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5 Seconds

By Mike Sarmiento ©1996

Note by Tuan.

The group ascended Lower Green Butte ridge, traversed to a lesser known campsite on Avalanche Gulch above the crowds of Helen Lake, and then ascended Upper Casaval ridge. This combination was very enjoyable because of the variety, the views, and the more technical terrain, which is still accessible to beginners, although at the upper limit. The means of descent (through Avalanche Gulch) were as chaotic as I wished: snowboard, downhill skis, randonnee skis, telemark skis, backcountry skis, paragliders, and ... feet ! The terrain above the high camp is not very favorable, so skis are best left there.

When I turned back, it was a very logical decision. I was there to fly. The summit didn't mean much to me (esp. since I've done it before), not enough to suffer from the cold and the wind. The conditions were indeed quite severe, and it is necessary not to underestimate the mountain at this time of the year. I thought that some participants were not well prepared enough, and I hoped that they would follow my exemple. But when I woke up on Monday, I felt a bit sorry for them, because I think that with a different strategy (namely waiting for everyone and staying grouped together to struggle against the wind) we could have all have made it. I also think the dispersion of the group which resulted was not very good. I am very glad that Dave and Will managed to summit in spite of the fact that I initiated the retreat. Two other mistakes of mine were not to check the fit of everyone's crampons, and underestimating the number of stoves necessary for snow melting, esp. since some were cooking, a practice that I don't particularly recommend in the mountains.

Mike makes it sound very scary, but Shasta is not technically that hard. Remember that on the way up we chose a route which is significantly more difficult that the standard one. One the way down, the people who fell did things that they shouldn't be doing in the first place (skiing on exposed terrain without a safety margin with respect to one's abilities, and glissading with crampons on). Please also keep in mind while reading it that the text which follows is a story, before infering anything about the author, or the way mountain should be climbed, from the apparent exhilaration, glorification of danger, and other highly subjective statements that you might find here...

Note by the author: Mountaineering is dangerous. The risk of injury and death can not be eliminated. This is a dramatized short story based upon actual events. The author does not recommend participation in outdoor activities without extensive, gradual, outdoor experience, as well as guidance and instruction from a seasoned mountaineer.

I looked at my watch.

4:30 p.m.

Shit!  I thought.  Running late, as always.

I did one last mental check - did I pack all my gear?  Got my wallet?  Left a
note to my housemates of where I was going and when I'd be back?  

Nahhh.  Forget it.  If I left something, I left something.  I always forget
something anyway.  Why change?

I blew out the door and stuffed all my gear in the back of my car.  I then
raced through SF traffic for the next hour, getting into Berkeley at 5:30

I drove directly to Marmot Mountain Works to rent my crampons and ice axe.
 They guy behind the counter said the expected, "You're boots are too soft
for crampons."

"I know," I told him.  "But, it's only Shasta, and I don't expect to do any
front-point climbing."

"OK," he said, looking at me as if I was a beginner.

Actually, I was, relatively.  Iíve been backpacking for over 15 years, with a
lot of solo trips.  I've summited Mt. Whitney, Matterhorn Peak, Hiram Peak,
and others, but this was my first "real" mountaineering trip.  Shasta is
14,162 feet high, covered in snow, has some of the highest winds, and should
not be taken lightly.  Everything I had done so far didn't require a lot of
mountaineering experience.  I simply hiked up.  This was different.  We were
climbing Shasta at a time when winter mountaineering conditions were not
unheard of.  This was a trip not to taken lightly.

I had actually been having second thoughts about going on this trip. After
all, I was organizing another trip up Shasta in two weeks.  Why do Shasta
twice in May?

I figured it would be good for me to get experience.  Besides, Tuan was
leading this trip, and I was sure I could learn a lot from him, as well as
others who've been mountaineering.  So, against my foreboding feeling that
something might go wrong and that I should stay home, I went.

I paid for my rental gear while the sales guy kept looking at me as if I was
an idiot.  "Damn day hikers," he probably thought.

I just looked past him to the gear behind the counter.  A lot of climbing
gear.  I was salivating like a Pavlovian dog.  Then I noticed the sign behind
on the wall.  It read:

"Climbing and Mountaineering are dangerous.  YOU MAY DIE."

Darn lawyers.  Always trying to limit their liability.  I made a mental note
of the sign and headed out to my car.

I got to the West Circle of Berkeley's campus exactly at 6 p.m.  Madelaine
and Vincent (that's pronounced Vahhn - Saahhnt - you know, with the nasal
French accent) were there waiting.  Mads ran out to my car and jumped on the
hood. I continued to make a U-turn with her smiling face in my windshield.

Everyone else arrived a few minutes later:  Tuan, Matt, Chris, Dave, Ed, and
Will.  We figured out who was driving whom, made plans on where to meet at
Shasta, then went our separate ways.

I headed to REI to buy some food and some more climbing gear.  It was their
anniversary sale.  When I got there, I had to figure out what I thought I
might eat.  Problem was that I didn't know.  So I bought some Stoker Bars,
granola, brownies, one dehydrated dinner, and snack mix.  I hoped this would
be enough for 2 days.

As I walked by the climbing area, I couldn't help notice all the nice
carabiners on sale.  So, I scooped up 16 more.

"That'll be $123," the cashier said.

OUCH!  Well, I put it on my charge card.  There.  I could delay the pain for
30 days.

After a slow bite to eat, Matt, Chris and I headed up hwy 80 for the 5 hour
drive to Shasta.  Average speed:  90 mph.  25 mpg with $1.59/gal gas.  Yikes.

We drove into Shasta City around 12:30 a.m.  Of course, we got a little lost
looking for the hwy leading up to Shasta.  Eventually, we found it.

Tuan was already at the parking lot.  Will arrived a few minutes later.  It
was pretty cold out.  I estimated it was around 35F.  Mads pitched her tent,
I slept in the back of my car, and everyone else bivied.

We woke around 7 a.m. and started fixing breakfast.  Mads took charge of gear

"Did you bring a stove?" she authoritatively asked everyone in her Australian
wrestler accent.  "You've got any pots and pans?"

I showed her my small 1 qt pan with lid.

"That's not going to do us any good!" she exclaimed.  "Well, bring it

"Sorry," I said.  "I was too lazy to wash out my other larger pots from last

"You are as lazy as Tuan!" she said, "Now we don't have enough pots to melt

I headed over to say good morning to Tuan, Vahhn-Saahnt, and Dave.  Tuan
interviewed me on my clothing.

"Wha-what, doo yooo haf to wear?" he said in his weird French-Vietnamese
accent.  I always had a hard time understanding what he said.

"I've got thermal legging underwear, pile pants, and North Face ultrex
pants," I answered.  "Also, polypro top, a pile jacket, a gortex windbreaker,
and a pile Peruvian style hat."

"I-I have a d-down vest you sh-should borrow," he said.  "It will be c-cold
up top."

"Yes," Dave broke in with his English accent, "You'll be fine while we are
walking.  But when we lounge around for dinner and breakfast, you'll need
another layer.  It'll be cold up top."

It'll be cold up top.

Yes.  I guess so.

We all finished packing our gear.  As we looked to the summit of Shasta, we
could see the winds billowing snow plumes and clouds off the top.  If we
could see that from 6800 ft. elevation, then it must have been really windy.

It'll be cold up top.

We decided we would definitely need tents since the winds would make bivying
uncomfortable.  It seemed we were just as short on tents as we were on pots.
This time, I had no excuse.  I simply was too lazy to pack my four season
dome tent.  I figured I'd just bivy it anyway.  As always, I figured wrong.

It'll be cold up top.

Next, we discussed the route we would hike up.  Green Butte Ridge.  Camp
above Helen Lake just above 11,000 ft. elev.  Then on Sunday, we'd hike up
Casaval Ridge to the north of Avalanche Gulch and attempt our summit from

"So,"  I asked Tuan, "How many miles do you think we'll be hiking?"

"Th-thee miles do not concern mee," he answered.  "It is thee elee-vation
gain that wee need to know."

Oh.  I thought.  Damn day hiker mentality.

A ranger stopped by our group and began talking to us.  He made sure to tell
us about the  excrement bags available.

"Please use them," he said.  "Human waste is really a problem up there,
especially at Helen Lake."  Basically, the excrement bags were made of one
large ziploc bag with two smaller paper bags inside them.  You are supposed
to poop into one of the paper bags and carry it down the mountain in the
ziploc.  I was going to have a lot of fun trying to aim into that bag!

We started hiking out around 9 a.m.  It was already really warm, probably 60f
or so.  Luckily, the snow was still hard packed, so it wasn't a problem
hiking with our packs.  Mads, Ed, and Matt x-c skied in.  Chris carried his
snowboard.  Will carried down hill skis.  Tuan and Vahhn-Sahhnt had their
paraglides.  Dave and I had our legs.  It was going to be fun watching
everyone descend.

I was sweating profusely in my clothing.  So I stopped to peel off the
layers, as did everyone else.  

It sure didn't feel as if it'll be cold up top.

Somehow, we lost Vahn-Sahhnt along the way.

"Vahn-Sahhnt!" we all started yelling.  No answer.  We continued to yell his
name for the next half hour.  To no avail.  We lost him.  Or, he lost us.
Probably both.

Finally, we got to a ridge and started yelling "Vahn-Sahhnt!" at the people
we saw climbing up the Avalanche Gulch route.  We saw one lone figure start
hiking up the ridge.  We hoped that was him.  

Ten minutes later, we caught up to the figure.  It was Vahn-Sahhnt.  

We decided to take a quick break and snack up.  The weather was incredible.
Clear skies.  Warm sun.  Very slight breeze.  Hard packed snow.  We couldn't
have asked for better conditions.  I ate my food as I basked in the.  This
was truly living.

We moved on up the ridge.  It seems that on every trip I am on, I always seem
to walk the slowest amongst the group.  Today was no exception.

"No prize for first place," I thought.  "Slow and steady, said the turtle." I
just accepted the fact that, uphill, I was slow.  Even Will, who was carrying
30 more pounds than I because of his downhill skis and boots, was faster.
 Besides, I needed to pace myself to help lessen the chance of getting
symptoms of altitude sickness.

"Drink lots of water" I reminded myself.  "And go slow."  Unfortunately, I
had not slept or eaten very well in preparation for the trip.  So, I knew I
was probably going to feel the effects of high altitude on this trip.  All I
could do was walk slowly.

We made it to another rest stop.  It was probably 65f now and after noon.  We
had hiked up over 1000 ft. and the parking lot looked small from where we
were. I was already feeling the altitude.  I was hungry and tired and out of
breath.  Not a good beginning. 

I checked my water.  Almost all gone.  Shit.

I just told myself I'd make the best of it.

We basked in the sun and made conversation.  We looked over to Helen Lake and
watched a group of 15 or so hikers slowly make their way up Avalanche Gulch.
They then stopped and started to practice self arresting.

Ed and Tuan thought it would be a good idea if we too practiced self
arresting where we were.  There was a slope of 45 degrees next to us, and it
wasn't too far down to the bottom in case we couldn't self arrest.

"OK," Tuan instructed.  "Y-you hold thee top of the head of the axe with
yoour right hand.  And hold the bottom of the shaft with your left.  Thee
pick should be pointing away from youu and thee shaft diagonal acrossss yourr
chesst.  Like thees."  He demonstrated.

"The pozeetion you w-want to be een ees with your face towards thee mountain
and feet down heeel.  And your feet neeeed to be bent away from the snow
because you will have crampons on.  The crampons will not help and will oonly
catch and throw y-yoou off bahlahnce.  When falling, youu drive thee spike
into the snow, and this stops your fall.  Like thees."  Tuan jumped off the
ridge and demonstrated.  He stopped within 10 ft. Good form too.  He climbed
back up.

"Next, eeff you fall face down, you drive thee spike in and your body will
rotate.  You are now in the self arrest pozeetion again.  Like thees."  He
jumped off the ridge again and demonstrated.  He then demonstrated falling
with your back to the mountain and feet downward.  Basically, you always want
to get into the self arrest position with your right shoulder helping to
drive the pick into the snow.

"Thee thing to remember about self arresst ees to bee persistent.  You must
always be committed to stopping your fall.  Otherwise, you will fall a long

"Did you ever have a dangerous fall?" Matt asked Tuan.

"Yess." He answered.  "I stopped my fall about 15 meters from thee edge of a
cliff once."  

Shit.  I thought.  Scary.

"Another theeng to remember is that you only have about 5 seconds to self
arrest," Tuan added.  "Eeet only takes 5 seconds for you to reach maximum
velocity.  After that, eet becomes very, very difficult to stop your fall. So
get into the arrest position as fast as you can."

5 seconds or you're fucked.  I made a mental note.  

Be persistent.  

5 seconds.  

Position as fast as you can.

I hoped I wouldn't have to test this theory.

Ed then demonstrated how to self arrest and added to Tuan's instruction. Mads
practiced next. As I watched, I tried to remember what I had read about self
arrest in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills:

"Self arrest stops a fall by friction of axe and body against snow.  When the
slope is too steep or slippery--"too fast"--even the most skillful technique
won't stop the slide.  Acceleration can be so rapid on hard snow that the
first instant of fall is the whole story.  The climber rockets into the air
and crashes back to the unyielding surface with stunning impact, completely
losing uphill-downhill orientation.

"Even successful arrests require at least a little time, during which the
climber slides some distance.  Therefore, the effectiveness of the self
arrest is limited by the climber's speed of reaction and the steepness and
length of the slope.

"If all initial efforts at self arrest are unsuccessful, don't give up.  Keep

At this point, I remembered the sign at Marmot:  "...Mountaineering is
dangerous.  YOU COULD DIE."

Next it was my turn.  I was pretty nervous.  The snow was soft and forgiving,
but the sharpness of the pick and spike intimidated me.  What if I can't
stop?  What if I impale myself?  What if...

I jumped.  I quickly got myself into the self arrest position and drove the
pick into the snow.  But I kept sliding down.  And down.  And down.  Finally,
I stopped.  It lasted about 4 seconds.

"You need to really drive your shoulder weight into the axe," Ed observed.
"It takes a lot of effort to drive the pick into the snow."

"I'll remember that,"  I said.  I added to my mental notes - 5 seconds.  Be
persistent.  Shoulder weight into the axe.  Mountaineering is dangerous.  I
might DIE.

After we practiced, Matt and Ed decided they would ski down the slope.  I
borrowed Will's downhill skis and followed them.

"Are you any good?" asked Dave.

"I'm O.K., " I answered, trying to be humble.  

"He only thinks he's good" yelled out Madelaine, "He's really terrible!"

"Yeah," I said sarcastically, "I'm not as good as Madelaine!  She's the
best!"  With that I jumped off the cornice.

I caught air then hit snow.  One sloppy turn.  Another, more sloppy turn.
"He's really terrible!" I heard Mads say in my head.


I crashed and burned publicly.

"He sucks." Dave must have thought.

"I suck." I thought.

It was the same down the whole hill.  Two or three turns and I crashed.  So
much for my twelve years of downhill skiing.

Vahn-Sahhnt threw my pack down the hill and I recovered it.  Matt and Ed were
already at the bottom and ready to head up the ridge.  I put on my crampons
at this point because it looked icy on the slope to ridgetop.  I then packed
the skis and boots and my pack and put the backpack on.

Wow!  I thought.  This is REALLY heavy.

I worked up the slope towards the summit, very, very slowly.  I couldn't
catch my breath enough and had to keep stopping.  Boy, this altitude was
really kicking my butt.  I sucked.  

None of my routine exercising seemed to help prepare me here.  Not my daily
bike rides to work.  Not the rock climbing conditioning.  Not the evening
walks after dinner.  Nothing.

After what seemed like hours, I made it to the ridge top where everyone else
had hike to.  Tuan, Vahn-Sahhnt, and Will were still waiting for me. 

"You don't neeed your crampons here," commented Tuan.

He was right.  The snow was soft and I had just been walking with extra
weight on my feet for the past 3/4 mile.  No wonder I felt like shit.

"How are you doing?" Tuan asked.

"I'm O.K.," I said.  I ignored my shortness of breath.  I ignored my hunger.
 I ignored my thirst.  I ignored my body telling my how miserable I felt and
that I should just turn back.  I and my ego had lied.

"Was it worth it?" asked Will regarding my short ski run and long hike back.

"I'm still deciding," I answered.  "At least I got an idea of how heavy it is
to carry skis up.  Maybe I won't do it when I return two weeks from now.
Well, maybe I will."

I gave him his gear back and sat down to rest.  I drank the last of my water
and ate a small snack.  I realized then that I probably did not bring enough
food for the whole trip.  And what I did bring wouldn't give me enough energy
to summit.  I sucked.

As Will packed, I looked over the mountain vista and took in the incredible
sights.  It felt good to be alive, and even better to be alive up here.

No other place I'd rather be than right here, right now, I thought.  

In that moment, I forgot about my shortness of breath.  I forgot about my
aching muscles.  I forgot about my hunger and thirst.  I forgot that I
sucked.  All I could remember was this moment.  This feeling.  This


This is what mountaineering, to me, was all about.  Just me and the mountain.
Simple. Beautiful.  Fulfilling.

The wind was starting to blow harder now, and clouds started to move in. Just
like that, the temperature went from a balmy 60f to just above 32f.  We put
on colder weather clothing and moved on.

Again, I was very slow hiking up.  When I reached the next rest point, Tuan
again asked me how I was doing.

"O.K., " I lied again.  "Kind of thirsty though."  That was an

I could tell that Tuan was probably getting concerned about my slowness up
the mountain.  It could be a sign that maybe I wasn't really up to
mountaineering in these conditions.  This was hard work.  I'd already
forgotten about the "moment" I had earlier.  Right now, I was suffering.

Everyone put on their crampons and more cold weather clothing.

It was definitely cold up top.  And we still had about 1500 feet to climb.
Shit.  I didn't know if I was going to make it.

Tuan showed everyone how to walk in crampons.

"You need to try to puut all points flat into the snow," he instructed.  "Doo
not roll on your heeels.  Flat.  All points in contact."  He demonstrated and
started walking like a duck.

Quack. Quack.

"To go down, bend your knees, like thees."

Quack. Quack.

"To go up, cross foot over foot, and step flat against the slope, like

He moved sideways up the hill like a crab.

Everyone who needed to practiced.  I was busy taking my boots off.  My feet
felt frozen.  I had sweated so much earlier that I soaked my feet.  Up here
in the colder climate, that was bad.  I tried to dry my feet and pulled off
all my socks.

"That looks really cold," Matt said when he saw my exposed feet.

"I can't feel a thing right now, " I told him.  "My feet are frozen."  I
hoped this wasn't the beginning of frost bite.

I grabbed another pair of dry, wool socks out of my pack and changed them for
the wet ones.  Hopefully, this would keep me from getting frostbit.  I hoped.

When I was done, I put my crampons back on, then Tuan showed me how to walk
with them on.  It was not easy.  The angle you have to put your feet really
requires a lot of ankle support.  My calves were getting a workout, as well
as the rest of my legs and feet.

"Your boots aren't stiff enough for crampons," the guy at Marmot had told me,
yet I ignored him.  Now,  I was paying for my ignorance.

We move on, and Tuan was ahead of me about 10-20 feet.  He stopped
occasionally til I caught up.  I could tell he wanted to make sure I was
doing O.K..  Thank god.  This was hard work.  I sucked.

We climbed on and on and on.  I tried to breathe, but could not get enough
oxygen.  I felt like I was dying.  Every step I took, I felt the blood
pounding in my head.  I could actually hear, very loudly, every pulse.  When
it got too loud, I stopped to catch my breath.  I tried to mentally fight my

I thought of my favorite poem, but couldn't remember anything beyond the
first stanza.  I hummed my favorite song, but got sick of it quickly.  I
tried to think pleasant thoughts, but couldn't get past my aches and pains.

I tried to meditate.  Ohmmmmm.  Be at one with the rocks, snow, and mountain.
Give and receive energy from the life around me.  Ohmmmm.  It worked a

I started counting.  One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.  Stop.  Breath. Breath.
 Actually, pant.  Pant.  Pant.

A few more steps.  One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.  Stop.  Pant.  Pant.

This went on and on.  Occasionally I would look up to see how far behind I
had fallen.  I was really falling behind.  Tuan had caught up to everyone
else and passed them.  I was still panting.  My ankles hurt from the angle of
my steps.  My mouth was parched from thirst.  My head was pounding from the
lack of oxygen I was used to at sea level.  I just wanted to lie down and

So that's what I did, against all I knew and read about mountaineering. Don't
lie down and sleep.  You may never wake up.

I took quick naps.  Then moved forward.  One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.
Stop.  Pant.  Pant.  Pant.  Lie down.  Rest.  

One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.  Stop.  Pant.  Pant.  Pant.  Lie down. Rest.

Somehow, in the middle of my suffering, I noticed something interesting. 


There were tiny little insects walking on the snow.  They looked like tiny
gnats.  Every stop I now took, I made sure not to step on any insects.  I sat
down and watched one walk down hill very slowly.  It was as if the cold was
slowing down what would otherwise be a fast moving insect.  Fascinating.

Life at this extreme cold.  At this altitude.

Simple.  Beautiful.  Fulfilling.

My steps seemed lighter now.  My breath a little deeper.  Life was up here.

I carried on.  And on.  And on.  I stopped every now and then to check out
the insects.  They were everywhere, but easily missed.  I wondered if anyone
else in our climbing party had noticed them.  Probably not.  This would be my
little secret for now.

After what seemed like forever, I made it to base camp.  Everyone cheered
when I made it up.  I guess they thought I wouldn't make it.  Hell, I thought
I wouldn't make it.

Vahn-Sahhnt walked down to me and offered to carry my pack for the last 50
ft.  My pride kicked in and I refused.  I sucked, but I wasn't a wimp.

We were above Helen Lake by about 1000 ft. or so.  That would put us above
11,000 ft elevation.  Previous climbing parties had already made snow walls
for us, so we set up tents behind them.  The stoves were fired up and we were
melting snow.  I grabbed a jug and drank slowly.  


Nothing like the taste of burnt snow.  Yes.  You can actually burn snow.

We fixed dinner and melted snow and talked.  I again started to have a
"moment".  This companionship was also what mountaineering was about. Simple.
 Forgotten.  But necessary for me to feel alive.

"Wow!" exclaimed Ed.  "Check out the alpen glow!"  

We all looked east towards one of the ridges.  The sun was just setting and
casting incredible hues on the mountain.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Incredible.

For all my earlier suffering, for all this hardship, I got to see one of the
most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, in company I was glad to be with.

"This is what it's all about, " I exclaimed with a grin from ear to ear.  But
I don't think anyone understood what I was talking about.  "This is great!"

Once the sun set, the wind picked up and the temp dropped below zero.  

Yes.  It was cold up top.  Colder than I had expected.  I was very glad Tuan
lent me his down vest.  Otherwise, I would be freezing.

"Life in the mountains is hard," commented Tuan.  "This is why I prefer to
stay in huts."

I agreed.  It was very, very cold.  The wind blasted your skin at every
chance it had.  The melted snow tasted burnt.  Not a whole lot of luxury up

Life in the mountains is hard.

We went to bed around 9:30 p.m. and agreed to get up at 6 a.m. for an early
morning summit attempt.  Dave stayed outside to melt more snow and fill our
water bottles.  Matt and Mads melted snow in the comfort of their respective
vestibules.  A simple luxury up here.

I slept fairly soundly.  The wind would wake me up every now and then.  My
head was still pounding from the altitude and dehydration.  But, I felt
somewhat rested when I woke at 5:30 a.m.  My head still ached.  I was really
worried that the altitude was going to prevent me from summiting.  I felt
like shit.  I told Dave this.

"You'll feel better after walking around a little," Dave told me inside the
tent.  "Just drink a little water."

I hoped he was right.  I didn't want to come all this way and not even be
able to make a summit attempt.

I put on my clothing and stepped outside the tent.

SLAM!  The cold hit me.  It was FREEZING up here.  The wind didn't help.  I
told myself to keep moving around to stay warm.  My feet were already cold
from my frozen boots.

We made breakfast and melted snow.  Around 7:30 a.m., we began the ascent up
the ridge north of Avalanche Gulch.  It was about 1000 ft to the top of it,
with a steep slope up top.

Dave was right.  All I needed to do was drink and move around.  My pack was a
lot lighter this morning without all my gear.  I felt a lot stronger today. I
still forced myself to go slow so as to not fatigue before the summit.

I got into a good rhythm and climbing seemed easy after that.  What a wonder
acclimatization can do over night.  We all got to the top of the ridge O.K..
Chris was having a little trouble with his crampons.  One was not sized
correctly to his boot, so he taped it on.

We move on to the next ridge.  It got a little scarier as the slope got
steeper.  I had to front point with my crampons on a small section, even
though I told the guy at Marmot that I expected that I wasn't going to do any
front pointing.  No wonder he looked at me as if I was an idiot.  I was.

As we sat around resting, Madelaine told Tuan, "This is getting really scary.
That last section wasn't very fun for me.  We're not going to come down this
way are we?"

"No.''  Tuan answered.  "I recommend going down Avalanche Gulch.  It's

Madelaine was right.  This was not easy going, and the steep parts were
scary, especially for beginners like Mads and I.  Luckily, no one had fallen,
so far.

We move forward towards the next resting point.  I was starting to fall
behind now.  My stomach was yearning for food.  My legs were shaking from
glucose depravation.  I knew I hadn't brought enough food for energy.  Now, I
was starting to pay for it.

I sat down to grab a bite to eat and drink.

"Mike!" yelled Dave from above, "Are you OK?"

"Yeah!"  I yelled up.  "Just getting a drink."

"Well," he answered, "Don't stop and rest.  You gotta keep moving!"

Shit!   I thought.  What a slave driver.  He was probably right though.  I
needed to keep moving.  I took a swig of water and ignored eating.  I moved
on. Slowly.

My legs felt really weak now.  I was definitely weak from hunger.  Somehow, I
made it up to the next rest point.  Tuan asked how I was doing.

"HUNGRY!" I said, finally not lying about my condition.

I sat down and took out a granola bar.  It tasted so good.  I drank.  I ate.
I felt much better now.  We move on up to the next ridge.  Tuan thought we
had less than 1000 more feet to the summit.  Almost there, I thought.

Even though I felt better, I still was slow.  Maybe it was the altitude.
Maybe I was just out of shape.  Maybe it was because I didn't poop that
morning, and every step reminded me that I needed to go.  Badly.  Yikes.

When I got to the next ridge, I was happy.  I could see the summit.  It was
probably another 800 ft to the top.  By this time, I really couldn't hold it
anymore.  I told Will to go on ahead and that I'd catch up to him.

I pulled out the excrement bag and read the directions.  It was simple
actually.  Just poop into the brown paper bag that had kitty litter inside

Well, at 13,000 plus feet and the wind blowing at 30 m.p.h. and the temp
still hovering around zero, this is easier said than done.  Plus, I had all
this cold weather gear around my ankles, and the wind was battering my
exposed parts.  I had to laugh.  Never took a shit at 13,000 feet before.

I aimed and let loose.  My aim sucks.  I had a lot of cleaning up to do.
Luckily, snow makes for great cleaning.  But now my hands were freezing, not
to mention stinky.  Yikes.  I better wash em before my next meal.

As I was doing my business, another hiker came up the ridge.  He looked over
at me.  I waved.  So much for my private bathroom. 

I finished up and zipped.  Wow.  Much better.  I felt 2 pounds lighter. Well.
 Maybe because I was.

As I was preparing to move on, I accidentally dropped a granola bar onto the
snow.  It started to slide down the slope.  I chased after it, but it
accelerated quickly.

5 seconds.  

It was at maximum velocity and flying off the mountain.  Amazing how gravity
worked.  Actually, kind of scary.  

I made a mental note.  

5 seconds.

I made it to the next ridge just as Tuan and Vahn-Sahhnt were coming back up
it.  They had turned around and decided not to summit.

"It is very windy," Vahn-Sahhnt told me.

Yes.  It was very windy.  Maybe 50 m.p.h. winds up here, probably faster up

"Dave is summitting.  Madelaine, Matt and Ed have turned back.  We are going
back too." He yelled through the wind.  "Are you going to summit?'

"Yeah!"  I yelled.  "I feel O.K.."

"Well, do it quickly."

With that, I said good-bye and headed down the slope towards Misery Hill, the
last approach before the summit at 14,065 ft. Almost there.

The wind picked up.  It kept throwing me off balance.  I kept falling down
and had to self belay a few times.  

This is ridiculous, I thought.  I'm low on food, low on water, the wind is
kicking my butt.  This is no longer fun, and probably not even safe for me. I
was basically alone.  If I fell, no one would know.  Will and Dave were ahead
of me, but probably didn't know where I was.

I made the decision to turn back.  It just wasn't worth it anymore.  Besides,
I'd be back in two weeks anyway.

I kept yelling up to Will to tell him I was turning back.  But the wind was
howling and drowning me out.  Finally, it subsided for a second, and I yelled
at the top of my lungs.

He noticed and turned around.  I motioned that I was heading down.  Will
acknowledged my signal and continued up.  I turned around and began the walk
down towards Red Banks and Avalanche Gulch.

I was alone now.  I didn't know the route down.  But, I figured I'd just
follow the others coming off the summit.

The wind was really picking up.  I got slammed against the hard pack snow
twice, and lost balance every time the gust blew.  I was glad I made the
decision to turn back,

There was a guy in a bright yellow North Face jacket heading down about 150
ft. ahead of me.  I decided to follow him.  He had a nice steady pace that
accommodated mine.

Remember, I told myself, be careful on the descent.  Don't let your guard
down.  This is when most people fall.

Some sections were hairy, especially Red Banks.  Really hard packed snow,
almost ice.  The wind didn't help.  I made sure to slam my crampons into the
pack and planted my ice axe before each step.  

Quack, quack.

Very slow.  Very methodical.  Effective.  And safe, relatively.

I made it safely past Red Banks and was about halfway down to base camp now.
 We had really climbed a lot higher than I thought.  I could see Madelaine
and Ed just reaching camp.  It looked as if they were at east 1200 ft below
me, about 2/3 mile down the slope.

I decided that I wanted to try my hand at glissading down the mountain.
Basically, you just slide down on your butt.  I put my pack between my legs,
and started sliding.  Some parts were too icy, so I walked these.  Others had
soft snow, so I glissaded.

I was now about 500 ft in elevation or so above camp, but still a good
walking distance away.  I waited for a group to move out of my fall line. One
guy told me to just go ahead and he waited for me to pass him.

As I passed, he commented, "You know, it's a lot easier to glissade without
your crampons."

He's right, I thought.  I should take off my cram...p...o........

Before I finished this thought, my left crampon caught on the snow.  As I was
already sliding down, this instantly threw me to my right.  I started to
tumble sideways.

One-one thousand.

Wow.  I was really starting to move.  I tried to get myself into self-arrest
position, but I was bouncing like a ball on the hard packed snow.

Two-one thousand.

I was still tumbling sideways.  I concentrated on my ice axe and tried to
prevent impaling myself on it.  I struggled to get into the self-arrest

Three-one thousand.

Four-one thousand.

Five seconds.

I was fucked.

Six-one thousand.

Finally.  I stopped my tumbling and got into the self-arrest.  I drove the
spike into the hardpacked snow.

A lot of snow and ice started flying into my face.  I dug in harder. Nothing.

Maximum velocity.

Ten-one thousand.

I pushed harder.  Nothing.

Shit!  I thought.  I'm not stopping!

My crampon caught again, and I started to tumble sideways.

Fifteen-one thousand.

I pulled myself back into self arrest and drove the pick into the snow.  I
was starting to panic now.  What if I don't stop?  Shit.  I was really

Maximum velocity.  

Dig hard... dig harder...

Twenty-one thousand.

Dig harder... d...i...g...

My crampon caught again and threw me into a tumble.  I was now bouncing off
the slope pretty violently.  I did everything I could to keep from stabbing
myself with the ice axe.

I ended up facing downhill on my stomach.  I was headed right towards a group
of 4 climbers.

"AAAAHHHH!" I yelled in panic.  "WATCH OUTTTTTT!"

They ran out of the way.  I missed one by about 5 feet.

I now had a view of where I was headed at maximum velocity.

5 seconds seemed like an eternity ago.  I was fucked.

Two attempts at self arrest, and still I was flying.

My friends and family always worried about me and my outdoor activities. This
is exactly what they feared.  I always played it off by joking that I
expected to die in the mountains.  

"It comes with the territory,"  I would tell them.  "Everybody dies, but not
everybody lives."  For me, this was living.

But right now, at this instant, I was scared.  Scared more than I had ever
been in my life. I've had bear encounters, been hit by a drunk driver, been
medically evacuated from Africa, and worse.  But I never felt scared like

I saw where the mountain slope ended and finally leveled off.  Down at Helen
Lake.  About 1200 elevation feet below, and another 1/4 mile down.


This is it.

I'm going to die.

I yelled out one last gasp to those who would listen.  Frustrated that at my
first serious mountaineering attempt, I would make my last.


I'm going to die.

I'm going to die.

I don't know how.  I don't know when.  I don't know why.  But, just like
Obi-Wan Kenobe telling Luke Skywalker to, "Use the force, Luke, use the
force", I heard Tuan's voice telling me,

"The thing about self arrest is that you have to be persistent."

Thirty-one thousand.

Be persistent.

I dug the spike downhill ahead of me and immediately spun around into self
arrest position.  I dug in.

I prayed a little.

I dug in some more.


I still wasn't slowing down at all...


I came to a dead stop.

"Oh!"  I thought.  "Thank GOD!"  Suddenly, I became a believer.

Wow!  was my next thought.  What a ride!  I can't believe I'm alive.

The fear and adrenaline was high in my body, and I felt incredible.  Not that
I would want to do that again, but the feeling of being alive - surviving -
was something I never experienced before.  Rock climbing couldn't do that for
me.  Only a brush with death.  For thirty seconds.

I yelled out, "YEAAAAAAH!" in celebration of life.

Another climber 100 ft above me yelled down,

"Hey man, are you all right?"

"Yes!" I yelled back.  "I think I'm O.K.."

"Wow man, " he yelled back.  "That....was...AWESOME dude!  You want me to
come down and check you out?"

"Yeah," I said. "That'd be cool."

I remembered my first aid training and did a quick self assessment.  My face
was burning from ice burn at maximum velocity.  I felt wetness on my face.  I
took off my sunglasses and found a pool of blood in the right lens.


I was bleeding all over the place.  My right eye was swollen and vision a
little impaired.  Other than that, I seemed fine.  No broken bones.  No
impalements with the ice axe.  Just a cut above my right eye that was
bleeding profusely. My right ear was sore too.

"Hey." They guy made it down to where I was.  "You O.K.?"


"I'm Ben.  What's you're name?"


"Do you remember what happened?"

"Yeah.  I fell a lo-o-ong way."

"Yeah dude!  But you seem all right.  Anything broken?"

"No.  But I'm cut."

"Shit dude!  Yeah, you're bleeding.  I think you'll need stitches.  Who are
you climbing with?"

"My camp is over ...." I looked around, trying to see where camp was.  I
couldn't see it.  Geez.  I had fallen to below the camp.  That meant I fell
for about 600 vertical feet.  I was lucky to be alive.

"My camp is over there, up the hill."

"O.K..  I'll walk you back to camp.  Slowly.  O.K.?"


We walked back.  I couldn't wait to get to camp to see if anyone had seen my
epic fall.

"Anyone home?"  I asked.

"Is that Mike?"  yelled Madelaine.

"Yeah, " I responded.  "Did you guys see me?  I just took an epic fall!"

"No," they answered.  "Are you O.K.?"

"Pretty much.  I'm cut though.  Need some first aid."

Madelaine and Ed popped out of the tent.

"He's coherent, " said Ben.  "I think he's all right."

I thanked Ben and he walked above camp to get ready to snowboard down.

"No problem dude." he said.

Madelaine came over and took a look at me. 

"Whoa!  You're really cut.  I think you'll need stitches."

Madelaine administered first aid then moved me into the tent.  Inside, I did
a more thorough self assessment.  I took off my right glove to reveal
superficial wounds on my hand and wrist.  It was pretty bloody.

I took off my shirt and looked at my right elbow.  I had two circular
puncture wounds just above the elbow.  It looked like someone had taken a
spoon 3/8" big and scooped out my flesh 1/4" deep.  I could see my muscle, as
well as the fat below the skin.  A lot of blood and meat.  This was
fascinating to me. My chest had a 5 inch diagonal laceration.  Other than
that, I was relatively unscathed.

Madelaine dressed my wounds and told me to eat, drink, and rest.

She started making conversation with Ben.

"How far did he slide?"  she asked.

"Fifty yards." He said.  "Maybe more.  Whatever he fell, he scared the SHIT
out of me!"

"I scared the SHIT out of me even more!" I yelled back.  Guess my sense of
humor wasn't injured in the slide.  "Did you hear me yelling for everyone to
get out of the way?"

"Yeah," Ben said.  "Did you hear me cheering you on?"


"I was yelling, 'Do it Man!  Do it!'  And you did it man!  You just had to
keep on trying.  I guess you hit a soft patch of snow.  Just enough to stop
you.  Otherwise, you had a long way to drop.  Lucky dude.  Lucky."

"Yeah."   I thought.  Lucky.

"You need to get off this mountain and get stitches." Madelaine said.

I packed up my gear and headed down the mountain.  Alone.  I seemed all
right.  I couldn't believe I was alive.

It's good to be alive, I thought.

I made it off the mountain in about 2 hours.  I even glissaded down a few
sections, this time without my crampons.  Guess I didn't learn my lesson the
first time.  Yes.  I'm an idiot.

When I got to the parking lot, Chris, Tuan, and Vahn-Sahhnt were there. Chris
told them I was injured.  I related my story.  Then I told them how Will also
took a fall while skiing down the same face I fell down.  Later, I learned
that on the way down, almost everyone else took a fall, but not as bad as

"Geez." Tuan said.  "You guys are really dangerous."

Tuan is the guy who solo'd Denali.  Who first ascended The Theft in BC.  Who
normally does things that most people think are crazy.  No.  Psycho.

And he was telling me I was dangerous.

Well.  Maybe to myself.

Tuan then took photos of my injuries.  Now my fall was documented and will
show up at the next Chaos slide show.  Cool.

Everyone made it down the mountain O.K..  I hurried up and packed my car.  I
needed to get to the ER room soon to get stitches.  Turned out I needed
eleven of them - 4 in my eye, 4 in the upper puncture wound, and 3 in the
lower puncture wound.  The doctor who treated me was also a mountaineer.  She
said I was very lucky.  

"On a fall like yours, I've seen people in here who have impaled themselves
with the ice axe.  Lose eyes.  Break bones.  Serious head injuries.  You were
lucky.  I'm amazed you were able to stop your fall at all, let alone walk
away with as few injuries as what you have."

Yes.  Lucky.

I said good-bye to Tuan, Vahn-Sahhnt, Will, Madelaine, Dave, and Ed.  Matt
and Chris and I drove off.

I took one last look at Shasta.

"You kicked my ass this time," I thought.

"But I'll be back."

"I'll be back."

I'm still alive...and ready to live.


Two weeks later, I aborted my return to Shasta because of foul weather.
 Instead, I climbed 11,000 ft. Mt. Lassen 60 miles south of Shasta, thinking
that the weather would be better.  It wasn't.  I had to endure one of the
worst snow storms I've ever encountered outdoors.  When I woke after the
storm cleared, about 2 feet of fresh powder had fallen on us.  It was
incredible powder skiing on the way down, but this is another story. . .

A return to Shasta trip is planned in June.  This time, I'll summit and get
back safely.  The adventure continues . . .

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