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John Muir’s Mount Shasta Adventure

09/27/2016 11:00AM ● By Gary VanDeWalker

A Peak Experience

October 2016
By Gary VanDeWalker

Born in Scotland, outdoorsman John Muir’s heart was transformed in the wilderness of America. The third child of eight, he worked the family farm when they moved to the United States in 1849. The outdoors was his real home. He tried college, but never finished. He took a job in a lumber mill, where an accident almost took his eyesight. He left the job, determined to see America, and walked 1,000 miles to Florida before setting off to California and vowing to make nature his life.

Yosemite drew Muir to the western mountains. He built a cabin and explored the Sierras. In 1873, he looked north from his job near Redding, where he worked with the McCloud River salmon. There the quiet white giant pulled at his heart. In his journal, he wrote, “Shasta is a noble mark for a mountaineer, and I may soon reach it.” Between 1874 and 1914, his passion for the volcano and the snowy slopes turned into a dozen ascents. His trips to Mount Shasta centered in the comfort of Justin Sisson’s station. Sisson’s hospitality was renowned, and Muir became a close friend.

In 1875, Muir watched the snow begin to fall in a light shower outside the windows of Sisson’s Inn. He had come with two fellow adventurers: Jerome Fay, a mountaineer, and Captain A.F. Rodgers from the U.S. Coast Survey. Muir brought them to ascend the mountain despite the snow. They left with horses, Sisson leading the way. They traveled until five feet of snow caused Muir to abandon the pack animals to Sisson, and the three men carried their provisions to the timberline where they camped. They began their ascent at 3:20 am the next morning, and by 7:30 am, they reached the summit.

As the three worked their way back down, rain found them. What began as a light shower had by noon developed into a raging storm. At 3 pm the trio began to try to move off of the mountain. The temperature plummeted to below zero as the wind and lightning filled the sky. They worried about being blown off the mountain and the real possibility of freezing to death.

Muir knew a way to survive. He led the group nearby to some hot springs, which created a 1/8-inch layer of hot mud on the mountainside. Muir directed the party to lay in the mud, flipping as necessary to keep each side of their bodies warm. Over the next two hours, two feet of snow covered them. Fay told stories, while for 17 hours the three lay in the mud, calling out to one another, making sure each man was alive.

As the sun rose, the air grew warmer. The muddy, frozen clothing crackled as the men stood. They ventured down into the trees, trudging through the new fallen snow. As they drew closer to the valley, the voice of Sisson could be heard calling for them. He offered breakfast, which the men passed on for warm coffee.  

Muir recounted their adventure to Sisson, who remarked that only a small cloud cover could be seen on the mountain the day before. As they conversed and walked toward the inn, the snow turned to green grass and flowers.

Muir journaled after cleaning up and putting away his equipment:

At four in the afternoon we reached Strawberry Valley, and went to bed. Next morning we seemed to have risen from the dead. My bedroom was flooded with living sunshine, and from the window I saw the great white Shasta cone wearing its clouds and forests, and holding them loftily in the sky. How fresh and sunful and new-born our beautiful world appeared. Sisson’s children came in with wild flowers and covered my bed, and the sufferings of our long freezing storm period on the mountain-top seemed all a dream.