Climbing Mt. Shasta

By Wilderness Adventures February 5, 2014

Former WA participant Maddie Stewart (2011-Rocky Mountain and 2013-High Sierra) recently sent us an essay about her experience this past summer climbing Mt. Shasta as part of her 20-day High Sierra adventure.  Enjoy reading about her adventure below.  If any other former students have an essay they would like to share, please email it to


Soft footsteps and murmured voices awaken me from my restless sleep. I find myself in a loaned sleeping bag, crammed into a two-person tent with two girls I’ve known for the past week, thousands of miles from home. It’s 2AM and I’m in California, 5,600 feet below the summit of Mt. Shasta. An email I sent months ago, detailing my love for nature, my desire to challenge myself, and my need for a scholarship set off a chain of events—a flurry of emails, a trip to REI, a plane ride by myself. It also turned a thought— “what-if-I-could-backpack-through-California” — into a reality as hard and as real as the ground on which I’m lying. Scrambling around in my sleeping bag for a headlamp, I’m calm. I’m ready. I begin my slow, methodical dance around camp: unzipping my tent in one fluid movement, stretching my cramped body up towards the brilliant stars, setting up a camp-stove, fetching water from a stream, peeing behind a tree, lacing up my mountaineering boots, eating instant oatmeal. This is my simple life. There are no cellphones, just satellite phones. No Facebook, just personal journals. No TV or movies, just the life stories of my companions. I love this simple life. I love “just”. No extras here, just necessities.


I stand straight and face the mountain head on. I can’t see the top, only the flickering of headlamps along its face. There is no doubt in my mind—I will be where those lights are—I will summit today. My team and I will work together, as if we are the heart, arms, legs, and feet of a collective body, and we will summit. Nothing can stop us. We will not return to base camp without first standing together at 14,179’ above sea level.


And so the march begins. My legs burn, my heart aches, my feet blister, but this is no death march. This is an affirmation of my vitality; each step propels me closer to my goal. As my eyes focus on the ground a foot in front of me, the mountain guide tells a story of a crystal city within Mt. Shasta. “They say that during a flood, many thousands of years ago, the indigenous people realized that their land was soon going to be underwater. They moved to higher and higher ground. Eventually, they had no choice but to climb and live on Mt. Shasta. Even now, the locals believe there are people living within the mountain. They honor and love Mt. Shasta.” As I approach the summit plateau, I write my own story on Mt. Shasta. I will recount this story to my sisters at home; I hope to take them hiking and share the pleasure that stems from tackling challenges. I will tell it to my grandparents, who may warn me that such an undertaking was much too dangerous. Yet, the only danger here is that over time I will forget to tell the story to myself, because it’s a story that bolsters my confidence and proves my grit.


Looking down at the rugged beauty of Mt. Shasta, I know I deserve to be here, yet the contentment I felt at base camp and during the climb is gone. I surpassed my challenge, I reached my goal, and now I search the horizon for a higher point, for a more difficult challenge, for another place to be perfectly content.




By Mike Cottingham