on Mount Shasta
by John Muir (1877)
Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta first appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine Volume 55, Number 328 (September 1877), pages 521-530. Muir's riveting account describes the climb and emergency bivouac, without food, shelter or a coat, on the summit during a violent storm on April 30, 1877. The following has been condensed and edited by Paul Richins, Jr. The entire article and many other excellent works of John Muir can be viewed at the John Muir Exhibit.
Mount Shasta, situated near the northern extremity of the Sierra Nevada, rises in solitary grandeur from a lightly sculptured lava plain, and maintains a far more impressive and commanding individuality than any other mountain within the limits of California.
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.
During the glacial period Mount Shasta was a centre of dispersal for the glaciers of the circumjacent region. The entire mountain was then loaded with ice, which, ever descending, grooved its sides and broke up its summit into a mass of ruins.
The Whitney glacier is the most important of the few fragmentary ice patches still remaining active. It takes its rise in extensive snow and fields on the summit, flows northward, and descends in a series of crevassed curves and cascades almost to the timberline -- a distance of nearly three miles. Though not the very largest, this is perhaps the longest active glacier in the State.
The ascent of Mount Shasta is usually made in July or August, from Strawberry Valley, on the Oregon and California stageroad. The ordinary plan is to ride from Strawberry Valley to the upper edge of the timber line, a distance of ten miles, the first day, and camp; then, rising early next morning, push to the summit, and return to the valley on the evening of the second day.
My last ascent of Shasta was made on the 30th of April, 1875, accompanied by Jerome Fay, a hardy and competent mountaineer, for the purpose of making barometrical observations on the summit, while Captain A.F. Rodgers, of the United States Coast Survey, made simultaneous observations with a compared barometer at the base.
In the cooler portions of the woods winter snow was still lying five feet deep, and we had a tedious time breaking through it with the pack animals. It soon became apparent that we would not be able to reach the summer camping ground; and after floundering and breaking trail in the drifts until near sundown, we were glad to camp for the night as best we could upon a rough lava ridge that protruded through the snow.
From here we carried blankets and one day's provision on our backs over the snow to the extreme edge of the timber line, and make a second camp in the lee of a block of red trachyte. Here, on our trachyte bed, we obtained two hours of shallow sleep, mingled with fine glimpses of the keen starry night. We rose at 2 A.M., warmed a tin-cupful of coffee, broiled a slice of frozen venison on the coals, and started for the summit at 3:20 A.M. The crisp icy sky was without a cloud, and the stars lighted us on our way.
Deep silence brooded the mountain, broken only by the night wind and an occasional rock falling from crumbling buttresses to the snow slopes below. The wild beauty of the morning stirred our pulses in glad exhilaration, and we strode rapidly onward, seldom stopping to take a breath-- over the broad red apron of lava that descends from the west side of the smaller of the two cone summits, across the gorge that divides them, up the majestic snow curves sweeping to the top of the ancient crater, around the broad icy fountains of the Whitney glacier, past the hissing fumaroles, and at 7:30 A.M. we attained the utmost summit.
At 9 A.M. the dry thermometer stood at 34 degrees in shade, and rose steadily until 1 P.M., when it stood at 50 degrees, although no doubt strongly influenced by sun heat radiated from the adjacent cliffs. A vigorous bumble-bee zigzagged around our heads, filling the air with a summery hay-field drone, as if wholly unconscious of the fact that the nearest honey flower was a mile beneath him.
Clouds the mean while were growing down in Shasta Valley -- massive swelling cumuli, colored gray and purple and close pearly white. These, constantly extending around southward on both sides of Mount Shasta, at length united with the older field lying toward Lassen's Peak, thus circling the mountain in one continuous cloud zone.
Storm clouds on the mountains -- how truly beautiful they are! --floating fountains bearing water for every well; the angels of streams and lakes; brooding in the deep pure azure, or sweeping along the ground, over ridge and dome, over meadow, over forest, over garden and grove; lingering with cooling shadows, refreshing every flower, and soothing rugged rock brows with a gentleness of touch and gesture no human hand can equal!
Presently a vigorous thunder-bolt crashes through the crisp sunny air, ringing like steel on steel, its startling detonation breaking into a spray of echoes among the rocky canons below. Jerome peered at short intervals over the jagged ridge on which we stood, making anxious gestures in the rough wind, and becoming more and more emphatic in his remarks upon the weather, declaring that if we did not make a speedy escape, we should be compelled to pass the night on the summit. Anxiety, however, to complete my observations fixed me to the ridge. No inexperienced person was depending upon me, and I told Jerome that we two mountaineers could break down through any storm likely to fall.
The sky speedily darkened, and just after I had completed my observations and boxed the instruments, the storm broke in full vigor. The cliffs were covered with a remarkable net-work of hail rills that poured and rolled adown the gray and red lava slopes like cascades of rock-beaten water. These hail-stones seemed to belong to an entirely distinct species from any I had before observed. They resembled small mushrooms both in texture and general form, their six straight sides widening upward from a narrow base to a wide dome-like crown.
A few minutes after 3 P.M. we began to force our way down the eastern ridge, past the group of hissing fumaroles. The storm at once became inconceivably violent, with scarce a preliminary scowl. The thermometer fell twenty-two degrees, and soon sank below zero. Hail gave place to snow, and darkness came on like night. The wind rising to the highest pitch of violence, boomed and surged like breakers on a rocky coast. The lightnings flashed amid the desolate crags in terrible accord, their tremendous muffled detonations unrelieved by a single echo, and seeming to come thudding passionately forth from out the very heart of the storm.
After passing the "Hot Springs," I halted in the shelter of a lava block to let Jerome, who had fallen a little behind, come up. Here he opened a council, in which, amid circumstances sufficiently exciting, but without evincing any bewilderment, he maintained, in opposition to my views, that it was impossible to proceed: the ridge was too dangerous, the snow was blinding, and the frost too intense to be borne; and finally, that, even supposing it possible for us to grope our way through the darkness, the wind was sufficiently violent to hurl us bodily over the cliffs, and that our only hope was in wearing away the afternoon and night among the fumaroles, where we should at least avoid freezing.
Our discussions ended, Jerome made a dash from behind the lava block, and began forcing his way back some twenty or thirty yards to the Hot Springs against the wind flood, wavering and struggling as if caught in a torrent of water; and after watching in vain for any flaw in the storm that might be urged as a new argument for attempting the descent, I was compelled to follow. "Here," said Jerome. The patch of volcanic climate to which we committed ourselves has an area of about one-forth of an acre, but it was only about an eighth of an inch in thickness, because the scalding gas jets were shorn off close to the ground by the oversweeping flood of frost wind.
The marvelous lavishness of the snow can be conceived only by mountaineers. The crystal flowers seemed to touch one another and fairly to thicken the blast. This was the booming time, the summer of the storm, and never before have I seen mountain cloud flowering so profusely. When the bloom of the Shasta chaparral is falling, the ground is covered for hundreds of square miles to the depth of half an inch; but the bloom of our Shasta cloud grew and matured and fell to a depth of two feet in less than a single day.
I was in my shirt sleeves, and in less than half an hour was wet to the skin; Jerome fortunately had on a close-fitting coat, and his life was more deeply imbedded in flesh than mine. Yet we both trembled and shivered in a weak, nervous way, as much, I suppose, from exhaustion brought on by want of food and sleep as from sifting of the icy wind through our wet clothing. The snow fell with unabated lavishness until an hour or two after the coming on of what appeared to be the natural darkness of night. The whole quantity would probably measure about two feet.
We lay flat on our backs, so as to present as little surface as possible to the wind. The mealy snow gathered on our breasts, and I did not rise again to my feet for seventeen hours. We were glad at first to see the snow drifting into the hollows of our clothing, hoping it would serve to deaden the force of the ice wind; but, though soft at first, it soon froze into a stiff, crusty heap, rather augmenting our novel misery.
The night wind rushed in wild uproar across the shattered cliffs, piercing us through and through, and causing violent convulsive shivering, while those portions of our bodies in contact with the hot lava were being broiled. When the heat became unendurable, we scraped snow and bits of trachyte beneath us, or shifted from place to place by shoving an inch or two at a time with heels and elbows; for to stand erect in blank exposure to the wind seemed like certain death.
The acrid incrustations sublimed from the escaping gases frequently gave way, opening new vents, over which we were scalded; and fearing that if at any time the wind should fall, carbonic acid, which usually forms so considerable a portion of the gaseous exhalations of volcanoes, might collect in sufficient quantities to cause sleep and death, I warned Jerome against forgetting himself for a single moment, even should his sufferings admit of such a thing. Accordingly, when, during the long dreary watches of the night, we roused suddenly from a state of half consciousness, we called each other excitedly by name, each fearing the other was benumbed or dead.
The ordinary sensations of cold give but faint conceptions of that which comes on after hard exercise, with want of food and sleep, combined with wetness in a high frost wind. Life is then seen to be a mere fire, that now smoulders, now brightens, showing how easily it may be quenched.
"Muir," Jerome would inquire, with pitiful faintness, "are you suffering much?" "Yes," I would reply, straining to keep my voice brave, "the pains of a Scandinavian hell, at once frozen and burned. But never mind, Jerome; the night will wear away at last, and to-morrow we go a-Maying, and what camp fires we will make, and what sun baths we will take!"
The frost became more and more intense, and we were covered with frozen snow and icicles, as if we had lain castaway beneath all the storms of winter. In about thirteen hours day began to dawn, but it was long ere the highest points of the cone were touched by the sun. No clouds were visible from where we lay, yet the morning was dull and blue and bitterly frosty, and never did the sun move so slowly to strip the shadows from the peaks. We watched the pale heatless light stealing toward us down the sparkling snow, but hour after hour passed by without a trace of that warm flushing sunrise splendor we were so eager to welcome. The extinction of a life seemed a simple thing after being so gradually drained of vitality, and as the time to make an effort to reach camp drew near, we became concerned to know what quantity of strength remained, and whether it would be sufficient to carry us through the miles of cold wind and snow that lay between us and the timber.
In our soaked and steamed condition we dared not attempt the descent until the temperature was somewhat mitigated. At length, about eight o'clock on this rare 1st of May, we rose to our feet, some seventeen hours after lying down, and began to struggle homeward. Our frozen trousers could scarce be made to bend; we therefore waded the snow with difficulty. After making a descent of 3000 feet, we felt the warm sun on our backs, and at once began to revive; and at 10 o'clock A.M. we reached camp and were safe. Half an hour afterward we heard Sisson shouting down the fir woods on his way to camp with horses to take us to the hotel.
We learned from Sisson that when our terrific storm was in progress, only a calm, mild-looking cloud cap was observed on the mountain, that excited no solicitude for our safety. We estimated the snow-fall on the summit of two feet or more; at camp, some 5000 feet lower, we found only three inches, while down on the sloping base only a light shower had fallen, sufficient to freshen the grass.
We were soon mounted, and on our way down into the thick sunshine -- to "God's country," as Sisson calls the chaparral zone. At four in the afternoon we reached Strawberry Valley, and went to bed. Next morning we seemed to have risen from the dead. My bedroom was flooded with living sunshine, and from the window I saw the great white Shasta cone wearing its clouds and forests, and holding them loftily in the sky. How fresh and sunful and new-born our beautiful world appeared! Sisson's children came in with wild flowers and covered my bed, and the sufferings of our long freezing storm period on the mountain-top seemed all a dream.
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