Our initial encounter with Shasta was in the fall of 1999 when we passed by it on a driving tour to Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon from the San Francisco area. We stopped at the first viewpoint on Interstate 5 just south of Mt. Shasta City and at another stop on Highway 97 for a look at the north face. But the attractions of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, Lava Beds National Monument and Lassen National Park in California took precedence on that trip and we forgot all about Shasta once it was out of sight. While Lassen Peak does not match Shasta in elevation or profile, it enjoys National Park status owing to its eruption in the early 20th century and the resulting geographical changes around it.
As frequent flyers on the San Francisco-Oregon air route, we've witnessed the striking landscape of the Pacific Northwest from the air. On a clear day (or night if there is sufficient snow on the mountains) one will be entranced by the procession of mountains that occurs: Lassen, Shasta, the Sisters, Jefferson, Hood, St. Helens, Adams and Rainier (if going all the way to Seattle). One found it difficult to tear away from the vista, squinting particularly hard on night flights for that breathtaking view of a snow clad Shasta under moonlight.
Photos of previous encounters with Mt. Shasta.
Climbing Shasta is a much more daunting proposition. For starters there is no gradual path that switches back and forth on the mountain side. The few routes that are accessible to a non-technical climber are straight vertical routes. The most commonly used one - the Avalanche Gulch route - features an elevation of gain of about 6000 feet within a 6 mile distance. The route is also dangerous in snow or dry conditions due to risk of avalanche or rock fall. Risk of afternoon thunderstorms and melting snow requires an early morning summit, thereby requiring a day trip to start very early even if the trip is broken into two by camping at Helen Lake - a flat plateau at 10,000 feet.
Avalanche Gulch is the broad depression between the ridges
The Avalanche Gulch Route is at bottom left coming from South-West and diagonally proceeding top-right towards center. The blue lines are the ridges that bound the gulch. Other red lines are other routes to the summit that require intermediate skills.
The Whitney (largest in California), Bolam and Hotlum Glaciers are on the top-left of this map and mark Shasta's north face. These glaciers make the north face a technical route that is not suitable for the novice climber.
Having never snow climbed before we decided to head to the mountain itself for beginner's lessons from Shasta Guides. The course takes place on the lower slopes of Mt. Shasta after a short walk from Bunny Flat Trail Head. The following aspects of snow climbing are covered:
Following this was a more intensive session on self-arrest and belay techniques covering all 4 types of falls: feet first on stomach, feet first on back, head first on stomach, head first on back (the scariest), rounding off with a bit of fun with glissading down a snow slope using the ice axe as rudder.
The volunteer supported website climbingmtshasta.org (and accomanying book Climbing Mt. Shasta by Steve Lewis) provided all the information we needed about the mountain, the route, the packing list etc. There are several climb reports, a live web cam with recorded time lapse views of the mountain for several preceding days.Pictures taken on the mountain on training day.
The climbing party consisted of Huzefa, Raminder, Kapshi, Ketan, Daniel, Surabhi, Malini and Venkatesh. We met at the Bunny Flat Trailhead (el. 7000 ft.) at about 9:30 am on Saturday, June 4, 2005. By the time we registered, paid our fees, put on mountain boots etc. it was 10 am. Since the plan was to camp at Helen Lake for the evening and night and get an alpine start at 2 am on Sunday morning for the summit attempt, all of us had heavy backpacks (~ 30 lb).
It was clear and warm, typical of an early summer's day. The preceding several days had seen mostly clear weather on the mountain as could be seen at the live webcam. However, the forecast for Saturday night was not good. The sequence of clear weather days was to be broken that night by an approaching storm system.
Progress was slow due to the warm sun softening the snow causing much post holing (feet sinking deep into the snow). The heavy packs on our backs were another factor. After the first half-hour of climbing on a gentle slope, it got steeper and never let up after that. We paused occasionally to look back at the magnificent sight of the Trinity Alps mountains to the west.
After a few breaks for refreshments, we reached an elevation of about 9600 feet at about 3 pm. As per our original estimate, we'd expected to reach Helen Lake (el. 10400 ft.) at this time. We spotted a group leaving a campsite at our current location and made a spot decision to occupy their spot. We'd make sure we get a 2 am. start to make up for the additional 800 feet the next morning.
The next few hours were spent laying down our tents and deadman anchors to make sure that the tent stays secure at high winds. We had rented 4 season tents instead bringing our own 3 season tent as we were unsure and did not want to take a chance. We did not have any experience pitching a tent in packed ice and learnt a lot from Daniel. The dead man anchors consisted of small sacks filled with snow and buried in the snow. These were tethered to the tents' guy lines. We even stuffed our tent bag full of packed ice while burying it and tied it to the tent. All this additional security will require a lot of hard work the next day to dig them out.
Once the tents were pitched, we had to melt the ice on the mountain for drinking and cooking. Cooking consisted of pouring boiling water into packets of freeze dried food. We also filled up our water bottles for the summit attempt the next day.
As the evening approached, the clear skies gave way to passing clouds coming in from the west.
We got into our sleeping bags as the evening turned cold. We stayed warm through the night. We were occasionally woken up by howling winds and what seemed like huge clumps of snow being dumped on top of our tents. A short period of stormy activity will be followed by relative calm for a while before resuming again.
Everyone's alarms went up at 2 am. We stayed inside our sleeping bags and conversed with the others in the other tents. We decided that it was too windy outside and we'll check back again after half an hour. During that time the stormy weather continued with small breaks of quiet calm. We pushed the departure time further with the understanding that the summit attempt may not be possible (as we'd agreed that 9 am was the turnaround time wherever we were) but we'll try and get as high as possible within that time frame.
Eventually it was 7:30 am before we ventured outside. The summit attempt was out of the question. It was quiet outside but there were looming clouds. We decided to make it up to Helen Lake and then return to camp, pack and descend. It took us 45 mins to an hour for all of us to eventually make it to Helen Lake which is simply a flat meadow like area that offers a short relief from the steep slope. It is the site that houses all the campsites for those who do the 2 day climb. We experienced a brief whiteout condition as we were enveloped by a cloud.
We returned to camp, unpacked and started our descent at around noon. The wind picked up substantially as we made it to the lower slopes.
As we reached the parking lot at around 3:30 pm. we could see that the top of the mountain was under thick cloud cover. All things considered, it seemed a fair decision not to make the summit attempt that day. We were not disappointed as it had been a novel experience to climb and camp in snowy conditions.
For a time lapse recording of the mountain on Sunday, June 5, 2005 click here.
Text, Pictures : Malini Kaushik & R. Venkatesh