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Literature of Mount Shasta

Segment from Chapter V in

History of Siskiyou County, California

By Harry Wells, 1881

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In its general topographical features, Siskiyou county may be said to consist of two large valleys hemmed in on all sides by lofty ranges of forest-covered mountains. On the south lie the Trinity, Scott, and Sacramento mountains, on the east the Butte creek, on the north the Siskiyou, and on the west the Salmon range. Through the center, from north to south, separating the two valleys and the waters that fertilize the, runs a range from the Klamath river to the Sacramento divide. A small portion of the county lies both east and west of these mountain bulwarks, the Salmon river country lying to the west and the Butte creek region to the east. Among these towering ranges are many places of grandeur that deserve a special mention, and one, Mount Shasta, of world-wide fame and notoriety.

The snowy crown of Shasta was a familiar sight to the early settlers in the lower portion of the State long before the foot of the white man ever pressed the green grass at its base. Standing in the Sacramento valley, one can plainly see its white top lifted proudly above the blue range that closes in the valley to the north. From Mount Diablo it is distinctly visible, and from the dome of the State capitol at Sacramento it meets the eye of many a gazer who knows not its name nor the great distance it lies to the north. The mariner on the ocean can see it, and the emigrant on the parched deserts of Nevada has often traveled towards it day after day, and infallible guide to lead them on to the land of gold. The Russians who settled at Bodega could see it form the mountains of the Coast Range, and called it Tehastal, or the white or pure mountain. This name the early Americans adopted, spelling and pronouncing it Chasta, time having made the further change of substituting the soft sh for the hard ch. The name was also applied by the trappers to the valley that lies at its northern base and the river that bears its cold, snow waters to the Klamath, as well as to the tribe of Indians that inhabited Scott and Shasta valleys and the mountains to the north. The true name of their tribe they have forgotten or will not tell, having been called Shastas for half a century, but the name of their beautiful, patron mountain still remains to us, I-e-ka, the white.

The Indians have a tradition that the mountain is the abode of the Great Spirit, and that the whole country about was inhabited by grizzlies, who captured the daughter of the Great Spirit, and married her to one of their number. These were the progenitors of the Indians. They built Little Mount Shasta for a wigwam for the captured girl, that she might live near the lodge of her father.

The Little Mount Shasta referred to in the legend as the wigwam of the daughter of the Great Spirit, generally called the Black Butte, is a miniature counterpart of the great mountain itself, minus the snow and ice. It looks as if the Creator when he made Mount Shasta took the dirt and stones that were left over and made a little one, which he set by the great masterpiece to show how truly great and grand it was. Nothing gives us so good an idea of the greatness of Shasta as to compare it with the apparently dwarf-like hills that surround it, and which, were it not for the overshadowing presence of the mighty mountain, would be great themselves. Surely a peak ten thousand feet high, like the Goose Nest, is no little hill, and yet beside Shasta it looks lie the little pile of snow beside the Great snowball the boys roll up in winter. The mountain is an old volcano, which still exhibits its vitality in the shape of the hot springs that bubble up on the apex of the highest peak. They are thus described by the United States Coast Survey: "A very remarkable feature of Mount Shasta is the collection of hot springs two hundred feet below the top. The extreme summit is a steep ridge, not more than two hundred or three hundred feet through on a level with the springs, and composed of shattered lava which looks as though any water falling in rain or formed by melting snow on it would immediately run out through the cracks. There is in the material nothing which, when brought in contact with the air or moisture, would cause heat by chemical action; yet at the bottom of the steep ridge there is a little flat of half an acre, full of hot springs, most of them very small and the largest not more than three feet across. They have a temperature of 100o, and their water is strong with sulphur and other minerals. In some, the water bubbles up violently, and there are openings in the earth from which hot steam rushes out with great force and considerable noise. One of these vents throws out a jet of steam two feet in diameter. These springs, and the earth around them, retain their heat through winter as well as summer, notwithstanding the severe cold which must prevail there. On the first of October the thermometer was below the freezing point, at both sunrise and sunset, and the temperature of the year there is probably, for we have no series of observations, not higher than 30o, possibly much below that figure. Immense masses of snow lie on the southern side of the mountain through the summer, and on the northern side there is a living glacier. Notwithstanding the almost constant cold resulting from the snow, ice, and high elevation, the great heat supplied form the heart of the mountain does not give way. The waters of these springs must be forced up by a power, which, though small in comparison, still suggests the mighty forces that piled up this cone to the height of 8,000 feet above the highest adjacent ridges, and from its extinct craters poured out the lave that covered hundreds of square miles with desolation."

There are several craters on Mount Shasta, but the largest is on the western peak that is several hundred feet lower than the main summit on which are the springs, and separated from it by a deep gorge filled with frozen snow and ice. The height of the mountain as given by Professor Whitney is 14,440, by the Coast Survey is 14,443 feet. W.S. Moses was on the mountain from sunrise till three o'clock August 21, 1861, and made eleven observations with an instrument furnished him by the Smithsonian Institute for that purpose, and fixed the height at 14,437 feet. Professor Whitney made but one observation, still his estimate, 14,440 feet, is the usually accepted one. There are but two points higher on the coast, Mount Whitney, 15,000 and Mount Williamson 14,500 feet. These peaks, however, cannot approach Shasta in grandeur and magnificence, for their bases rest on the top of high ridges of mountains, above which they rise but a few thousand feet, while the base of Shasta is but 3,570 above the level of the sea, and the mountain towers up in one single peak nearly 11,000, the grandest and noblest in America, imaged on canvas and immortalized in song.

The ascent of the mountain, until recent years, was an undertaking of considerable magnitude and danger, but now, by means of the experience of years and the services of well-trained guides, it is possible to all those who have the strength and endurance to stand the fatigue of so long a climb. It is customary to advance as far as the timberline and there remain all night. From here, by starting early in the morning, the top can be gained and a descent made the same day. After a toilsome climb and an hour or two spent on the summit enjoying the panorama of mountains, lakes, valleys, rivers, and ocean spread out before the eye, it is pleasant to sit on the board or blanket used for a sled, and, with a long pole that serves both as a rudder and a brake, shoot down the snow surface of the mountain side in one long, wild slide of several miles, the spray-like snow flying in a perfect cloud about the head, and blinding the eyes like the drivings of a storm. The rapidity with which the traveler shoots over the snow in the steeper places is terrific, and gives him almost the sensation of falling through interminable space, but when the snow disappears in the great forest below, and the coaster rises to his feet and gazes up the great mountain down which he came in as many minutes as it took him hours to ascend, he realizes still more the immensity of his journey, and feels himself over to see if he is all there, or if pieces of himself have been scattered along the route, giving a sigh of satisfaction when he discovers himself to be sound in body and mind, and longs to go up and try it again. It was four years after the adventuresome miner penetrated this region before any one attempted to make an ascent of Shasta. Early in September, 1854, Capt. J. D. Pierce, a merchant of Yreka, ascended the peak alone, and so incredible did his story of it appear that few would believe him, and a party of thirteen from Yreka, Humbug and Scott valley was organized to go with him on a second trip. Pierce guided them safely to the top and proved the claim he had made to be the first white man (and it is not known that any Indian ever was there) to set foot on the barren top of Shasta's lofty peak, fourteen thousand four hundred and forty feet above the level of the sea. The Yreka portion of this party lost their horses and were thus delayed one day, passing the others coming down as they went up. The party that made the ascent with Captain Pierce, September 19, 1854, was composed of Major Charles McDermit, Captain William Martin, Norval Garland, and three others. In the Yreka party that went up the next day were J. Lytle Cummins, J. S. Cummins, Dr. F. G. Hearn, Holland Parker, R. B. Stratton, and Yank Holden. On the barren lava rock that composes the extreme summit they made a little depository of rocks, in which they placed a copy of the Mountain Herald, New York Herald, New Testament, constitution and by-laws of the Sons of Temperance and Odd Fellows, where they remained for years in a perfect state of preservation, the papers not even rotting or moulding where they were folded. The temperature here, probably, seldom rises above the freezing point, and the barren rock and preservation of these papers seem to indicate that snow or moisture of any kind never falls on the extreme summit. The custom of leaving some paper or article there has been a general one, and gives much pleasure to those who find them years later. Dr. Hearn had with him a Roach's thermometer, and recorded the temperature every five minutes from the timber line to the summit. These were the first observations taken, and are given here condensed to four observations per hour: --
Time. Degree.
6 A. M. 61
6:15 61
6:30 62
6:45 (Vegetation growing) 58
7:00 (First snow) 56
7:15 55
7:30 54
7:45 53
8:00 52
8:15 52
8:30 54
8:45 58
9:00 58
9:15 54
9:30 52
9:45 61
10:00 58
10:15 46
10:30 50
10:45 (Red bluff) 50
11:00 60
11:15 50
11:30 50
11:45 55
12:00 50
{ Picked up a butterfly off the snow,}
12:15 { one mile from summit . . . . . . . . } 54

12:30 54
12:45 50
1:00 P. M. 50
1:15 44
1:20 (Hot springs) 70
1:30 (Summit) 36

Temperature of the boiling spring, 180o. This temperature is much great than given by the Coast Survey, and it probably raises many degrees, being sometimes simply warm water, and at others, emitting clouds of steam.

There are but three months in the year when it is considered safe to ascend the mountain - July, August, September. Long before the winter rains set in storms rage about its lofty brow, and woe to the venturesome traveler who has to contend with their fury. In the spring, storms eat upon its face when all is quiet below, and the frozen snow is so hard and slippery that danger attends every footstep. It is then only when the weather is fairest and after the rays of the sun have so softened the snow that a good foot-hold can be had, that the pleasure-seeker attempts the long journey to the top, though for scientific reasons, ascents have been made as early as April and as late as November. To see the sun rise from the apex of Shasta has been the ambition of thousands, but few have dared to brave the rigors of a night on its frigid top. The first to attempt it was N. C. Mayhew, who left Shasta valley one night in the summer of 1859, with two or three companions, carrying blankets, wood, and coffee. While on the journey up their exertions kept them warm, but when they reached the springs they found the wood, blankets, and coffee, which they warmed in the springs, none too much to keep them from freezing. As the sun began to rise, the east was all aglow with light, while to the west the lofty peak cast a shadow of intense gloom that extended clear to the ocean more than a hundred miles away, its sides being clearly defined by the increasing light. As the sun gradually mounted the crimson vault, the higher peaks that lay within the mighty shadow pierced the gloom, while below them reigned midnight darkness. Gradually the mountains evolved themselves, then the valleys, then the ocean, and at last the darkness was conquered and the full rays of the sun irradiated every object. On the twenty-first of August, 1861, a party from Deadwood, consisting of C. H. Pyle, Brice C. Pennington, Wesley Morse, Colonel Johnson, W. S. Moses, of Yreka, and a few others, started from the timber line in the night, and reached the summit just five minutes before the sun appeared in the east, and witnessed the glories of its onward march. Since then quite a number have gone up to see the rising sun, while others have spent the night by the friendly springs, shivering and freezing, to be the first in California to greet the god of day in the morning. Mr. Clarence King, the geologist, spent tow nights, one on the crater peak and one on the summit, which he thus describes in his Mountaineering in the Sierras, in 1870:--

"September 11th found the climbers of our party - S. F. Emmons, Frederic A. Clark, Albert B. Clark, and myself - mounted upon mules, heading for the crater cone over rough rocks and among the stunted first and pines which mark the upper limit of forest growth. The morning was cool and clear with the fresh north wind sweeping around the volcano and bringing in its descent invigorating cold of the snow region. When we had gone as far as our mules could carry us, threading their difficult way among piles of lava, we dismounted and made up our packs of beds, instruments, food and fuel for a three days' trip, turned the animals over to George and John, our two muleteers, bade them good-day, and with a guide, who was to accompany us up the first ascent, struck out on foot. Already above the vegetation, we looked out over all the valley south and west, observing its arabesque of forest, meadow, and chaparral, the files of pines which struggled up almost to our feet, and just below us the volcano slope strewn with red and brown wreck and patches of shrunken snow-drift.

"Our climb up the steep western crater slope was slow and tiresome, quite without risk or excitement. The footing, altogether of lodged debris, at times gave way provokingly, and threw us out of balance. Once upon the spiry pinnacles which crown the crater rim, a scene of wild power broke upon us. The round crater-bowl, about a mile in diameter and nearly a thousand feet deep, lay beneath us, its steep, shelving sides of shattered lava mantled in places to the very bottom by fields of snow. We clambered along the edge toward Shasta, and came to a place where for a thousand feet it was a mere blade of ice, sharpened by the snow into a thin, frail edge, upon which we walked in cautious balance, a misstep likely to hurl us down in the chaos of lava blocks within the crater. Passing this, we reached the north edge of the rim, and from a rugged mound of shattered rock looked down into a gorge between us and the main Shasta. There, winding its huge body along, lay a glacier, riven with sharp, deep crevasses yawning fifty or sixty feet wide, the blue hollows of their shadowed depth contrasting with the brilliant surfaces of ice. * * * * *

"Our little party separated, each going about his labor. The Clarks, with theodolite and barometer, were engaged on a pinnacle over on the western crater-edge.* * * Emmons and I geologized about the rim and interior slope, getting at last out of sight of one another. In mid-crater sprang up a sharp cone several hundred feet high, composed of much shattered lava, and indicating doubtless the very latest volcanic activity. At its base lay a small lakelet, frozen with rough, black ice. Far below us, cold, gray banks and bloating flocks of vapor began to drift and circle about the lava slopes, rising higher at sunset, till they quite enveloped us, and at times shut out the view. Later we met for bivouac, spread our beds upon small debris under lee of a mass of rock on the rim, and built a little camp-fire, around which we sat closely.

"We turned in; the Clarks together, Emmons and I in our fur bags. Upon cold stone our bed was anything but comfortable, angular fragments of trachyte finding their way with great directness among out ribs and under shoulder-blades, keeping us almost awake in that despairing semi-consciousness where dreams and thoughts tangle in tiresome confusion. Just after midnight, from sheer weariness, I arose, finding the sky cloudless, its whole black dome crowded with stars. A silver dawn over the slope of Shasta brightened till the moon sailed clear. Under its light all the rugged topography came out with unnatural distinctness, every impression of height and depth greatly exaggerated. The empty crater lifted its rampart into the light. I could not tell which seemed most desolate, that dim moonlit rim with pallid snow-mantle and gaunt crags, or the solid black shadow which was cast downward from southern walls, darkening half the bowl. From the silent air every breath of wind or whisper of sound seemed frozen. Naked lava slopes and walls, the high gray body of Shasta with ridge and gorge, glacier and snow-field, all cold and still under the icy brightness of the moon, produced a scene of Arctic terribleness such as I had never imagined. I looked down, eagerly straining my eyes, through the solemn crater's lip, hoping to catch a glimpse of the lower world; but far below, hiding the earth, stretched out a level plain of cloud, upon which the light fell cold and gray as upon a frozen ocean. I scrambled back to bed, and happily to sleep, a real, sound, dreamless repose.
"We breakfasted some time after sunrise, and were soon under way with packs on our shoulders."
* * * * * * * * * * * *

"After we had walked along a short curved ridge which forms the summit, representing, as I believe, all that remain of the original crater, it became my occupation to study the view. A singularly transparent air revealed every plain and peak on till the earth's curve rolled them under remote horizons. The whole great disc of world outspread beneath wore an aspect of glorious cheerfulness. The Cascade Range, a roll of blue forest land, stretched northward, surmounted at intervals by volcanoes; the lower, like symmetrical Mount Pitt, bare and warm with rosy lava colors; those farther north lifting against the pale, horizon-blue solid white cones upon which strong light rested with brilliance. It seemed incredible that we could see so far toward the Columbia river, almost across the State of Oregon, but there stood Pitt, Jefferson, and the Three Sisters in unmistakable plainness. North-east and east spread those great plains out of which rise low lava chains, and a few small burned-out volcanoes, and there, too, were the group of Klamath and Goose lakes, lying in mid-plain glassing the deep upper violet. Farther and farther from our mountain base in that direction the greenness of forest and meadow fades out into rich mellow brown, with warm cloudings of sienna over bare lava hills, and shades, as you reach the eastern limit, in pale ash and lavender and buff, where stretches of level land slope down over Madelin plains into Nevada deserts. An unmistakable purity and delicacy of tint, with transparent air and paleness of tone, give all desert scenes the aspect of water-color drawings. Even at this immense distance I could see the gradual change from rich, warm hues of rocky slope, or plain overspread with ripened vegetation, out to the high pale key of the desert. Southeast the mountain spurs are smoothed into a broad glacis, densely overgrown with chaparrel, and ending in open groves around plains of yellow grass. A little farther begin the wild, canon-curved piles of green mountains which represent the Sierras, and afar, towering over them, eighty miles away, the lava dome of Lassen's Peak standing up bold and fine. South, the Sacramento canon cuts down to unseen depths, its deep trough opening a view of the California plain, a brown, sunny expanse, over which loom in vanishing perspective the Coast range peaks. West of us, a quite around the semicircle of view, stretches a vast sea of ridges, chains, peaks, and sharp walls of canons, as wild and tumultuous as an ocean storm. Here and there above the blue billows rise snow-crests and shaggy rock-chains, but the topography is indistinguishable. With difficulty I could trace for a short distance the Klamath canon course, recognizing Siskiyou peaks, where Professor Brewer and I had been years before; but in that broad area no further unraveling was possible. So high is Shasta, so dominant above the field of view, we looked over it all as upon a great shield which rose gently in all directions to the sky.

"Whichever way we turned the great cone fell off from our feet in dizzying abruptness. We looked down steep slopes of neve, on over shattered ice-wreck, where glaciers roll over cliffs, and around the whole broad massive base curved deeply through its lava crusts in straight canons. These flutings of ancient and grander glaciers are flanked by straight, long moraines, for the most part bare, but reaching down part way into the forest. It is interesting to observe that those on the north and east, by greater massiveness and length, indicate that in former days the glacier distribution was related to the points of compass about as it is now. What volumes of geographical history lay in view! Old mountain uplift; volcanoes built upon the plain of fiery lava; the chill of ice and wearing force of torrent, written in glacier-gorge and water curved canon. * * *

"A fierce wind blew from the south-west, coming in gusts of great force. Below, we could hear it beat surf-like upon the crags. We hurried down to the hot-spring flat, and just over the curve of its southern descent made our bivouac. Even here the wind howled merciless and cold.

"We turned to and built of lava blocks a square pen about two and a half feet high, filled the chinks with pebbles, and banked it with sand. I have seen other brown-stone fronts more imposing than our Shasta home, but I have rarely felt more grateful to four walls than to that little six-by-six pen. I have not forgotten that though its chinks the sand and pebbles pelted us all night, nor was I oblivious when sudden gusts toppled over here and there a good-sized rock upon our feet. When we sat up for our cup of coffee, which lark artistically concocted over the scanty and economical fire, the walls sheltered our backs' and for that we were thankful, even if the wind had full sweep at our heads and stole the very draught from our lips, whirling it about north forty east by compass, in the form of an infinitesimal spray. The zephyr, as we courteously called it, had a fashion of dropping vertically out of the sky upon our fire and leaving a clean hearth. For the space of a few moments after these meteorological jokes there was a lively gathering of burning knots from among our legs and coats and blankets.

"There are times when the extreme of discomfort so overdoes itself as to extort a laugh and put one in the best of humor. This tempest descended to so many absurd personal tricks altogether beneath the dignity of a reputable hurricane, that at last it seemed to us a sort of furious burlesque. Not so the cold; that commanded entire respect, whether carefully abstracting our animal heat through the bed of gravel on which we lay, or brooding over us hungry for those pleasant little waves of motion which, taking Tyndall for granted, radiated all night long, in spite of wildcat bags, from our unwilling particles. I abominate thermometers at such times. Not one of my set ever owned up the real state of things. Whenever I am nearly frozen and conscious of every indurated bone, that bland little instrument is sure to read twenty or thirty degrees above any unprejudiced estimate. Lying there and listening to the whispering sand that kindly drifted, ever adding to our cover, and speculating as to any further possible meteorological affliction was but indifferent amusement, from which I escaped to a slumber of great industry. We lay like sardines, hoping to encourage animal heat, but with small success.

"The sunrise effect, with all its splendor, I find it convenient to leave to some future traveler. I shall be generous with him, and say nothing of that hour of gold. It had occurred long before we awoke, and many precious minutes were consumed in united appeals to one another to get up and make coffee. It was horridly cold and uncomfortable where we were, but no one stirred. How natural it is under such circumstances to
'Rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to other that we know not of.'

"I lay musing on this, finding it singular that I should rather be there stiff and cold while my like-minded comrades appealed to me, than to get up and comfort myself with camp-fire and breakfast. We severally awaited developments. At last Clark gave up and made the fire, and he has left me in doubt whether he loved cold less or coffee more. Digging out our breakfast from drifted sand was pleasant enough, nor did we object to excavating the frozen shoes, but the mixture of disintegrated trachyte discovered among the sugar, and the manner in which our brown-stone front had blown over and flattened out the family provisions was received by us as calamity. However, we did justice to Clark's coffee, and socially toasted our bits of meat, while we chatted and ate zestfully portions not too freely brecciated with lava sand. I have been at times all but morbidly aware of the power of local attachment, finding it absurdly hard, to turn the key on doors I have entered often and with pleasure. My own early home, though in other hands, and a hundred times, when our little train moved away from grand old trees or willow-shaded springs by mountain camps. I have felt all that pathos of nomadism, from the Aryan migration down.

"As we shouldered our loads and took to the ice-field I looked back at our modest edifice, and for the first time left my camp with gay relief."

Prof. John Muir, the celebrated mountain geologist, and A. F. Rogers of the United States Coast Survey, ascended Shasta, with a guide, April 28, 1875, for the purpose of ascertaining the feasibility of erecting a monument of the extreme summit. The next day Muir went up with the guide, while Rogers remained below to answer signals. About ten o'clock a storm arose that obscured the mountain so that signals could not be seen, and as Muir had been there during a storm the previous October, he determined to remain until three o'clock, with the hope that by that time it would have cleared up sufficiently to permit observations to be made. The storm increased in violence, so that descent was impossible and the two men were compelled to pass the night there, without anything to wrap around them or of which to build a fire. Hastening to the hot springs that boil up near the summit, they endeavored by lying in the mud to keep from death by freezing. A cold wind blew in a perfect hurricane, while the thermometer was many degrees below zero. Blistered by the heat below and be-numbed by the chilling wind above, they suffered untold agonies throughout that terrible night. Now lying on the back, now on the face, now on one side and now on the other, they changed their position as often as the heat of the mud became unendurable, and, as they rolled over, the raw wind swept across the blisters the heat had raised, and added new suffering to the sum of their agonies. As soon as morning dawned they started to descend, weak, feeble, and almost crazy from pain, and were met by friends who had started up to their relief, but not until their blistered feet had become frost-bitten and their clothing had frozen and mercilessly chafed their parboiled flesh. Their experience was a terrible one, and will serve as a warning to any fool-hardy man who man think that April is a safe month in which to test the fitful temper of old Boreas on Mount Shasta. In October, 1875, the monument was set in place. I t weighs two thousand pounds, and is cylindrical in form, sixteen feet high and three feet in diameter, made of boiler iron. The cylinder is surmounted by a bell-shaped cap of polished composition that reflects the rays of the sun, and can be seen with a powerful glass at a distance of one hundred miles, even when intervening clouds obscure it from the vision of those at the base of the mountain, and, to the mariner on the ocean, is an infallible landmark and guide. It was taken up on wagons a distance of five miles, then on mules a distance of two and one-half miles above the old camp ground, and, form that point to the summit, thirty men carried it, in small pieces, on their backs.


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