73 Year Old Summits Mount Shasta

Karen and Mikey on the 14,179′ summit of Mount Shasta

Karen’s Remarkable Summit of Mount Shasta

The familiar sound of the alarm on my watch beeped and buzzed me awake at 12:30 AM. Crawling out of my tent, I was captivated by the darkest of black skies illuminated with an ungodly amount of stars dancing around the Milky Way. I headed into our snow kitchen to meet my co-guide, Kyle, where we primed our MSR Whisper Lite Stoves and began to boil water for coffee and oatmeal. Our three guests were Candace, Tim, and Karen, surgeons coming from Fresno, California looking to tag the summit of Mount Shasta. But this wasn’t a standard summit climb. At 73 years young, this summit meant the world to Karen.

Kyle leading our team from Horse Camp to 50-50 Flat

A Year of Determination

One year earlier, on June 3, 2023, Karen and I found ourselves at Thumb Rock, 12,800 feet up Mount Shasta. The morning had dawned clear, and we had been climbing steadily for hours. But as we ascended, an ominous lenticular cloud formed, and strong south winds blasted us, depositing rime ice on our jackets and backpacks. Thunderstorms were forecasted for the afternoon, and we needed to move efficiently to avoid danger. Unfortunately, crumbly scree on the Red Banks thwarted our progress, and the loose rocks, wind, and decreasing visibility left us with no choice but to descend. Karen, determined as ever, left the mountain with few words other than, “I still want that damn summit!”


Karen beginning the disappointing descent in a whiteout in June of 2023

Karen’s Mountaineering Legacy

Karen Cartwright, a Seattle, Washington native, cut her teeth mountaineering in the North Cascades back in the 1970s. She had bagged all the classic big climbs like Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, and Mount Hood. At the tail end of a prestigious career as a surgeon in Fresno, California, Karen was determined to climb one last volcano: Mount Shasta. Not only was I honored to be her guide, but I also had the privilege of being her personal trainer for the eight months leading up to this climb. Karen’s history of mountaineering was impressive, but the challenge was compounded by her two hemi-knee replacements, making the loose and unstable terrain particularly difficult.


Shasta Shadow making a spectacular early morning appearance, casting a massive shadow over the Klamath Mountains

Return to the Mountain

Fast forward to June 3, 2024, Karen was back on Mount Shasta for her fourth summit attempt. This time, she was stronger, having trained hard with OAT for another 12 months. Her training focused on developing balance with tools like the Bosu Ball and TRX, building robust muscular endurance with weighted step-ups and walking lunges, and incorporating significant elevation gain into her hikes. Her wrist was fully recovered from last year’s surfing accident in Costa Rica, and the weather was forecasted to be sunny, warm, and calm.


Calm and clear night at 9,500′

The Climb Begins

On June 5th at 1:55 AM, we departed camp into the darkness. The climb started at a solid pace, gaining just shy of 1,000 feet in our first hour. Warm temperatures kept the snow punchy and soft, making for some post-holing travel without crampons. At Lake Helen, 10,400 feet up, we put on crampons, anticipating firmer snow on our next push to Olberman’s Moraine at 11,200 feet. As we climbed, Karen’s cardiovascular efficiency defied her age; a quick pause of 15-20 seconds would drop her heart rate from 160 bpm, and she was ready to continue.


Kyle, Candace, and Tim climbing the dizzyingly steep headwall of Avalanche Gulch

Facing Challenges

Mountaineering is about efficiency, and a few minutes lost early in the day can result in hours later. We needed to minimize breaks and maintain a steady pace to sneak up to high altitude and back before any problems arose. After transitioning to our rope teams at Olberman’s Moraine, Karen and I continued plodding up the headwall of Avalanche Gulch towards Thumb Rock. Traditional methods like the rising traverse and the French step were less effective for Karen’s knees, so we adapted. Using an old boot pack, I was able to kick and chop into the icy snow to create mostly level buckets for her to climb with great efficiency. Finally, all of those step ups were paying off!


Karen crushing the bootpack at 12,000′

We reached Thumb Rock after five hours, hitting her high point from last year’s climb. After a quick break, we continued moving up towards Short Hill. Navigating the bergschrund of the Konwakiton Glacier, Karen leaped the three-foot gap with determination, showing she meant business.


View from Thumb Rock of the Konwakiton Glacier, Short Hill and Misery Hill

The Final Push

In our unorthodox fashion of walking for a few minutes followed by a short pause to catch her breath and allow her heart rate to drop, we made solid time approaching Misery Hill. At sea level, Misery Hill wouldn’t seem so miserable, but at 13,300 feet, it is a formidable opponent. After 45 minutes of trekking up the East face of Misery Hill, we could see the entirety of the summit pinnacle for the first time. The deep blue sky contrasted with freshly deposited rime ice, made the summit plateau look like a foreign planet.


Karen strolling across the Summit Plateau at 13,900′

With one final push across the plateau and up the steep summit pinnacle, we topped out at 14,179 feet at 9:40 AM, just ahead of our 10:00 AM turnaround time. The team was elated, especially Karen, who finally achieved her goal. It was a remarkable sight to see her standing on top, getting the view she had worked so hard for and deserved so deeply. But as I gazed down 7,200 vertical feet to the tiny speck of the parking lot, I reminded myself that the summit truly is only halfway.


The three surgeons from Fresno basking in summit glory

The Descent

We enjoyed the summit to ourselves, snapped photos, and began our descent. Mountaineering is a journey of going up just to come down, driven by the pursuit of challenge and self-improvement. It’s hard not to reflect on why you’re up there when faced when challenges on the descent. Tim endured a bit of Type II Fun, experiencing mild acute mountain sickness. His robust cycling career gave him the endurance and fortitude to persevere. Karen moved as well as she had all day on the descent, walking with a certain swagger and riding her “summit high”. Our timing worked in our favor, and we were rewarded with a spectacular glissade from 12,200 feet, providing a fast track back to camp.

After packing up, we continued to glissade and plunge-stepped in the saturated snow back to the trailhead. It was a surreal moment for all, having accomplished so much in three days on the mountain.

This was a memorable trip indeed. I feel humbled and honored to have been a part of Karen’s journey. She is tough as nails, and I will forever strive to channel my inner Karen when things get tough. Thank you, Karen, for inspiring us all.

A special thank you to all that made this possible:
Shasta Mountain Guides Owners Chris and Jenn Carr for creating such a remarkable work place and creating the space to host transformative experiences on the mountain.
Co-Guide Kyle Guthrie for being a solid team player and exceptional guide.
Candace and Tim for many laughs and loving support for Karen throughout the entire trip.
Parker Smith for introducing me to Karen in 2022


View of Avalanche Gulch from Horse Camp at 8,000′

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