Hiking Mount Shasta, California: Scramblefest Up The Clear Creek Route

At 14,179 feet elevation and 9,822 feet of prominence, Mount Shasta dominates the landscape of northern California, solitary and proud at the southern foot of the Cascade Range. Without neighbors or friends, it protrudes confidently into the horizon, as if it has consumed all its peers and is slowly digesting them in its volcanic belly.

Mount Shasta maintains a far more impressive and commanding individuality than any other mountain within the limits of
California.
John Muir

This summer, my little bro and I crawled up the talus backside of that slumbering beast, like ants through the gigantic crumbling leftovers of its tectonic meals. Here’s a summary of the epic scramblefest.

Base Camp at Clear Creek

Four of us drove up from the Sacramento area on a sunny but mild Sunday afternoon in late July: my dad, brother, oldest son, and I. After Redding, the drive gets more interesting as interstate 5 leaves behind the parched foothills spotted with dusty oak trees and climbs into the coniferous mountains and reservoirs of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. We took highway 89 east at the town of Mt. Shasta, through McCloud, and then followed the signs north and west to the Clear Creek trailhead, which is at about 6,500 feet elevation.

As of 2015, wilderness permits and wag bags are free. Summit passes are $25 per person.

Clear Creek aptly gets its name from an icy spring trickling out of the mountain at around 8,400 feet. After the steep three-mile hike in to base camp, we filled our bottles with the snow melt and pitched our tents in a stand of aged and twisted whitebark pines, whose roots have also tapped into the moisture of that tiny creek.

Sunday evening we watched the sun set into Shasta’s western trapezius, and then stretched out on our frustratingly thin sleeping pads in preparation for an early departure.

The Scramble

My bro and I emerged from our tents just before sunrise, around 6 AM, into cool, silent twilight. Shasta was just beginning to catch the refracted pink sun rays seeping in from the east. Layers on and shoes double knotted, we said a prayer and set off without a trail, trusting that upward would take us in the right direction.

My son and dad would stay back to explore the geography and fauna around camp, and to eventually wonder why it was taking us so long to return.

Our gear was pretty unassuming. I had fashioned a fanny pack from the lid of my hiking backpack, and stuffed it with granola bars, a plastic baggie of first aid, and about 60 oz of water. Plus a knife and headlamp.

I wore old tennis shoes and a scrappy assortment of layers: some cargo shorts under thrift-store warmup pants, a long sleeve t-shirt under a thin rain jacket, and a couple home-sewn fleece ski masks and beanies. Wearing old blue jeans, my bro was even more lacking in hi-techness.

Overall, we were the complete antithesis of an REI add. I’m sure we stood out as the party least likely to actually summit.

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There are probably a dozen routes up Shasta, some more established than others. After some research, we had decided on Clear Creek because, ultimately, the internet convinced us to. Apparently, because of rockfall danger on the shorter and more popular routes like Avalanche Gulch, a more gradual grade is safer when the stabilizing snow is thin to none.

Thin to no snow exposes the raw surface of the mountain, an endless scramble up loose sand and gravel, interspersed with large cobbles and every other size of stone in between. These first few thousand feet up have earned the enticing name of Misery Hill. Who doesn’t want to hike that, right?

After an eternity of stair-mastering through field after field of scree, les miserables, we began to see clearly the erratic wall of rust colored boulders that had loomed above us for most of the morning. Finally, rock that would push back on, rather than absorb, our plodding footsteps.

These massive boulders demand some pretty technical scrambling, mantling, boosting, and looking before you leap. Their sharp edges and occasional wobble give the impression that they’re still adjusting to a sedimentary life.

A fall in this section could be catastrophic, especially just to the east, where it’s open sky below.

From another perspective, the boulders are less stable than the bits of Misery Hill we just shook out of our shoes; we’re just so much smaller in comparison to a boulder.

After no more than a couple hundred feet, the boulders gave way to the familiar sand and scree, and we were chugging along once again. At least 2,000 feet of climb remained, but I was starting to notice the effects of having carried myself so far above sea level. My body had never experienced 11,000 feet. The pressure of a mild but growing headache increased with each step.

By 13,000 feet or so, I was stopping every twenty steps to catch my breath and my bearings. My brother would scamper ahead, and then wait patiently as I dragged myself along. This soon reduced to ten steps between breaks. I was able to maintain that pace until the summit came into sight, at which point I rallied and made a final push.

The wind chill was in the 20s, so we only stayed on the craggy summit long enough to scrawl our signatures in the registry and then pose for a few pictures.

Without neighboring peaks, the view is spacious and unobstructed, and, as a result, pretty unremarkable. We tried in vain to make out Mount Lassen, a smaller volcano to the south. But there was nothing to make out. The foothills and more distant mountains reflected the clear sky, making the horizon a wash of blue in any direction.

The Descent

The ascent from Clear Creek to summit, 8,400 to 14,180 feet, took us 6.5 hours. On average, that’s 890 feet per hour or 14.8 up per minute. The descent would take 2 hours, or 48.2 feet per minute.

Descending the mountain really accentuates how far up you’ve gone. Going up, gravity was relentless. Coming down, it was on our side. And we were grateful for the deep, sandy gravel of Misery Hill, which absorbed our feet in small pluming avalanches as we slalomed and carved through it.

Overall, Shasta via Clear Creek was a nice introduction to mountaineering. Next time, we’re thinking of going south to Whitney, or east to the Grand Teton. And I’m thinking I’ll budget a full 24 hours for my body to adjust to the elevation.

Rock Climbing With the Kids: Consumnes River Gorge, Placerville, California

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This outing was sort of a mess, a learning experience. I’m posting about it here primarily to contribute to collective online wisdom on rock climbing in the Sacramento, California area with kids. Mountain Project has details on climbing the Consumnes River Gorge, but with an audience of fully grown humans in mind.

The biggest challenge when climbing with kids, but without an adult lead belayer, is finding clean, easy top-rope routes. The Consumnes crag has some decent top-roping, a couple nice 5.6s with bolted anchors, but steep and eroding terrain makes them less accessible to little ones.

Lessons learned: bring a map, or a phone with data, and go straight to Struggler Cliff. Also, bring water, snacks, and swimsuits, but no kids under seven.

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Most of the climbing in the gorge happens around Buck’s Bar, which is accessible from Buck’s Bar Road via Pleasant Valley, southeast of Placerville (Google maps: 38.649728, -120.705789).

The hike in starts at a 190° turn in Buck’s Bar road, where you park your ideally compact car as close to the guard rail as possible and fold in your driver side mirror before setting off into the poison oak. The approach is about a mile downhill, an easy jaunt, even for halflings. You’ll meander through the forest on a dusty trail that slowly gives way to the granite slabs of Buck’s Bar Dome, on the left. Continue on to Struggler for the easiest routes.

The oldest, nine, had a blast, but only got to climb twice because the other two, seven and five, dragged their feet most the time. Highlights include the 5.6 route Knobby Face, aptly named, and the scramble down to the river to rescue the dog, who leaped in before confirming there was a way out.

Annual Overnighter at Vedauwoo: Climbing, Hiking, not Sleeping

Another sleepless starry night at Vedauwoo. Over the past five years, the annual Vedauwoo campout has become a tradition for us, a brief but important interruption in our 1,500 mile road trip from the waterlogged Midwest to the drought-stricken west coast. Our first time through was in 2011, en route from Minneapolis to Sacramento. We’ve stopped in twice per summer ever since.

The scene doesn’t change much from year to year, whether we’re heading west, excited to get on with our vacation, or returning east, worn out and missing home. Our tired van sputters into the campground in the early afternoon, its brakes squeaking as it eases into the familiar parking spot at campsite 4. As soon as the van door rolls open the cheers and crying of countless children disrupt the peaceful serenity of the campground.

Kids scatter in every direction, each knowing almost instinctively where to go: the nearby bathroom to pee, the bush 6 inches from the van door to pee, down the hill to find a stick sword, or up the mountain because we’re here to climb and time is short.

This was Echo’s first time at Vedauwoo and first time out of Nebraska. He also knew exactly what to do: run and smell. Glorious freedom, just like on his first campout at Indian Cave. Sadly, he kept sneaking off to beg or borrow food from other campers, so we had to tie him up while we set up camp. Not everyone appreciates a 50-pound puppy hopping onto their picnic table, tongue and tail a-wagging.

With the tent staked and firewood gathered, we were ready to hit the crag. I took the oldest three and Echo straight up the most accessible of the reddish orange granite hoodoos that characterizes the area, while my wife spotted the littlest two as they bouldered on the massive scree at its base. The dog did surprisingly well, scrambling up with us no matter how high we went. I had to boost him up a few ledges, and carry him across a few crevasses, but his four paws gave him excellent traction on the slab.

The actual rock climbing at Vedauwoo is almost entirely crack and off-width (see Mountain Project). The slabby granite boulders are rounded and featureless, leaving very little to grab. We have fun for now just hiking, scrambling, and exploring. But I am looking forward to climbing Edward’s Crack and some other routes on Walt’s Wall, once my oldest is comfortable belaying.

Tradition has it that, after hiking and climbing until dusk, we cook hot dogs and s’mores over the fire, and then settle down for few hours of star gazing and not sleeping. This time, after telling stories, and then spotting a few satellites, everyone dozed off close to midnight as I tried to explain to a five-year-old what a satellite is.

Every hour or so, when I’d wake up to rotate my back or shoulder off the hard ground, I’d check on Echo, who was leashed to a large tree stump close by. For most the night it was too dark to see, and I could only hear him rusting around on his cardboard mat, not sleeping. Toward dawn, the full moon and approaching sunrise revealed his sharp profile silhouetted against the glowing horizon, as he stared and listened attentively into the darkness.

A few times Echo sent a low warning growl toward the forest below our campsite, but I don’t think he stayed up all night in fear. I think his curiosity was just overwhelming. To a puppy, everything is exciting and new, especially on his second campout. The nighttime only amplified the mystery of the unexplored outdoors that surrounded him.

Paddling the Nishnabotna River, Iowa

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A few weeks ago I joined a youth group from church for some hiking and paddling in the Loess Hills of western Iowa. We camped two nights in Preparation Canyon State Park, which boasts 344 acres of thorny locust trees and stinging nettle, and is home to thriving populations of mosquitoes and ticks.

At one point someone commented, “at least ticks can’t fly.” That’s looking on the bright side, I thought, as we pushed through swarms of hungry mosquitoes clouding the trail ahead of us.

And therein lies the simple truth we hope all our campers learn before returning to the comforts of home and mobile device, that happiness is a matter of perspective, a matter of seeing the forest for the bugs and weeds that live there.

This youth had figured it out after only a couple hours of suffering, that it could be much worse, which means it’s still actually pretty good.

Of course, some outings get much worse. Storms rage, canoes sink, and ticks follow us home. But at least we have a home.

The float trip went surprisingly well. We pushed into the west branch of the river at Hancock around 10AM and disembarked around 3PM at Carson, 15 river miles to the south. Those 15 river miles meandered mostly through corn and soybean fields, separated from one another by an occasional thicket of trees. Aside from the fisherman cleaning his catch with a machete, it was uneventful, but also peaceful, with only the swishing of paddle blades to accentuate the silence.

It’s a good thing ticks can’t swim.

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Backpacking at Indian Cave State Park

Yes, we finally made it happen: a campout, with all the dirt, unconditioned air, and unmanicured trees and shrubbery of an organically grown forest. It was glorious.

I should start by announcing that we recently got a dog. Echo is about five months old, and mostly resembles his black lab mother, with subtle features from his German shorthaired father, like a narrower face and build and patches of white fur on his chest and paws.

It turns out, raising a puppy is an absurd amount of work. Although I was familiar with the basics of dogs, having grown up with a few, my main responsibility as a kid was scooping up the poop with a shovel and catapulting it into the field behind our house. Spooping is just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll save the details, like the number of socks he has ingested, for later. For now I’ll just say that, without a fence on our yard, we have to keep him on a short tie out. He endures it well, but it’s sad to restrict such a free-spirited animal to a small circle of grass.

Old longings nomadic leap, chafing at custom’s chain;
Again from its brumal sleep wakens the ferine strain.
John Myers O’Hara, in Atavism

I know how Echo feels. Since moving to Nebraska our time outdoors has been limited to a small radius from our house. We play in the yard or at the park, but we rarely leave the confines of the city, the concrete and the habitation, the business and daily routines. I feel like a dog on a tie out, in a “brumal sleep.”

Last weekend we unclipped ourselves from custom’s chafing chain. We broke through the circumference of Lincoln and the gravitational pull of the daily grind, to spend a brief but welcome night out at the remote Indian Cave State Park in southeast Nebraska.

After parking at the trailhead, we set Echo free and watched and laughed as he rocketed down the trail, only to hurry back moments later, and then sprint away again. He never stopped running, up and down, back and forth, to and fro, as if trying not to miss a single leaf drop or bird chirp. He had to see and smell it all, be everywhere and part of everything all at once.

Echo’s adjustment to the “wilderness” of Nebraska reminded me of Call of the Wild, where Buck reverts completely from domesticated to wild, from farm dog to alpha male in a wolf pack. Jack London highlights the beauty of this backward evolution to our simple primitive origins.

He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

The pure joy of a puppy unleashed outdoors is inspiring.

The main attraction of Indian Cave State Park, besides graffiti in a cave that we didn’t get to see because of road work, is the backpack camping. The park boasts both remote backpacking sites and Adirondack shelters. From what I could tell, both options are free. And both include the simple amenities of primitive man, space for shelter and fire, and then, lots of space.

From the trailhead, we hiked in through a forest of swamp white oaks just waking up to spring, with their leaf buds slowly opening like millions of tiny green eyelids. The trees were undisturbed by Echo as he crashed by, scouting a quarter mile ahead and behind, and in all directions, continuously on the lookout for something interesting. After walking an easy mile, with Echo probably covering ten times that, we claimed the first shelter we found, about an hour before sunset.

Remnants of a fire, still warm from the previous campers, quickly ignited the leaves and sticks we piled into the fire pit. We boiled water for some freeze-dried backpacking meals that have lurked in our basement for years, lasagna, chicken teriyaki, and apple crisp, all a little soupy but still tasty. After dinner we hiked around camp, shot the BB gun, and got ready for bed by the light of my phone because I forgot a flashlight.

The kids fell asleep to a bedtime story about dragons and unicorns, and then I lay awake for most the night listening to coyotes singing in the distance. The howls would start as individual yips, and then a chorus would crescendo together from different parts of the river valley below us. After a few minutes of this, the howling would slowly subside and we’d enjoy thirty minutes or so of quiet.

Through the night, Echo paced back and forth in the moonlight, tripping over us and stepping on our heads, as he watchfully protected us from those primordial beasts, his Canis Lupus kin. He would often pause to listen, his silhouette still and attentive. Did he want to join them? Was he scared or curious? I wondered what it was like for him to encounter, by sound at least, his undomesticated counterparts. Could he sense the difference?

Exhausted, I think I finally fell asleep a couple hours before dawn, only to wake up around sunrise to feed Echo his cup of kibble. For breakfast we humans had granola and dried fruit, and we broke camp soon after. And less than 24 hours after leaving the city’s gravitational pull, we were back.