Well known mountaineers and climbers have come to Shasta to test their endurance over the past decades and centuries. John Muir climbed the mountain in the late 1800’s in 4 hours and 20 minutes. Norman Clyde in the 1923 took the record down to 2 hours and 43 minutes. In 1925 an 18 year old kid named David Lawyer showed up to the first and only Mount Shasta Marathon race winning in a time of 2 hours and 24 minutes. Lawyer, who was an outsider to the area, had hopped a box car to Dunsmuir just a week or two before this race. His little known adolescent exploits would awe even today’s most enthusiastic mountain lovers. From the time he was 7 he roamed in the mountains constantly as a trapper, climber, and hiker. He was an endurance monster often covering 30-50 miles in the mountains in a day, day after day. It is what he was drawn to do. On race day July 5, 1925 he was behind local man McCoy until over 13,000 feet on Misery Hill when he overtook the worn out man. Lawyers time was not bested until 60 years later. His was truly a record that stood the test of time. Awesome detail of the 1925 Mount Shasta Marathon race here
“I could never see running a marathon along some prescribed course, pounding the pavement,” I only get energized to push myself if my spirit enjoys it, when I can get inspired by the energy of a pristine place that is wild and untouched”. -Robert Webb 1985 (former record holder and Horse Camp Caretaker)
When I first began guiding on Mount Shasta in the summer of 2012 I quickly figured out what the record for climbing to the summit was. 1 hour 39 minutes and 26 seconds from the Horse Camp Cabin by Robert Webb in 1985. I really had no idea if this was fast or not. I had only climbed Shasta a handful of times and always with heavy ski gear on my back and feet. That May I decided I would try my hand. I think the owner of Shasta Mountain Guides, Chris Carr, was skeptical at best. I heard later that he told some of the other guides he didn’t think I’d go under the women’s record of 2 hour 13 minutes.
That first attempt I did manage to go under the women’s record, but not Robert Webb’s. I clocked just over 1 hour and 45 minutes. Close, but not really close, not close enough to taste it anyway. I thought I could do better so about one month later I decided to try again. On July 3 2012 a bunch of guide buddies of mine along with our friend Jenn Shelton were camped out in the woods below Bunny Flat. The guides had decided they would do me a massive favor and carry all my ski gear up the mountain so I could rip turns down after setting the record. A day or two before this I was contacted by a guy named Rickey Gates. I had never met Gates, but I knew of him. A number of years before this I had set the record for fastest round trip time on Yosemites Half Dome. Rickey was the one who broke my record there. He asked me if he could join my Shasta FKT attempt this time. Not one to desired diluted competition I quickly said yes he should come. I figured all the better, we’d have a real race this time. I was a cocky bastard to think I’d have a shot at beating Ricky. This guy had been traveling the world racing the best mountain runners on the planet for the better part of a decade. I was just young and brash enough to think I was better. Around 8pm that night he pulled into our camp on a sheep skin seated touring motorcycle; Full bodied red mustache and boyish grin blazing.
The race unfolded as anyone with a deep experience of the sport would have expected. I was still trying to run up the mountain as I was a runner after all. Less than half way to the summit I watched Ricky masterfully powerhike away from me with a force I could not match. I reached the top one minute faster than my previous time clocking 1 hour 44 minutes, Rickey, who had never even been to Mount Shasta before stopped the time at 1 hour 38 minutes and 10 seconds, eclipsing the 27 year old record of Webb. I still had a lot to learn, that much was clear.
My fascination with mountains and running and records is something i cannot remember not having. I am sure it developed for some reason at some point in time, but my memory is short. During my my early days of college I was lucky enough to become friends with Ryan Matz, another Nor Cal runner who was way more into the mountains than running very much like me. We fast became skiing, running, and climbing partners, still are today. My first summit on Shasta was with Matz. I climbed in alpine ski boots, tore my pants with unaccustomed cramponed feet. We climbed and skied the East Face of Mount Shasta. It was one of the best days of my life.
Taken on my first climb of the mountain.
Avalanche Gulch on one of my early climbs of the mountain
Looking up at the line we’d just skied from 13,000ft down to 9,500ft.
After my first two attempts on Shasta’s record I was not deterred. I continued making attempts in the years that followed but none were successful. I had to turn back on one, and on the others I only managed similar times in the 1 hour and 44 minute region. I began to have thoughts that maybe I was only a 1:44 guy, like that was all my physical body could do.
On climb morning this year my friend Cole and I woke up at 4am, ate some breakfast here in Ashland and then headed down to the trail head at Bunny Flat. Cole had never climbed a mountain like Shasta before; never been on steep snow and ice. But he is a 1:03 half marathon runner, (much faster than my 1:09) and he wanted to climb the mountain. I figured why not let him take a crack at the record with me. We arrived at roads end, got our permits and gathered up our gear. We then jogged and hiked the 2 miles and 1000ft of vertical up to Horse Camp where the official start of the climb would begin.
Getting ready at the car.
Entering the Wilderness
Horse Camp Cabin built in 1922
The Horse Camp Cabin has been a gathering place on the mountain for almost a century now. It’s simple stone structure is inviting in harsh winter storms and summer rains. There is a spring that runs here in the summer that produces some of the best water on the planet, worth the hike just to get a bottle for yourself. This is where the climb begins for Cole and I, just as it did for Rickey, Robert Webb, and David Lawyer.
At Horse Camp making last minute prep before taking off the warm ups
Of course there is not starting gun for this race. Just a simple let’s go. We started two watches each (one GPS and one simple Timex back up if the GPS failed as they often do). The first 10 minutes or so were dry ground this year, following Olberman’s causeway, a path of rocks placed meticulously back in the 1920’s by one man and a crowbar over 7 years. We followed this path to reach the top of Spring Hill where we could drop into the climbers gulch and get to snow. Many find it counter intuitive that traveling on snow would be faster than on dry ground, but on this mountain it is much much faster. We quickly changed shoes into our modified track spikes that would take us to the top over the frozen snow. What we brought was the lightest most minimal way to climb the mountain. If there had been bad weather, wind, or any other challenges we would have likely turned around with our limited gear.
Spikes on headed up
Early on during the climb Cole and I exchanged the lead once or twice. After about 20 minutes, approaching the steep climb to Lake Hellen, Cole began to feel his lack of power hiking experience and fell off the pace. I was surprised that he did so this early in the climb, but it shows that on the spectrum of running roads and scaling near vertical peaks, climbing Shasta falls somewhere in between.
As Cole fell back I drew more into the task at hand. I knew from my prior attempts that I needed to commit to a faster pace from the start. I had a goal of being under 38 minutes at Lake Hellen (10,400ft). When I came over the crest I looked at my watch for the first time, 37:26. I took my only gel and a few sips of water here as the slope eased off a bit. I knew this was the only time I’d have to get that stuff in as the rest of the climb would be red lined. I began to measure my effort to hopefully leave enough to make it all the way without completely blowing up. Pacing on a mountain like Shasta is interesting, all you really have is your effort. Mile splits are meaningless.
I approached the Red Banks, the steepest section of the climb, still feeling like I could push. Once on top of the Red Banks you are at 13,000ft and can start to taste the summit. I looked down at the watch as I crested the highest point in the cliff band, 1:20:56. I had a vague idea of what splits I’d need where. Having only 17 minutes to get up Misery Hill, across the Summit Plateau, and finally up the Summit Pinnacle seemed like a tall order. I had to find that last bit of strength, that last bit of aerobic capacity in air decidedly less rich in oxygen. I thought about my wife and the baby she is about to have. I knew I didn’t want to let my fledgling family down. Natalie believes in me almost too much, and I couldn’t let that belief be misplaced.
The last 15 minutes of the climb were pure tunnel vision. I passed a few climbers making their final push to the summit. I tired to wave as I went by, but mostly I looked like an insane person wearing shorts and breathing far too hard to be rational. I hit the top of Misery (13,800ft) where I could finally see the true summit. I had to run the next section as it’s more or less flat. While it was not a good looking run it was a necessary one. There was no time to spare. I began the final pitch of steep snow when I realized it was going to be too close to call. I saw a tongue of snow leading on a super steep but direct route to the top so I dropped my poles and went into a bit of a bear crawl. Every muscle in my lower extremities was on fire. Only 100 vertical feet from the top I still didn’t know if I would get the time or not. It wasn’t until 30 seconds were left that I let myself look down at the watch and accept that I had actually done enough.
This is exactly how it felt.
Thanks for taking the time to read about my journey. All records break and surely this one will too, sooner than later I would presume, if enough people read this blog post. Next summer in early July a few people might take a shot. This is just a snapshot in time as Mount Shasta will continue to dominate the hearts and minds of this region for centuries to come. In the end, the mountain always wins.
To see the GPS data from the climb go here
Actual Time (include not moving time) 1:37:05
All photos other than the summit taken by my friend Skyer. He does good work and lives in Northern California.