It’s hot, dusty and I have been walking for 12 hours straight. All I want to do is get off this damned mountain.
Right behind me are Heather Matheson and Heidi Moran, both in their early twenties, and both a little loopy after fighting their way up thousands of feet of steep snow to get to the top of Mt. Shasta.
There is something different about the foster youth climbers, Heather says. “They always pull on some weird inner strength.”
This marked the fourth year that I have lead former foster youth and adult supporters up Shasta, a 14,180-ft volcano in far northern California.
Of the 12 climbers who came to the mountain this Father’s Day weekend, seven would summit, including three out of four former foster youth.
Three years ago, Heather and Latoya Brown, a former foster youth and member of the California Youth Connection (our partner in the annual Questival), made an attempt up the north side of the mountain. We had a bigger group that year, but only a handful would make it up. Latoya and Heather were among the majority that turned around.
Both were frustrated by the experience, and came back last year with a fire to get to the summit. That year, I was with them in the “slow” group, which left an hour early because we thought the faster climbers would catch us. They never did, and Heather and Latoya were the first to the top that day.
But this year, we had chosen the standard Avalanche Gulch route. It is a straightforward approach, marked by a 2,000-foot field of crunchy snow that steepens near a series of reddish-brown cliffs known as the Red Banks. To get through this obstacle, climbers have to choose one of three narrow chutes.
I was with Heather, Heidi, Latoya, Lacoup Flipse, Yanthy Yahya, Brendan Buller and Matt Mauger as we finally arrived at the Red Banks. The sun had just risen, and with it came a steady freezing wind.
Latoya, always in a good mood, laughed about her fingers freezing and fished out some hand warming packets. And then got up and pushed ahead, taking a position in the lead through the steep and sometimes perilous route. The week before a climber had fallen to his death not far from where we were now climbing.
Above the Red Banks we met a long snowfield that takes you to 13,000-feet, and the base of appropriately named Misery Hill. I was towards the back. I watched Latoya and Heather and the rest of the group climb higher and higher, growing smaller against its white expanse, and the deep blue above. The wind howled where I stood, only to rage more forcefully above.
Some members of the group had started to descend, pushed back by cold and fatigue. I decided to accompany them down, and watched this year’s group of young people disappear onto the top of the mountain. They didn’t need me anymore.
And so, as I walked down the mountain with Heidi and Heather later that day, and Heather told me about that inner strength, I knew what she was talking about.
There was a calm in that.
When I was 13 or so my father took me up a part of Mt. Shasta. I got horribly sunburned, and hated every minute of it; well, almost every minute of it. There was the undeniable beauty of lying in my sleeping bag watching the red sun disappear behind a ridge of mountains across the valley, to then watch the shadows grow dark and the sky become lit with a million stars.
Later in our descent this year, Latoya said that she loved the climb because it was a moment when all the craziness of life goes away. “I have to remember that,” she said.
After four years, and taking dozens of novice climbers up Mt. Shasta, I know that I have helped to impart a little beauty into those lives. And to know that beauty, calm and sense of accomplishment lives on without me makes it all worth it.
If you want to learn more about the Annual Foster Youth Questival you can visit our crowdrise page here. We’d love to see you on the mountain next year.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.