John Muir Festival V: Mount Shasta
(US Geological Survey)
I followed the main Oregon and California stage-road from Redding to Sisson's, and besides trees, squirrels, and beautiful mountain-streams, I came upon some interesting men, rugged, weather-beaten fellows, who, in hunting and mining, had been brought face to face with many a Shasta storm. Most of them were a kind of almanac, stored with curious facts and dates and ancient weather-notes, extending through a score of stormy mountain years. Whether the coming winter was to be mild or severe was the question of questions, and the diligence and fervor with which it was discussed was truly admirable. A picturesque series of prognostications were offered, based by many different methods upon the complexion of the sky, the fall of leaves, the flight of wild geese, etc., each of which seemed wholly satisfactory only to its author.
A pedestrian upon these mountain-roads is sure to excite curiosity, and many were the interrogations put concerning my little ramble. When told that I came from town for an airing and a walk, and that icy Shasta was my mark, I was invariably informed that I had come the wrong time of year. The snow was too deep, the wind too violent, and the danger of being lost in blinding drifts too great. And when I hinted that clean snow was beautiful, and that storms were not so bad as they were called, they closed the argument by directing attention to their superior experiences, declaring most emphatically that the ascent of "Shasta Butte" through the snow was impossible. Nevertheless, I watched the robins eating wild cherries, and rejoiced in brooding over the miles of lavish snow that I was to meet. Sisson gave me bread and venison, and before noon of the 2d of November I was in the frosty azure of the summit.
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The ordinary and proper way to ascend Shasta is to ride from Sisson's to the upper edge of the timber line, a distance of some eight or ten miles the first day, and camp, and rising early push on to the summit, and return the second day. But the deep snow prevented the horses from reaching the camping-ground, and after stumbling and wallowing in the drifts and lava blocks we were glad to camp as best we could, some eight or ten hundred feet lower. A pitch-pine fire speedily changed the climate and shed a blaze of light on the wild lava slope and the straggling storm-bent pines around us. Melted snow answered for coffee-water and we had plenty of delicious venison to roast.
Toward midnight I rolled myself in my blankets and slept until half-past one, when I arose and ate more venison, tied two days' provisions to my belt, and set out for the summit. After getting above the highest flexilis pines it was fine practice pushing up the magnificent snow-slopes alone in the silence of the night. Half the sky was clouded; in the other half the stars sparkled icily in the thin, frosty air, while everywhere the glorious snow fell away from the summit of the cone in flowing folds more extensive and unbroken than any I had ever yet beheld. When the day dawned the clouds were crawling slowly and massing themselves, but gave no intimation of immediate danger. The snow was dry as meal, and drifted freely, rolling over and over in angular fragments like sand, or rising in the air like dust. The frost was intense, and the wind full of crystal dust, making breathing at times rather difficult. In pushing upwards I frequently sank to my arm-pits between buried lava-blocks, but most of the way only to my knees. When tired of walking I still wallowed forward on all fours. The steepness of the slope thirty-five degrees in many places--made any species of progress very fatiguing, but the sublime beauty of the snowy expanse and of the landscapes that began to rise around, and the intense purity of the icy azure overhead thrilled every fibre with wild enjoyment and rendered absolute exhaustion impossible. Yet I watched the sky with great caution, for it was easy to see that a storm was approaching. Mount Shasta rises 10,000 feet above the general level in blank exposure to the deep gulf-streams of air, and I have never been in a labyrinth of peaks and canyons where the dangers of a storm seemed so formidable as here. I was, therefore, in constant readiness to retreat into the timber. However, by half past 10 o'clock I reached the utmost summit.
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Next morning, breaking suddenly out of profound sleep, my eyes opened upon one of the most sublime scenes I ever beheld. A boundless wilderness of storm-clouds of different age and ripeness were congregated over all the landscape for thousands of square miles, colored gray, and purple, and pearl and glowing white, among which I seemed to be floating, while the cone of Shasta above and the sky was tranquil and full of the sun. It seemed not so much an ocean as a land of clouds, undulating hill and dale, smooth purple plains, and silvery mountains of cumuli, range over range, nobly diversified with peaks and domes, with cool shadows between, and with here and there a wide trunk canyon, smooth and rounded as if eroded by glaciers. I gazed enchanted, but cold gray masses drifting hither and thither like rack on a wind-swept plain began to shut out the light, and it was evident that they would soon be marshalled for storm. I gathered as much wood as possible, and snugged it shelteringly around my storm-nest. My blankets were arranged, and the topmost fastened down with stakes, and my precious bread-sack tucked in at my head, I was ready when the first flakes fell. All kinds of clouds began to fuse into one, the wind swept past in hissing floods, and the storm closed down on all things, producing a wild exhilaration.
My fire blazed bravely, I had a week's wood, a sack full of bread, and a nest that the wildest wind could not demolish, and I had, moreover, plenty of material for the making of snow-shoes if the depth of the snow should render them necessary.
The storm lasted about a week, and I had plenty to do listening to its tones and watching the gestures of the flexilis pine, and in catching snow-crystals and examining them under a lensand observing the methods of their deposition as summer fountains.
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Source: Excerpt from "Shasta in Winter," published December 21,1874 in the Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco). You can read the full text here.