Shasta Brush Strokes
What happens when you combine a vintage ice axe, new snow, and one of California's highest peaks? Dave Campbell from Patagonia's Pro Sales department finds out...
Philip Otero is the facilities guru at Patagonia’s warehouse and service office in Nevada, and some 30 odd years ago when he worked for the forge and hammer operation in Ventura, he stashed away a set of original Chouinard equipment ice axes. He gave them almost zero attention until this winter, when for whatever reason, Big Philly woke them from their sleep and presented them to me with a simple request: to bring them back to life somewhere amazing and raw.
All steel components were caked in rust and the picks were dull, but underneath the rugged exterior of Big Philly’s axes was something exquisite. I subsequently spent multiple lunch breaks refurbishing them in our warehouse shop and before long they were in working condition.
It made the most sense to resurrect them on a mountain in California, so I called on my long-time climbing partner Leif Karlstrom – who spent a significant amount time living on and studying glaciers while earning his PhD from UC Berkley – to help hatch a plan.
The Whitney Glacier of Mt. Shasta’s northern exposure is the longest glacier in California and a true gem. It is unique to the Golden State because it is a true active glacier, complete with huge crevasses, a dramatic icefall and shipping container-sized eruptions of shattered blue ice littered throughout its flow. If you snowboard it and the seasonal snowfields below in their entirety you will have an 8,000 vertical foot run spread over many miles. It seemed like an appropriate place to bring Big Philly’s ice axes.
During winter months, dense storms come raging off the Pacific and hammer Mt. Shasta. The crevasses of the Whitney Glacier fill in with maritime snow and its surface becomes the purest of canvases. The problem is that the same snow that makes the Whitney Glacier snowboardable, also deposits on, and closes down, the dirt road leading to it. For this reason, many seasons pass with zero snowboard descents of the entire Whitney Glacier line.
Leif and I kept a close eye on the weather and with time observed a mid-week storm approaching, with snow levels at 6,000 feet and the forecast for a snap bluebird clearing cycle. Perfect. I could almost hear the gun sound off as the rally car race began toward the north side of the mountain. We parked aside the first impassable road snow slough, at 5,500 feet, and then stuffed our backpacks. When we added 3 days of food and warm clothing to snow-camping, avalanche safety and glacier travel equipment, we had 50 lb packs. Augmented with Big Phil’s Chouinard ice axes of course. We then put them on our backs and began sluggishly skinning up the closed road. At that point the stratosphere’s 14,179 feet summit felt about as near as Neptune.
The trees at 6,000 feet were holding snow, which indicated that we would have light powder at higher elevations. We navigated through 2 days of stormy weather until reaching a stunning camp at around 12,000 feet, where we enjoyed Patagonia Salmon Jerky, salt & vinegar Kettle Chips and Anderson Valley Hop Ottin’ IPA. We awoke fueled for a dream ride and discovered bluebird skies as forecasted. We continued up the center of the Whitney Glacier until reaching the summit plateau.
It’s magical, it’s real and there is something very finite about the environment we found and the brush strokes we left in our wake as we mached down the Whitney Glacier. Once things leveled out we paused to look back at our tracks. I was reminded of Mandala sand paintings, which the Tibetan people spend weeks perfecting, only to complete and then let be taken away by the wind. There is impermanence to everything. Snowboarding on glaciers reminds us of this.
I looked like hell when I returned to work. My face was burned to a crisp below the goggle line, leaving a ridiculous raccoon tan. My lips were fried to a deep red and from afar you may have thought I was wearing cosmetics. Both TM Herbert and Big Phil viewed my absurd appearance with head-tilting laugher, though they punctuated their jesting with genuine praise about the trip, happy that the ice axes maintained their integrity while on the slopes of the Whitney Glacier. To an outsider these fellas could appear to be common janitors, taking a break from the broom to chat with one of the lads from the office. But to me they are larger than life. They are heroes of the west who inspire us cut anchor and hunt the wildest of notions down to the horizon.
[Final photo is Seth Lightcap snowboarding from the summit of Shastina, with a the Whitney Glacier in spring conditions in the background. All photos ©Dave N. Campbell and Leif Karlstrom]