How John Muir Almost Died on the Slopes of Mount Shasta

Many people take the slopes of Mount Shasta for granted. You may see images of people from all over the world summiting the mountain every year, but it’s more dangerous than you might think. Even the most famous outdoorsman in American history could see just how dangerous the mountain can be, and he almost didn’t live to tell the story.

Sometimes called “John of the Mountains,” sometimes “Father of the National Parks,” over a century ago John Muir was considered our country’s foremost naturalist, mountaineer, glaciologist and environmentalist. In his 1877 article from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, he described the harrowing 17-hours he’d spent trying to survive a violent storm on Mt. Shasta. He’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 “because it’s there.” But on April 30, 1875, John Muir set off to take “barometric observations” at the summit for scientific purposes. He was accompanied by Jerome Fay, whom Muir described as “a hardy and competent mountaineer.”

Finding Muir’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 day’s provisions. At timberline they grabbed “two hours of shallow sleep.”

They roused themselves at 2:00am, had coffee and boiled venison before beginning their assault on the summit at 3:20am.

Muir on the Mountain

Both Muir and Fay were experienced mountaineers. Fay often led people up Mt. Shasta, and Muir had distinguished himself climbing in the Sierra Nevada range. The two made it to the summit by 7:30am on that fateful day in 1875. Muir had a series of scientific readings to take at the summit, the last of which was to be at 3:00pm. In Muir’s mind he had a job to do, and it required staying on the summit until at least 3:00pm.

On mountains things very rarely stay the same for long. Muir described the morning of April 30, 1875 on the summit of Mt. Shasta as brilliantly clear with nothing but blue sky above. Eventually clouds moved in below them obscuring the view of the valleys below. Muir described looking south and recognizing the summit of Lassen Peak above the clouds like an island in the ocean.

As the clouds grew closer the men witnessed something only modern pilots might be expected to see, lightning in the clouds below them. By noon Muir and Fay were enveloped in clouds. There was a short downpour, but it soon evaporated. At this point Fay urged Muir to abandon his task and head back down the mountain. Muir refused, intent upon getting the last reading at 3:00pm. “I told Jerome,” said Muir, “that we two mountaineers could break down through any storm likely to fall.” At 1:30pm there was wind, snow and hail at the summit, but the men stayed.

Muir was able to take his 3:00pm readings and minutes later the men began what they hoped would be a quick descent. The temperature quickly dropped 22 degrees, and soon plunged to below zero. Soon the men were surrounded by darkness, hail, high winds and lightning all around. “The storm at once became inconceivably violent,” said Muir “with scarcely a preliminary scowl.” And they were in the middle of it. The men knew they were in serious trouble. 

A Fateful Night on the Mountain

Illustration of Mount Shasta by John Muir

Lightning, heavy winds, hail and deepening snow pummeled intrepid mountaineers John Muir and Jerome Fay as they started down from the summit of Mt. Shasta. Muir had insisted on staying to get one last scientific reading despite the fact that Fay had all but begged him to abandon his task and get off the mountain. Now the tables were turned. Muir was ready to go, but Fay “positively refused.”

Fay concluded a descent under the prevailing storm conditions was out of the question. The ridge (Red Banks), he said, was too dangerous in the blinding snow and intense frost. “Here, said Jerome, as we stood shivering in the midst of the hissing, sputtering fumaroles, we shall be safe from the frost.”

You don’t hear the term “fumarole” very often, but it’s the scientific term for vents that spew hot, sulfurous gasses on volcanoes. There are fumaroles not far beneath the summit pinnacle of Mt. Shasta. According to Muir, these fumaroles occupied about a quarter-acre, and spread a narrow blanket of sulfurous warmth along the ground close by. These fumaroles would save the men’s lives.

The wind became so violent that standing up would mean “certain death.” So there they lay, close to one another and the fumaroles, one side getting parboiled, the other freezing cold and wet. There they waited out the storm, not standing again for seventeen hours. It was the night from hell.

Unable to sleep, Muir suggested telling stories about bears or wild Indians. Fay wasn’t interested. At one point Fay inquired whether there was any merit in praying. Muir described experiencing a sense of “stupefaction” hallucinating about building a warm fire out of big pine logs. After 13 hours the sky finally cleared and the men could see the Big Dipper. Muir described suffering “violent, convulsive shivering.” Even though the storm had lifted the two were far too cold to move away from the fumaroles. Their clothing was frozen stiff. 

Finally the sun rose and warmed them enough to move down the mountain. The summit had received two feet of new snow, but 5,000 feet below there was only three inches. The base of the mountain had received merely a light shower. The men had survived the storm on Mt. Shasta, and Muir later said the night “seemed all a dream.”

Say what you will about the beautiful mountain that we so endearingly call the Crown of California, but it can be dangerous for even the most experienced mountaineer. Luckily for us, that fateful day on Mount Shasta didn’t cut short the life of a great American – John Muir.

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine

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