Blind on Mount Shasta!
by Paul Richins, Jr. (added 8/7/98)
"Go where you will within a radius of from fifty to a hundred miles, there stands the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in perpetual snow, the one grand landmark that never sets. While Mount Whitney, situated near the southern extremity of the Sierra, notwithstanding it lifts its granite summit some four or five hundred feet higher than Shasta, is yet almost entirely snowless during the summer months, and is so feebly individualized, the traveller often searches for it in vain amid the thickets of rival peaks by which it is surrounded."
--John Muir, Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta, 1877
By 6:30 a.m. on July 17, 1995, Sherri Gauger and I had strapped on our crampons and were leaving our camp at Lake Helen (10,000 feet) to climb Mount Shasta by way of Avalanche Gulch and Thumb Rock. Each weekend during the climbing season (late spring, summer and early fall), 40-100 climbers attempt the summit by this, the standard route. Up ahead we counted 30-40 other climbers getting an early morning start. Under normal conditions the route is not difficult and can be climbed by a determined climber in good condition with little previous mountain climbing experience. Sherri had not climbed the peak before and was determined to make the summit regardless of the difficulties we might encounter.
Mount Shasta, rising to an elevation of 14,162 feet, is one of the largest Stratovolcanoes in the world. Its enormous bulk has been estimated at 80-84 cubic miles in volume . Not only is its sheer size overwhelming but it dominates the region for miles. Towering 10,000 feet above the Sacramento River and the towns of Mount Shasta, Weed and McCloud, the peak can be seen for 80 to 100 miles in all directions. John Muir, after climbing to the summit of Mount Shasta, claimed to be able to see the Pacific Ocean more than 100 miles away.
We made good progress for the first couple of hours but the wind began to intensify and a storm was quickly forming. The climbers up ahead started to peel off the route and descend back to their camps at Lake Helen. The visibility was dropping rapidly and it was starting to snow. Not in the typical sense with snow crystals but a sort of very fine, frozen mist. This mist immediately turned to fine water droplets when it touched our clothing. We later learned that a large tropical storm off the coast of Southern California had spread north to Mount Shasta.
We discussed turning back but Sheri was not deterred nor discouraged by the storm. She was on a mission to climb to the summit. By now the visibility was down to 100 feet and the wind was gusting to 50 miles an hour as we reached the ridge near Thumb Rock. All the other climbers had retreated in face of the storm. We were the only ones to continue above Red Banks and Thumb Rock that day. We were having extreme difficulties seeing with our goggles as they would immediately fog up on both the inside and outside due to the high moisture content of the fine mist-snow that was being driven into our faces by the strong winds. We soon tired of repeatedly wiping the condensation from the lenses and took them off.
As we climbed up Misery Hill above Thumb Rock, we had to lock arms in several places to prevent Sherri from being blown off the mountain. At 110 pounds she was being blown about by the gale-force winds. As a side note, the following year, two climbers were knocked over by high winds and came sliding, uncontrollably, down the steep slopes above Lake Helen. We were now climbing on instinct alone as visibility was near zero. As we approached the summit ball field, we had to feel our way across as if by Braille. We crossed the ball field and climbed what we thought was the summit. I immediately realized that we had climbed a sub peak to the right (south and east) of the main summit. We descended and traversed to our left and climbed the main peak. Our cloths were soaked even though we were wearing the finest, most expensive gortex parkas offered by North Face. And our boots and socks were saturated with water. With each step we could feel the water being squeezed between our toes.
Although miserable, Sherri was pleased and proud to have made the summit on her first attempt, but what a predicament. We signed into the summit register, took a compass reading and headed down. We made several attempts to cross the summit ball field but each time we retraced our steps as the route just didn't seem right. After the third time across the summit ball field, we headed down following our compass course in near-zero visibility and hurricane force winds.
After dropping off the summit plateau, the winds diminished slightly and the tropical storm seemed to lift. We immediately put on our sunglasses (around 1:00 p.m.) and continued down. Finally, we reached the 11,000 foot level in improving weather and visibility. Where was Lake Helen? Where was our tent, camp and sleeping bags? Where where we?
We soon realized that we had descended the gulch to the west of Avalanche Gulch and Casaval Ridge. We were in Cascade Gulch, a long way from our camp with Casaval Ridge blocking our way back. Sherri was becoming weak and tired. We headed down with the hope to find emergency shelter at the Sierra Club Horse Camp Hut. We arrived just before dark and were greeted by Robert Webb, the Hut Keeper. He gladly supplied us with emergency sleeping bags, some warm food and good company.
That evening our eyes began to hurt. In a short time, both Sherri and I were in severe pain. It felt as if our eyes were full of microscopic particles of sand. It felt as if they were being stabbed by hundreds of miniature daggers. Our eyes and nose ran uncontrollably. It hurt to keep the eyes open, it hurt to close them. The pain was severe. We placed wet towels over our eyes and put on a double blindfold as the slightest amount of light increased the pain immeasurably. Even with the double blindfolds, the small amount of light from the Hut's candles was too much to bear. So this is what snow blindness feels like!!!
We spent a painful, sleepless night. By morning our eyes were no better. We had to be led around by the hand to breakfast and the outhouse. That morning, Robert Webb and a Forest Service Ranger skied up to Helen Lake and retrieved our tent and camp. We spent the day and another miserable night in the hut. Although miserable from the snow blindness, we were very grateful for the hut and Robert Webb's assistance. We were overdue for work and our families. The second night was a little better. By morning my eyes felt much better but Sherri's eyes were still extremely sensitive to the slightest bit of light. That morning I skied with Robert Web and the Forest Service Ranger to Helen Lake and helped with clean up (toilet detail) around the many camps at Lake Helen. I returned to the Horse Camp Hut by 1:00 to find Sherri feeling much better. We soon packed up and headed two miles out to the road and the car.
The above experience illustrates the importance of wearing sunglasses or goggles at all times when traveling on snow even if it is cloudy, overcast or storming. The sun never came out during the day but the light reflecting off the snow, and the low storm clouds created a very light intense environment. One much brighter than we realized.
To recap, we started climbing in the morning around 6:30 a.m. We wore sunglasses for an hour or so in the morning but took them off due to condensation on the lens. We put the sunglasses back on for good about 1:00 p.m. that afternoon. By 9:00 p.m. that evening we were snow blind. We were without glasses for only about 4-5 hours in non-dierct sunlight but still became seriously snow blind.
It took about 32 hours for me to recover and about 40 hours for Sherri to recover to a point that would allow travel. The lesson to be learned is to always wear your goggles or sunglasses when traveling on snow. They are necessary to prevent snow blindness. I do not believe that there is any treatment to speed the recovery from snow blindness. Eye drops provide minor temporary relief. It just takes time to recovery. If we had not gotten back to the Sierra Club Hut that first night, we would have been two blind people attempting to survive for two nights and a day without food, tent or sleeping bag on the slopes of Mount Shasta. Not a pretty picture.
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