30 feet below the cornice of a narrow crevasse, I’m dangling like a marionette on a 9-mil rope, staring in awe at a rippling splinter of luminescent blue ice—the size of a 10-story building—jutting from a rift in the Hotlum glacier. And what’s keeping me from plunging to the bottom? A figure-8-on-bite knot, clipped to a screw-gate carabiner, attached to a harness strapped around my waist and cutting in between my legs. At the top end of my lifeline, a three-point cordellette belay has been set with ice screws into the shady side of a sérac.
A glacier is a living river of ice—constantly shifting, opening, and closing—and it can swallow you alive. Spinning slowly in my harness, teeth chattering, I try to focus. Two bulky lengths of six-mil Perlon cord are knotted around my lifeline and clipped to a second carabiner at my side. Detaching one, I unravel two slip-knot loops and maneuver them over razor-edged steel crampons strapped to my boots.
The second length of cord stretches 18 inches up the main rope and cinches with a gravity knot I can slide and lock into place with downward pressure. I lift both legs perpendicular to the ice wall and push the stirrup knot up to meet the shoulder hitch. Miraculously, it holds my body weight, allows me to loosen the gate on the upper knot and slide it another eighteen inches higher up the rope. This ingenious device is called a Texas Prussic, and I’ve got 28 more feet of practice before I’m out of this unstable deep freeze.
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The Hotlum Hilton
The volcano named after a group of indigenous tribes inhabiting what is now Siskiyou County, looms like a lone white sentinel 14,162 feet above the rolling hills of the lower Cascade Range. None is more massive, or more enshrouded in fantastic and fatuous lore than Shasta. Considered one of the Seven Sacred Mountains of the World, this majestic peak figures prominently in the creation mythology of the Wintu, Karuk, Okwanuchu, Pit River, and Modoc peoples. Shasta is also reputed to be one of the traditional stomping grounds of Bigfoot, the ancient home of displaced Pacific Lemurians, and various “ascended spiritual masters” like Saint Germain—a mysterious blonde person who apparently looks like a cross between Jesus and Bo Derek.
We stow our rope coils and climbing hardware at the tip of the glacier’s mottled tongue and descend back to base camp, a talus-strewn amphitheater at 10,000 feet. Some call this rock garden the “Hotlum Hilton.” An early autumn storm hit Sunday, turning the basin into a ski bowl. Monday morning, we each slogged seventy pounds of gear up Brewer Creek and pitched three-season Trangos, melting snow on the GSR stove for drinking water. But the weather cleared on Tuesday, and we are good to go, exhilarated by the primrose twilight sky and visions of standing on Shasta’s sacred summit in warm September sun
Johnny’s the kind of guy you’d trust with your life, the kind you read about in extreme adventure magazines. Dedicated paramedic. Fearless backcountry ski patrol ranger. Respected mountaineering instructor. Then there’s Paul, a square-jawed environmental engineer with a soft Dublin brogue, and Willy, a lanky, full-bearded computer geek who’s had more experience with an ice ax than either Paul or me. He’s 40, Paul’s 37, and Johnny tells us he’s just celebrated his 33rd birthday.
“How old did you say you were?” Johnny asks. When I tell him, he scratches his scruffy goatee, “Dude, I think you are the oldest dude I’ve ever had in my class.”
Johnny sets his alarm for two a.m., reckoning the final assent will require 10 to 11 hours—flat out. As we hydrate, and load up on quinoa and sausage stew, he decides to tuck us into our sleeping bags with a cautionary note.
“We have totally lucked out, gentlemen.” Johnny nods earnestly at each of us in turn. “Clear shot at the summit. But we gotta make that ridge below the headwall by first light, and then we gotta slip past the bergshrund by ten. Otherwise, dudes, we are screwed. We’ve had three toasty afternoons softening those icefalls, and Hotlum is one dangerous piece of real estate by mid-morning. You following me? Assuming we make the summit, we still gotta get back down, and that, is where 80 percent of all accidents happen.”