“These things gotta happen every five years or so… ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one” –Peter Clemenza, 1946
Clemenza was right- it does have to happen every five or ten years; though he might have been talking about something else- I can’t remember.
At any rate, though, it’s actually only been five years since the last one; but whatever, I’ll allow it. I mean, what are you gonna argue with the Don’s right hand?
Five Years Gone
This Saturday, June 13, 2015, will be the five year anniversary of the day I broke my leg high on the upper slopes of Mount Shasta. I have been meaning, and promising, to give this story a proper telling ever since that day; and this occasion seems so apt a time to do it that I don’t think I could justifiably continue to claim any actual intent to tell this story were I to pass on this opportunity.
My relationship with Mount Shasta, the 14,179-foot premier pig of Northern California, has been a complicated one.
Just as with any long-term relationship, there’s always been a lot of love, and mutual respect; but at the same time, the shit has gotten adversarial and contentious at times, too. You know how that goes- sometimes things get said, things that can’t be unsaid. But you pick up and you get on with it. That’s all you can do. Come on- you know how it is.
In The Beginning
In the 18 years since the mountain first got on my radar (a childhood spent viewing the mountain’s outline emblazoned on the cans of a Triple-A soda franchise does not count), we have tangled more than a few times. More often than not it’s been no more than a relatively benign case of me camping somewhere on the lower flanks of the beast; or photographing it from some distant valley; or espying it across fifty miles of hazy, smoky atmosphere, from the summit of some far-off peak; or trying to sneak up on it from its back side via some or another rugged wilderness trail; or even just trying to slip by unnoticed, as I pass quietly beneath its westernmost feet on the I-5 freeway, bound for the Pacific Northwest. But on more than a couple of occasions, I have perceived my balls to have grown so large that a direct assault on Shasta’s lofty summit seemed an appropriate way to throw down.
Man vs. Mountain
Although climbing Mount Shasta is technically technical, depending on the route you choose, the degree of technical climbing required can be minimal. In fact, you can make it to the summit even if you’ve never before set foot in a pair of crampons, or wielded an ice axe. A fairly basic tutorial, wherein you learn proper techniques for stepping, moving across steep slopes of frozen snow and ice, maintaining weight balance, ascending, and descending, can furnish you with the basic skills necessary to attempt a few of Shasta’s least-demanding ascent routes. And not only does just such a tutorial come free with your climbing permit, but you’re actually required to withstand the spiel- even if you think you don’t need it.
But either way, to some folks’ way of thinking, the mountain simply demands that you climb it. Never mind what you want.
We built a killer campsite on the edge of a high cliff, overlooking Slides Creek Canyon and its descending chain of waterfall-fed meadows.
Dinner went slightly awry when Peanut seized a perfectly-cooked Italian sausage off of my plate as I was reaching for the mustard; but I still love him. After all, it’s cut-throat out there, we all know this. Survival of the fittest. Living off the land and all that.
In the Morning, Feeling Half-Right
Drank too much whiskey and wine last night. We all did. Nothing for it but to walk it off, right?
So after forcing down some strawberry Pop-Tarts, and the squished, bruised, and oozing remains of the bananas we had jammed, against their will, into our bear cans yesterday, we took a nice long hike out to to some peaks, lakes, and meadows. At Long Lake, the Pean and I set off on our own, dropping down a steep and trail-less crumbling cliff-face, riding the scree as if we were shredding a nauseatingly-angled double-diamond snow slope. We etched a slanting, zig-zagging path down the mountainside, triggering mini-avalanches that rained down rocks and boulders onto the grassy saddle below us as we went. I made sure to keep Peanut above and behind me, so I didn’t crush him with any of the debris loosed by my body weight; and he acquiesced to the directive, skidding along in my wake. When we finally reached the bottom, we ran across a huge green meadow and slaked our thirst and cooled our bodies beneath a waterfall which poured off the lip of the cliff above like fruit punch from a ladle.
Elegance, function, style. It’s all there in the Yolla Bolly.
I See Dead Trails
I needed the very best of my route-finding skills to find the faded and disused remnant of the Burnt Camp Trail, which once upon a time had confidently led the way out of the meadow and back up the mountain toward our campsite, but at this point clearly had not been maintained in decades. It was nearly impossible to find the track of the trail; but by summoning my inner Crazy Horse and carefully scrutinizing the lay of the land, the distribution of leaves and sticks across the forest floor, and the subtle breaks in the trees and shrubbery, I eventually managed to start tracing the ghost of the old path up the dry and dusty ridge. After 45 minutes of chipping our way uphill with the pitiless sun on our backs, we emerged back onto a familiar trail: the ridge trail we had hiked in on yesterday. Across sinking slopes peppered with the fire-ravaged skeletons of white pine and fir trees I could see my yellow tent, Shane’s red Irish soccer shirt, and Abs’ ever-present royal blue Indianapolis Colts shirt, all perched on a high rocky outcrop overlooking the deep valley we had just hiked through . We headed that way.
Hell in a Hand-Basket
Returning to camp from our sweltering hike to find Shane and Abs relaxing in the late-afternoon breeze, I grabbed the whiskey and settled in to a nice long intellectual diatribe with the boys on the state of politics and world affairs. Sometimes the world of man can creep in a little bit even when you’re well outside of its direct influence.
After the collective, three-way rant was over (Peanut, more well-versed than the rest of us in matters of social grace, knew better than to engage in a political chat among friends), we finished off the burritos we’d picked up yesterday in the Sacramento Valley, then spent another gorgeous, balmy night sitting around the campfire, looking out over the lower canyons at the twinkling city lights of Redding, out in the Sacramento Valley, and the peaks of Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta in the far distance. I slept like a bag of bricks in free-fall.
Ridging Our Bets
Next day we packed up camp, hiked back out to the trail-head, and parted ways with the fellas. They were headed home to the Bay Area; but the Pean and I decided to stick around the trail-head to climb South Yolla Bolly Mountain (Mt. Linn), the highest point in the wilderness.
It was hot and exposed for the first part of the climb; and Peanut bitched and moaned accordingly, protesting by beaching himself in the shade of any tree we came within 50 feet of; but he was jacked and re-invigorated once we had gained the ridge and come into the path of the breeze blowing up from the lower flanks of the mountain.
We made the 1,500-foot, two mile ascent to the peak in just 55 minutes, and then spent a little while taking in the whole of the Yolla Bolly Wilderness and beyond from on high, gazing out at the hazy Sacramento Valley to the east, the numerous jagged ridges of the Mendocino National Forest to the south, the North Coastal Range to the west, the distant peaks of the North Yolla Bolly Range and the Trinity Alps far to the north, and our little campsite on a cliff far below our feet, before running back down the spine of the mountain (20 minutes) and setting off on the next leg of our Mendocino adventure.
Mount Shasta, far and away Northern California’s dominant peak, rising two vertical miles above its surrounding landscape, is by any metric a serious mountain, 14,000 feet of rock and ice (oh, and on the inside: lava).
People really die up there (though in fairness, it hasn’t been lava’s fault for at least a quarter of a millenium- probably longer).
I decided to see the month of May in by getting way off the grid for a few days. So I did the only thing I know how to do in that situation: I excused myself from my Friday morning Philosophy class, threw my dog Peanut in the car, along with most of my camping gear, cruised across town to pick up my friend Shane, and hit the highway, all by 10:30 AM. We linked up with Abs in Suisun City, and with that- instant caravan! We stocked up on food and booze at the Safeway in Vacaville, and then pointed our motorcade north towards the Upper Sacramento Valley, bound for the lonely vastitudes of the Mendocino National Forest, specifically that exceedingly rugged, and little-used, subset of the forest known as the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness, a.k.a. Bigfoot Country (but if that’s all you’re here for, I’ll save you the suspense right now- we never saw him).
Our last outpost of quasi-civilization, as well as the end of the paved part of our journey, was Paskenta, a map-blip of a village about 35 miles southwest of the town of Red Bluff. As we left Paskenta, we immediately began to climb steeply up into the Mendo National Forest on Forest Road M2, which was at first a good dirt road, but soon became a total pain in the ass.
Ruts Never Sleep
About 15 or so miles in, a series of runoff channels, cut diagonally across the road and each about 4-6 inches deep, the breadth of a truck tire, and with raised banks on both sides, started appearing at maddeningly-short intervals, requiring near-constant stopping. Hazardous to pass over at anything faster than 2 or 3 mph, these cumbersome ruts would require you to slow down and cross at an angle, causing the vehicle to rock and jar back and forth as each wheel crossed the threshold at a different time. In this way, a good 8-10-mile stretch of the road became a time-sucking trial of patience and restraint that took almost an hour to drive. The situation called for ice cold beer.
And fortunately, we were holding.
Eventually the runoff channels began to abate, and after an interval they vanished altogether; and from that point on we were able to resume making reasonably good time to the trailhead, which was only another few miles anyway.
Oh, you had heard of them, vaguely? Yeah, me too; but for some reason I never looked into renting one of them, even though I’ve been living 20 miles away for the past 18 years.
Then a few weeks ago my friend Stu called me up and said he had rented one of these very cabins for an upcoming Monday night, and did I want to go up there with him to drink some beers, listen to the waves, and play some Dead tunes on guitar (not necessarily in that order). What was there to say no to?
We left the city in the late afternoon, and stopped for a few basic supplies at the Safeway in Mill Valley; and there I made the tragic mistake of leaving Stu to do most of the shopping, while I took care of some other pressing business.
Here’s the thing with Stu- left to his own devices, he will purchase $100 worth of groceries for a 12-hour trip; and this is exactly what he did. I came out of the bathroom to find, in our cart, two half- sticks of butter, a full-size carton of milk, a large bottle of orange juice, a package of cookie dough, a package of cocoa, two boxes of Annie’s Mac & Cheese, a 12-pack of Great White Ale, a 32-oz tub of yogurt, a package of granola, a pack of blueberries, 4 bananas, two oranges, a bag of chips, and a tub of hummus. And a roast chicken! All this for one night. And there’s probably even some stuff I neglected to mention.
If I had done the shopping, we would have left the Safeway with a 12-pack and a bag of ice. But hey- Stu was just looking out for us. Good on’im.
Before dinner we took a pleasant little stroll along the beach and the bluffs, admiring the ocean’s handiwork and trying not to drop our beers as we scaled the crumbling cliffs and probed the driftwood sculptures peppering the beach- a tee-pee and some wind shelters .
Needless to say, we did not go hungry that night.
After dinner, we fired up the wood stove- you know, to keep the demons of the night at bay. Then we settled in to play some music for a few hours.
Starting at around 11:30 PM, we kept saying we were about to go to bed; but for some reason it kept not happening. Funny how it always seems to go that way when beer and its companion vices are involved.
Satan came knocking for our souls sometime around 2:30 AM; and the only way to protect ourselves was to kill the lights and pretend we were asleep; but he continued to sniff around the windows for so long that we got sleepy and started to drift off. So much for friends of the devil.
Fuck it, though- we were out of beer anyway.
The most painful part of the whole proceedings was that we had to get up at 6 AM, so we could leave at 7 to get Stu to work in the city by 8. I had been planning to give him my car and ride my bike back to the city; but I was hungover, under-rested, and anyway it was foggy and damp out; so I aborted that plan.
But many good times must be paid for on the back end, with periods of exhaustion and stomach discomfort- this is just par for the course. Everyone involved knows the rules, everyone knows what’s at stake. It’s kinda like the mafia, but without all that pesky murder, betrayal, and bad-assery.
No remorse, no repent.
The Steep Ravine Cabins and Campground (that’s right, there are campsites too, some of them killer) are located on the west side of Highway 1, about two and a half miles south of Stinson Beach, and 25 miles north of San Francisco (plan for an hour’s drive under normal traffic conditions).
As of a few weeks ago, the cabins cost $108 per night, and sleep anywhere from 6 to however many people you can cram onto the floor (though they might technically have occupancy limits, for all I know). Each cabin has an ocean view, comes with a wood-burning stove, a large oaken kitchen table, and a charcoal grill (outside). The “beds” are just horizontal wooden spaces, so bring sleeping mats, bags, and pillows. No electricity, so bring lanterns or headlamps.
The cabins can be seen on Google Maps here, and they can be reserved here. Be advised, however, that they are very popular, and reserving them is a cut-throat business that requires a certain fortitude and determination which Stu possesses, and I do not. But I have other strengths.
If you want to walk in our footsteps, reserve Cabin #5 (Willow Camp)
But more than anything else, what this early peaking of the waterfalls portends is that a pretty dry summer in the high-country is in the offing.
Sure, the Mist Trail is all jammed up with day-hikers soaking up the sprinkles and slipping their way up the stone stairs; but the smart money says that the sun will set on this party long before the folks stop dancing on top of the waterfalls.
But this being what it is, let it be said here and now that Yosemite’s waterworks are currently in their full spring swing; and the park’s air temperatures are just about at levels that make you want to pounce in the water.
Of course, as always, the water temperatures will likely make you think better of the idea.
But after all, that is just Yosemite’s version of air/water equilibrium, and so far that has not changed. Yet.
So it’s kind of now or never, folks. For this year, anyway.
Despite being one of the Bay Area’s best spots for day-hiking to the ocean, Point Reyes, like anywhere else along the Pacific Coast, demands vigilance and careful-stepping. And maybe a bit of good luck. These two didn’t have that.