| Mt. Shasta
Trailhead: Bunny Flat (guidebooks/maps/signs vary on its elevation from 6,860’ to 6,950’; my GPS read about 6,900’)
Route: Avalanche Gulch, aka John Muir Route
Total Round-Trip Distance: About 11 miles, possibly more if you do a lot of zigzagging
Total Elevation Gain: Close to 7,300 feet, especially if you include the slight ups and downs on the lower trail
Mt. Shasta Elevation: The traditional elevation is 14,162’, though it has been recently updated by the U.S. government to the more accurate elevation of 14,179’
Here’s the link to our Mt. Hood climb in the first half of this trip, which we climbed a couple days before Mt. Shasta: http://www.14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=12084
I literally could not walk any slower. We were only at about 13,500 feet on the aptly named Misery Hill, but it felt like I was in the Himalayas. And even at my sloth-like pace, I had to stop often to catch my breath.
After sleeping above 4,000 feet for many days, and climbing Mt. Hood just a couple days prior, I thought I would be acclimatized enough for Shasta, but apparently I wasn’t.
When your hobby is climbing high mountains, living at sea level kind of sucks. When we lived at 5,000’ in Colorado and climbed high often, the thin air at 14,000 feet didn't bother us so much. But now that we live at sea level, climbing a 14er feels more like climbing a 20,000-foot peak.
Other than some shortness of breath and a bit of “foggy brain” syndrome, I didn’t have any AMS symptoms, so I continued on.
And even though the altitude was slowing me down, I suppose the long mileage, brutal elevation gain and lack of sleep also contributed to my slow pace.
I guess I wasn't surprised because, after all, Mt. Shasta is a monster, and we were attempting to climb it in just one day.
When we first witnessed its 10,000 feet of prominence (making it the third-most-prominent peak in the Lower 48 and 96th in the world) while driving down to Mt. Shasta city, I second guessed our single-day-climb decision.
Zoomed-in view from Mt. Shasta city:
Excitement and nerves only allowed us a couple hours of sleep before beginning our climb from the Bunny Flat parking lot at about 1 a.m.
Of course, it was dark at the time, but here’s a shot of the mountain from Bunny Flat that I took the day before:
Bunny Flat, by the way, got its name after the low-angle meadow nearby that used to be used by beginner skiers (like a “bunny hill” at a ski area).
As we set a manageable pace up the trail, I thought about the many miles and the grueling, 7,300 feet of vertical gain that we had to surmount before gaining the summit. If we could make it, I deduced, it would be the most elevation we have ever gained in a single-day climb.
The trail to Horse Camp was still holding some patches of snow, but it was nicely packed and wanded, so it was easy to follow.
Beyond “The Cabin” at Horse Camp (aka Shasta Alpine Lodge, aka Sierra Hut, aka Sierra Club Lodge), many tracks led up the slope. We followed one uphill and to the north, and just when we wondered if we were on the best path, it broke out of the trees and into the climber’s gully in Avalanche Gulch.
After hiking up that cold and dark slope for almost an hour, it was official: A battle was going on in my stomach. Fortunately, Jen had a roll of Tums with her, and I quickly popped a couple into my mouth right before the rest of the roll slipped between my gloves and onto the icy slope. Fear, I decided, is watching your bowels' only hope rocket down a snow slope and into a black void.
As much as I hate littering, there was no way I could have stopped it. I could just imagine the headlines: “Climber falls, becomes injured while trying to save Tums.”
“Now you have to pick up five pieces of trash to make up for it,” Jen said.
As we continued up the relentless slope, I began to sense the cold from the snow slowly seeping into my boots. I suppose I overestimated the warmth of my boots and underestimated how cold it would be in the middle of the night. The forecast only called for a low of 23, but the wind chill made it feel much colder.
By the time we made it to Helen Lake, which was still frozen and buried under many feet of snow, I was very concerned about my feet. There’s a fine line between perseverance and stupidity. I could endure the pain, but even if I turned around at that point, I thought, I would have to endure many more hours in the cold, which would increase the likelihood of getting frostnip, or worse, frostbite.
After decades of technology, there are still two pieces of climbing gear that are the bane of my existence: ski goggles and boots. No matter what you do, ski goggles always seem to fog up or ice up, especially in the Pacific Northwest, and boots are either too warm and sweaty or too cold and chafing.
Just as I was cursing my boots and mentally drafting a complaint letter to every boot manufacturer on the planet, I noticed the first signs of the sun rising.
If we could just get above the Red Banks, where the sun would soon shine, I thought, then I would be OK. I knew the sun would warm up my feet fast.
Aubrey approaching the Red Banks, with Pavel and another climber farther up:
The mountain’s shadow was enormous:
Jen, just below the Red Banks:
On the previous day, we stopped in at the Mt. Shasta Ranger Station to pick up our climbing permits and to ask about current conditions. To our surprise, one of the Rangers provided us with some of the best beta I have ever received. He spent at least 20 minutes telling us about the route, pointing to large maps, describing the snow conditions, and even showing us up-to-date photos of the route on a computer screen.
While the Ranger was in mid-sentence, with the three of us huddled around him in a half-circle, some mouth-breathing 10-year-old rudely pushed his way in and interrupted. “Are you guys climbing the mountain? I’m practicing to climb it!” I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud, but what was even funnier was that the Ranger completely ignored the kid and continued to talk to us.
One of the hazards he warned us about was an upper section far-right of the Red Banks and to the left of Thumb Rock. “Most people go this way,” he said, “but it’s dangerous right now and you’re better off going up one of the chutes.”
The kid’s father finally reeled him back. “But they’re climbing the mountain today!” he whined.
“No, I don’t think they’re climbing the mountain today, son.”
Technically, he was right, as we wouldn’t be climbing the mountain until after midnight that evening, but that would be splitting hairs.
Getting back to the climb, the following photo shows our approximate route through the Red Banks. If you look close you can see tracks leading up to the right. This is the easiest way and the most popular way because it’s the lowest angle up the slope. But at the top there is a dangerous moat forming and the cornice seems to be cracking and pulling away from the ridge:
Pavel and Jen above the Red Banks; dangerous area is in the orange circle:
Here is a photo I took on our descent, later in the day (Jen is on the left, for size reference); some of the holes appeared to be pretty deep:
As I had hoped, my feet soon began to tingle with pain as they thawed out in the warm, rising sun.
Halfway up Misery Hill, my main concern switched from my feet to my burning lungs.
We made it up that hill from hell, though, and the plateau above it was a welcome relief.
Shastina from the top of Misery Hill:
With the summit finally in view, it was the first time in the day that I knew we would make it to the top.
The summit block, with a climber standing in the notch:
After a short hike up a well-worn snow path, we gained the summit. From Bunny Flat, it took us 7 hours and 40 minutes to get there, including a few short breaks.
Jen on the summit:
Pavel, Aubrey and Jen on the summit:
You must be careful up there because there are steep drop-offs on both sides:
Pan to the north:
Two climbers hiking across the plateau, just below the summit:
Descending Misery Hill:
Descending the low-angle portion of the Red Banks, just below Thumb Rock (we skirted the dangerous area by scampering over some rock):
Almost halfway down – the red circle on the left is the Bunny Flat parking lot, the red circle on the right is The Cabin at Horse Camp, and inside the red rectangle are about five tents at Lake Helen:
The farther we descended, the hotter it became. There were no clouds. There was no wind. And the sun beat down on us from above just as it reflected up at us from the snow. The heat was crippling, and I was so glad that I had some Gatorade with me to replenish my lost salts.
In a twisted way, it was kind of comical: Where else can you become frostbitten and succumb to heat exhaustion in the same day?
Here’s a pan that I took somewhere between Lake Helen and The Cabin:
View from The Cabin (The Cabin was about 20 feet behind me when I took this photo):
Just before making it back to the Bunny Flat parking lot, we encountered a couple hippies who were definitely on some sort of hallucinogenic drug. When they saw us plowing down the trail with all sorts of spikes, sticks and picks protruding from our packs, they quickly moved out of the way. And then the girl blurted, “Ohhhh! Wowwww!” I wish I could say I’m used to people saying that when I approach, but I didn’t really know how to take it, so I just replied with a simple hello.
Speaking of hippies, as I discovered, Mt. Shasta is a true hippie town. And when I say hippies, I mean real hippies. Not your polished, suburban-grown Boulder hippies, your steampunk Portland hippies or your wannabe Austin hippies. These hippies were the real deal, stench and all.
Roughly three hours after leaving the summit, we made it back down to the parking lot. While it was a long and exhausting day, and even a painful one at times, it was yet another great day in the mountains, and I feel lucky to have experienced it.
Photo I took some weeks ago from a jet (on a flight from San Francisco to Seattle):
Our approximate route:
After climbing Hood and before climbing Shasta, we stopped at Crater Lake, so I thought I’d include a few photos from there:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):