Mt Shasta, June 5th and 6th, 2006


The second peak of our adventure was Mt Shasta, a 14,162’ volcanic peak, located in the Cascade Range, about 60 miles south of the Oregon border in northern California.  It is the largest and second tallest of the Cascade volcanoes, and has the steep sides and pointed top which many associate with a classic volcano.  We had come off Mt Whitney late on Friday and driven north for an hour to Bishop where we spent the night.  Saturday was a travel day, with some making the pilgrimage to the Sierra Trading Post outlet store in Reno “on the way by”.  We arrived in the Mt Shasta area in early evening by way of Susanville, and enjoyed the pine forests and Mt Lassen along US89.  Mt Lassen was spectacular, covered in near-record snows.  We learned that the anticipated opening of the Lassen loop road would be delayed until July 20th due to the snow.  As we approached Mt Shasta we found it partially obscured in clouds, with a high overcast, but were buoyed by an excellent weather forecast for the days ahead.


Our party of eight arrived at the Motel6 in beautiful downtown Weed within a short time of each other, and made plans to have a breakfast meeting at the nearby Hi/Lo Restaurant the following morning (Sunday).  Sunday was, appropriately enough, our rest day, and after breakfast we went our separate ways.  Some drove north on US97 towards Klamath Falls, Oregon where there’s an excellent vista point of Shasta, and then drove to Mt Shasta City to explore the town, visit the local mountaineering shop (Fifth Season), sample the town’s many interesting shops and of course, drive to the trailhead at Bunny Flats.


Mt Shasta was as magnificent as I’d ever seen it.  The near-record winter snows, coupled with recent storms, had left the mountain with a heavy coating of snow.  The rocky prominences of Casaval and Sargents Ridge and Red Banks were covered with a heavy coating of rime and ice, obscuring their actual colors.  Fortunately, the last few weeks of mild weather had consolidated the snow pack, and the risk of late afternoon avalanches were greatly diminished.  The plan was to meet the following morning (Monday), and be on the trail by 10AM.  We’d hike first to Horse Camp, a stone building built in the early 1920’s by the Sierra Club, then follow the (buried) Oberman Causeway above treeline to the Avalanche Gulch route and up/around the bumps to so-called Lake Helen at 10,400’ where we’d camp for the night.  The following morning we’d get an early (alpine) start, work our way up and around to the right of the “Heart”, through the 2nd or 3rd chute on the lower Red Banks, up Misery Hill and finally reach the summit.  We’d return the same way, pack up our tents and head back to Bunny Flats.


The following morning dawned clear and sunny, with light breezes.  The weather forecast for the next two days was favorable.  We were met at Bunny Flats by our 9th climber, Jerry, who arrived a bit early to complete some volunteer duties for the US Forest Service, and soon the rest of the gang arrived.  Since this was our second climb of this trip, we were getting the drill down pat, and were on the trail a few minutes early.  We followed the summer trail a short distance, turned right, and followed the more direct route up the drainage, bearing left as we neared treeline and stopped at Horse Camp for a quick rest and some water.  The trail was snow-covered and well-packed from the parking lot.  At Horse Camp we found the building still mostly buried, but the free-flowing spring was dug out, and we filled a few water bottles, happy that it was clean and we didn’t need to filter it.  Despite our rather hectic schedule, people seem rested and in good spirits for what is a rigorous, and somewhat tedious, slog in direct sun for the steep two miles to high camp at Lake Helen.  We’d decided against snowshoes as reports were the snow was reasonably consolidated, and this proved to be the case.  We took a rather direct (and steep) route over the first major bump, and worked out way thru the section known as “50-50”, to the final steep bump to reach our camping area.  I’d urged people to go slowly and methodically, drinking plenty of water.  That strategy has worked for most of us on Whitney, and allowed our bodies to better acclimate to the effects of altitude.  Since it was a Monday after a busy weekend, we had Lake Helen mostly to ourselves, and were able to enjoy the camp spots dug by the weekend crowd.  The first order of business was to melt snow for the group, and Andrew, Glenn, Rebecca and Rick began the process of melting/filtering about 35 liters of water.  With the late afternoon sun slowly slipping behind Casaval Ridge, we made camp, relaxed and enjoyed the mild temps and great views of the mountain ranges to our west and south, including Mt Lassen, the southernmost of the Cascade volcanoes.


The following morning we were on the trail about 3:30AM, starting out with headlamps on our helmets and crampons on our boots.  The temps at Lake Helen were a bit above freezing, but the snow was hard and the climbing good.  About 45 minutes later we put away the down parkas for a few hours and began the long, arduous climb to Red Banks.  People were in pretty good shape, but some of us (including myself) were nursing a bit of ‘shin bang’ from Whitney, that climber’s affliction which occurs when the inner liner of one’s plastic boot is a bit too tight.  This made it somewhat difficult to climb using my favorite method of wide traverses; instead, I found that scuttling sideways up the hill was easier on my shins.  Al, our fastest climber (and our oldest), was soon, as usual, way out in front.  In his own mind he was certain he was headed for Red Banks, but to the rest of us it looked like he’d soon disappear over Casaval Ridge!  Al is a very determined climber, and despite several requests that he bear sharply to the right, including one request that he move at least 100 yards to the right, he appeared to continue to climb straight up.  The situation was exacerbated by the amount of effort needed to just breathe at 12,000’, much less shout directions several hundred feet.  For a time there was some loose talk about shooting Al if he didn’t turn to his right, along with a bit of hollering and ill-tempered behavior on my part, but soon we were back together as a group, and headed in a more direct path towards Red Banks.  There are many benefits to climbing hundreds of peaks together under all types of conditions which help you get thru the rough spots in situations such as this, and still remain close friends!


Now the fun began: on most Shasta climbs via Avalanche Gulch there are certain zones where one has to be mindful of possible rockfall.  In most years these zones are fairly obvious as there are reasonably well-defined debris paths.  This year was different – there was very little evidence of rock fall, and we soon found out why – ice.  The good news was the ice and rime coating was holding much of the loose rock in place.  The bad news was that instead of dodging falling rocks we’d be dodging ice chunks varying in size from ice cubes to softballs.  They were difficult/impossible to see in the dim light, and most of us got pelted by one or two of them.  The worse incident involved a direct hit on Andrew’s kneecap, and for several minutes we were wondering if he’d be OK – fortunately, he was.  As we neared the lower section of Red Banks the rate of ice fall diminished rapidly, for which we were most thankful.  Despite the fact that it was a bit cold and we were in shadow, we took a short rest to refuel and rest before continuing.


The crux of this climb is always Red Banks, which involves climbing thru a rather steep chute to a broad, open area above which has a somewhat lessened pitch.  Typically climbers head for one of three chutes, and the one to climber’s far right is the least steep.  On this day all three appeared to be in good shape, and while the one the right is the least steep, it’s also involves a bit of a detour.  Since the middle one was in fine shape, with steps kicked into the steepest sections, this route was selected.  Brian slipped once, causing me (and him) a bit of consternation, but he caught himself immediately, and we all scampered up.  It was 8AM, and we were in fine shape to make the summit by 11.


I’ve come to regard the top of this section of Red Banks as a transition zone as 1) it’s a highly visible location which climbers focus on since leaving Lake Helen, 2) the grades, except for the final summit pitch, are less steep, 3) we would now be climbing in sunlight, which always improves spirits, and 4) above this point (approx 13K’) the wind and weather is now much more of a factor.  With the sunshine came a steady breeze, occasionally gusty, and some of us put on additional clothing while others waited until the long rest stop promised at the base of Misery Hill.  We angled slowly left and upward for about 45 minutes, stopping again for a brief rest just below a crest.  Jerry, who was feeling strong, volunteered to pop up the last 50’ and verify where we were.  He soon hollered down that Misery Hill was just ahead, and we trudged up to join him and took a well-deserved break at the foot of this last major obstacle.  As we rested we could see two climbers emerging from the Casaval Ridge route.  We were to speak with them briefly on the summit: it turned out I’d visited with them at the trailhead on Sunday.  They were two experienced climbers from Vancouver, BC who had intended to climb Rainier but due to poor weather there decided to try their luck on Shasta instead.


Misery Hill is aptly named.  There’s nothing particularly difficult about it – it’s not especially steep, it’s mostly smooth, although under today’s conditions it was not a good idea to stray too far from the center of the cone as a slip on the icy surface could send you over a shelf with some questionable consequences.  Still, it only required a modest amount of care to do it safely.  What makes it difficult is that it is featureless and boring, and occurs at the point in the climb where getting to the top becomes a proverbial ‘head game’.  One cannot see the actual summit until you reach the top of Misery Hill, so without some knowledge of Shasta, it’s difficult to gauge the amount of remaining needed effort.   It’s said that many climbers make it to this point, only to become discouraged and turn back.  I’d talked with our group many times about this hill, and told them how to persevere, which mainly involves following Tom Casey’s Rules of Climbing, to wit: 1) put one foot in front of the other, 2) remember to breathe, and 3) don’t look up.


After 45 minutes of somewhat steady trudging, I made it to the top of this hill to find the others discussing which peak ahead was the actual summit, and which route was the best.  Since their consensus seemed to be a direct frontal assault on the main peak (and from past experience I knew this wasn’t the best route unless you were an experienced ice climber) I decided to relinquish my usual position as sweep and took the lead across the last slight inclined slope, then turned left on the contour towards the sulfur spring near the base of the final pitch.  Here we dropped our packs, gathered up our cameras, put on extra gear as the wind was blowing a steady 35mph, and zigzagged slowly to the top of the col.  Here there was a protected spot where we gathered out of the wind, and then made a mad dash to another sheltered spot just beyond the summit register box.  We didn’t linger, just long enough to take a few pictures of each other on the summit (the summit itself is a small patch of ground), sign the summit log, and down climb the last 200’ to our packs.  It was now slightly after 11AM, and while a bit cold and windy, the weather was stable and the sun shone brightly.  We now had time to savor the views, especially down onto Shastina and the Whitney Glacier, marveling at the enormous circular bergshrund on the top of the glacier. Soon we were at the bottom of Misery Hill, which is a rather fine place to dine, all things considered.  I was looking forward to a most wonderful glissade, deciding to wait until just below Red Banks.  Had the conditions been a bit warmer, the snow levels would have permitted glissading down Misery, but the cold winds kept the surface hard, so I had to bide my time.  Below Red Banks the snow was in perfect condition, so having played the role of sweep most of the day, I decided to join Jerry near the front, and away we went, on a controlled slide which refreshes the spirit and is just plain FUN!  The others soon joined us in their own fashion, and we made our way back to Lake Helen. Jerry spotted Brian’s camera which has slipped from his grasp near Red Banks and had tumbled well over a mile.  Fortunately the padded case seemed to have prevented damage.  By now the snow had softened considerably, and the early season conditions meant that we’d posthole occasionally, at least until we got back to Horse Camp where the trail was well-packed.  We had considered the pros and cons of carrying snowshoes, and decided against them.  It was the right decision – the extra weight of carrying snowshoes more than offset the effort required of occasional posthole.  Jerry was the first to head down, intent on getting ready for a celebratory dinner with a friend.  Conditions were still favorable for several shorter glissades down to Horse Camp and from there we trudged back to Bunny Flats, weary from carrying our heavy packs, elated from the accomplishment, and hoping we’d applied enough sunblock to avoid emergency medical care in the morning.


Parting at the trailhead was difficult – to fly cross-country and climb two fourteeners within the space of a week was an ambitious trip, and created a strong sense of camaraderie, especially among those who’d shared many peaks before.  We were also concerned for Lou and Al, who would now continue to travel north to meet our friend Jen at the Whittaker’s for an attempt on Rainier, and hoping they’d enjoy the same good stretch of weather for their planned 3 days on the mountain.  But, it was time to say good-bye, at least for now.  So, in as manly a fashion was possible, we shook hands, slapped each other heartily on the back and soon were on our separate ways, each thankful that everyone was safe, and beginning to think about the next adventure.


Pictures of the climb can be seen at Webshots here: