Kyle and I binge listened to “The Push” by Tommy Caldwell on the way to Northern California. We couldn’t get enough. Neither one of us has gotten deeply into rock climbing, craggin’, bouldering, big walls, or any of that (yet?) and so we devoured his words and his experiences with gusto. He fascinated us. One of the things that struck me the hardest was his assessment of how dangerous alpine climbing is. I find rock climbing a little scary, mostly because of the exposure and the heights, but from his point of view, and rightfully so, if you can get over that there are less objective hazards on rock than there are in the mountains. And with that fact etched into our minds by one of the greatest climbers of our time we drove towards a giant snowy volcano, looming out of the surrounding hills.
Our southern journey along the I-5 corridor, paralleled the path we walked last summer, taking us past familiar towns and landmarks. It was unbelievably nostalgic. At any given moment I found myself attempting to locate the PCT from where we were, wondering what the closest point to us was, trying to remember what we had been doing and seeing in this neck of the woods or that stretch of grass. I knew it was out there and it tugged at my heartstrings – a type of homesickness.
This feeling grew especially strong when we drove into Shasta, a town we spent a good couple days in but we passed through to continue up the mountain. The trailhead was crowded (it was Memorial Day Weekend after all). We managed to find a flat spot for the truck and parked it. The tent went up quickly, and we got out our food and our MSR Reactor. Conor had been providing the car camping gear so without him we were left with a pretty pathetic, very “backcountry” set up. Pretty soon I was wearing socks to protect my hands and battling the boiling water sputtering out the top of the Reactor. Finally I managed to get our meal cooked and we scarfed it down, eager to crawl into our truck.
The second night of truck sleep was much better that our first and I actually managed to put a couple of hours together. Once again we were up at 12am, pulling on our boots and heading out into the cool air. The entire approach up to Helen Lake was covered in soft snow and without a moon the night was unbelievably dark. We followed an obvious boot track up a gully, which seemed correct after checking our map. Other headlamps wandered off it different directions but we stayed the course. We made the lake in great time.
Helen Lake was a bee hive of activity. Everyone was up, stuffing gear into pack, headlamps bathing the place in a cold white light. We stopped quickly for a break and to put on our crampons. The snow was becoming firmer and we could tell from looking up at the headlamps above us that the slope became steeper soon. With our crappy Camp crampons donned we continued upwards toward Thumb Rock, which was just visible, blacker than the dark night sky around it.
The slog from Helen Lake to Thumb Rock is so long. It goes on and on and on. It was a blessing to get at least part of it done in the dark, but as we climbed the sun started to rise. The hundreds of headlamps that had given us some idea of the contours of the peak above us switched off as our eyes adjusted to the light of day. We stopped every once in a while to cinch our crampons tighter, digging little sitting ledges in the steep snow and anchoring ourselves in with our ice axes. The slope got steeper and steeper, and we utilized every crampon stepping method we knew. I wished for soft snow so we could kick steps. The grass is always greener. The saddle between Thumb Rock and Misery Hill grew closer and closer and we kept putting one foot in front of the other until FINALLY we walked over the top and into a flat area bathed in golden sunlight.
From there we could see Misery Hill, which ends in Shasta’s false summit but beyond that we couldn’t see anything else. We just knew we had to go up there. It still looked a lot further. We stopped to slather on sunscreen, tighten our ever-loosening crampons, and eat something. Both of us felt good at altitude, which is always a nice realization. After we were re-energized we started up Misery Hill. I found it significantly less miserable than the long slope we had slogged up below, aided by the fact that Kyle had to take a poop so I got to take another break. With so many people around Kyle just had to wander off until the slope of the mountain hid him from view. I laughed at him while I hunkered down on my pack, massaging my Elvis legs.
At the top of Misery Hill I became truly miserable. We still had SO far to go. I could not believe it. And not only was it so far, but we had to go down, and then flat, and THEN up again to the craggily summit. I started to groan but Kyle had a sudden spurt of energy and pushed us on. Across the flat part he pushed, and then as we began to climb again he hiked behind me, talking me upwards. Finally we were rounding the corner and stepping onto the rock that would lead us to the top. The sun was hitting us full bore and part of me could not believe I had made it all the way there, the other part wondering how I would make it down.
Once we had our fill of summit pics we headed back down to the flat section for a break. Both of us wanted to get off the mountain but we also wanted the stretch down to Helen Lake, which was a southwest facing slope, to get some sun on it before we got there. Ideally we wanted to glissade it, but at the very least we wanted to take our crampons off.
Despite all of our breaks when we got there it was still too icy to loose the crampons so we began our crouched descent, thighs burning. Every once in a while we would sit down, thinking that maybe now we could attempt a glissade, but always the snow was too hard for an effective arrest. I must have taken my crampons off three times, only to put them back on again, before finally I determined the snow was soft enough to glissade. We managed to slide the last five hundred feet to Helen Lake, where we boiled some more water before sliding as much of the rest of the descent as we could. Then the classic longest-last-mile-ever-before-the-car and we were back on pavement.
We were beat. The only thing left to do was to head straight to Shasta and consume calories. We headed to Dos Geckos for Mexican food. That was where the trip really rounded itself out. While we were sitting, waiting for our food a couple walked in. She was wearing Altras, they both looked tan and shaggy, dressed in some strange pieces mixed in with athletic apparel. I immediately whispered to Kyle, “Thruhikers.” He eyed them over my shoulder suspiciously, the timing wasn’t right for thru hikers in Shasta, but if they had skipped the Sierras because of snow maybe it made sense for them to be there. We eavesdropped for a half an hour before conclusive trail-verbiage sealed the deal. We bought them their lunch and wished them happy trails – they looked very surprised that we had spotted them out of the crowd. Once a thruhiker, always a thruhiker, and that includes knowing your own kind when you see them.
We thought we would make it to Eugene that night and get a hotel but we were both falling asleep outside of Medford and decided to stop early. The off ramp took us straight into a hotel parking lot and we stumbled into the air conditioned lobby and then downstairs to sanctuary. The rest of the drive could wait. A deep sleep and many hours of HGTV followed. It was strangely and sweetly reminiscent of our PCT hotel stays. Someone how our Mountain Marathon, conceived of from the trail, had brought us back to it in so many gentle ways. It was just the taste of nostalgia and familiarity that I needed.
Because we had lost a day to the rescue + ensuing rest we didn’t get to go down to Lassen, however we still consider the Mountain Marathon a wild success.