The original plan for Memorial Day weekend was to climb Mt Olympus in 4 days. But typical Washington weather came in with the promise of both rain and possible lightning in the Olympic Range and pretty much the rest of the state. We made some last second decisions and opted to climb Mt Shasta in California instead. It is a two day climb, but we planned on staying an extra night at camp for additional acclimation and adjoined this climb with a trip to Oregon Caves National Monument as well.

Almost every route was in for Mt Shasta, but we chose to do the standard Avalanche Gulch route on the south side of the mountain. It is basically a high elevation steep snow scramble. The main event for us with the opportunity to get up above 14000ft and spend lots of time near the summit to prepare our bodies for Mt Rainier and the Tetons later this summer.

Two permits as needed for the climb and both are self-issue at the TH. The wilderness permit is free and must be carried by each permit. A summit permit must also be purchased for $25 per person (exact change needed). We started out for the Bunny Flats Trailhead at about 7:00am on Friday hoping to beat the Memorial Day Rush. There is snow almost right away, but there is a great boot/ski track to follow through the forest until you reach treeline. From here boot prints spread out, but the way to still very clear. Even without tracks the route through the drainage and up to Helen Lake would be pretty obvious. We headed across the final flat part of the treeline and then up. The trail wasn’t extremely steep and we made great time to Helen Lake at 10,400ft enjoying the surrounding mountain views the whole way up.

High Camp at the lake is watched over by a single ranger. There is green flagging which indicated the area where camping is allowed and more signage for the bathroom area just below the lake. About ten tents were lined up. We took a spot on the end as far away as we could for some solitude. We were sure it would fill in as the day went on. It was only 12pm. We set up camp and examined the parts of the route we could see up to “The Thumb”. Then basically we did a whole bunch of sleeping since we planned a very early start. Plus driving through the night 560 miles can be pretty tiring!

More folks showed up throughout the day filling in the camp. Most were very friendly and in-between naps we talked to some of the other climbers. We got taken aback when folks said they were from the Bay Area or Tahoe… we kept forgetting we were in California! We had an early dinner and turned in for the night at 6:30pm.

We began climbing the route at 2:15am. There was only a light wind, but it was still cold enough for me to wear a light puffy and long underwear under my soft-shell pants. We saw a white and red headlamp above of. We were the third team on the route. The other two climbers were soloist. We climbed pretty much straight up the snow slope leaning to the right. The grade was relatively steep and gradually increased in angle as we ascended. At about 11,500ft we passed the first soloist. He was not doing well and was ill prepared. He had poles and his axe was clipped to his side, useless. His camouflage jacket looked like it was from walmart. No crampons. Thin day-hiking boots. He was taking yet another break as we passed him. he said he was tired and it was his second time trying this mountain (and any mountain). He had started from the trailhead. We wished him luck. We later found out he tried to descend and fell 1000ft. Luckily he was uninjured. his axe remains on the mountain.

Just under 12000 ft we turned to the left and began to climb the steep wide slope to Red Banks. This is the known to be the crux and steepest part of the climb. The top of this slope is marked by a large rock outcrop called “The Thumb”. We ascended steadily and passed the climber with the red light. He looked more prepared then the other soloist, but still uneducated. At about 12600ft we camp across a line of exposed rock coming down the slope. The snow below it was wind loaded and soft. Staying to the left of the rock the sock was more like Styrofoam, so we stayed left. Most folks bear to the left near the top of Red Banks and continue up the slope to the first small plateau. However, I opted to stay right and get onto the ridge near the Thumb.

Once we reached the ridge at 12800ft we were smashed by howling winds (probably 30-40 mph) and fiercely cold temps. We found shelter in the moat near the rocks on the ridge and put on our Feather Friends Frontpoint Parkas. These are meant for Denali! We pushed (thick parkas on and not even breaking a sweat) on heading along the ridge up the next short slope to the left until we reached the small plateau. In front of us was a dome shaped hill appropriately named Misery Hill. We began to climb up. Not only is this an endless type of hill where the top seems to remain the same distance for a very long period of time, it is also where our bodies began to slow a bit as elevation effects began to settle in at 13200. This, for us, was the crux.

On top of the hill on on the upper large plateau the winds died down and the sun warmed the snow. It was still cold though so we left on the huge puffys and continued across the flats toward the summit block  in front of us. After crossing the plateau the route curves left over a gentle hill that seems less gentle at 13850ft and then curves again to the right heading up a slope and then across a narrow ridge. The top of the summit block could maybe fit 6 people comfortably. But it didn’t matter because we were the first any only ones there that morning! It was 8:15am.  We each took turns climbing the few steep snow steps to the true summit which could fit one person safety. Generous clear views abounded on the summit of 14162ft and although the altitude was definitely felt, it was not horrendous at all.  A couple we had met the day before, who also happened to be from WA and also happened to take some classes with the Mountaineers and had seen me before, joined us a few minutes later. Climbers are a small community.

We descended to 13850ft just above the plateau to a flat area. We wanted to spend a s much time at altitude as possible. So we took a nap here for about 2 hours until our heads began to hurt to badly. Then we descended to 12800ft on the ridge near the Thumb and took another hour nap waiting for the snow to get softer. Then we glissaded all the way back to camp…

And camp was getting packed! The ranger said he expected about 200 climbers to show up. Most of which had never climbed before. I overhead one guy said “Oh yeah, I have an ice axe. I don’t know what to do with it, but I have it”. That’s very useful indeed! I don’t think I have ever seen so many ill prepared folks in one place, not even on Mt Hood. We rested the remainder of the day and shared beta with climbers who were just arriving. At 3am and 5am we witnessed the insane amount of people going up the mountain and were ever so thankful we had ascended the day before. And we were so happy to be back on the cascade volcanoes, climbing at high altitude and pushing ourselves. These passed few weeks have been rough and being on Shasta provided some much needed solace. It never ceases to amaze me how the mountains seem to always reset my life when things get overwhelming. It is in the mountains where I find my focus and my peace in the chaos that seems to overtake me. Without the wilderness are am in turmoil and with the wilderness I find tranquility.


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