When Sacramento Bee photographer Kevin German read our Outbound story in March about a Mount Shasta woman who intended to climb Mount Everest, he developed his own attitude for altitude.
The 29,032-foot Everest was out of the question, but Northern California's Mount Shasta -- at 14,162 feet -- presents a classic challenge for alpine adventurers in these parts. Though German (pronounced ghur-man) was raised in Washington state, he most recently lived in the flatlands of the Midwest. Getting in shape and getting to the top of Shasta was a stiff, if not steep, goal.
Still blanketed with snow and icy patches, and quite fresh with overnight freezing temperatures even at this time of year, Mount Shasta is no place to climb on a whim. Avalanche warnings have been issued as late as June (in 2005) and falling rocks are frequent. Read the park's injury and incident reports at www.shastaavalanche.org/accident.htm and you'll see how often people are ambushed by weather, slippery slopes or ambitions that exceed ability.
Aware of the downside of his goal, German, 26, soon learned that two fellow photographers were planning a Shasta summit this summer. German felt comfortable joining his friends Jonathan Kirshner, 28, of the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., and Andreas Fuhrmann, 37, who works for the Record Searchlight in nearby Redding. Kirshner, a former Record Searchlight photographer, had two successful summits in five tries up to that point.
So the trio set a flexible time frame in which to make the climb -- June and July, the peak season for Shasta summits. German got to work planning his climb, getting in shape and collecting the proper gear. His group made the climb safely and successfully on June 30-July 1. We asked German how they pulled it off, in the event others might like to try.
Q: When did the thought enter your mind to climb Mount Shasta?
A: When I read the story on Laurie Bagley in March, about her quest to climb Mount Everest. (Bagley, 44, summited Everest in May and has returned home to the city of Mount Shasta, which lies at the mountain's base. She'll be the subject of an Outbound profile later this summer.) I was impressed that Laurie holds the record, for women, for the shortest time climbing Mount Shasta.
Q: So, reading about a climb is one thing. Climbing is another. What got you motivated?
A: It always interested me to climb. But I didn't know if I could physically do it. I thought of her attempting to climb Everest. That was empowering. That really got me going.
Q: Why Shasta?
A: It was close enough. My buddy (Kirshner) has climbed Shasta. To that point, he'd succeeded on two out of five tries. He was trying again and asked if I wanted to come along.
Q: You say, he's experienced but not a professional guide?
A: He's experienced but definitely not a professional.
Q: Is it wise to go with someone other than a professional?
A: It's different for different routes. We could have taken the beginning route, Avalanche Gulch, the most heavily traveled route.
Q: So even though this is your first time, and the leader of your group is not a pro, you opted to take a more-difficult route?
A: The guy who led us (Kirshner) had been up that route (Avalanche) before. Plus, we wanted to travel on different terrains.
Q: What kind of terrains?
A: We planned, and actually did, take a route through Whitney Glacier. On a very busy weekend of climbing we were the only ones on that route.
Q: So, let's back up: You started your push to prepare in March or April?
A: April. I wanted three solid months of training.
Q: What kind of training?
A: To get in shape again. I was in the gym five days a week, two hours a day, core exercises. I was lifting, doing each muscle group. I got up to running 35 miles a week. The longest run was eight miles. I would do four miles on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and eight miles on Tuesday-Thursday. During those months, I lost 18 pounds. I went from 186 to, well, now I'm 168.
Q: But no hiking?
A: No, I'll get to that later. I didn't follow a climbing regimen. But I am a follower of Men's Health magazine. They had features on getting more healthy, exercising, lifting. Through that, I created my own regimen. I cut out all sugar, butter, creams, and kicked up on a lot of protein. The three months have been life-changing. I've learned a lot about myself, my body, exercise. I've never been this fit before.
Q: If someone were to decide to do this, what would they be in for? What would you advise them on, as far as training? And what would it cost to gear up?
A: The most important thing -- which is something I did not do -- would be to get out and start hiking. Start doing stairs with a weighted pack. It's something I had meant to do so many times but got so busy I never got around to it. I thought training in the gym would be enough. The climb would have been much more comfortable if I would have trained correctly: hiking. There's no substitute. I think stadium stairs will be what I do next time.
Q: The money?
A: Almost everything is rentable. Fees aren't astronomical. It's affordable. But you would at least need to buy the basic stuff: long underwear, sleeping bag and tent, and some other things.
Q: So what did you do?
A: I bought a lot of the gear because I plan on climbing more. I spent $2,000, much of it at REI. I'm very much looking forward to my end-of-the-year (REI) dividend. (Laughs.)
Q: Where did you rent the things you rented?
A: In the town of Mount Shasta there's an outfitter called the Fifth Season. There, I rented mountaineering boots, crampons and a helmet.
Q: You had been living in Illinois before coming here. And Sacramento is pretty flat. How did you do with the altitude?
A: The trailhead is 6,890 feet. The summit is 14,162.
Q: So you're starting out at roughly Lake Tahoe altitude? Any problems?
A: I didn't notice any difference. But I was nervous going in, because I didn't know what to expect. I had heard horror stories: people getting sick, throwing up, passing out, having to turn back.
Q: Tell me about the climb plan.
A: On June 30, we started at Black Bear Diner (in Mount Shasta) for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Scrambled eggs and wheat toast. ... We picked up our gear at 9 a.m. at Fifth Season. Then we headed up to the trailhead, Bunny Flat, at 10:30; started making our way to Hidden Valley base camp. We had two choices: We could have stayed at Lake Helen base camp or gone to Hidden Valley. We chose Hidden Valley because it was more challenging, more terrain differential. It's not a popular route. On July 1, we were the only people who did that route. We heard there were 30 tents at Lake Helen.
Q: Then you prepared for the summit the next day by getting things in order, like water, right?
A: We spent the night at Hidden Valley; that's at about 9,300 feet. We dug out snow for an area for the tents. We had to boil water immediately. We did this with MSR stoves, using white gas. We had a water purifier pump after it was boiled down. All three of us had a 1-liter water bottle and a 3-liter water bladder in our pack. ... The packs weighed 40 pounds, maybe more because of camera gear.
Q: What was for dinner?
A: Freeze-dried mac and cheese with freeze-dried peas, with tuna fish. Then we went to bed.
I was excited to climb. I stayed up late and couldn't dose off. My sleeping bag, which was supposed to be rated at 20 degrees (and it got down to 29 degrees) did not do the job.
Q: What did you do?
A: I kept piling on layers of clothes: hat, beanie, down jacket. I got a little sleep. I was supposed to wake everyone at 2 a.m. But I overslept until 3:30 a.m. We didn't head for the summit until 4:45 a.m.
Q: You leave some things behind at your camp and just take a summit pack, right?
A: Yes, just water, a bit of food. And my clothes and camera gear. I'd say it all weighed around 15 pounds.
Q: What were conditions on the summit attempt?
A: They were perfect. By 5 a.m., it was in the high 30s, low 40s. We were able to remove clothes as necessary. Winds were hanging around 10 mph or less. It was a clear sky. The temperature rose to around the 50s.
Q: When did you summit?
A: At 12:36 p.m. A little less than eight hours from the time we left our camp.
Q: What kind of stuff can go wrong on Shasta?
A: You can be undergeared. We weren't. That's something that made this climb as comfortable as it was. I was the weakest climber in the group. I was very tired in some parts. I got to the point where I was just digging the crampons in, taking six steps, and then resting. It was a very slow process. I wasn't holding them back. But I was shooting a lot of photos. I got behind a bit, but I was able to catch up.
Q: Any doubts along the way?
A: At times, with several more ridges to go, I asked myself, "What am I doing on the side of this mountain?" I kind of laughed it off.
Q: Was the trail harrowing?
A: There's no trail. We made our own. The only thing unnerving was our foothold in the snow. We had to keep two contact points at all times: one or both feet, or our ice axes dug into something. And I learned how to "self-arrest" in the event I was to fall and start sliding. We were all roped together as a precaution. Lots of times, my footing slipped, but I kept the rule of two points of contact.
Q: What was the feeling at the top?
A: Pretty amazing. I knew it was going to be a good accomplishment, but once you get to the top, any tiredness or soreness you had goes away. The air is different. The wind is different. You feel like you're on top of the world.
Q: So now you're hooked, eh?
A: It's something I'm going to be doing the rest of my life.
Q: This isn't Everest. But what is it for you?
A: It's a big accomplishment in my life. It's the start of a new hobby and a start of something that lets me believe in myself a little bit more.
Q: Elaborate on that belief in yourself.
A: I wasn't sure I could do it. But I did. I climbed a mountain.