A Climb Long Awaited
I can recall wanting to climb Mount Shasta as far back as the March 2006. After completing my first winter ascent of Mount Washington, I felt as though I was ready to tackle much larger mountains. Having never been at high altitude or a glaciated peak before, I had no idea what challenges I would face. I heard several people speak highly of Mount Rainier. So I was at an EMS store in Manhattan talking to the manager one day. I don’t remember his name, but he certainly had a great deal of experience climbing in the Cascades. He informed me that Mount Rainier should not be climbed solo especially by a beginner. This is mainly due to the hazardous crevasses found on the many glaciers out there. However, if I insisted on climbing a fourteener in the Cascades, I should try Mount Shasta. After doing a bit of research on the mountain, I fell in love with the idea.
Despite the idea of solo climbing Mount Shasta, I had still never been on a fourteener before. I was still very excited to climb Mount Rainier also, so I decided I would do that first. This was very beneficial for me because I was able to go on a guided climb with RMI (Rainier Mountaineering Inc.). After doing this, I felt as though I could solo something like Mount Shasta with confidence.
It took four months to train for Mount Rainier, which I did in the summer of 2008. I successfully reached the summit on a climb guided by RMI. Having accomplished this task, I was well aware of how I needed to train for a climb like Mount Shasta and what I was likely to face when I got there.
For various reasons – not the least of which was blowing out my knee in the fall of 2009 – I had to postpone my Mount Shasta trip until the summer of 2010. I made the decision to do this about three months prior to the climb itself, which I felt left little time for physical training. But as always, I was willing to accept the challenge. So for the entire summer I trained hard, including hiking 18 of the 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks in only a month. Also included were numerous other mountains in the Catskills and Mount Washington. So finally by the end of August 2010 I was ready to begin my adventure.
I arrived in the town of Mount Shasta, California on August 21st. It was a quaint little mountain town, but not too busy at this time of year. Apparently I was there at the end of the climbing season, so it wasn’t too crowded. I got my first glimpse of Mount Shasta upon entering the town where I took the following photo.
The plan was to ascend using the Avalanche Gulch route, which is the easiest route up the mountain and doesn’t involve glacier crossings or anything more technical than general crampon use and self-arrest technique if needed.
As illustrated above, the route was fairly straightforward. I would arrive at the Bunny Flat trailhead and make a short ascent to the Cabin, otherwise known as Horse Camp. This is a small cabin owned and operated by the Sierra Club. From there I would go up the Olberman’s Causeway to Spring Hill and then to 50/50 Flat. Finally, I would make the climb to Helen Lake where I would setup camp for the evening.
The following morning, I would ascend the steep snowfields leading up to The Heart. I would go to the right of The Heart and up through the Red Banks. This would lead me to another steep climb through the Red Banks at which point I would be at the base of Misery Hill. I would climb up Misery Hill, so named for the notorious winds it is known for, and cross a snowfield until I reached the summit plateau. From there, it would be a very short ascent to finally reach the summit.
In the morning, I checked out of the motel I was staying in for the night. I knew that a climbing permit would be needed to climb above 10,000’, but I wasn’t sure if it was a self-issued permit. The ranger station in town was supposed to open at 9:00 AM, so I decided to get a nice big breakfast in town at the original Black Bear Diner.
Once I finished my breakfast, I had enough time to go down the street and get a clear, unobstructed view of the mountain. I read (and I was warned by locals) of the lenticular clouds that sometimes form around the summit of the mountain. Some locals believe that these clouds are somehow indicative of alien activity. But one thing I read is for certain. You should not make a summit attempt when these clouds are present. But I was in luck. There were no clouds, which meant that I would probably have great weather conditions going to the summit and I wouldn’t be abducted by aliens, which is always a bonus.
Afterwards, I promptly arrived at the ranger station only to find out they were closed for some reason. However, the climbing permit was self-issuing and if I recall correctly it was $20. I took my permit and a few of the waste disposal kits that are provided by the forest service and began driving to the mountain.
I arrived at the Bunny Flat trailhead at approximately 9:15 AM. There was a small building there with a few restrooms, trashcans, waste disposal kits and general information on the trails. I spent a little while doing a final gear check to make sure I had everything needed before leaving the parking area. A ranger drove up and I spoke to him for a few minutes, confirming that I knew the correct the route to Helen Lake.
The hike from Bunny Flat to The Cabin (otherwise known as Horse Camp) was fairly easy despite the 65 lb load I was carrying in my pack. It was a very smooth and wide trail just below the timberline. At only 1.7 miles, I was there at about 10:15 AM.
When I arrived, I put my pack down and did a bit of exploring. You could see that there were a few campsites, but not too many were being occupied. There were two women there at the cabin, one of which was the caretaker. We talked for a little while about the route up the mountain, which was clearly visible from where we were standing. The actual timberline is not much of an ascent from the cabin itself.
I drank plenty of water while at the cabin since I had the opportunity to fill my water bottle with fresh, pure Mount Shasta spring water. The water is so pure that no filtration was necessary.
While I was there, I also went inside the cabin. The cabin itself is a small stone building with a fireplace. Inside there was a picnic table and more information about the area, some pictures and a visitor’s register.
Just outside the cabin is the beginning of the Olberman’s Causeway. The Causeway was a trail made of large stones and was built by James Olberman, who was the first caretaker of the cabin. The altitude was a mere 7,880’ and I was heading towards Helen Lake at 10,443’.
The Olberman’s Causeway was quite easy to hike. Due to the fact that I had a very heavy pack, I was on vacation and under no major time constraints getting to Helen Lake to setup camp, I was keeping a fairly slow pace. The Causeway led me to Spring Hill, which apparently is the source of the spring at the cabin.
After stopping briefly at Spring Hill (8,400’) to absorb the view of the surrounding landscape, I started the steeper ascent to 50/50 Flat. There were patches of snow around me, but for the most part the trail to 50/50 Flat was dry and smooth. On the way up, I encountered a climber who unfortunately didn’t make the summit that day because his crampon straps got cut. Aside from that, I didn’t see anyone else since the cabin.
When I arrived at 50/50 Flat (9,400’), I found that there were several groups of climbers who setup camp. The campsites were unique; at least I hadn’t seen anything like this before. There were wind shelters there that had been constructed from loose rocks. They were like cairns, only they formed a wall that wraps around each individual tent site.
The view from 50/50 Flat was amazing. It was a pretty clear day and you could see all the way down to Horse Camp, although the cabin could not be seen itself. You could also get a really good view of the surrounding mountains, although they were all significantly lower in elevation that Mount Shasta.
Once I finished resting and admiring the views from 50/50 Flat, I began to head up towards Helen Lake. I only had 1,000 feet to climb and I was at camp. I followed the trail up a bit and began to climb the steep snowfield. At this point, I did start using my ice axe, but I decided not to put my crampons on. I was able to kick steps into the snow all the way up to Helen Lake.
While ascending, I was carefully watching the talus and scree fields on the hill just to the right of the snowfield. One must be careful to avoid any rocks tumbling down the hill, but I was fortunate enough that this didn’t happen.
At approximately 2:00 PM, I finally arrived at Helen Lake (10,443’). The view was absolutely amazing. I had a clear view of the entire route so far, including 50/50 Flat, Horse Camp and I could even see Mount Shasta City. Looking up, you could clearly see The Heart, Thumb Rock and the Red Banks.
Helen Lake itself was not a lake, as you would expect. Rather, it was just a large snowfield right next to the camping area. There was a very sturdy-looking ranger’s tent setup and many of those wind shelters I had seen on 50/50 Flat. There were a number of tents in the wind shelters, but they had been broken down. In other words, the poles had been removed from them and large, heavy rocks lay on top of them to prevent the wind from blowing the tents right off the mountain.
I began to unpack my tent from the pack and setup camp within one of the wind shelters. I took my mountaineering tent with me, so I was fully prepared for strong winds. The tent was staked down in sixteen different places, so I was quite confident that it would be ok for the time I was here. In fact, there really wasn’t much wind at all. Honestly, I don’t believe there could have been better conditions on the mountain for climbing. It must have been about 50 degrees with a slight breeze at Helen Lake.
While I was setting up my tent, the ranger I met in the parking lot earlier that morning finally arrived. He was carrying a bundle of wands that were used to mark the trail going up through the snowfields. I noticed that he climbed a different route than I did. When I asked him, he said that I went up the standard winter route, which went around the left side of Helen Lake. The actual trail, which would have been easier and pretty much free of snow, was to the right. Apparently, I didn’t notice the wands marking the trail in the snowfields at the end of 50/50 Flat. Perhaps they had fallen over and he came behind me and fixed them.
Over the next few hours, several climbers and groups of climbers were making there way down from the summit. They stopped back in at Helen Lake to finish packing their gear for the descent down to Bunny Flat. Most of the climbers I spoke to successfully made the summit. One climber was explaining to me that I should go up the third chute from the right to get through the Red Banks.
As the afternoon progressed, I decided to do a few chores. First, I prepared my pack with a significantly lighter load for my summit attempt the next day. Surely, I didn’t need my mountaineering tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove or fuel. Secondly, I replenished my water supply by melting snow from the snowfield. I started by taking my snow shovel over to the snowfield and digging out large chunks of snow that I placed into bags. The snow shovel was a minimal plastic shovel with two handles on the side. It took a bit of effort to break off chunks of snow from the field as the snow was packed down pretty hard and probably a bit frozen too. The main thing I also had to look out for was the pink algae that can be found on the snow up there. I had read that these algae could make you quite ill if you ingest it.
After melting enough snow to make three liters of water, I cooked some freeze-dried lasagna and ate it while watching the sunset from an altitude of over 10,000’. I made sure that I got a chance to see the lights from Mount Shasta City down below before I retired for the evening.
Before I went to sleep, I set my alarm for 6:00 AM. I heard from one of the climbers today that he started at 7:00 AM, so I figured why not? I know that it is traditional to begin alpine ascents at 2:00 AM or sometimes even earlier, as was the case with Mount Rainier. I knew from prior reading that there wouldn’t be any icefall or avalanche danger on this route. While spending the entire afternoon at Helen Lake, I didn’t hear or see any rock fall whatsoever as I did when I was climbing Mount Rainier. Besides, I was on vacation – and in great condition. I was sure I’d make that summit and get back down with plenty of daylight to spare.
Unlike Mount Rainier, I was actually able to fall asleep at this camp. I suppose I had a lot less anxiety about summit day. This is where it gets weird. I heard from some people that one symptom of high altitude was to have strange dreams at night. For me, this turned out to be true. I would have a really strange dream for an hour or so, then wake up. The dream wasn’t bad, but just really strange in some way. After this happened again, I made a little game out of it. I called this game “dream roulette.” Once I woke up, I would anxiously make a point to get back to sleep just to see what I would dream about next. This must sound very strange, but for me, it was quite entertaining especially since I usually don’t remember my dreams at all.
At 6:00 AM, I had to stop playing “dream roulette” and get ready to do what I came here for – to summit the majestic Mount Shasta. I cooked breakfast really quick and topped-off my water bottles by melting some additional snow that I stored in bags from the day before. I then put on my helmet, crampons and pack. Finally, I grabbed my ice axe and started hiking across the snowfield in front of the Helen Lake campsite.
Shortly thereafter, it got steep really, really fast. As you would expect, the altitude began to affect me. I kept a slow and steady pace while making very short switchbacks up the snowfield. I rested at a rocky area below The Heart and then at a similar area to the right of The Heart at about 12,000’. Because The Heart is really just a huge talus field in the middle of the snowfield, I had to watch for rock fall. Again, there wasn’t any and the snow underfoot was quite solid even though it was late in the morning. It was about 9:30 AM and, while resting I managed to get the following photo looking down the snowfield.
At 12,000’, the altitude definitely starts to make you feel like you’re a bit out of shape. I took my time, rested, enjoyed the view, ate, drank quite a bit of water and then continued upward.
As you can see in the photo above, I continued on the right side of The Heart and headed towards the third chute in the Red Banks. This chute can be seen in the photo above if you look in the center of where the Red Banks meets the snowfield, right above The Heart.
For some reason, I figured that once I got to the Red Banks it would only be a few hundred more feet before I was at the top of the Red Banks and I would just rest there. Clearly, as I ascended through the chute, I was very much mistaken. The chute itself was a snowy glissade path that ran through a narrow opening in the rock. The Red Banks itself was rather strange looking. It was made of fairly small red rocks that appeared to be crammed together until they fused into one huge formation.
It seemed like the climb through the Red Banks would never end, but I just kept pushing myself hard to get to the top. I kept telling myself that I wanted to rest for a few minutes, but I just kept pushing. “It’s only another hundred feet,” I kept telling myself.
At 13,300’ above sea level, I found myself at the top of the Red Banks. There was a group of climbers resting there. As soon as I saw them, they commented on the Red Banks being the most strenuous part of the entire climb. At this point, I had to agree!
They were about to continue their descent after successfully making the summit an hour or so earlier. After speaking to them, I learned that they began their ascent at around 2:00 AM from the Horse Camp. Clearly, they had a long day and an epic climb to the summit.
I took the opportunity to rest here and once again enjoy the incredible views. It was definitely a bit colder up here, but perhaps that is mostly because I wasn’t moving any more. I always make it a point to carry my sub-zero down parka with me during major climbs like this, so I did not hesitate to put it on while I rested. The wind was not what I expected it to be though. It only seemed like there was a breeze of maybe 5 mph or so. But I just knew that Misery Hill, which lies directly ahead, would not disappoint me. Misery Hill got its name from the extreme howling winds that are typically experienced while on it.
Once I finished resting, I packed my down coat away and began the short hike over to Misery Hill. There was no snow at all up there and, to my surprise, no wind to really speak of either! On the way up, I spoke to another climber who was coming down. He told me that the conditions up there were excellent. I couldn’t be more motivated at this point. Sure, I was a bit tired and the altitude made me noticeably weaker than I was the day before, but my spirits were very high.
At around 13,800’, I finally arrived at the top of Misery Hill. I didn’t get blown off the hill as I had expected to. Actually, the wind was barely noticeable. More importantly, however, the summit was finally in sight! I found another wind shelter up there, so I sat down next to it and rested for a few minutes before continuing on. There was another snowfield that I needed to cross and I would be just beneath the actual summit. I had taken my crampons off after I got to the top of the Red Banks and I figured now might be a good time to put them back on.
It took about ten minutes to cross the snowfield and then I was at the Summit Plateau. There was no snow from this point forward. There were several wind shelters up here as well, although it is highly doubtful that anyone purposely camps up here. There were two pinnacles up here, one on the left and one on the right. Earlier, a fellow climber made a point to inform me that the right pinnacle is the actual summit.
While walking along the short trail leading to the start of the pinnacle, I saw the famous sulfur spring that I read about. This spring can be seen in the photo below. Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t really show that the sulfur spring was bubbling, nor is it clear that there are fumes rising from the spring.
Once I finished admiring the sulfur spring that clearly reminded me I was on top of an active volcano, I began the short ascent to the summit. As I neared the top, three other climbers were coming down. They told me they intended to ski down from the other side of the mountain.
At 1:30 PM, I finally arrived at the summit! The elevation was 14,162’ and I was feeling good. It was a clear day out, sunny and almost no wind. And the best part of it, I had the summit to myself! The summit was just a small rocky tower that rose above the summit plateau. On the summit was a register, which I signed.
The view from the summit was absolutely amazing. Climbing to the top of the smaller peaks on the east coast is really great, but there is an almost indescribable feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment when I come out here and reach the top of a fourteener, especially a peak with this level of prominence. Like Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta is one of those majestic peaks that rise up far above all else that surrounds it. There was nothing else in sight that was nearly as high as I was, which gave me an incredible perspective of the magnificence of Mount Shasta and a unique view of the world under me.
I stayed on the summit for a whole hour. Surely I knew I needed to get back, but I was in no hurry to leave. But, while caught up in the moment of being on the summit, I stopped pressure breathing and the sulfur fumes rising up from the spring started make me feel a bit woozy. That is when I decided it was best to start making my way back to Helen Lake.
Return to Helen Lake
I hiked down to the summit plateau and then over to the snowfield. Then I put my crampons back on and quickly crossed the field. I was really feeling a bit nauseous now. Of course descending from the altitude would be a quick cure for any altitude sickness, if this were in fact what was going on (as opposed to just feeling nauseous from a continuous exposure to sulfur fumes).
When I got to the other side of the snowfield, I was at the top of Misery Hill. I removed my crampons and started heading across the top of the hill when I ran into two climbers who were making a pretty late summit attempt. At this point, it was nearly 3:00 PM, but they still had plenty of time given the fact that conditions were absolutely perfect.
Descending from Misery Hill was incredible because it allowed me to maintain a constant view of the beautiful landscape that was behind me during my ascent. Looking down onto the top of the Red Banks was incredible, but my view of Shastina, one of the main vents of Mount Shasta was what amazed me the most. I read that if Shastina erupted, it would be more powerful than an eruption of the main summit. Looking down onto a powerful volcano, which happens to be an active one, is an awesome spectacle.
As I was hiking down Misery Hill, I noticed a narrow snowfield to my right that seemed to lead all the way down to the Red Banks. Upon closer inspection, I found a well-defined glissade path. So I left the main trail and went over to the snowfield. I removed my pack and made sure that there was nothing that could potentially come lose during a glissade, such as a water bottle. After making sure everything was ok, I put my pack on, sat down on the smooth glissade path that others had made before me and started glissading down the mountain towards the Red Banks.
I was able to very quickly make my way down to the Red Banks. Care needed to be taken to avoid going too fast through the narrow sections where I was surrounded by the rock that forms the Red Banks. Once through the chute, I was able to glissade down a bit further. However, there wasn’t just a single glissade path. I kept glissading down a few hundred feet and the path would end. Then I needed to traverse a bit before finding another path.
After a series of glissades, it became very difficult finding a glissade path that worked well. At about 11,000’ the snowfield wasn’t nearly as steep and therefore I couldn’t gain a lot of momentum. My ice axe proved to be a very useful tool in helping to push off and get me started. Once I was a few hundred feet above Helen Lake, it was pretty much useless though. From here, I would hike back down to my tent.
It was around 4:30 PM when I arrived back at Helen Lake. I still felt a bit nauseous even after descending nearly 4,000’. I contemplated whether I should stay another night at Helen Lake or continue descending and drive to my next destination. The decision was pretty easy because the next destination was Yosemite, which was 400 miles south of Mount Shasta. Breaking camp and climbing down would put me at 6:00 PM at the earliest and then driving 400 miles would take at least seven hours. Then I would have to find a place to camp at Yosemite. Yes, I would definitely be staying another night on Mount Shasta. And I was more than happy to be there.
Fewer people were at camp that night. I did the usual chores of organizing my gear and melting snow. Soon afterwards, I enjoyed another fine freeze-dried meal and headed into my tent for another fun night of “dream roulette.”
I woke up at about 8:00 AM. After a quick breakfast, I started packing up everything and was ready to go by 9:00 AM. This time, I started down the regular path that was a nice smooth hike down to 50/50 Flat. I don’t recall seeing any tents down at 50/50 Flat that day, but there was a gentleman taking in the views on the edge of the flat, just before descending again towards Spring Hill.
On my way to Spring Hill, I saw one other person who was heading up. I told her that the conditions had been great and wished her a successful summit attempt. It was so great to experience this mountain in perfect weather conditions with no crowds at all.
At about 11:30 AM, I was back at The Cabin. There was no caretaker there today, but I remembered that I forgot to sign the register on the way in. So I signed the register and when I got outside, an older couple was approaching me. We talked for a bit and I asked them if they were going further up the mountain. They said no, but they did reminisce about the days when they had visited Mount Shasta’s summit. If I remember correctly, they were from Oregon and made a point to always hike at least part of the way up to Shasta every time they passed through the area. Honestly, I can’t say that I blame them. This mountain and its surrounding landscape were breathtaking.
I arrived back at the car at about 1:00 PM. I wasn’t tired at all, but I had a long drive ahead of me. Certainly I couldn’t help but think that Mount Shasta was so magnificent that I just wish I could take her back east with me. But I couldn’t, so I must return another day.
To view a complete photo gallery of this trip, click here.