“Why don’t you get up and make the coffee, while I stay in my sleeping bag and plan our ascent route?” I half-heartedly ask my climbing partner Hank.
He just looks at me with that unassuming, “give-me-a-break Val Jon” look of his. It’s three o’clock in the morning, cold, dark, and damp, and neither of us wants to leave the comfort of our tent. But we’re committed to this climb, so we don our parkas and gloves and confront the bitter cold.
In silence, Hank and I gather up our gear and join the rest of our climb team assembled at base camp, which is located at eleven thousand feet.
Thirty-three climbers in all have come together for this extraordinary ice climb to the summit of Mount Shasta in Northern California. During our team meeting, we decide to make our ascent via “Avalanche Gulch,” a treacherous glacier route up a steep icy slope. This particular route is shorter than others, but it’s also notorious for its deep crevasses and unstable blue fractures, so one wrong move could mean sudden death.
Ice climbing requires crampons for the boots and ice axes for leverage and braking. Ropes, carabiners, and belays are reserved for near-vertical climbs, which we may or may not need for this particular ascent route.
For those unfamiliar with ice climbing, braking is used when a climber loses their footing on steep slopes. It’s done by grabbing the ax with both hands, flipping onto one’s side, and plunging the sharp metal tong into the ice.
A firmly planted ax serves as an anchor and stabilizes the fallen climber’s position until they can regain their footing. Everyone on the team has practiced the braking procedure many times over along with other vital safety and life-saving protocols.
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