One Man’s Quest: Scaling Mt. Shasta 6 Times in 24 Hours

From Associated Press

At 10:20 p.m., the Milky Way cuts a shimmering arc over the northern California sky, directly over the summit of 14,162-foot Mount Shasta.

Midway up the snow-covered peak, a faint point of light inches upward, its movement as imperceptible as that of a minute hand.

Robert Webb is marching steadily up the peak’s frozen shoulder, bent on reaching the summit. Again.


When he reaches the top for the third time this day near midnight, Webb will be halfway to his goal of “summiting” six times in 24 hours. Total elevation gain: more than 36,000 feet, or the equivalent of climbing from sea level to the top of Mount Everest, plus 7,000 feet.

The midpoint also marks the most treacherous part of Webb’s journey.

He will ski down the 6,000-plus vertical feet to the base camp, so he can race back up again on foot.

When he points his skis down 35-degree pitches, Webb will confront darkness, nausea, sleep and oxygen deprivation, aching legs, winds up to 60 mph and “snow” that has solidified into cratered ice.


For most mortals who are merely in good shape, climbing from Horse Camp to the summit of Mount Shasta in the best of conditions is a painful, eight-hour endurance test.

For them, the ascent is a matter of commanding the body up a staircase that seems never to end.

Except there are no steps. On a good day, one can follow in the frozen footsteps of previous climbers. Otherwise, spiked boots known as crampons bite inefficiently into the glaze with a “clink, clink, clink.”


The air thins with each step upward, and the main route is littered with stalled climbers staring vacantly toward the summit, or down at their feet, panting, leaning hard on their ice axes. They silently curse every excess gram they carry.

Most have been up since before dawn. The early part of the day is when the snow and ice in the popular climbing route through “Avalanche Gulch” is most stable. So they set out before the sunrise, inching upward in the darkness like Robert Webb, their headlamps pinpoints against the ghostly volcano.


Webb is not merely in good shape. At 40, the ponytailed, part-time mountain guide has reached the summit 130 times, he says, and is an area legend for scaling the peak in an astounding one hour, 39 minutes 13 years ago. A time of six hours is usually considered the mark of a very strong climber.

He’s been at it for nearly two decades and has been a part-time caretaker of the Sierra Club’s base camp hut at Horse Camp for 16 years.

Simply reaching the summit of the colossal volcano that John Muir said turned his blood to wine ceased to be enough for Webb a couple years ago. In 1996, he tried to climb it six consecutive times, but succumbed to exhaustion halfway up the fifth attempt.

Last year he made it a full five times, he says, and swore he would never do it again.

Yet here he is again. This year, he says, it will be different, and he is optimistic he can reach the top six times.


He has six pairs of skis waiting at the top, where last year he had three. He plans to cut down his rest times between attempts. He will have support teams at base camp, mid-mountain and at the summit to feed him and hustle him into dry clothes. He has spent several nights at the summit acclimatizing, and is taking large doses of performance-enhancing herbal supplements.

Nonetheless, he says by telephone a few days before the attempt: “I’m not that confident right at the moment.”


Ask Webb what drives him to do this, and he squirms a bit. He talks about legends of Indians who ran for days, fueled only by seeds and nuts. He calls it his version of a marathon.

“You’re running on more than just food and water. You’re tapping into your inner resources,” Webb said.

“You don’t have to think. You’re just in a trance-like state where you just let go and you’re picking your line. You’re in a rhythm. ... You really find out what fuels your spirit. You can tap into what motivates you. It’s a soul-searching thing.”

There may be some glory in this, too. While he climbed in obscurity last year, Webb has contacted the Guinness Book of Records this year. He believes 36,000 feet in 24 hours is a record, and has drafted official witness sheets for those at the summit and base camps to sign each time he arrives.


Mark Young, publisher and chief executive officer of the Guinness Book of Records, said his organization has no such record category. “But we’re certainly interested in what he’s doing and looking forward to seeing the materials he supplies us with.”


Webb leaves at 1:33 p.m. on Monday, July 13. It is sunny at base camp, but clouds lurk around the summit. Carrying his trademark five-foot-long ski poles, he sprints to the summit in two hours, 23 minutes and skis back to base camp by 4:20 p.m.

This round-trip of less than three hours astonishes his team and the small group of onlookers gathered at the Sierra Club hut. Webb is concerned he will burn out too fast.

He changes clothes, revealing thin, veiny legs and a rock-hard abdomen.

He gulps manna bread, butter cookies, rice milk and a shot of blue-green algae, and vomits as he leaves the cabin. Then he is off again.

The onlookers sit watching him with binoculars, amazed.

“It is staggering,” says Mike Wing, 34, who made the summit today and passed Webb climbing up. “I won’t say he was running, but he was hustling.”

Wing says reaching the summit was the hardest thing he’s ever done.

“The idea of doing it twice -- I’d die,” he says.

Webb marches up, up, up on his second ascent until he is a black dot approaching Red Banks, elevation 12,800. Relentlessly long and steep, this section is the toughest part of the ascent.



Konwakiton Glacier and Whitney Glacier lie on either side of Red Banks, and beyond them Misery Hill. The route winds between the deadly glaciers and toward the hill that marks the final approach to the summit.

It is here that most climbers either dig deep or turn around.

Fatigue sets in, bringing headaches and diminished judgment. The sky turns blue-black. Winds pick up. Weather hanging around the summit moves in to envelop this area first.

Many have died making for the top, and often they are victims of “summit fever.” They ignore the voice that says “turn back.” Others are victims of bad luck.

Last August, a high school English teacher became disoriented in a fierce wind and rain storm and fell down the side of Whitney Glacier. Brian Goodrich, 43, had been missing for 10 days when a National Guard helicopter spotted him at about 12,000 feet. He apparently had come close to reaching the summit.

John Emory Cain Jr., 49, had been missing for two days when search crews discovered his body in an open field at the 9,500-foot level in 1996.

At 13,000 feet, Cain was overcome with altitude sickness and turned back to base camp, but, caught in a blinding storm, he never made it.


Cain, a college instructor who had multiple sclerosis and diabetes, was found lying on his back in the snow with his ice ax still lashed to his hand.


Webb returns from his second ascent at 8:08 p.m. with a “howdy ho!” and goes about a routine that will become familiar. Panting, he strips sweat-soaked clothes, sits for a few minutes, gorges himself on energy drinks and pills, and throws up, hard, three times.

He will vomit throughout the 24-hour trek, but never as violently as this time.

Later, he will blame it on guzzling too much fluids. “My body was forcing out the excess,” he says.

Undaunted, he stumbles back into the snow.

When Webb reaches the summit the third time -- the halfway point -- at 11:37 p.m., the wind is picking up. Webb is entering the most dangerous part of the journey.

The summit itself is a spire not big enough for six people to stand on.

The snow, ice and rock beneath it are highly unstable, and rangers warn climbers to “bag it and get off,” particularly as the afternoon sun warms things up. Many climbers linger anyway, savoring their triumph.

Not Webb.

Two members of his team await him with hot drinks, energy supplements and hoots of encouragement in a yellow tent just below the peak. Webb flashes a light at them. In a melodramatic flourish, he blows through a conch shell to mark each ascent.


At midnight, winds are picking up, and will reach 60 mph in the wee hours. Webb is a little sleepy.

The descent is a skier’s hell. Webb cautiously scrapes over softball-size ice chunks, through ruts, down a slope so steep, with snow now frozen so hard, that one mistake could send him cartwheeling to his death.

His heart leaps once when he crosses his skis, but he remains in control.

His headlamp dies, but he has a backup.


When Webb returns safely to base camp at 12:33 a.m., his voice is gravelly, he is moving more slowly than before, but he is in good spirits.

“I feel good. I don’t think I’m going to throw up this time,” he says. “This is great. It’s a little embarrassing, getting sick in front of everyone.”

Sighing, he adds, “It feels good to get the oxygen.”

He gulps his pills, washes them down with Cytomax, and sets back out into the darkness.

Webb is quiet when he reaches mid-camp on the way up.

“He was kind of in that zone, in his own head, just grooving with it,” said photographer Max Whittaker. “We were chitchatting with him, but he seemed preoccupied. We’d talk to him about how it was going, but he was just in his own head.”

A loud scraping sound awakens Whittaker and the support team around 5 a.m. It is Webb struggling down the frozen Avalanche Gulch on his skis. This time, he is skiing without his headlamp, relying solely on the moon to illuminate his way.


Again, he makes it to base camp.


There are no clouds in the sky when Webb sets out for his sixth ascent, only the moon and sun.

Even after Webb has completed an inhuman five ascents and five descents, he seems unstoppable. He is talking about upping his goal of 36,000 feet to 40,000 feet by skiing from the summit to Helen Lake and climbing back up before his 24 hours are up.

From above, he appears to move slowly, taking several steps and then planting his long poles high in the snow above him before pushing off. To walk behind him, up the frozen staircase he has set, is to know he is anything but slow.

What distinguishes him from most of the weekend warriors straggling up Shasta is that his upper body does much of the work. He does not use crampons or ice ax, the tool that climbers use to “self-arrest,” or save themselves in falls.

He reaches the summit the sixth time at 12:55 -- 35 minutes before his allotted time is up -- but decides enough is enough.

“I got to the summit and was feeling pretty good, so I just called it,” he says after skiing down the sixth time.



His return is anticlimactic. A handful of climbers gather to get a glimpse of this strange creature. His support team sits in the sun, relishing their triumph.

There are no outward signs that Webb has just climbed 36,000 feet through thin air, gone without sleep and thrown up for hours. He is a bit quiet, but never says much anyway.

“I’m surprisingly lucid,” he says as he strips off his ski outfit. “It’s deceivingly normal. I feel normal, but I’m probably not normal. Probably in a couple days it’ll wear off and I’ll crash.”

His legs were sore on the way down, he allows.

“I don’t really know. I might hurt tomorrow,” he says.

As for tonight? “I’ll just take a hot tub, make some soup, lay low,” he says.