Mt Shasta is a potentially active volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range, which extends from BC down to Northern California. The summit is at 14,179 feet, making it the 5th tallest mountain in California.
We made two attempt to climb Mt Shasta, the first of which was unsuccessful (May) and the second of which was successful (July). Both times we took the Avalanche Gulch route up from Bunny Flat Trailhead.
Here is a 3D reconstruction of the mountain. The Avalanche Gulch starts at Bunny Flat and passes through Horse Camp to Lake Helen (where we wanted to camp for the night) and then past the Heart (a heart shaped pile of scree) to the Red Banks (reddish rocks that jut up) up to Misery Hill and the summit.
This was our first time going camping/backpacking/hiking in the snow. We made several noobie mistakes and ended up having to turn back. We learned a lot though and we still had a fun trip overall.
We drove most of the way up on a Thursday night, camped somewhere along the way overnight, and then finished the drive on Friday morning.
We drove into the town of Shasta and got a huge breakfast at a cafe Dmitriy discovered when he went up to Shasta on his own last year right before he started working at Orbital. He got a huge breakfast burrito and it was delicious. Then we went and picked up our wilderness permit, summit permit, etc. at the Ranger Station, bought some hiking food at the grocery store, and went to rent gear at The Fifth Season. We needed crampons, ice axes, and mountaineering boots. They recommended we get snowshoes, which ended up being a heavy mistake. Dmitriy also needed a helmet and we rented a shovel as well (although we weren’t sure why we needed one – we later learned its too clear out a spot in the snow for your tent).
Here is our first major mistake of the day: we were under the impression, for whatever reason, that there would be water at the trailhead. We decided we would fill up our water bottles when we got there. There was no water at the trailhead.
We got to the trailhead around noon.
There was a lot of snow.
We started along on the trail. It was really warm and we had to take off our snow gear. Dmitriy left his snow pants on which may have been a mistake because he sweated a lot in them and presumably lost a lot of water.
About 5 min into the day we made our next mistake of the day: we figured it would be more fun to take our own route than to follow the normal, heavily used one with lots of people on it. We ended up going up a forested ridge (Green Butte) which looked like it would take us to the same place as the real trail but didn’t. It took us high up on a ridge which we ended up having to glissade down (which was super fun) to reconnect way below with the normal trail. In the end, Greene Butte was way steeper, way harder, and we gained a lot of elevation just to lose it all and have to go back up again on the traditional trail.
We also didn’t drink much water, I suppose since we forgot. We’re used to drinking whenever we come to a stream. Also there was snow all around, so maybe it made us feel like drinking lots wasn’t a big deal because there was frozen water everywhere. And we didn’t put on enough sun lotion in critical places. Most notably, we (and especially Dmitriy) did not put much/any under our noses, which got terrible burns since the sun was reflecting off the snow. The next day his nose peeled and started leaking pus. So many lessons learned.
By time time we got to 9,000ft on the normal trail, we were both starting to feel tired. However, I was feeling pretty cheerful and was surprised that I was having such a good hiking day, largely based on the fact that I was going quite a bit faster than Dmitriy, which never happens. It turns out he was feeling really lousy. We hiked side-by-side after that, trying to get up to Lake Helen for the night. We stopped around 5:30pm for a water/snack break at around 9,000ft. The remaining 1,000ft up to Lake Helen looked brutal. We had the remains of our water and tried boiling more, but it took way longer than we thought it would. When we started up again, it quickly became evident that it wasn’t going to happen, and we turned back down. Its always a hard call to turn around.
Here is the view from where we made it up to. The red arrow is pointing to Lake Helen, right behind a ridge that blocks it from view.
Here are some pictures from the way down.
We got to do some glissading.
That night we stayed at the Travel Inn in Shasta. I got a peach Torani with dinner which came with infinite refills and was just about the tastiest thing I’ve ever had to drink. We were ultra dehydrated.
We lazed around the hotel room for most of the day. Dmitriy felt pretty bad about the call to turn around, although we both thought it was the right call to make. Around 3 we went for a snowshoe hike on Mt Shasta at the trailhead, in the opposite direction from the trail. It was pleasant and we had a mini snowball fight.
After dinner that night, we went and sat on a picnic table in the park and watched the sun set on Mt Shasta.
We drove to Shasta Caverns en route back to Palo Alto. They are a network of underground caves with stalactites and stalagmites. You have to go as part of a tour, and they take you across Shasta Lake on a boat, then drive you up to the caverns in a bus.
We needed to redeem ourselves after our first Shasta attempt. We went for a round two, this time with a friend from high school (who is also significantly more experienced with mountaineering than we are and has done Shasta before). We went for the second weekend of July, which I’ve read online is just about the latest in the summer that you want to go because after that the chance of rock fall gets too high afterwards. When we spoke with rangers on Mt Shasta, they told us that the weekend before a man on our same route got knocked on the head by a falling rock. His helmet shattered and he was knocked unconscious, so he was airlifted off the mountain to the nearest hospital. In the end he was fine, although he had a concussion.
PS many of the photos from this trip were taken by Dmitriy as the camera is new and he was excited to play with it and I was very cold and not into it. He got some amazing shots.
We drove up on Friday night and camped on the side of the road going up to Mt Shasta. Dmitriy and I tried sleeping under the stars in the back of AB’s truck, but the mosquitos were out in full force and we eventually were forced to retreat into our tent. Before pitching the tent, we saw a shooting star which went across about 1/3rd of the sky.
We went to The Fifth Season first thing in the morning to rent gear and fill our water bottles, and got our wilderness permits (free) and summit permits ($25) at the trailhead. We were on the trail by about 10:30am. First order of business: SUN LOTION EVERYWHERE. Especially under the nose. There was much less snow, which made it much easier. We made it up to Lake Helen by around 2pm. The last “bump” was really steep and hard, and Dmitriy and I realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that we made the right call heading down last time. Dmitriy flew up it this time. I felt kind of bad for being so slow compared to everybody else.
Here is what camp looks like if you look towards the mountain. I marked in red the approximate route we followed up the next morning.
Here is what the camp looks like from the other side, looking away from / off the mountain. This was still in the earlier afternoon, and many more people joined later on.
There is nowhere private to go to the bathroom, so there is a “pee stick” to the far left over the ridge. If you have to poop, you have to go in a bag and pack it out with you.
Here is the view from the ridge on the side of camp.
We spent the afternoon drinking copious amounts of water, boiling water, and napping. The rangers came around and had a chat with each individual party, laying out the recommended route and telling us to be on the look out for loose / falling rocks. I realized that I had rolled up my pant legs on the hike up but forgotten to apply sun lotion, and I got a crazy 2 inch sunburn on my calves (which is now an odd band of tan).
For dinner we had REI’s Katmandu Curry and for some reason I was really excited for it but it wasn’t very good. Would not recommend. As soon as the sun went down the temperature dropped drastically and the wind started picking up.
Everybody went into their tents for the night, and we put our water bottles and batteries (camera and kindle) in our sleeping bags to keep them warm. I had been really scared that I would be too cold to sleep at night, but the orange sleeping bag kept me toasty warm. The day’s climb had been fairly strenuous and Dmitriy and I hadn’t slept very well the night before, so we ended up dozing off around 8pm.
We got woken up around 12:30 by the group next to us. They spent about an hour bickering over what to bring… I can’t imagine why they decided to pack in the middle of the night rather than before going to sleep (they generally had no idea what they were doing, I heard them tell the ranger it was their first backpacking/camping trip). I lay in bed appreciating how warm my toes were and listening to the tent flap around in the wind. We left at 2am.
The moon was near full and the wind was strong. The forecast that I saw for Lake Helen at the 5th season was that it would be a low of 9C with winds of up to 79kph. Crampons went on right away, and within about 20-30 minutes the ice axes were a must. Within a few minutes all three of us had to stop and take off layers and/or open ventilation slits. We took a slow and easy pace up. It was extremely beautiful with the full moon, the mountain face, a small, spread out train of headlamps, and the lights of small towns in the distance. Occasionally one of us would see a shooting star. Down below, there were thin whisps of fog over valleys in the forest.
After a while (an hour or two?) my toes started getting worrisomely cold. I tried to wiggle them with every step, but they were getting so cold it was hard to move them. The trail was too steep to stop and try to warm them without risking sliding down the mountain. We were headed up towards The Thumb, but the ranger had recommended we cut left of it and go up through Red Bank, so we veered left at some point. On our traverse, we came to a small alcove between some rocks in Red Bank and snow that had receded immediately adjacent to them. We stopped so I could take off my boots and warm up my toes. I rubbed my hands over them and I also stuck heat packs (for hands, unfortunately) in my boot. I got my toes to the point where they could move, although they were still very cold. I think I would have had to turn back if I hadn’t brought the hot shots. While in the alcove, the sky started becoming a lighter blue hinting that the sun would soon rise.
We continued on and soon hit scree. We removed our crampons. It was harder going because the scree were small and loose.
When the sun came up, Mt Shasta had a shadow.
After you get to the top of Red Bank comes Misery Hill. It’s another long, fairly steep section and it looks like the top is the end of the hike, but it’s not. It just keeps on going and going. When you get to the top of Misery Hill, you have to cross a football field sized stretch to pass (below) and then you can go up to the summit.
The hike to the summit was relatively short, but it is kind of tricky because of the loose scree. Everybody kept their crampons on, and I was impressed that going on rocks didn’t damage the crampon spikes. When you get up to almost the top (~5 min away), it goes almost flat for a bit along a narrow path until you get all the way up.
It was so windy up there. When there was a gust, it would completely knock me over. I was trying to “walk” along the trail while always keeping my hands on rocks to steady myself, so often times this meant hunched over with my hands on the highest rocks I could find. Dmitriy says the gusts were enough to make him stumble, but not fall over. I don’t think I was the only woman facing this problem, since two times other women who were sitting offered to hold my hand to help me stay stable while I passed them. They were not in the same group and couldn’t even see each other, so I wonder if the wind was just strong enough to knock over your average size woman but not quite enough to knock over your average man. I would love to know what the wind speed was on the summit that day.
Here are a few pictures of the view. It feels odd to be on the top of a huge mountain and not be surrounded by other mountains.
It was quite cold and windy on the summit so we didn’t stay for long. Maybe 20 minutes.
Here are a couple photos from the descent.
Once we got down to Red Banks, there were glissade trails down to Lake Helen. Up near the top they were too icy / steep to go on, but the lower we got the better they were. At some point, I could go on them while in a “gentle” self-arrest position. A couple of times I started going way too fast and genuinely had to self-arrest. Nearer the bottom, the glissade trails were the perfect combination of sticky snow and steepness (perhaps as the day warmed up or the incline just decreased) and I glissaded down the rest of the way to Lake Helen. We pitched our tents and headed down to the trailhead.
On the way back to Palo Alto, we stopped for Thai food at Champa Gardens in Redding again.