â€œIf I were you,â€ he said as he passed by, â€œIâ€™d head back down the mountain. Stormâ€™s brewing.â€
His words hung awkwardly in the air while I felt like heâ€™d hit me over the head with a board.
I stood there stunned, trying to figure out what to do. The steepest part of the climb up Mt. Shasta, the Red Banks, was just behind me. Two false summits and the hot springs lay ahead before ascending the summit pinnacle; maybe ninety minutes to the top. I was close, so damned close, yet the guy who potentially ruined my climb was a uniformed Climbing Ranger. I took a seat in the snow to catch my breath and think.
â€œHow in hell could a storm be brewing,â€ I wondered. â€œThere wasnâ€™t a cloud in the whole damn sky.â€ Iâ€™d been on the mountain plenty of times before, yet had to consider the possibility the Ranger might know something I didnâ€™t. A Climbing Rangerâ€™s job is to keep climbers safe on the old volcano. Everything inside me screamed that he was wrong, and then the name John Muir flashed across my mind.
Sometimes called â€œJohn of the Mountains,â€ sometimes â€œFather of the National Parks,â€ over a century ago John Muir was considered our countryâ€™s foremost naturalist, mountaineer, glaciologist and environmentalist. I had run across his 1877 article from Harperâ€™s New Monthly Magazine describing the harrowing 17-hours heâ€™d spent trying to survive a violent storm on Mt. Shasta. Heâ€™d experienced hell on that mountain, and lived to tell of it.
People climb mountains for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is â€œbecause itâ€™s there.â€ But on April 30th, 1875 John Muir set off to take â€œbarometric observationsâ€ at the summit for scientific purposes. He was accompanied by Jerome Fay, whom Muir described as â€œa hardy and competent mountaineer.â€
Finding Muirâ€™s exact route is sketchy today, by his description a likely starting point might have been close to Hidden Valley Camp north of Horse Camp. Muir and Fay encountered deep powder in the timber, but finally found a rocky area protruding from the snow, made a rough camp there and left their livestock behind. They pressed on to timberline with backpacks and one dayâ€™s provisions. At timberline they grabbed â€œtwo hours of shallow sleep.â€
They roused themselves at 2:00am, had coffee and boiled venison and began their assault on the summit at 3:20am.
I on the other hand, realized I was done. Though I disagreed with the Climbing Rangerâ€™s warning, despite the fact that I was looking at nothing but blue sky, even though the hardest part of the climb was already behind me, I gave in to that faint intuition people develop in the wilderness. This was about safety, and when climbing mountains you donâ€™t mess with safety. Even the smallest decision can mean the difference between coming home and not.
I was pissed and I was conflicted. Nevertheless, I stood back up, secured my crampons and started back down the mountain. But John Muir wasnâ€™t quite through with me.
To be continued…