Mount Shasta - Avalanche Gulch Route
I have this goal, to climb all 15 of the California peaks over 14,000'. They're called "the 14'ers". I haven't really set a timeline for my goal, because I figure I'll be living in California for a while, but I got to thinking at the beginning of this year how I've almost been living here 5 years already and have only climbed 1 of the California 14'ers. I've climbed some 14'ers in Colorado and Washington, but only 1 in California. So I've planned out to accomplish few of them this year to get the ball rolling again. Mount Shasta was 1st on the agenda this year.
I've been wanting to climb Shasta for the last couple of years, but since it's in Northern California, we knew it would take us a longer weekend to go and summit the thing. Also, I knew I wanted to mountaineer the Avalanche Gulch Route. It's been a couple of years since I've last done any true mountaineering with the Utah Climbing club, so my original plan was to go with Michael and summit a pretty "mellow" (less-technical) route for our first Mountaineering route together without the club. However, the last couple of years, we could never find the time to make it up there. So finally, this year my friend Ashima was telling me how she would like to go mountaineering for the first time, and I jumped at the opportunity! I told her how we should go do Mount Shasta, and she seemed stoked on the idea.
I figured that since Ashima didn't own any mountaineering gear, and has never mountaineered before, that we ought to sign up for a guided trip up Shasta. This way she could learn good techniques and form from guides that do this every weekend and have even led up mountains like Denali. Ultimately, I wanted her to get a good idea if this was something she would really like doing in the future, because we could have a lot of fun up in the Sierras if she did. But, just like I did, I wanted her to learn from people who had years more experience than I do, and being guided up Shasta is more affordable than some peaks, and it was on the list. We climbed with The Shasta Mountain Guides and signed up for the 2 day alpine ascent up Avalanche Gulch.
A few facts:
- Mount Shasta is 14,179' tall
- Avalanche Gulch is the 2nd technically easiest route up Mount Shasta
- It can be climbed in a day, but most climb it in 2 days
- The vertical gain up Avalanche gulch is 7,300'
- The round trip mileage is ~11 miles (thats right... 5.5 miles with 7,300' gain!)
- The Trailhead is Bunny Flat Trailhead
As far as the route goes, I really like this photo from https://www.timberlinetrails.com/ShastaApproach.html , Check out their website for even more details!
I was hoping to pull together a little info photograph of my own, but I actually did a really shit job on this mountaineering trip of taking photos. I left my camera at home by accident and only had my iPhone. I also was lazy to get my iPhone out on the climb. So photos are rough, but we will try to get a whole story going here. But if you look at the photo from timberlinetrails.com, our group essentially followed this blue route (except with one caveat, Ashima and I and one guide actually went up Red Banks instead of over the bergschrund.. more details on that later though).
Ashima and I left after work on Thursday night and drove up to the Bay Area to stay with her parents and meet up with another friend, Jimmy, who was also going to be joining us on the climbing trip. Then Friday morning we left for Mount Shasta. We made sure to fill our bellies with delicious food that Friday, like acai bowls, fresh cherries from a farm stand, and thai food. We made it to Shasta late afternoon and picked up Jimmy and Ashima's boots and crampons from The Fifth Season shop.
I wanted to sleep at elevation that night so that hopefully we would be better acclimated for Mount Shasta on Saturday and Sunday, so on Friday night we slept at the Bunny Flat Trailhead which lies at about 7,000 feet elevation. It ended up being perfect, and we all just slept in our cars that night at the trailhead. For dinner, I ate kettle corn.
In the morning we met the guides, Nicole, Parker and Skyler at the Shasta Mountain Guides shop where we made sure everyone had the appropriate gear and that we split some of the group weight. My pack weighed about 32lbs and Ashima's weighed about 25lbs. Not too shabby.
We got hiking with the group around 11:00am from the Bunny Flat Trailhead, and it was pretty easy-going to our base camp.
That Saturday almost felt too easy, in my opinion, and in reality we had only gone a couple miles and 2,000 ft. of gain... meaning that we would have about 5,300 ft. left for summit day along with the total 7,300 ft for descent. Sunday was going to be a long day.
Most groups camp at Lake Helen, but we camped just south of the lake (about 900 feet below), for a little more privacy and that all around "outdoorsy mountaineering experience". There are a lot of people that come to hike Shasta every year, many of which attempt it via the Avalanche Gulch route, so it's fair to say this wasn't quite the typical lone mountaineering experience. We were not alone on the mountain by any means.
But i guess one upside to the lower base camp was that we wouldn't have to carry our heavier packs up 900 more feet, we would take lighter packs on summit day.
So we set up our tents and began to kick back and enjoy the Shasta views.
While one of the guides cooked dinner for the group, the other guides took us to a "steep" hill to practice a few common mountaineering techniques such as: self arresting, the french step, the american step, and glissading. All which were good refreshers, and it's always fun to play in the snow.
Then we rested and fueled up the rest of the evening, because we would be getting up very, very early the next morning for summit day.
12:30 AM in fact. Our group had to get a particularly early start since we were lower on the mountain than most groups that camped at Helen Lake, and it's important to get an early start on the mountain so we can be safe and avoid rockfall from melting snow and rock.
Headlights in action, and we began the long... long trudge toward the summit.
I was feeling the nausea from the altitude a bit on our initial ascent, but still felt pretty good, and when the sun finally rose, we were greeted with an epic mountain view. Shadow of Shasta in all of her glory. It was awesome!
Due to the extreme mass of climbers going up the mountain, the climbing up avalanche gulch was like ascending a very long staircase of steps crafted from snow and ice, and a big game of follow-the-leader toward the bergschrund and onward to the summit.
Our guides, however, had us rope up on the slopes, which really didn't seem necessary since there weren't any crevasses below us until the bergschrund at the top, but I guess they wanted to give the appearance of more "safety" to their clients. I was teamed up with Ashima and a guide named Parker, and we were "the middle group". Not quite as fast as the "fast group" and not quite the slowest group... sounds about right.
As we neared the top of "the heart" (see map), Parker got a call on the radio from another SMG guide that said the bergschrund looked dangerous and the snow bridge melted, and so he decided that we would go left up the Red Banks instead. Not many other groups that day were ascending the Red Banks and so the terrain was a bit of different climbing compared to the stair steps we had been following previously.
We found ourselves french stepping on very steep snow/ice to the top of red banks, and it was much more strenuous than what we had been previously doing. On top of that, I don't think we had stopped to take a break in a couple of hours, so Ashima and I were very thirsty and needing fuel. Normally (had I not been roped up) I would've taken a 1 minute stop here or there to stuff a bar into my mouth and drink some water, but it seemed our guide was on a diehard mission.
I mean, I get it, our diversion toward red banks made our route a bit longer and he didn't want to stop on the steep slopes, but I also don't think he recognized that we mortals (who don't climb Shasta every weekend) might need a little more re-fueling than him.
I had fun, for the most part, going up Red Banks, but for Ashima's first time on steep slopes, it was quite the challenge. At one point her crampon even came loose and I had to hunker down and fix it back onto her foot on the 30+degree slope. For our own reasons, we were all excited to reach the top of Red Banks to take a rest. Ashima and I were exhausted.
The route to the summit from there was theoretically simple, but mentally still a big challenge for us. We were feeling the altitude, the dehydration, and the exhaustion, but we were still hopeful for the summit.
It was funny because Ashima and I seemed to exchange energies the entire way up the mountain. When I would be at a low, she would be encouraging me to keep the goal and vision in mind, and when she was at her low, I kept egging her on. Our guide also did a great job and reminding us the summit was so close and achievable.
And so we trudged onward and upwards, over several more false summits.
It was slow going, with many "micro" breaks, and counting to keep myself going.
When we finally got to the point where we could see the actual summit, I felt like I couldn't give any more. In that moment, the summit looked incredibly far away. People would come by and say "You're almost there! Keep Going!" and I would look at the path and think, "There's no way... I'm satisfied..." But then, a few more sips of electrolyte water and a bite of butterfingers later, we were convincing ourselves we could do it. But it sort of felt like a lie.
In the back of my mind though, I was thinking, "I need to summit this, so I don't have to come back". Ha! How's that for motivation? It's funny writing about this now because I feel like, sure I'd go back and climb this route again, but I was definitely feeling a bit different at the time of the climb.
The final summit push is almost a blur, and I felt like I got a 2nd wind.. or may more like a 30th wind.
But we fucking MADE IT. Signed the register, Got the summit pic. Got that great summit feeling. That cloud 9 feeling. That I'm a fucking badass feeling. That.. oh fuck, I still have 7,300 feet left to descend feeling.
The summit is only half way there folks.
Yup, the glory was short. It was almost noon and we needed to get the hell off that mountain and find a way to get quickly and safely down the mountain toward the nearest Pizza Place. I mean, back to our cars.
And going down sucked. Ashima and I were, (surprise) still tired, and it didn't change much on the down climb, which is more brutal on your knees.
We got lucky though, super lucky actually. We found out that the bergschrund was actually just fine to cross, and that the snow was perfect conditions for glissading.
So we crossed the bergschrund via a snow bridge and then enjoyed the longest glissade I've ever done in my whole life. For those of you who don't know what glissading is, it's basically like sliding down the mountain on your butt, mountaineering axe in hand in case things get out of hand, but the snow was perfect. We butt-glided down those slopes basically all the way back to base camp, thousands of feet.
Thats one step for mankind and one giant glissade for his butt.
Ok. I'm done. It was just insane, and fun, and such a relief to my mind. It would have been a very, VERY longer day had we descended down climbing that route.
The ending is simple from there. When we got to base camp, we packed up the rest of our crap and did a bit more glissading down the mountain until it got too flat and we had to walk the rest of the way to the trailhead.
Then it went like this: flip flops, clean clothes, drop off gear, and pizza.
That moment you've been waiting for.. when you get to talk with your climbing friends about the craziness that ensued and the summit achieved all in the presence of your own personal pizza and flip flops.
It's the little things.
I'm proud of my friends Jimmy and Ashima for kicking ass on their first mountaineering trip. It was a tough one, physically and mentally, but I'm happy to have shared this experience with them. It's one for the books.
And the 2nd of my California 14ers to check off the list.
Only 13 more to go.