Lonely as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests of Northern California.
– Joaquin Miller
Mount Shasta rises in solitary grandeur from the edge of a comparatively low and lightly sculptured lava plain near the northern extermity of the Sierra, and maintains a far more impressive and commanding individuality than any other mountain within the limits of California. Go where you may, within a radius of fifty to one hundred miles or more, there stands before you the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in ice and snow, the one grand, unmistakable landmark – the pole-star of the landscape.
– John Muir
It hasta be Shasta.
– 1950s advertising slogan
Mount Shasta is unique. Statistics tell only part of the story. You can read, for instance, that Shasta is the fifth-highest mountain in California by height above sea level: that doesn’t tell you that all of the four higher ones – and the next 20 lower ones – are clustered together more than 300 miles to the south, in the Sierra. Shasta is just the second-highest mountain in the Cascade Range: but the only higher one is Mt Rainier, two states away, and all Cascade peaks within 200 miles of Shasta – all peaks, actually, of any kind – are at least 4,000 feet lower. Using a different measure of altitude, prominence – meaning a mountain’s height above its base – Shasta comes in second in California to Mt Whitney. But Whitney’s great prominence exists only on its east side; Shasta’s exists pretty much all the way around the mountain. It dominates the scenery from every possible angle. The tallest peak in the 10,000-square-mile Klamath Mountain System, Mt Eddy, is a respectable 9,037 feet high, with a prominence of more than 5,000 feet. But it has the misfortune of sitting directly across the pass at the head of the Sacramento Valley from Shasta, so it rarely receives more than a second glance from the stream of tourists flowing between the two mountains along Interstate 5, their eyes all fixed irrevocably on the white monster to the east.
Back in the reckless days of my youth, I attempted Shasta twice. The first time, climbing with my brother Jack and two friends while I was still in college, I didn’t get quite all the way to the top: we gave up at the edge of the summit plateau, slightly over 14,000 feet high but still an eighth of a mile or so from the mountain’s final pinnacle. The second time, though, climbing with just one friend a few years later, I made it all the way. We weren’t exactly alone, either time. Shasta, known among climbers as the “Friendly Giant”, is among the most-climbed 14,000-footers on the planet. It is also a mecca for new-age spiritualists, who crawl all over it every summer. And it has some very lovely wildflower meadows, which is what draw me to it these days. The meadows are very high. Late in the season, when everything else is beginning to dry up, Shasta is just coming alive.
A paved two-lane road, the Everett Memorial Highway, reaches to almost 8,000 feet on the mountain’s south side. A mile before road’s end, at 7,500 feet, is the trailhead for the one-mile loop trail through Panther Meadows, one of Shasta’s two premiere meadow systems. At the very end of the road, almost at timberline, are two more trailheads. One trail rambles east around the mountain for two miles to South Gate Meadows, Shasta’s other premiere meadow system; the other climbs upward along what was once the maintenance road for the Mt Shasta Ski Bowl’s chair lifts. The Ski Bowl was destroyed by an avalance in 1978, and has since been moved to a safer spot a bit further down and several miles further east. The Old Ski Bowl Trail, as it is officially known, is still there. It’s a mile and a half long, and reaches an altitude of 9,400 feet. This was our primary goal. On the way up, we would also stop for a quick look at Panther Meadows.
Thursday was our only available day for hiking, and we needed to get to the weekly Medford farmers’ market that same day, so we got a late start, leaving for Shasta around 9:30 AM with the Bolt’s range already down six miles due to the drive to and from the market. That, lunch, and a fifteen-minute construction delay on a back road that was theoretically supposed to save us some range meant that we didn’t reach the Panther Meadows trailhead until noon. Surprisingly, given the beauty of the day and the popularity of the mountain, we found the parking lot only 3/4 full. The meadows were gorgeous, full of red paintbrush and yellow arnica, with the white and brown bulk of the snow-streaked mountain looming over them like a protective spirit. A scatter of smaller flowers and a dance of mountain water – Panther Creek runs down the center of the meadows – made joyous companions on our walk, stretching it somewhat longer than originally intended.
We were back in the car by a little after two, driving on up the highway to the big parking lot at its end. Before turning off the motor, I made a mental note of the range and battery indicators. 98 miles left on the GOM – 34 kwhs of juice used up, four kwhs past the midpoint of the 60-kwh battery. We were 101 miles from home and had 26 kwhs left to get there. Hmmmm. Since we would also be dropping more than 6,000 feet, I wasn’t really worried; but I do have to admit to a certain curiosity about how it was all going to work out.
We were on the Old Ski Bowl trail for most of the rest of the afternoon. All of that trail lies essentially above timberline. The only trees are in widely scattered, tight little groves, and they grow increasingly smaller and scarcer as you ascend; by the time we reached our turnaround point, the only “trees” left had been beaten down to knee-high krummholz by the altitude and the weather. You walk on loose volcanic rock up there, with occasional patches of sand. Surprisingly, perhaps, there are quite a few flowers; but they are almost all different species from the ones down in the meadows. Coyote mint, and pussy’s paws, and a species of lupine I couldn’t quite identify. Several buckwheats, including the malodorous and well-named “dirty socks”. Large numbers of tall western pasqueflowers, past bloom and showing off the tousled, hairy-looking round seedheads that give them their other common name – “old man of the mountains”.
At 9200 feet, the trail disappeared beneath a steep snowbank. Ten years ago – probably even five years ago – that wouldn’t have stopped us; but at 77 and almost-77, we have grown more cautious. It was already after 4:00. Conveniently, the back end of the loop started just a few feet back from the snowbank. We turned onto it and started down.
A few hundred yards below the junction, the mountain worked a bit of magic: we came over a small lip and there, just below the edge, was a small circle of springs and a streamlet, just a few inches wide, flowing from them down the steep mountainside. The springs and the streamlet supported a tiny meadow, and the meadow was full of meadow flowers – paintbrush mostly, though there was also heather and monkey flower and a smattering of others. That high, and that close to its underground source, the water seemed certain to be potable. I pulled the 110-year-old collapsible aluminum drinking cup that once belonged to my grandfather from my waist pack and stuck it beneath a tiny four-inch “waterfall” a few feet below one of the springs. Our family name for this is “earth juice”. It was transparent, and ice-cold, and tastier than plain water anywhere has any right to be.
We were back at the car by a little after 5:00. I left the central dashboard screen on its kilowatt-hour display so we could watch regeneration feed the battery during our descent: it had climbed three kwhs by the time we reached Mt Shasta City, 12 miles and 5,000 feet down, and the GOM now read 134 miles. We would get home. A quick supper at a fast-food place and we hit the freeway, watching the sun drop toward and eventually behind the Klamath Mountains. It was almost exactly 8:00 when we pulled into the driveway. The Bolt’s gauges showed 16 kwhs in the battery and 48 miles of range left. The two humans in the Bolt were bone-tired, exalted, and in full agreement with all three of the quotes at the head of this post. I dropped off to sleep that night thinking about earth juice.