Leading a Lot of Shasta Girl Power

There are many ways to write a trip report. For this one, I want to focus on the aspects which are unique to the perspective of the trip leader. Until Emilie got into a tussle with a tree and lost her left ACL to that fight, I had planned to be just a happy participant. The thought of this all-womens trip to Shasta falling apart spurred me to step up into the trip leader role. This was my first lead for me, with lots to be learned. I marked my take-away points in bold and summarized them at the end.

The concept of the trip influenced a lot of the leadership decisions. While we all worked for the goal to summit Mt Shasta (14,179 feet/4321 m), this trip was also about getting a group of women together who were interested in mountaineering. Emilie did a lot in the trip-preplan which I really liked. She used Google docs to create a gear list (#1), a schedule of training hikes (#2), and we all contributed our profiles to get to know each other better. Three group meetings and a few group hikes followed.

There were a some pre-trip leadership decisions to make. Marissa from the Spoken Coast Project incurred a whiplash injury. She worked out some alternative approaches to deal with the pack, but still was unsure. After much thought, weighing the group goal vs supporting Marissa’s project and getting group input, I proposed a set of benchmark achievements Marissa had to demonstrate to Anna one the two pre-trip days they had planned to spent up there (#3). I also explained the reasoning behind coming up with those benchmarks. I really appreciated the very honest conversations Marissa and the group had. In the end, she listened to her body and decided she was not ready. We missed you, Marissa, but I believe you made the right decision.

Trip Start
Finally, Saturday morning came and we met at 7 am at the Bunny Flat parking lot.  After my usual welcome and enjoy-the-mountain-responsibly safely speech, I first had the tent groups sort out the group gear, distributed some extra ear plugs, and weighed all packs. We then used the buddy system to verify the gear list essentials. We explained the route, touched on the weather forecast, decided on a radio schedule with the basecamp team (#4). Emilie gave a rousing pep speech, we took the obligatory group photo, and at 8:15 am we took off for Helen Lake.

Emilie clearly prefers an ice axe over a crutch.

Decision point for me (#5): should I go up front to set pace, or sweep in the back? Hiking in front, I would be able to ensure a well-paced even speed, but would have to look around frequently to see how the group is doing. I decided to ask very experienced Abi and Sarah to be the pacers (thanks for a job well done). This allowed me to stay in the sweep spot, from which I could monitor how everybody was doing.  We set a schedule of approximate 50 minutes hiking, 5-10 minutes refuel and rest break. Once we reached 9,000 feet (2740 m), the group started separating into a faster half and a slower half, with probably a 5 minute arrival time difference had the front not waited up. To put it in the written record: I did tell the truth about only 500 feet (150 m) left to go. Really!

Lenticular Cloud on Shasta

The weather was undecided with one visible lenticular cloud in the sky when we started. Coming out of the forest, it became cloudy with a few snow flurries. 3 hours into the hike, the mountain was shrouded in clouds down to Helen Lake. By the time we got to Helen Lake at 13:15, we had full white-out conditions.  We happened to roll into camp right when the wife of a climber reported her husband missing to the ranger. All in all, 4 people were missing, two of whom showed up shortly. This still left the missing husband with unknown location, and another person who went ahead of his group because he was cold (#6), missed the turn to the Red Banks, fell several hundred feet down toward Konwatikon Glacier with minor injuries, but at least could give one last position before his cell batteries ran out. Because of the weather, both climbers had to survive a night high up on the mountain before Search & Rescue (SAR) efforts could be staged. My group did not talk much about this, but I could sense an increased level of concern about weather safety.

White-out conditions on the last stretch to Helen Lake.

We spent one hour later that afternoon on the northwest slope of Avalanche Gulch to revisit self-arrest and glissade skills. We all tethered our ice axes to a mountaineering harness. This system achieves several objectives: preventing accidental loss of the axe in a fall, avoiding loss of time that comes with switching the wrist leash, and short-time availability of both hands when the axe is in self-arrest (#7).

In camp for dinner, we created our decision points for our summit attempt based on weather. One trip member decided to stay at Helen Lake, because altitude had given her some trouble on the way up. We had one more person with altitude issues, but she decided to still give it a go (with Diamox). Our plan (#8): midnight, check weather. If it would be clear, we would make a summit go carrying the 10 essentials. If not, we would wait until 3 am, check again. If the weather were clear by then, we would go as high as we could get until 8:30 am and then turn around at that time. If the weather were clouded, we would wait until 5 am and then just go up to Red Banks.

At midnight, I got up. Clear skies, cloud cover low in the valley, but a huge cloud coming over the mountain just below us from the same NW direction the weather came from yesterday. From our vantage point, Casaval Ridge obscured my sight on the incoming clouds. Tough decision time.

Cloud layers on Saturday.

Factors influencing my decision for “No Summit”
The weather forecast was identical to Saturday, just windier. I could not see toward the weather side. Long jet contrails confirmed lots of humidity still in the atmosphere. Mountain weather typically clears at night because of the downdrafts, with the mountain sucking clouds up toward higher altitude when the sun warms up the valley air in the morning. In the last two weeks, I had seen twice how quickly mountain weather can go from sunny to white-out conditions. Two climbers went missing above the Red Banks the day we hiked in because of white-out. The rangers had only flagged a very short stretch of the route above Red Banks because of the wet, cold spring and had to turn around following their own flags on Saturday. Three of the group were rock-solid (SAR and BAMRU or big mountain experience). Some participants in the group, on the other hand, were relatively inexperienced on big mountains. They were technically sound, but what I was not sure about is how they would react if we were to get in a riskier situation. High anxiety causing body tension and insecurity when having to route-find and navigate down the steep Red Banks section would not be good. I also did not want the first mountain experience to be a scary one for the newer climbers.

Another factor was the fact that we had people with dependends, and also people with mixed family support for mountaineering. It is one thing to get myself in trouble. Or tell, e.g., our technical leader & former Yosemite SAR Sarah’s fiance that something had gone wrong. But I was just personally not ready to take the slightest risk to tell someone who is depending on one of my climbers as a caretaker that I had made the wrong call. If this was a Sierra Club-backed trip with liability insurance or if I were a professional guide, I would not have had those concerns. As a private trip leader, very much. Again, this was not a decision based on technical proficiency of those climbers; this was all about my personal comfort level.

Factors For a Summit Attempt
Very honestly, a slightly different group. If the ratio of experienced/less experienced people was weighed 2:1, I would have gone. Two experienced people each can frame a nervous newbie to ensure safe descent. I could also have chosen to take only those in the group I would feel comfortable with in a riskier summit attempt, but I felt this was against the group’s intent and spirit.

After the Decision
At 3 am, I spoke to Sarah again. We decided with the speed of our group, it would be wiser to go just for the 5 am Red Banks option. Also, one of the altitude-impacted climbers developed nausea. Abi checked her out, and confirmed my decision to have her stay in camp. We also decided that if she vomited, we would walk her down.

Six of us did go for the Red Banks at around 6:30 am. We made good progress safely french-stepping up. Gusts of wind blowing off fine rime ice from the rocks above pelted us, so occasionally we went into self-belay and waited out the worst assault. Then, at 11,500 feet (3500 m), I heard a yell from above me and saw Sarah throw herself onto her ice-axe for self-arrest. A dinner-plate sized, 4 inch thick chunk of rime ice hurtled down at warp speed, passing me a few feet to my right. Alert yells of “ice” travelled down the mountain. 30 feet above me, Sarah was sitting, crying and holding her leg. Abi was with her in seconds. When I made my way up, I learned the ice block had hit Sarah on the right shin; a scratch and big welt, but she could walk. We immediately decided to turn around, head for a more protected spot 100 feet down and over. There, we gave her some ibuprofen. It was a very scary situation  that could have easily turned out worse, e.g. with point of collision on the knee  or the face, broken bone, etc. Sarah was a trooper and rallied quite nicely. We all hiked back down to camp; no glissading because the snow was still too hard.

Missing Person Found
Yes, indeed, one of the missing climbers turned up on the summit plateau, alive!!! The person carrying the news arrived at Helen Lake 5 minutes after us. No ranger was at Helen Lake, so Abi and Sarah whipped out their radios and relayed info between the people on top of the mountain and SAR at Bunny Flat. Another decision: wait at Helen Lake together, or take part of the group down? I got input from everybody with a decision to head down without Sarah and Abi at 12:30 pm. We took off a bit earlier (#9).

Welcoming the rescued climber back at Bunny Flat

Return to Base
Five of us were returning to base, with Sarah, Abi and Daphne to follow later. We had two clearly distinguished groups: two headed down very fast, and two taking it slower. I stayed in the middle to keep in touch with both pairs. After repeatedly asking the fast duo to wait up a few times, I finally got the information that they were suffering from the sun (#10). We sped up as much as we could to get to the sparse forest. It did not provide much shade, though, in the midday sun. Unfortunately, the hiker with the most sun trouble did not really want to work with me to get her help to make the situation better and at some point just took off ahead out of sight range without checking in with me first. Another decision point, 1 hour from camp. I decided, based on (#11), that my responsibility was with the three hikers that were with me at the time. One factor weighing toward this decision was my feeling that the person who took off had not communicated their problems with heat and sun to me earlier and openly, especially when I asked for group input (it probably started at Helen Lake already).




The weather gods' joke was on me. Shasta, you are Caradhras' brother!

We finally all came back to Bunny Flat to a rousing welcome by the base crew. Abi, Sarah and Daphne were not far behind.

I think we all still had fun on the trip, a good learning experience, and made new friends (#12). Most of us will come back for another summit attempt either together or with other friends.  I really appreciate the support of the Shasta Girls for all of my decisions, even though it may well have cost us the summit on a glorious day. Special kudos to Sarah for being willing to talk with me through my decision making process in the middle of the night, twice; and also for the technical co-lead. Thank you also to Abi, nurse with exceptional bedside manner, to take on the medical co-lead.

Tent up, Sparky happy.

Anybody want to join me for another summit attempt (route TBD)?

Take-Away Points:

  1. Put my gear list on Google Docs
  2. Emphasize training hikes working up to trip pack weight plus 10 punds (for altitude)
  3. Set minimum expectations for fitness level and trip preparation and explain clearly why they are set. Be kind, but do enforce those expectations.
  4. Spend an hour on gear check, last-minute essentials, and setting expectations as the trip start.
  5. Think about which hiking position works best for what you need to achieve as trip leader. If you are not the sweep, designate a sweep.
  6. Always travel as a group; make each person responsible for staying within easy contact range of the person behind them.
  7. Practice skills before going on steep snow if at all possible.
  8. Have a well-defined plan for weather contingencies. I will work this out with future groups in advance.
  9. In some occasions it is ok to split a group. Have a well-defined plan, and make sure each group is safe, has enough expertise, and a leader.
  10. Sometimes, you need to prod to get really important information!
  11. When someone in my group conscientiously decides against following an essential group rule I have set as a leader, I consider that as a choice of this person to leave the group. I will not take any further responsibility for that person’s safety and well-being.
  12. Where else can you get a 3-for-1? Have courage, step up to leadership!
This entry was posted in Leadership, peak climbing, Shasta, Winter Camping. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Leading a Lot of Shasta Girl Power

  1. pahaloalto says:

    I’m proud of you Sonja and all the Power Girls for your ambition, guts, and good sense.

  2. Derek says:

    Nice job Sonja!
    That’s a tough climb in the best of circumstances. Volcano’s are just plain steep and it takes a toll on you legs.

  3. Pingback: My year of climbing volcanoes: Grand Finale in Ecuador | Stories from inside the shell

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