I have plans to climb Mt Shasta, Mt Whitney, and Mt Rainier later this season, so I took advantage of a free week to get out and spend some quality time in the mountains. Last summer when I took a break from school to climb Mt Adams in Washington, the altitude hit me harder than usual. Knowing that my objectives this spring would be bigger and harder than the 12,000+ ft Adams, I have spent a lot of time working on improving my fitness and immersing myself in the thin air on big mountains. My only goals for these few days on Mt Shasta were to spend a lot of time on my feet at altitude and familiarize myself with the South side of the mountain. A trip to the summit would be a bonus.
If you’re interested only in my actual Avalanche Gulch climb details, skip to “Tuesday, April 3rd: Summit Attempt.”
Thursday, March 29th: Arriving at the Bunny Flat
I rolled into Mt Shasta around 4 pm and immediately stopped at the Mt Shasta Ranger Station at 204 W Alma St, Mt Shasta, CA 96067. Since this was my first trip up Shasta this year, I bought an annual summit permit for $30 (the 3-day permit is $25) and got some information about climbing conditions and weather.
From there I drove up to the Bunny Flat Trailhead. In the past, when I have been camping on this side of the mountain, it was summer and snow was not an issue. My usual dispersed camping sites were buried in snow this time around, so I made myself comfortable in the back of the van at the trailhead. Never a bad option.
Friday, March 30th: Exploring Lower Green Butte
I hit the trail out of Bunny Flat around 8:00 am with no hard goals. The Green Butte ridge up the east side of Avalanche Gulch looked like an exciting adventure, so I set out in that direction. I overheard some snowmobilers in the parking lot talking about how soft the snow was and recommending another climber bring his snowshoes. Snowshoes! I hadn’t even thought about that. By 10:00 am, the snow had softened so much that I was sinking to my knee or thigh with every step. Once up at Green Butte, I had a great view of the South side of the mountain and could scope out the Avalanche Gulch route as well as Casaval Ridge and the Green Butte ridge.
I followed the ridge up to about 10,000ft before turning around and tracing my steps back to the trailhead. I got a late start and was only planning to do an acclimatization hike, so I was happy with my day. The constant postholing made the climb feel much harder than it should have, but days like these make us strong. And they make you want to go out and buy skis.
Here is the data on Strava.
Saturday, March 31st: Exploring Lower Avalanche Gulch
Looking back, this should have been the day I hiked up to Helen Lake and prepared for an early morning summit on April 1st. At the time, however, I was unsure about the weather and thought it would be good to wait because “I have plenty of time” to summit, when I am ready. Instead of starting our for the summit, I decided it would be good to spend the day kicking around the lower section of Avalanche Gulch. It was nice to hike/climb this section for the first time in daylight and get a better feel for the route. I was also happy that the snow was considerably harder than the day before. It was a fairly quick and easy hike up to around 8,400 ft. Feeling satisfied with my hike and understanding of the terrain, I headed back to the trailhead to have some lunch and rest my legs.
Here is the data on Strava.
Sunday, April 1st: Black Butte Hike
After studying the weather and avalanche conditions, it was starting to seem like that I had missed my window. The forecast was calling for beautiful morning weather but high winds and possibly a storm rolling in late this evening. The thought of doing another day hike around the Bunny Flat didn’t sound that appealing and I wasn’t willing to push higher up on the mountain by myself in bad conditions, so I drove down into town. Being Easter Sunday, nearly everything was closed. I had breakfast and a coffee at Yaks while browsing the internet for trails that wouldn’t be covered in snow. I settled on Black Butte.
Black Butte, a large volcanic peak near the city of Mt Shasta, is a great day hike or trail run if you only have a few hours. It can be a little hard finding the trailhead if you are relying on your cellphone map (no cell service) so make sure you have directions or a physical map before driving off into the woods. Once at the trailhead, I parked, grabbed my camera, and set off up the mountain. The views of Mt Shasta and the surrounding area were amazing! The trail to the summit only had a few patches of snow and I was easily able to navigate around these in my Nike running shoes. The predicted winds arrived about the same time that I reached the remains of the old lookout tower on the summit. If the weather was better, I would have been tempted to hang out up there to watch the sunset. I’ll definitely be back with a tripod in the future.
The whole hike took about 3 hours and was a little under 6 miles with about 2000 ft elevation gain. Here is the Strava data.
Monday, April 2nd: The Start of an Avalanche Gulch Climb
After a day walking around downtown and hiking Black Butte, I was ready to get back up on Shasta. The forecast was calling for a sunny and windy day today followed by increasing wind and storms rolling in tomorrow afternoon. After talking to the rangers, I decided that tomorrow morning, April 3rd, would be my last chance at summiting for at least a week. I would be dealing with 35-50 mph winds and – 10-degree windchill on the summit, so I packed my thick baselayers and warmest coat and headed up the trail.
Because I only had my Nemo Hornet 2p lightweight backpacking tent, I was a little concerned about camping high on the mountain. I had heard stories of several climbers coming off the mountain with ripped up tents from the night before. As I climbed up past Horse Camp I began looking for a place to pitch the tent out of the wind. Casaval Ridge was blocking a lot of the wind coming from the west, so I followed the base of it up to about 8200 ft where there was a nice flat spot with a few trees. It was barely lunchtime, so I decided to really dig in a nice wind shelter. I pulled out my shovel and went to work.
About two hours later I had my tent up and was completely sheltered from the wind. I set out my Goal Zero solar panel to charge my phone and hung some clothes to dry. The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing and preparing myself for the big push in the morning.
Assuming that I would be climbing the mountain at around 1000 ft/hr, I was planning to take about two hours from my camp up to Helen Lake (10400 ft), another two and a half hours up to the saddle above Red Banks (12820 ft), and another hour and a half to the summit. With weather conditions and altitude, I rounded my estimate up to 7hrs. The temperature up above 12000 ft was supposed to be in the single digits, so I was not very concerned about deteriorating snow conditions and falling ice in the afternoon, which meant that I could start moving a little later. I set my alarm for 3:00 am with the goal of moving out at 4:00 am and summiting by 11:00 am.
Tuesday, April 3rd: Summit Attempt
The alarm came early and I wasn’t ready to get up, but I made myself anyway, knowing I had a long day ahead. When I opened the tent I was surprised by how light it was. There was a huge, bright moon illuminating the whole south side of the mountain, making a headlamp unnecessary. It must have been around freezing and completely calm winds when I started off up Avalanche Gulch.
The climb up to Helen Lake went very quickly. I arrived just before sunrise and decided to take a break and wait while things brightened up. As the sun rose, the sky turned pink and then orange. I snapped a few pictures of the lone tent at Helen Lake and then carried on up the mountain. There was a couple roped up ahead of me, slowly making their way up the mountain towards Red Banks. To avoid falling debris, I zig-zagged my way up the opposite side of the slope and passed them near the top.
With the amount of snow on the mountain in April, it is usually not necessary to climb up through the Red Banks to the saddle. I aimed for the left side of Tumb Rock and easily walked right up to the top. There was a small bergshrund forming but I easily stepped over it and continued up the mountain. In a month or two, I would imagine that the gap opens up much wider and necessitates the climb up through the Red Banks to pop up on the other side of this obstacle.
The weather when I started was about perfect for climbing, but when I hit the 12000 ft mark I felt things start to change. The temperature suddenly dropped dramatically and I had to stop to put on additional layers. The wind also started to pick up. I could see a constant westward jetstream of wind and snow blowing over the top portion of the mountain. Forecasts were calling for constant 35-40 mph winds with 60 mph gusts, and windchill around -18 degrees.
Making my way up Misery Hill was a challenge with the cold wind blowing on my left shoulder. Several gusts caught me off guard and pushed me to my knees. It was a constant battle to stay upright and keep the stinging wind from hitting my face. About halfway up Misery Hill, I realized that my butt and left leg were starting to go numb from the cold. I was wearing baselayers and my Gore-Tex shell pants, but they were not enough for the current conditions. Given that the conditions were predicted to get gradually worse all day until a full winter storm hits later in the evening, I decided that today was not going to be my day to summit. I pushed on to the top of Misery Hill, took a minute to enjoy the view, and then immediately rushed down to get some protection from the wind.
Once below the Red Banks, the conditions again were much better. It was like a different world once I was blocked from that wind. I passed a few other climbers working their way up and talked to them briefly about conditions. Not sure if anyone actually made it to the summit this day, but I don’t regret my decision to bail. The downclimb was pretty quick although I would have preferred the snow to be a little softer so I could glissade.
After getting back to my tent, I made myself some food and then proceeded to break down camp. It was early enough in the day that I made the decision to hustle back to the van and then drive home to Napa, rather than staying in Mt Shasta for another night. My plan for this trip was to stay in the area for a while and do a lot of climbing, but the forecast calls for bad weather and storms for the next 10 days. No point in sticking around for that.