I look up the steep snowfield on Mt. Shasta’s southwest side, aptly dubbed Avalanche Gulch. Half of our party is fifty yards uphill, resting on an outcropping of rock. It is dawn, the sun somewhere hidden behind the 14,179-foot peak towering still thousands of feet above.
I hear a whizzing noise and then I see it: a rock, the size of a watermelon, hurtling past the other climbers and towards us. “Rock!” I yell. “Move!”
I step to my right. Lynette Cox, slight, and wearing a blue jacket turns her head, and before she can gasp, is struck in her arm. Standing no more than two feet away, I think I see the rock then slam into Kim Barone’s backside. Isis Keigwin made a fast move, slipped and is now sliding down the slope.
By the time she comes to rest the two other women are splayed out on the snow. The rock lays, stopped, ten feet below, all its momentum having been transferred into Lynette and Kim.
My stomach lurches. How bad are they injured, I ask myself, worried, downright scared.
Isis is rattled but fine. Kim looks like she has seen a ghost and complains that her bottom hurts. Lynette is subdued, says she is okay, but ads in a murmur, “my arm hurts.” Later we would see the contusions painting her left arm like a talentless tattoo artist, but for now she and the two others are resolute; they aren’t going to give up. No, they are going to climb to the top of this mountain.
Thirteen of us assembled in the City of Mt. Shasta two days before as part of a climb I had organized to raise funds for the California Youth Connection (CYC), a foster youth led and run advocacy organization that has been at the heart of legislative change to California’s child welfare system for the past two decades.
The characters drawn to this endeavor could have come straight out of central casting.
We had Mike Jones, the director of a program called Courageous Connection, which helps hundreds of Sacramento foster youth navigate high school. His climb ended on day one, a thousand feet below base camp despite downing a 5-hour Energy drink before we set off.
CYC’s Executive Director Joseph Tietz and the organization’s highly capable administrative assistant, Angela Martin joined for moral and logistical support. Earnie Sherrard, who volunteers as an “adult supporter” for CYC’s Los Angeles chapter had driven one of the youth joining the climbing party ten hours from Southern California to the state’s northernmost reaches.
Orville Thomas, one of Fostering Media Connection’s summer fellows and a second year student at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, would make it a little past base camp, turning back in the dark of 3:30 AM while laboring up a snowfield.
Hunter Holcombe, a producer with Current TV and this adventure’s cameraman, came with a friend, Colin Murphy, who he had met while bartending in San Francisco’s rowdy Marina years before.
Somehow, I managed to convince my college friend Kim Barone to come up despite never having climbed anything close to this. Much like Kim, CYC’s accountant Lynette Cox readily agreed without any prior experience. Isis Keigwin, the Camellia Network’s strategist, would shake off the fearful rock fall and find a rhythm up the mountain.
Finally, two former foster youth and current CYC members also joined us: Kevin Clark and Crystal del Valle. Both would make it to the top.
Two thousand feet above where the rock slammed into Lynette and Kim, we reach the Red Banks, a wall of red volcanic rock that marks the top of Avalanche Gulch at 12,800-feet and the crux of the climb. Hunter, Colin and Kevin are all far above, having navigated the steep, icy gully leading through the Red Banks, which Crystal, Lynette, Isis and I now are looking up at.
Isis is directly behind me as I follow the women up. At the bottleneck of the gap, Crystal loses her footing. Kim grabs her from the back and I clutch her foot saving her from falling and sending the four of us down the steep slope and back down Avalanche Gulch. Shaken, Crystal gets up and moves forward.
We soon make it out of the worst and are staring up another 500-foot snowfield after which stands Misery Hill, a long set of switchbacks that take climbers up to roughly 14,000-feet and the summit plateau.
“I don’t know how much more I’ve got,” Isis says matter of factly. Lynnette asks how far it is to the top. Kim is silent. Crystal presses the point end of her ice axe in the snow and rests her head on the top.
“Do you want to go down,” I ask Crystal.
“Now, I am just super tired.”
I give her water and an energy bar. She offers Isis a bite. Then one-by-one the four women find their inner strength. Lynette takes off for the top, quickly leaving the three of us behind. Kim extends her legs wide on each step, willing herself up the slope; and Isis carefully zigzags up, her feet perpendicular to the 30-degree incline. Crystal pushes on for ten feet, rests, repeats. I tie her shoelaces tighter and she moves on, stronger with each step.
In less than an hour we are at the base of Misery Hill, the sun now shining on our faces. The wind whips over the shoulder of the mountain, the air cold and thin above 13,000-feet. I head up and the four women follow.
“You look like the walking dead,” I call back as they trudge through the scree, kicking up dust. I sit and wait. They catch up and the mood has changed. They are tired, but far from beaten.
Together we make it to the snowy summit plateau, the wind stronger now and the air colder still. Very near the top we cross paths with Hunter, Colin and Kevin on their way down. I ask them to wait for us below so that we can descend through the Red Banks together.
“I’ll go back up,” Kevin says. He wants to be with his “sister” from the foster care system, Crystal. I scurry up the last section, and wait for the group at the top. Crystal walks toward me. The wind is howling.
“How do you feel?” I yell.
“To all of you who thought I wouldn’t make it, who thought I’d be on drugs, wouldn’t go to
college, would have a bunch of babies… I made it to the top of mother f_cking Mt. Shasta,” she says defiantly.
I doubt she or Kevin will stop there.
The evening after the climb, I told my father about the rock and the adventure.
“There is always a story on Shasta,” he said.
Of all the stories I have from my four trips up that mountain, this one is the best. Members from three non-profit organizations focusing on foster youth – Fostering Media Connections, Camellia Network and Courageous Connection – banded together to support a fourth: CYC. In all, the climbers raised more than $7,500.00 for CYC. But most importantly, five novice climbers made it to the top. Two absorbed the brutal force of what could easily have been deadly rock fall; and two former foster youth who had to scale so many figurative mountains before this one made the arduous climb without a complaint.
That is a story worth telling.
Daniel Heimpel is the Executive Director of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change.