by Esther Singleton
Mount Shasta is the most striking feature of Northern California. Its height is about 14,500 feet above sea - very nearly the height of Mount Blanc. Mount Blanc is broken into a succession of peaks, but Shasta is one stupendous peak, set upon a broad base that sweeps out far and wide. From the base the volcanic cone rises up in one vast stretch of snow and lava. It is very precipitous to the north and south, but east and west there are two slopes right up to the crater. It is a matter of doubt whether Shasta is dead or only sleeping. Vesuvius slept calmly for centuries, and then spread death and desolation for miles around. The base of the mountain is magnificently watered and wooded, and forms a splendid hunting-ground. The woods are full of deer and bears; and now and then a mountain-goat, an animal very like the chamois of the Alps, is seen in the higher part of the mountains.
Well-provided with blankets and provisions, we started with a guide, and a man to look after the horses, at a very early hour, and rode through a beautiful forest of pines, silver firs, and cedars. Along the banks of the streams were aspens, willows, and the trees known by the name of the "Balm of Gilead," whose vivid green leaves were already changing to a rich orange or an apple-red - forming a beautiful contrast of colours with the glazed green of the cedars and the green-tinted white of the silver firs.
After an easy ascent to a height of about 8,000 feet, we reached the limits of vegetation. Thence our upward path lay over snow, ice, and lava - lonely, isolated barrenness on every side, relieved only by an occasional solitary dwarf-pine, struggling to retain life amidst fierce storms and heavy-weighing snow. Many of them were quite dead, but embalmed by frost and snow in a never-decaying death.
With a few loads of this fuel we soon made a splendid fire, the warmth of which was most welcome in the cold rarefied atmosphere. Scarcely had we finished a capital supper ere night descended, and great clouds and fitful fogs began to drift past. These in their turn broke, and the moon threw a weird light over the forest below; whilst above rose piles upon piles of pinkish lava and snow-fields, reaching far up into the sky, whose magnificent blue grew more sparkling and clear every moment.
Wrapping ourselves in our bundles of blankets, we crept as close as possible to the huge fire, and before long my companions were fast asleep and snoring. I could not sleep a wink, and mentally registered a vow never again to camp out without a pillow. No one can tell till he has tried it, the difference there is between going to sleep with a pillow under the head and a stone or a pair of boots or saddle as its resting-place.
The deep silence, unbroken save by a most unromantic snore, was painfully oppressive, and I longed to hear even a growl from a bear or a deep whine from a California lion. I listened intently, for it seemed as if the slightest sound, even a hundred miles away, ought to be heard, so still and frosty was the air.
But none fell on my ear, not even a murmur to soothe one to sleep, and I began to think bears and lions were snore and delusions, when, just as I was dozing off, I felt my arm violently pulled, and a voice called out that it was time for us to make a start. Hot coffee soon had a cheering effect, and long before daylight we left our warm camping-ground, and began the higher ascent on foot. Broken stone and slabs of lava afforded pretty good foothold, far preferable to the fields of frozen snow, which we carefully avoided. After a couple of hours' hard walking we seemed to be just as far from the summit as when we started; but the views gradually became grander. From a rocky promontory we looked back over a sea of glittering clouds, the only land visible being the peaks of the Coast range, near the Pacific; all else was cloud, to which the moonlight lent and almost dazzling whiteness:
Far clouds of feathery gold,
Shaded with deepest purple, gleam
Like islands on a dark blue sea.
When the sun rose and the mists cleared off, the scene was indescribably grand, and the gradual unfolding of the vast panorama unapproachable in its splendour.
After some hours of weary climbing over crumbling scoria and splintered rock, we reached the crater. In the ascent to the summit overlooking the crater, we had to cross an ice-field. It had that blue tinge found in the ice of which glaciers are composed, and its slipperiness made it almost impossible to walk over it the ice lying often in ridges resembling the waves of the sea.
The main crater covers several acres. It is hemmed in by rims of rock, and is filled with volcanic debris, covered with snow and ice. Numbers of little boiling springs were bubbling up through the bed of sulphur, and were suggestive of the subterranean fires which once threw their molten lava over the surrounding country. The view from the summit was most extensive, and fortunately there was none of the usual smoke from the forest-fires, so prevalent in autumn in Northern California and Oregon, to impede the range of vision.
Looking northward, far over into Oregon, we could see her lakes, valleys, and
mountains. Southward, we could trace the Sacramento and Pitt rivers. The great
boundary-wall of the Sierra Nevada lay to the east, and farther onward, the
deserts and sparkling lakes of Utah could be distinguished. To the west the
sinuous outline of the Coast range was visible, and beyond, the broad Pacific
shelved away to the horizon. Fertile valleys, rugged mountains, wood and water,
all lent their aid to enhance the beauty of this unsurpassable scene.
The descent to our camping-ground was accomplished in a comparatively short time. On the way, we stopped to witness a most glorious sunset. Round the horizon ran a thin mist with a brilliant depth of colouring. To the east a blue gauze seemed to cover each valley as it sank into night, and the intervening ridges rose with increasing distinctness. The lower country was flooded with an exquisitely delicate light, and a few fleecy clouds tinted with gold, pale salmon, and sapphire, passed over the empurpled hills of the Coast range. The great shadow of Mount Shasta spread itself, cone-like, across the valley; the blue mists were quenched; the distant mountains glowed like fairy hills for a few moments; and the sun, poising itself like a great globe of fire in the darkening heavens, descended slowly below the golden ridge to illumine another hemisphere.
During our descent we passed through some patches of red snow, which leaves a crimson track behinds those who crossed over it. This curious phenomenon is always avoided by the Shasta Indians, when acting as guides or porters, as they say it brings death if you tread on it willingly and after due warning. We found a warm fire to welcome us on our arrival at the camp, and the exertions of the day made us very willing to turn in among the blankets where we slept soundly till long after daybreak. The following day, when we arrived at our original starting-point, my companions resumed their journey to San Francisco, and I went on to Sissons, a station on the stage-road, whence I was to start on a shooting expedition amongst the Castle Rocks.
Sissons, so-called after the name of the proprietor, is a very delightful place to spend a few days at. The view of Mount Shasta, which is directly opposite the house, is magnificent; and Sisson himself is a capital sportsman guide, and succeeds in making his guests very comfortable. Looking at Mount Shasta is occupation enough for some time. The play of colour on the mountain is extraordinary. The lava, which is of a rosy hue, often penetrates through the snow, and when the sun shines upon it the effect is most beautiful. The pure white fields of snow are diversified by the great blue glaciers, and when the sunbeams fall with refracted glory on the veins of ice they exhibit wonderful tints of opal, green, and pink. The effects produced by the mingling colours of lava, snow, and ice, and the contrasting shadows of a deep violet hue are so varied, and the radiation of colour at sunrise and sunset so vivid, that it is difficult to keep the eyes turned from the mountain - for nothing seems worthy of consideration in comparison with Shasta.
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