Mount Shasta can be a harsh host pretty much any time of year. The mountain is particularly nasty in the winter, when icy winds can reach 75 mph and sudden snowstorms leave unlucky climbers no choice but to dig an ice cave and crawl inside to hide.
Nearing the summit on a recent climb, Deborah Steinberg of Modesto found that the 14,179-foot mountain sometimes poses another problem: bathroom privacy.
Of course, this is less an issue for male climbers, many of whom may view the great outdoors as one big toilet. It's a different matter, however, when nature calls a woman above the tree line. Steinberg learned this as she climbed while tethered to two other male climbers working their way up a ridge.
"Basically, if you're going to go to the bathroom, it's fairly public," she said. "When you're up that high, there are no trees to hide behind. You just have to tell people to turn around.
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"There was one place we were where the slope was probably about 50 degrees and you don't look down because it's scary. So you don't want to take off your harness to go to the bathroom unless you were about to lose it. For a woman, it's a pain. You'd have to stop everyone and tell them to turn around. I just held it for hours until we got up to the top of the ridge. That's really all you can do."
Yes, climbing a mountain is all about fighting the tiny battles within the war. And Steinberg, 45, did win the war, reaching the Shasta summit on the third day of the four-day expedition. Steinberg, Adrian Crane of Modesto and Mark Richardson of Oakdale were among seven of 13 climbers who took advantage of good weather to reach the summit.
For those who never will climb a mountain in winter (Don't feel bad: That's most of us), here are some snippets of what it's like trekking through snow and ice atop California's northernmost 14,000-footer.
'A real mountain'
Crane, 52, was the most experienced climber in the group. Years ago, he came within 2,000 feet of the summit of Mount Everest before he had to turn back because his party ran short of oxygen bottles. In comparison, one might think Shasta, at less than half the height of Everest, would seem like a fairly easy winter climb. Not so.
"It's almost true to say Shasta can be every bit as challenging as Everest," Crane said. "And it's certainly true to say Shasta in tough weather is tougher than Everest in good weather. I've been up there every year for the last 15 years, and half the time, it's been nasty, with howling blizzards and whiteouts. I've put several camps in at 10,000 feet and never been able to get higher. That's what makes it a real mountain. You never know if you'll be able to summit."
Technology at 14,000 feet
On the climb, Richardson, 44, carried with him a GPS receiver and a beacon that enabled those in lower elevations to track how the climb was going. The technology also used a Web site called www.findmespot.com, which sent update messages to anyone who registered before the expedition. Those who registered received e-mails or text messages with a link showing the party's GPS coordinates that, when opened in a Google Maps browser, displayed any recent progress. The location of the party was updated every 10 minutes.
When Steinberg and the other members of the group reached the top, many called their family members and friends. In case anyone is wondering, Verizon service works atop the Shasta summit, but AT&T does not.
Lost in the ice field
Somewhere along the way of what she later described as "a life-changing trip," Steinberg fought off doubts about her summit chances by reminding herself that the current conditions were perfect and likely would not coalesce again. She was healthy and in good shape and she already was well up a mountain that usually didn't offer such perfect weather in February. These truths fueled her now-or-never resolve.
But those thoughts -- and many others in a climber's mind -- come and go at will in a surreal stretch of territory known as the ice field. It's a sweeping flat area roughly 300 yards long that seems to stretch on endlessly just below the final 200-foot push to the summit.
"You're still aware you're there, but the altitude is getting to your brain and it gives you a real spooky feeling," Steinberg said. "The field is covered with little slivers of ice sticking up. Each time you step, the ice crunches and your foot sinks. So you trudge across this long field, and it feels like you're trudging in slow-moving sand.
"And you can see the summit ahead the whole time, and you keep walking. But the closer you get, the farther away it seems. It's like you're walking forever. It's almost like a dream because you're a little spacey. You definitely couldn't do math up there."
View from the top
The view from the summit of Mount Shasta is like few other places on Earth. From the top of most mountains above 14,000 feet, the surrounding landscape usually includes other nearby mountains and hills, drastically obscuring the sightlines. But Shasta seems to jut impossibly from the valley floor, giving those atop the summit a strong feeling of altitude.
"There's Mount Lassen to the southeast, and almost directly north you can see Mount Hood (in northern Oregon) clear as day," Richardson said. "And looking west all the way to the north is all the Cascade Mountains and the Trinity Alps covered in snow. It's all very pretty."
Steinberg said the view from the mountain, which has a reputation of mythical proportions, also is beautiful at night.
"Our advanced base camp was above the tree line at about 9,800 feet, and the views in every direction were just breathtaking," she said. "Far down below, you can see the lights of Shasta City. You can see Mount Lassen off the distance. And then you look behind and there's the rest of Shasta you haven't climbed yet. We had a full moon, so I spent a lot of time just looking at the mountain reflected in the moonlight. And at the end of the day, you're kind of tired and enjoying your exhaustion. The silence is wonderful up there."
I hated it. Let's go again
Speaking by telephone last week, Steinberg said the group reassembled after the climb for one last lunch together before parting ways. During lunch, she said, she asked Crane what the next adventure was; Crane mentioned wanting to climb all 12 of California's 14,000-footers, and unofficial plans quickly developed.
However, Crane remembered the details a little differently. His version likely speaks volumes about how many people feel after a winter climb to the Shasta summit and back.
"Actually, Deborah's first words were, 'Well, I'm glad I've done that so I don't have to do it again,'" Crane said, laughing. "And then a day later, she's talking about wanting to climb all the 14,000-footers."
Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 874-5716.