Seen from a car headed north on Interstate 5, Mount Shasta is elusive. It ducks in and out of view like a collapsible picture book, riding the dips and turns of the landscape until finally, it sneaks up on you.
Then it positively looms.
"Enticing" is the word Anne Marie Flaherty uses. The Sacramento woman would occasionally drive past Shasta and wonder what it would be like to climb the snow-covered sleeping volcano, the highest peak in the Cascades.
"It was intriguing," she said. "I'd heard it was relatively easy, compared to other (mountains). But if it were easy, everybody would do it. I just turned 60 and figured I'd better do it now."
Now, in fact, is the best time to scale Shasta, experts say. June and July provide mild enough temperatures for climbers to enjoy the (usually) two-day journey, but there's still enough snow for a firm-footed ascent. Yes, it's easier to climb Shasta when it's snowpacked.
Factual nuggets like that are what led Flaherty and about 50 other aspiring Shasta climbers to gather recently for a two-hour presentation at REI in Sacramento by Dan Towner, longtime lead climbing ranger at the Mount Shasta Avalanche Center.
The talk focused on safety as much as technique, mountain protocol as much as ascent routes, proper equipment to deal with abrupt changes in weather as much as adapting to altitude changes.
Safety on Shasta has taken on even more importance since an early April incident in which a climber from Oakland died after a quick-moving storm stranded him and a partner near the summit. Subsequent storms delayed rescue efforts, but tests later showed that the climber, Thomas Bennett, 26, died of a cerebral edema due to acute altitude sickness.
Shasta (14,162 feet) looks inviting, even easily scalable from the freeway. Towner, a ranger since 1992 who has summited "hundreds of times," says some skill is needed but that Shasta has long been known as a good "starter" mountain for those hoping to scale bigger peaks.
"In climbing, inherently, there is some risk involved," Towner said. "If you're safe and plan and prepare, I don't think there's an unusual amount."
Experienced climbers know that you need to prepare for any eventuality. David and Jamie Shattuck, both 29-year-old Davis residents, have scaled Mount Lassen (10,457 feet) and Mount Tallac (9,735 feet) in the Sierra. The couple wanted to climb Shasta last year, but thunderstorms forced them to stay off the summit.
"We've been wanting to do it for a couple of years," David Shattuck said. "We've been out in snowstorms on mountains a couple of times. It's a risk you take in the wilderness."
Scores of climbers take the Shasta risk every climbing season (roughly late April to October) and do just fine, Towner said. In fact, on weekends in the summer, the base camp at Lake Helen (10,400 feet) and the trek up Avalanche Gulch can get as crowded as any state park on Labor Day weekend.
With proper planning, the ranger added, climbers can avoid the annoying (pine martens, members of the weasel family, stealing your food) and the life-altering (altitude sickness and avalanches) and have memorable trips.