Shabbat at 10,000 feet: Marin hikers enjoy summer solstice on Mount Shasta

For most Jews, Shabbat on the summer solstice means that by the time Havdallah is over, it’s practically time for bed.

But for a group of climbers from the Osher Marin JCC and Brandeis Hillel Day School, the longest Shabbat of the year meant having just that much more time to advance toward the summit of majestic Mount Shasta.

The 14 intrepid hikers headed to Siskiyou County on June 20 for a solstice climb of the fifth-highest peak in California. It was the first such trip for the Marin JCC and Marin Brandeis Hillel partnership.

At 10,000 feet, the climbers celebrated Shabbat; at 14,162 feet, they hit the summit. And along the way they bonded over the exhausting climb and the triumph of reaching their goal.

The June 20 to 22 trip was arranged by Jason Wasserman, the JCC’s sports and recreation manager, who had done the climb himself and thought it would make a good group outing.

Most of the group members, ranging in age from 23 to 51, were making their first attempt at climbing the mountain. Twelve of the 14 made it to the top. Kelli Maciel, 49, was one of the two climbers that didn’t summit — she came down with a case of altitude sickness, though she still reached 12,000 feet.

“It’s the ultimate paradox,” Maciel said. “It was as grueling in every single respect as it was amazing. It takes you to limits that your body never thought it could do.”

Sponsored by the Osher Marin JCC, the trip included several weeks of training with sessions designed to prepare the group to survive a high-elevation climb, and expert on-mountain instruction where they learned to use crampons, ice axes and harnesses.

About two-thirds of the way up the mountain on June 20, a Friday, the group celebrated Shabbat. “We lit candles … we did the blessings over the wine and over the bread and a communal blessing — all of us gathered and chanted the blessings and passed the bottle of grape juice around,” said climber Michael Lax, a JCC member and Brandeis parent.

Heavy weather on the mountain put the finish of the climb in jeopardy, but the group was able to wait it out and continue to the summit.

“We were up there on the mountain, watching the thunderstorm roll through the Trinity Alps, [the one] that caused all the fires,” Wasserman said.

Maciel recalled the night of June 21 as being especially incredible, ending with a Sunday morning sunrise that saw Mount Shasta’s shadow cast over the neighboring ranges. “It was one of those mental images that you’ll never forget,” Maciel said.

On June 22, the group began its ascent to the summit at around 1:30 a.m. “It was fantastic … it’s dark because it’s night, but it was very clear and you could see thousands of stars, and the mountain was illuminated by the moonlight … then [the moon] crested over the ridge,” recalled Michael Lax.

Lax, 42, said the climb was the hardest physical activity he’s ever done, but that the proud feeling of accomplishment stayed with him for days afterward. “It felt great to do it with a group of people I knew fairly well and share the enjoyment,” he said.

Wasserman said he’s already accepted some deposits for next year’s trip, and that the JCC will encourage new climbers to sign up by holding a wine and cheese event (featuring a slide show from this year’s climb) in the fall. There will also be a group hike up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park in the fall.

After the climb, Maciel said it took her a week to recover from the fatigue and pain, and she vowed that she’d never set foot on Mount Shasta again.

But she changed her tune.

“A week later, I said I’m definitely going back next year,” she said. “I didn’t summit, so for me I don’t feel finished.”