push up to the chimney of the Red Banks. In the morning sun, Shasta casts a shadow onto the surrounding territory below, and, as you can see in this picture, even onto the morning haze on the horizon:
Here’s the view we had looking up at the Heart (the bare area in the middle of the picture)
Amazingly, given the sick Luis, we trudged up this part of the mountain and passed all of the people you can see in the picture in front of us.
So, up through the Red Banks we climbed. Sadly, I don’t have photos of the chimney we climbed in the Red Banks. When we finally reached the top of the Red Banks, we encountered our first taste of the famous Mt. Shasta winds. Just below Misery Hill, we stopped to take off our crampons and were blasted by some nice cold hard winds.
We all sort of climbed up Misery Hill at our own pace. This was a part of the hike where I could just trudge along at a slow steady pace up the cold windy slope. I felt very alone and my thoughts drifted to thinking about my dad. How many times had he been up through this same misery? What was he thinking when he made this slow solitary climb to a reward, the peak, totally hidden from view? The reward was the climb, the beauty of everything around you, a small dot on a big hill. About half way up Misery Hill I found that if I climbed over to the right, off of the bare hill and onto the snow, the climbing was much easier and there was little to no wind. Always be on the lookout for ways to turn misery into a serene climb.
At the top of Misery Hill, we got our first good view of the true summit of Shasta, a spectacular looking final hill with a few little dots, hikers, dwarfed by the final summit
Hiho, Hi ho, it’s off to the summit we go:
Finally, the top! At 8:45 a.m. we reached the summit of Shasta. The weather was absolutely fantastic: very little wind and quite pleasantly warm. Amazing! The views, to say the least, were astounding. Here at 14162 feet, Luis signs the log book:
The final summit of Shasta has three high levels, the highest being on the south east of the summit. Yreka is to the north of Shasta and so we climbed over to the north west peak in order to spread my dad’s ashes.
So, there I found myself, standing on top of Mt. Shasta, looking north across the Shasta Valley to Yreka. We didn’t perform any ceremony, so to speak: pomp and circumstance were the last things my dad would give a hoot about. I had carried a portion of my dad’s ashes in a neon blue cylinder. Of course the damn thing was crazy hard to open, but I finally twisted the top off. The wind picked up a bit blowing to the south east. Thus I was able to throw my dad off the edge of Shasta, toward Yreka, such that he would splatter all over the rock’s facing Yreka. Of course this meant I got some of my dad blown in my face and stuck in my teeth. And here lies Larry Bacon (1940-2004):
As one might expect, many of the local Native Americans regard Mount Shasta as a sacred mountain. In fact, one of their legends is that the world was created from the summit of Shasta downward. Shasta was so special to these tribes that climbing above tree level was strictly prohibited. The only reason one could climb above tree level, according to this custom, was if you were called to the mountain to die. I like to think that the mountain called my father to die. It’s just that the mountain called him nearly forty years ago, when my dad visited Yreka looking for a job. Called to the mountain, he found his paradise: the beauty of Siskiyou county, the community of Yreka, his family, wine, dogs, gardening, cooking, history, the stars, and everywhere a sense of humor and amusement at the surrounding world. All of this, the mountain gave to my dad. And to the mountain, now, my dad has given a small part of himself. Indeed, if Shasta were to explode today, bits of my dad would fly out directly toward Yreka, where so much that he loved, lived and lives.
A quick photo with Patrick and Luis
and with Luis and Juan
and then on down the mountain we went. At this point the summit was getting to be more crowded and on the way down we were quite jubilant. Here Luis and Patrick mock the other climbers who were struggling to the top by pretending to be stuck in super strong Shasta winds:
Not too nice, fellas!
Here is Patrick contemplating the top of Whitney glacier
and a nice picture of Shasta’s smaller twin, Shastina
The best thing about coming down a mountain like Shasta is glissading. Here Luis demonstrates dubious form:
Patrick attempted to glissade through the chimney at the Red Banks. By attempted, I mean, he gain a ton of speed, attempted to dig his ice ax into the snow, lost his ax, went flying down the chute, before self-arresting on the side of the channel. Sadly I was too busy yelling at him to take pictures of this fantastic feat. But here is Patrick contemplating whether to attempt this foolish act or not:
Here my butt gets really really wet:
Well, that’s the story of how my dad went to the top of Mt. Shasta one last time. So if you’re ever driving on I-5 past Shasta, I hope you look up at the mountain and wave hi to my dad. He’ll be looking down at you, and laughing his ash off.