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emanuelrohss

[TR] Mt Shasta - Hotlum Glacier & subsequent ice gully, descent via Hotlum-Bolam ridge. 04/18/2021

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Trip: Mt Shasta - Hotlum Glacier & subsequent ice gully, descent via Hotlum-Bolam ridge.

Trip Date: 04/18/2021

Trip Report:

 This was both mine and Jamie’s first climb in the Cascades Range, hence also our first glaciated volcano. We were stoked. It was an opportunity to test the skills and fitness accrued from recent training for, and adventures in, the mountains, and to step up our game into the real arena of mountaineering. 

Our trip started several days before the climb itself began. Jamie picked me in Los Angeles on a Friday morning. Taking the I-5 Northbound as fast as we could, we only stopped for gas and to piss. Before we passed through Redding the mountain revealed itself on the horizon, and for the last 20 or so miles of winding roads through the forest landscape it increasingly dominated the view ahead.

Night fell as we turned into the town of Mt Shasta to pick up some final supplies before attempting to drive as far as we could toward Brewer Creek trailhead. Speaking to Nick Meyers, the Mt Shasta avalanche forecaster, on several occasions prior to our trip I had gathered that the final few miles of logging roads on Military Pass Rd and its turnoffs into the trailheads of Brewer Creak and North Gate would be rather snowy and that one would only make it so far without a 4X4. Nick had also told me how unusually bare and icy the North aspect of the mountain looked this season, including the Hotlum-Bolam ridge. As would prove the case in regards to both of his observations he was very right. And even though we had registered this information, our Southern Californian ignorance and lack of prior experience in the Cascades resulted in unpreparedness on our part for what this would entail in practice.

Our adventure started on Forrest Route 19/Military pass Rd, about 11 Miles from Brewer Creek trailhead, and miles from where we last had phone reception, as we hit a snowy slope that seemed questionable for passing in Jamie’s old 2X4 Nissan Frontier. We threw on the snow chains. Even the first try should’ve sketched us out enough to make us abandon the idea to go further by car, but we kept at it till the truck got completely stuck, one rear wheel buried in several feet of snow, the other unnaturally bent outward in a weird angle — irresponsive as Jamie gave gas. The truck seemed fucked. It was about 10 pm and pitch black. We weren’t going any further, neither forwards nor backwards, that night.

We brewed and ate and cracked some beers to cheer us out of the initial frustration this mishap put us in. We debated whether to spend the following morning arranging a tow to town, plus the rest of the weekend waiting for the mechanics to fix it on Monday — potentially watching the perfect weekend weather forecast to pass and turn worse, or, just ditch the truck and trek to the mountain at dawn. We opted for the latter. The truck could be dealt with later, the mountain had to be climbed now.

Getting marooned on a snowy logging road at late hours didn’t provide for an alpine start in the morning, but at 8 something am we started walking towards the lateral moraines beneath the SE tongue of the Hotlum Glacier. As we spotted bear tracks in the mud the feeling of increasing isolation grew.

The further we got to the mountain and away from the car the less last nights debacle seemed to matter. I hiked with something around 40 lbs on my back, including our tent and a new stove (which with I had very limited field experience). Jamie’s pack was probably closer to 50 lbs, including the rope. We cruised the first 6-7 miles on flat ground. As the road started winding and the terrain steepening Jamie suggested we head straight up through the terrain for our  planned bivy site in the tree line between the moraines. Great idea. We cut 3 miles off our approach, which left us ample time for a long lunch break and rope practice for next day’s glacier travel.

Fading ski tracks and the snow softening under the afternoon sun made us realize our mode of travel wasn’t ideal. I repeated what we’ve told each other on every trip over the past 6 months: “Next winter we gotta start skiing man.”

Around 4 pm Jamie suggested we give ourselves a cut off time to stop and setup camp. We agreed on 6:30. Half an hour later we’d already had enough, and as the tree line was visible up ahead we shot for a flatt area next to the last bushes that we could tie the tent into.

The triangular shadow of Shasta reached over us as the sun moved downwards. To the North a heavily snow clad Mount McLoughlin lingered on the horizon. We tucked ourselves in the tent.

 Summit day began, contrary to our ambition, with a not completely alpine start, which we would get to regret plenty later. Temperatures was at their coldest as we woke at 5 am, yet it wasn’t cold. It was a total blue bird day with no wind. We wasted a bunch of time organizing our summit packs, melting water, making coffee, and fucking around with my crampons — on which I had just changed the bindings from a semi-automatic toe basket to what in theory would be the faster and more straightforward toe bail. It was a big mistake as I had not tested them before attempting the most technical route on Shasta. The bindings kept detaching from the booths before our climb had even started. As if news were being broken Jamie exclaimed “You’ll have to climb a lot of ice in those today.”

I tied the the bails as snug as possible on the booths and we started up a steepening snow slope towards the Hotlum. We were  both in a good mood now that we were finally on the mountain and soon on the glacier. Chatting about how Reinhold Messner lost his toes only seemed to encourage us to what was coming. 

We roped up at the edge. As noticed on our approach the day before patches of glacier ice were exposed even at the lowest elevation around 10500’. This wasn’t at all an issue yet, as we moved upwards at a relatively low angle. Some parts of our minds probably registered that icy patches would prevail on all slope angles and in each direction, up and down. Yet our drive to send, and in particular to climb one of the ice gullies as an exit at the top of the glacier,  drove us to keep going at a steady pace.

Keeping up a slow but steady pace we gained ground, rounding the first and second ice falls. All except one, the crevasses were still filled with snow, and most of them were rather narrow. Jamie led up and got his probe out from time to time to check the snow bridges. I didn’t probe but tried to follow in his path. At one time my entire leg plunged through the snow into a crack beneath, but I pulled it out just as fast. What slowed us down the most was my crampons that kept popping off with 30 minute intervals. It gave us time to catch our breath but was damn frustrating still. Jamie kept up a good attitude but I’m sure he was cursing in quiet.

Earlier we had toyed with the idea of climbing one of the seracs on the way up for fun. Once underneath them all we wanted was to move out of potential fall lines asap should a chunk break off in the warming sun. Earlier in the morning we had seen a big piece of rock break of a rotten cliff and tumble down a slope of discolored brown ice. Wake up call.

All morning and early afternoon was spent toiling upwards. As we cleared the third icefall and nearly had the bergschrund in sight we realized our pace had slowed so we stopped to drink,  melt water, and snack to be game for the technical part. We had only taken my new Muka stove for the summit push, and although it melted snow real fast, it seemed to burn the fuel just as fast. I was concerned but said nothing.

After too long of a break we started up the last section of the glacier for a closer look at the bergschrund and our exit options up the gullies to the left, or right, of the headwall. Once within sight, a discussion ensued about which finishing variation to opt for. The right gully looked fine but far from needing to be pitched out, which was what we had in mind here. The headwall was out of the equation, looming like a sustained lump of super-choss, and us lacking rock pro. Remaining was various options left of the headwall. The first gully over looked climbable but the ice seemed damn thin, neither of us knew if we could protect it. Since we’d carried the rope all this way we were keen to use it.

Earlier we had noticed a gully of sustained hard snow and thicker glacier ice around the corner of  the rib dividing the Hotlum from the Wintun glaciers. We decided to try out that option and cut left until we realized we were walking on snow that had filled the schrund. Circumnavigating the rib it towered above us as a lump of loose choss. We tried to move fast enough to avoid rockfall, but slow enough to notice weaknesses in the snow covering the crack beneath.

Out of breath, Jamie asked if I could lead up the last snow before we got on the ice. He didn’t want me to lead any ice due to my constantly failing crampons. Although I wanted to, I agreed that it would be quite sketchy. We climbed the remaining snow at 50 degrees. I sat down on a rock right off the ice to get the gear ready. Jamie racked up to lead. The idea had been to pitch it out as far as the rope allowed, but instead we opted to simul most of the ice to save time.

We were at 13,500’ and pretty worked. Jamie moved up slow but steady and managed to get screws in. At the fifth or sixth screw ha shouted that he was really tired. I got it, I was too. He hung on the screw, I had an alright stance and watched him. We waited. A few minutes later he pushed on and managed to get above another rock and out of sight. Assuming he hadd set up a belay I kept going. Once I caught up to him I noticed he was not in a good shape. Bent over with his hands on a rock he was gasping for air and started puking. We were almost at 14,000’ now so that wasn’t strange. The ascent had been increasingly hard work.

 From our relatively safe stance there was only one easy pitch of snowy ice left till we would reach the tallus field that divided us from the summit. I told Jamie I’d bring us up the last section. He did not object and I started off.

Before reaching the tallus I could smell the sulfur that lingers all over Shasta’s summit like a sick white veneer. Later Jamie told me he had assumed I was farting like hell up that last pitch.

Going up the tallus was annoying still as crampons will not stop gravel from running under your feet. Looking behind me I could tell Jamie was feeling like shit. That, in combination with how late we were approaching the summit made my internal alarm bells sound. I knew then, or rather I had actually known for a while, that it was high time to start thinking about descent. It was 5:47 pm.

As I cheered Jamie and myself on to the summit block I was getting the Hotlum-Bolam ridge in sight. Although I had seen large patches of ice surrounding the ridge on  the way up, its crest seemed promisingly constituted of snow and rock. I knew our deadline for starting the descent was already overdue, and encouraged Jamie to catch up with me to traverse towards the ridge together. 

Had we both been in better shape at this point we would have gotten out our maps and had a sober discussion about the best descent options. Had we been more prepared still, we would have had several descent routes marked on our maps for various conditions/situations. Instead, I crafted a quick plan in my head based on the only other route I had beta on on the north aspect: the Hotlum-Bolam ridge. Ironically, this was the worst option since it is the second to most technical route after the way we got up. 

Once Jamie caught up to me he really wanted to rest. Wanting really badly to start getting the fuck down, I needed my partner to be able to walk, so I let him slumber for a couple of minutes. The sun was still high, just after 6 pm. Looking down to the west the town below us seem so quaint and peaceful  — such a stark contrast to how I was internally grappling with the scary challenge I knew we had to face of navigating down unknown terrin at night on this foreboding mountain. 

 

 I woke Jamie up and announced the plan. He was not coping but I made it clear we had to go down. So we did.

Scrambling slowly through the tallus, I was keen to gain sight of the ridge proper before dark to understand if there was was much ice that had to be traversed and down climbed. We could only move as fast as we could, and I knew Jamie needed water since he had lost a lot of fluids. I was thirsty too. I also knew we were running out of fuel. Once clear of another sketchy band of overhanging choss I could gain a little height and get a look at the situation ahead: a gnarly low angle ice field separated us and the rest of our descent path. 

 

We stopped and I melted snow till all the fuel was done. We had 3/4 of a liter of water to share. Jamie drank his and I some of mine. I forced us both to eat a bit and then explained that we need to get across the ice below us asap. The section we hade to traverse wasn’t longer than an ice hockey rink, but an unroped slip would send you down an ever steepening slope towards certain death.

Night fell. I tied in to lead across the ice. Jamie belayed me standing on a patch of snow. Trying to run the entire 50 m of rope I put in 4 screws before one of my crampons popped. Sinking the tools in the ice gave me leverage to stabilize on a ledge. I shouted that I was setting up an anchor. Half squatting, half hanging, I belayed Jamie across. The thrill of down-traversing ice  seemed to reinvigorate him, he moved fast and casual pulling out pro till he slipped and swung around right below me. That really woke him up. He climbed up to me and announced that he was feeling better and ready to lead.  

Jamie was switched back to ON mode. What a fucking relief. He brought us over the remaining ice field with another two diagonal pitches and a short V-threaded rappel. It was 10 pm and pitch black. We were standing on snow and tallus. For now. Temps were dropping and a wind was picking up. Opting between staying on the ridge proper — which we could not see much of due to the steeping angle and opaque darkness, and the gully between it and a south branch of the ridge, we stupidly went for the gully without properly consulting our maps. We desperately wanted to speed up the descent.

After walking down a few hundred feet of scree we bumped into the glacier. Bare, hard, slippery, and steep as hell. The only way to continue down was to start a long subsequence of V threaded rappels.

I began setting them up since I had the tool  and know how. It was tedious. We went for over 2 hours, then Jamie said we had to improve our strategy as we got 75’ lower per rap and were still at 12,500’. It was past 1 am. I agreed. I tried to traverse sideways on my next rap towards the ridge proper to gain some snow or rocky ground that could be down climbed or walked on. Tension traversing at too much of an angle made my crampon pop again as I was at the end of the line. I took a long pendulum swing across the ice with my knees as the bumper.

Jamie came down after me and took over the V threading and leading. I was really happy he did at this point, my mind had started getting mushy and I was increasingly worried I would keep making mistakes. He seemed much sharper than me and in control. I am really glad Jamie is my partner, everyone else I know would have completely freaked out at this point. I guess I do not do these things with anyone else.
 
Five raps later we had gained a steep but snowy section on the ridge. We unroped and walked carefully, our headlamps revealing about 25’ of terrain at the time. We walked until we ran into more ice. Every section of the ridge below us was covered, so we had no chice but resorting back to V-threads again. “I wish you had brought a 50 m as well” Jamie said. I agreed. We descended slowly and kept traversing repellers right/West, hoping we would hit snow again. Thankfully we eventually did, and thankfully the topo showed a mellowing of the slope angle before us.

It was around 4:30 am. The thin leather work gloves I wore over my liners didn’t deter the cold, but apart from that I would only shiver if  we stopped moving.

By now I think we both knew that the rest of the way to the tent could be done walking, provided we stayed clear of the glacier. We trekked on, Jamie kept referring to the topo, and for a second we sliped on to the snow covered Bolam Glacier, then nearly back on the Hotlum but managed to stay on the snow and scree as the angle kept mellowing. 

Relieved we had managed to not die by slipping a few thousand feet down glacial ice, we sat down on some rocks. I pulled out the water bottle I had kept worm inside my jacket. It contained a couple of mouth fulls which we shared.

Once the map confirmed we could start traversing Southeast towards the tent we did so. The tent was not far as the crow flies, but 6 large lateral moraines divided us from our camp. We were both pretty spent by this point, at least I felt so. Nevertheless, the warmth of the morning was several hours away and we had to keep going. 

Starting what we named the Hotlum moraine traverse — the absolutely least fun and dumbest part of this adventure. I won’t write about this part. I’ll just say that it went on for hours and it sucked. The sun came up, my crampon popped off and I wanted to throw it into the nearest crevasse, but had to keep it on for the traverse on the moraine.

During our descent Jamie made the comment “at least we get a lot of good training in doing all this shit, we’ll be much better on our next climb”. Good point. It was great to realize that we are fit enough to keep going for more than a day if we needed to. And so long as one of us stayed switched on at all times we had a good chance making it alive. At 8:30 am on Monday morning we got to the tent. Having virtually no water over the past 13 hours had dried us out. My mouth felt like leather inside I and could not swallow, my throat was soar and I was loosing my voice. Jamie felt pretty bad too. We started melting water with Jamie’s backup stove. We brewed and ate and experienced alpine amnesia right away as we started talking about Mt Rainier in early June. I said we had to do the North ridge of Mt Baker first and then we would be totally game for Liberty Ridge. Then I passed out in the tent.

I woke up to my alarm at 3 pm. Jamie was half asleep outside. We had decided to walk out to the car before nightfall. In half zombie mode we packed up and started the shlep out. The snow was real soft again and we had to posthole the first bit down to the road.

We returned the truck marooned on the snowy logging road 60 hours after we had left to it. I had intermittent cell service around and told back home that we were alive.

Next morning we started off for the highway to call the tow people to get the truck out. Jamie said we should InReach for the Sheriff to pick us up in case we didn’t get service soon. I agreed, but had my hopes we would make it to town pretty soon. A few miles down the road a crew of loggers were in full swing. They did not find it weird that we came walking out of the forest, nor did they want to talk to us. We got some cellservice and started calling for help. A logging truck came by and a flagged it down. 

The logger dropped us a mile from the highway. As I had had enough of walking and fucking around I tried stopping each car passing us. A super cool hippie from Mt Shasta picked us up in his 4x4 Mitsubishi. He took us to town and explained all we needed to know to sort our selves out from there. A night at Cold Creek Inn and 24 hours later we had the truck back and it ran. We drove home to Southern California. 

Gear Notes:
50m dry rope, 8 mm. 7 ice screws. 4 alpine draws, 4 quick draws. 1 V thread tool. A pair of tools and a pair of crampons each.

Approach Notes:
Long, 11 miles from car to trailhead. See story.
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Great write-up of a bonafide "soft epic" (full-on shit show where nothing really disastrous happens). If you get through one of those at the beginning of your climbing career and want to go back for more, you're a climber.

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9 hours ago, bigeo said:

Great write-up of a bonafide "soft epic" (full-on shit show where nothing really disastrous happens). If you get through one of those at the beginning of your climbing career and want to go back for more, you're a climber.

Thanks dude, it was a total soft epic haha. Hell yeah we're going for more, planning Rainier now!

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Nice work and a great read! Sounds like you guys had so much “fun.”  

Never heard the term “soft epic” before—love it. I confess that it took me more trips than it should have to stop having those. 

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On 4/26/2021 at 1:49 PM, emanuelrohss said:

The truck could be dealt with later, the mountain had to be climbed now.

My favorite passage, sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Glad you got your summit and your asses whooped, thanks for the wonderful post <3

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On 2021-04-27 at 2:29 PM, Nolan E Arson said:

Nice work and a great read! Sounds like you guys had so much “fun.”  

Never heard the term “soft epic” before—love it. I confess that it took me more trips than it should have to stop having those. 

Thanks for reading!

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On 2021-04-28 at 8:42 PM, nonbasketless said:

My favorite passage, sets the tone for the rest of the story.

Glad you got your summit and your asses whooped, thanks for the wonderful post <3

Haha yeah that def sets the tone - appreciate your comments!

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