Trips & Pictures Mt. Shasta, June 2006

Mt. Shasta

June 15-17, 2001

I've always been interested in Mt. Shasta, ever since the 80's when I visited the mountain and went partways up the scree with my parents; more than 10 years later, when I started backpacking, it joined two other mountains on my lifetime "to-do" list. This year the "Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society" (CHAOS) organized a beginning mountaineering trip to climb Shasta, so I jumped at the opportunity... (The two other mountains on the list are Whitney (which I did last year) and Kilimanjaro (maybe next year?)). We went up the Avalanche Gulch route.

The Route (in red)

Even the easiest route on Shasta requires real mountaineering gear (solid boots with crampons, an ice axe, and a helmet), so the first stop was REI, which gets really good business from the mountain! I rented hard-shell plastic boots and crampons from them, and everyone else among the numerous people reting the same gear was also heading for Shasta...

Another person in the group whom I had never met arranged to carpool with me, and we compromised on leaving noon Friday (I wanted to leave earlier to beat the weekend rush and still get in some exploring, while he preferred later). I was ready by 12:30, but because of disorganization (not on my part!) we were late, had to swing by REI to pick up forgotten gear, got caught in a traffic jam, and didn't get there until 7. *sigh*, guess that's the danger of going with someone you don't know!

Our plan was to meet several other members of our party that night at Horse Camp, about an hour in from the Bunny Flat trailhead, since it would be a nicer place to camp than by the road. When we arrived at the Bunny Flat trailhead at 7, I thought that it would be just a matter of a quick dinner, some last minute packing, and hitting the trail, but for some reason this didn't go smoothly either (again, not me!!!); I was still very much in the "Elmar Stefke school of backpacking" mode from Cathedral Peak two weeks before, and went really light, so it was definitely kind of weird/frustrating/amusing watching how much other people took, and what a chore it was to pull it all together. It would have been more amusing if I wasn't stuck waiting, ready to go!

("packing light" in this case was a bivy instead of a tent, a 20 degree down bag, and mostly "no-cooking-required" energy food, specifically bagels, dried pineapples, trail mix, one freeze-dried dinner, some hot chocolate, power bars, muesli & soy milk, a couple of apples, and carrots. Because of the relatively little snow, even this early in the season, I didn't really need more hard-core gear.).

The mountain as the sun goes down...

We finally hit the trail after the sun had gone down, with headlights. It was actually pretty interesting hiking in the dark, and the one major benefit was that we could see Mars shining very brightly to the south. It took us 50 minutes to get to Horse Camp (a Sierra Club cabin, where luckily the people we were meeting had picked the perfect campsite and were watching out for us.

Mt. Shasta has a mandatory "pack-everything-out" requirement for all waste, which includes requiring hikers to pick up from the trailhead a kit with multiple bags and kitty litter for toilet. One benefit of Horse Camp is that it has solar composting toilets!!! However, because of heavy use they are only open every other day. Happily, the open-time was from 9pm the night that we arrived to 9pm the following night, so I was able to avoid having to risk any accidents in my backpack.

The rest of the group, which had departed Berkeley in the evening and slept at the trailhead, came in around 10:30, and after refilling our bottles at the beautiful spring, we were off! Getting to Helen Lake (altitude 10,443 ft.), where we would be camping that night, took under three hours, with the trail starting out as a rock causeway, then becoming a mix of sand and scree, and then finally snowfields in an area called the "climber's gully". The group was very mixed with respect to stamina, so through the hike (and the trip, really) we tended to naturally spread out and then wait for people to catch up again. A group of us sprinted the last stretch to the (frozen) lake to get in ahead of some of the other parties and get the nicest spots possible. There was quite a crowd there, probably on the order of 150, which felt pretty crowded. Definitely a very popular climbing route. The rangers we talked to all questioned us very closely about our group size, which was the maximum (10).

A view up the next morning's route from Helen Lake - basically, we would hike up the central snow field, veering to the right of the two highest patches of ground showing through the snow in the middle ("The Heart"), through a chimney of the Red Banks (the highest point in the middle, the slightly orange-ish ridge above the Heart), and then on and up over the false summit to the left. (you can't see the real summit in this picture).

We lazily set up camp, and then headed off to a nearby slope to practice our snow techniques, specifically how to self-arrest with an ice axe when sliding down a snowfield in all the different possible orientations (feet-down, head-first, head-first on your back...). It was late afternoon and the snow was slushy, so it was initially difficult to slide very far in the snow, but as we kept using the same spot and swept away the soft surface snow, we were eventually able to pick up more speed and thus more realism (Important since we would be climbing in the very early morning, when the snow would be icy and fast). Although it was not necessary at this point in the season, we also practiced recovering buried avalanche transceivers.

While we were finishing camp chores (dinner, filter water for the next day, ...), a ranger stopped by to talk to us about what we shouldn't do (apparently there are a lot of people who do really stupid things up there), and then we turned in for a cold, windy night. I had a hard time sleeping, and somewhat regretted bringing the bivy since the wind was coming in through the cracks, my nose was cold, and I was cramped because I had to sleep with all the gear that I didn't want to freeze. But, it was manageable.

Wake-up time was 2am. When my alarm went off, and I was faced with having to get out of my warm bag to face the freezing wind, the first thought that came to mind was "what a stupid sport, I can't believe this...". (One of the main dangers of our route was rock fall; the previous evening we had actually seen some impressive boulders bouncing down a ridge to the south. A pre-dawn departure meant that we would be climbing while most of the rocks would still be frozen in place, instead of thawed out and loose from the heat of the sun).

I originally hadn't planned on firing up the stove and having anything warm for breakfast, but since other people in the group heated up water I had some hot chocolate, since my hands were really cold. We filtered a little more water to top off our bottles, but there was much less running water since most of the small rivulets we had seen the night before had frozen. We left behind as much gear as we could, strapping down our packs, and then headed up to the snow slope to put on our crampons. Due to an alarm failure delaying part of the group we only actually started climbing at 3:30, but it was still very dark; the moon was very small, late, and completely behind the mountain shoulder.

It was actually kind of surreal, for as we were climbing with our headlamps in the dark we could see the lights of a few people ahead of us above on the steep slope, and lights coming on behind us as the rest of camp was waking up. I was slightly worried about my batteries, and tried going without the light, but the snow was very sun-pocketed (and thus uneven) and icy, so this didn't work well, and I ended up leaving the light on. Originally I was using the ice axe and one of my hiking poles, but to my annoyance within half an hour the pole unexpectedly snapped. It was non-critical, but it had made the going much easier. Nothing I could to but strap it to the pack and keep going (REI replaced them free with the latest model! :)

Climbing the slope as it finally starts to get light...

I found that as we were climbing I was generally the vanguard of the group, so I had lots of chances while waiting for the rest of the group to look back over the scenery and watch as the light slowly increased over the land behind us.

The view towards Helen Lake, diagonally up and left from Mark (Miller), in yellow. (No, that's not a typo, there were both a Mark Spiller and a Mark Miller (the group leader) on the trip! :)

The shadow of Mt. Shasta on the landscape as the sun rises behind it

Looking down from near the Heart

As one approaches the Heart, which is the source of a significant amount of the rock fall on the route, the danger increases, so we moved faster and without breaks. At this point, two people in our group who were feeling adversely affected by the altitude turned back. As we passed the Heart and approached the Red Banks the going got significantly steeper (hard to see in the pictures...), and I was *very* happy to have my crampons to grab into the snow, since it would be a long slide down at that point.

Climbing through one of the numerous chimneys of the Red Banks was definitely the hardest part of the trip. The chimney was really steep and narrow, which made it much tougher to zig-zag or maneuver. Also, while I had been drinking faithfully to stay hydrated, the hours had zipped by since the 2am breakfast, and having forgotten to eat anything my energy level plummeted. I was also discouraged with the thought of having to climb back down the chimney; going up I didn't have to look down, but going back would be ugly! I borrowed some power gel from a friend, and stopped thinking about the way back, and managed to get through that stretch.

Mark (Miller) just above our chimney of the Red Banks.

As we climbed up and cleared the Red Banks, we ascended a ridge, and moved out of the wind protection we had previously been enjoying since we left Helen Lake. It rapidly started to get seriously nose-numbing cold, so while we were waiting for the rest of the group to catch up I took the opportunity to down a bunch of trail mix (trail mix has NEVER tasted better then at that moment!!!!) and break out better wind protection. We had a beautiful view of a bergschrund (top of a glacier, where it is pulling away from the mountain), which looked like a glittering ice cave but unfortunately was lost in the snow-glare in the following picture.

Bergschrund of the Konwakiton Glacier, unfortunately drowned out by snow-glare

At the top of the next slope we were able triangulate, and estimated that we were at roughly 13,200 feet and near the base of "Misery Hill," the final slope before the summit plateau. On truly windy days it can be necessary to have to crawl up the 800 ft. of Misery Hill (thus partially the name, along with the altitude effects), but luckily for us this was not the case that day, and it was actually very straightforward.

The Bergschrund and a crevasse of the Whitney Glacier from halfway up Misery Hill

View of Mt. Shastina and the lower Whitney Glacier from Misery Hill

Near the summit plateau, with the summit in the background

After Misery Hill we reached the summit plateau, from which we could see the summit block and various paths zig-zagging to the top. We reached the summit a bit after 10 (so, roughly 6-7 hours of climbing), where we rested (as much as we could in the howling wind), ate something, took pictures, signed the summit register, and then headed back down around 11ish.

Mark (Spiller) on the summit, 14162 ft.

The summit group shot

Looking west over the Trinity Alps from the summit

Heading down through the summit plateau

Descending Misery Hill wasn't too bad, but downclimbing was slow, and since it wasn't too steep it seemed like a good place to try glissading, so I went ahead and gave it a shot... (Glissading is basically sliding down the snow, using your ice axe as a brake (and to self-arrest, if you get out of control); depending on the slope and the conditions you can go either on your feet, crouching, or sitting). Much better than walking, and a lot of fun! Since a cleared-out path already existed thanks to all the previous climbers of the season, off we slid, with people slowly getting more comfortable with the idea.

Glissading through the Red Banks was a little dicey, since in that steep section it was still icy, and the speed suddenly picked up dramatically, but all of successfully self-arrested, transferred to an easier glissade path, and blasted down the hill, almost all the way to Helen Lake. What had taken us some 6 hours to climb took less than an hour to descend... wheeeeee....

Glissading down the slopes...

Looking back from camp

From here, it was just a matter of breaking down camp, glissading down the climber's gully as far as we could until it turned to slush, and then hiking out.

Looking back towards Helen Lake from 50-50; Helen Lake is hidden behind the largest rocky area in the exact middle of the picture. The chutes of the Red Banks are a little clearer as well from this perspective.

The last stretch around Horse Camp was endless, since by this time it was already a long day, our feet were getting jammed into the front of the boots on the rocks, and the trail just wouldn't end. It was with great relief that we finally got back to the car. We met one last time at round table pizza for dinner, and then hit the road. Traffic wasn't too bad, and we were home by 10:45pm.

Amusingly enough, while returning my boots at REI the next day, I flipped through some of the Shasta books to retrace the route. A guy came up to me and recommended a different book; turned out that he was also returning his boots, and that we had been on the summit near the same time the day before! Guess we were so bundled up at the time that there was no chance of recognition later...

In general, it was a great trip! 8 out of 10 people who made the summit attempt actually summitted, we lost minimal gear (a dropped two-way radio, and crampons that came loose from a pack while glissading (and were later recovered)), and I learned how to self-arrest and use crampons. Mark Miller, the trip leader, did a great job of coordinating the large group, so in general everything went much more smoothly than I would have expected. Highly recommended, if you're acclimatized, in good shape, and can find a good group in which you can learn the skills... Trips & Pictures Mt. Shasta, June 2006