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September 12, 1862: Mount Shasta

September 12, 2012

Another view south from summit

View south from Mt. Shasta summit; by Barking Cats, on Flickr

Camp 99

I awake—surely it is time, but my watch tells me it is only eleven o’clock. An hour later the thing is repeated.

The next thing I hear is Professor Whitney arousing the party—it is after two o’clock. All are soon astir; breakfast is soon got by the bright light of the moon. Hoffmann keeps his blankets; he does not feel strong enough after his recent sickness to make the attempt, and great is his disappointment. He stays to observe barometer.

It is nearly half-past three when we at last get fairly under way. Before us, in silent majesty, lies the immense mountain mass. How cold its snows look in the bright moonlight! All are anxious, for there is the uncertainty as to whether we can succeed.

For half a mile or more the route lies over loose blocks of lava, or dry, sandy, ashy soil; then we strike a strip of snow lying in a gulch, and up this we follow. But what a path! Such a grade! Hour after hour we toil on it—the bright moon gives way to gray dawn, and then the sun comes up and gilds the summit ahead and throws its dark shadows into the valleys below—and yet we are on that slope. Both at the right hand and the left are sharp ridges. The lava first wreathed into curious forms when it flowed down there, then, in later times, weathered into fantastic shapes—walls, battlements, pinnacles shooting up hundreds of feet, more forms than can be described.

The ascent continues to grow steeper as we approach the red bluffs, a wall of yellow or red lava and ashes. For two thousand feet or more below it the average slope is not less than forty degrees. At last we mount this wall. It is eight o’clock, and we are now thirteen thousand feet up. That snowy slope of five thousand feet perpendicular has not carried us on at most over two miles horizontal distance!

Avalanche Gulch & Casaval Ridge; photo courtesy of Bob Burd

The last thousand feet has been hard—the air is so light that one is very short winded, must stop often, and resting does not appear to restore the strength. One pants for more air, but the air refuses to strengthen him. It is now very cold; we stop on the sunny side of this rocky wall to rest and hang up a barometer to see how high we are. We enjoy a scene that bursts on our view from the east—a great gorge filled with snow, perhaps hundreds of feet thick, cracked and melted into fantastic shapes.

We now follow up the ridge. Cold as it has been, the cold wind becomes colder, and Professor Whitney has his fingers frostbitten. We toil on almost in silence, for no one has breath to spare for talk. Our three friends are ahead—two carry canteens of water, the other a canteen of cold coffee. Averill carries a bag containing our lunch, thermometers, etc. Professor Whitney and I generally bring up the rear, for each of us carries a barometer—and had each a baby it would not require more constant vigilance to protect it from injury.

After leaving the red bluffs we had about three and a half hours’ climbing to reach the summit—a part of the way up a steep slope over hard lava, strewn here and there with loose rocks—in fact, it was the same bed that formed the red bluffs. We were often on the snow. We wore colored goggles to protect the eyes when the sun shone.

The day was unfavorable—the first cloudy day of the fall. At times we would be enveloped in cloud, shutting out all distant views; then again the cloud would blow away and disclose glimpses of the landscape two miles beneath us. The snow, especially near the summit, has melted into a very curious form. I never saw anything like it in Switzerland. Imagine the snow sliced, or gashed into slices, from one to four feet deep, the slices running from east to west—not perpendicular, but leaning to the south, or down hill—the slices melted so that they present their sharp edges to the sun. Thus the whole surface was melted, and it made the worst possible going, especially with the barometer to carry, as we had to step on these edges. They were frozen when we went up, so they would generally bear us, but on our return they were thawed, and we broke into these clefts so that the going was worse than ever.

As I said, this is an extinct volcano. About three hundred feet below the highest summit there is a hollow, with very steep ridges rising on two sides, probably once a crater, and in this is a boiling spring, the boiling water and steam charged strongly with sulphurous gases. These frequently make people sick who breathe them. There is much sulphur mixed with the soil and we collected fine specimens.

Mt. Shasta, Summit Plateau

Mt. Shasta summit plateau; by Darcy McCarty, on Flickr

Then came the last hard tug, and at about noon we reached the highest point. This is a mere pinnacle of lava, shooting up into the air—difficult of access, and only reached with some daring. One has but a small hold in climbing on it; I would never trust myself to it on a windy day. It is accessible only by a narrow ridge, while a fall from any one of the other three sides would precipitate one many hundreds of feet below on the rocks.

It was entirely impossible to hang barometers there, so I rigged up a support twenty feet lower and hung both barometers to it. I had to use my coat to shade them from the sun, so I sat and shivered in the cold, for the thermometer was 26° F.

We stayed there an hour and a half. It was curious to note the effect of the thin air and fatigue on the men. All were more or less drowsy and sleepy, all complained of headaches, eyes were bloodshot and red. My lips and fingernails were of a deep blue, so were those of Campbell. But no one bled at the nose, as is common. We lunched, and as some began to get sick, the rest started, leaving Professor Whitney and me with the barometers. The clouds grew thicker before we got through. Averill, Campbell, and Frame all became very sick and vomited severely, from the effect of the rarified air. The barometer stood at only about 17 1/2 inches.

We got only occasional glimpses of the landscape beneath, but enough to show how magnificent it must be in the clearer weather earlier in the season. In the west is a perfect wilderness of mountains extending all the way to the Pacific, chain beyond chain, many with snow on them, all now dim, however, for the valleys are filled with smoke and the tops are more or less obscured by clouds. To the northwest lies the great valley of the Klamath River. In the north are the Siskiyou Mountains, but we saw only glimpses of them. We had no view of the east.

To the south there are mountains for about fifty miles, then the great Sacramento Valley. The latter was entirely filled with smoke and haze, the surface level as the sea, and rising above it was the sharp Lassen’s Butte, remarkably distinct although near a hundred miles distant. It rises like an island of black rock and white snow from this sea of fog, a grand object.

The descent was much more rapid than the ascent. We reached the red bluffs in one hour, a distance that required three and a half hours in the morning to ascend. The fog grew very dense, and so cold that our beards were white as snow, mustaches frozen, and faces blue—the way not plain, and the guide ahead. But when we reached the red bluffs all was then safe, so far as the way was concerned. Then the rest went on, for Professor Whitney and I could not travel half so fast down those steep slopes as the rest, owing to the barometers. Some of them got into camp an hour and a half before we did.

Such a descent—sliding, sometimes on our feet, sometimes on our “bases,” down the soft snow, which the sun had now thawed. The latter mode of descent, although rapid, was soon rendered uncomfortable to me by the giving way of the main seam of my pants, and the consequent introduction of large quantities of snow.

More snow fell also during the last half of the descent, not a storm but rather like a quiet squall. Since noon the clouds had been forming over the sky, which was now nearly covered, at a height of then thousand or eleven thousand feet. When we got below this line, we had a peculiar scene, but the effect was grand. The clouds, like a curtain, cut off all the mountain above us and also the tops of the mountains in the west, but below, the air was smoky, and through this we could see the streaks of sunshine here and there. The effect was very peculiar and striking. Then we saw a heavy shower over the mountains in the northwest.

We got back to camp before dark, found Campbell and Frame asleep in their blankets, pretty well used up. We were all of us tired enough. A hearty supper, a good smoke, and we were soon in our blankets.

It grew very cold, the clouds grew thicker, it grew colder, began to freeze vigorously, and the wind grew high. It snowed quite briskly, quite a fierce squall, decidedly an unpleasant night to be sleeping out. If some of you wish to realize what it was, choose some squally night when the thermometer sinks to 20°, when the snow comes with driving wind, take your blankets and go out on some bleak hill, lie down on the ground and try to sleep and enjoy yourself.

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