Mt Shasta (14179') AG route

Date: 27-28 May 2017

Duration: 2 days

Type: Mountaineering (Beginners)

Difficulty: Strenuous

Distance: ~12 miles round trip

Elevation: 6950’ to 14,179' (~7230’ gain)

Trailhead: Bunny flat trailhead

Trail/Route: Avalanche Gulch (Bunny flat trailhead -> 50-50 -> Lake Helen -> Red Banks -> Bottom of misery hill -> Summit plateau -> Summit)

Base camp: Lake Helen (10500)

Summit day: 5:15am departure from base camp, 11:00am at the summit.

Skills: Self arrest, ice-axe and crampons usage, winter backpacking.

More route info: Timberlinetrails | SummitPost | Check for avalanches | weather | current information | Ranger station contact numbers

Previous trip: here

Mt. Shasta (South face), casaval ridge on the left, avalanche gulch in the middle, sargent's ridge to the right

At the summit of Mt. Shasta

The mountains are calling and I must go” - John Muir

It had been two long years since I set foot on Mt. Shasta. Two years is very long and so it was time for me to visit her again. Standing tall at 14,179 feet the rugged peak of Mt. Shasta is visited by thousands of people every year. It is snow covered to some extent throughout the year but hasn't been quite as much in the past few years however this year has been great. There was so much snow this year that May was a great time to go up this route (compared to March 2 years ago). Adventurers looking to hike up to the summit choose to do so during the drier summer months of late June to August/early September via the Clear Creek Trail approached from Clear Creek Trailhead off Hwy 89. Most mountaineers choose early and late spring months of March - July when the snow, packs itself firm enough after winter storms reducing avalanche risks and just before summer when it starts melting away dangerously increasing risks of rockfall. There are numerous mountaineering routes up Mt. Shasta that pose varied technical skills for beginners and expert climbers alike. The seven glaciers that make up the mountain (Whitney, Hotlum, Bolam, Wintun, Watkins, Konwakiton and Mud Creek) provide numerous challenges; from vertical ice wall climbing to large crevasse traversals to ice falls. Avalanche Gulch is one of the non-glaciated routes that is great for a beginner mountaineer.

This trip was my 2nd climb up the mountain via Avalanche Gulch route. Shasta has been interesting to me in the sense that both my summits - in summer via Clear Creek and mountaineering via Avalanche Gulch this time were 2nd attempts along the respective routes. As always, having decided to go to Shasta only 5 days in advance we were a nimble 3 person team - Jugal, Saurabh and I. To try out a different approach, we departed SF bay area post midnight after a short nap (~2:15am). Breakfast at Wassayaks, Shasta town at 7:15am was amazing as usual. I still do not own mountaineering boots and so we had to stop by Fifth Season to rent them out. The crowded shop signalled the start of long weekend. We were pretty sure it was going to be crowded on the mountain and our guess wasn’t off by much. Long weekends are when the mountain is crowded especially with an amazing weather prediction (low wind, sunny and warm).

En-route to 50-50

© Jugal - En-route to 50-50 from trailhead

The sport of mountaineering requires a large stash of gear along with the stamina and physical endurance to reduce and mitigate risk. Check this page out for a minimal list of gear required for foraying into this sport. Mt Shasta also needs a summit pass to be obtained for any activity (day, overnight) above 10000 feet. One can either get an annual pass (30$ as of May 2017) or a one time 3 day pass (25$ as of May 2017). The summit annual pass is available at the Ranger station and some outfitters while the 3-day summit pass is available at the trailhead (self-pay). After check-listing all of the gear and obtaining an annual summit pass from the Fifth Season store, we drove to bunny flat trailhead. The reduced trailhead parking (due to all the snow this season) and the crowd (due to the long weekend) meant we had to park quite a distance away from the trailhead. It was 9:15am when we started our hike towards the mountain. The weather was gorgeous, warm and the bright blue skies meant we were privy to a picturesque view of the mountain standing majestically in the backdrop.

Similar to the last attempt we did not stop by the horse camp. During late spring/early summer when the snow melts and the streams flow, there are chances of finding a water source there. However, it is always advised to carry your own water when you get to the trailhead and melt snow higher up the mountains (if there is any snow). The approach to the mountain’s avalanche gulch route on the south face is through the beautiful woods of Mt. Shasta wilderness. Folks who connect with nature can hear the trees whistling blissfully into their ears. Elevation gain starts right from the trailhead all the way to the summit making sure people have nothing to complain about "not getting a workout” on this mountain. We moved through the wilderness and up the gulch and Jugal picked up his pace.

©Jugal - Campsite at Helen lake

The last thing I wanted on this trip was to be pinned down due to blisters as this was the reason I had to turn around just below Redbanks during my 1st attempt. We quickly stopped and I padded up with moleskin. An advice to fellow hikers who are prone to blisters and a mental note to self; pad up before preventively, makes a big difference. Also renting mountaineering boots might not be a good idea unless it fits you almost perfectly. Getting above the tree line and into the white felt liberating. When I removed my sunglasses to wipe off the sweat I wondered what a mountaineer’s life was like before sunglasses (and all other equipment). The bright sunlight from the sun that warmed us in near freezing temperatures blinded my eyes for a bit. I quickly put them back on feeling lucky to be a late bloomer and continued on my way up the mountain.

Either I was stoked or the mountain shrunk from two years ago as we got to 50-50 pretty quickly. This is a popular camping area en-route for people who do not plan on hauling their entire backpack up to Helen lake. Our aim was to get to Helen lake and camp up there. Camping higher would give us a 1 hr head start for our summit attempt the next day with the added advantage of acclimatization at a higher altitude. Keeping up with our itinerary we climbed on. I reached Helen lake around 2:00pm, clocking a time of around 4.5 hrs from the trailhead which was much shorter than getting to 50-50 during my first attempt. This made me feel good and positive about the next day. Helen lake was bustling with people who seemed to have come from all around the world. There was a different story being etched as I watched all around. There were people relaxing under the sun after the tough climb, people coming down from up above having summited in their own way, people helping each other to pitch tents, some of them melting snow for water, others eating their food and of course some of them in line for a pee or a poop.

1st picture - Urinal area marked at Helen lake; 2nd-3rd picture - Jugal & Saurabh's tent.

Jugal and Saurabh were busy digging up snow and flattening a rectangular area for their tent. Once they got their tent up, I worked on evacuating some snow for our cooking area followed by flattening another piece of area for my tent. Shoveling snow is hard work especially at 10300’. It was beautiful to just lie around in the tent and watch people reach Helen lake and make plans for building their temporary home and people come back down from red banks with happiness. There was no sign of clouds whatsoever which made it unbearably hot. We decided to get to the usual chores of cooking dinner and melting snow past 5:30-6pm in the hope of avoiding the scorching heat outside. Cooking a meal and melting snow are traditional rituals carried out during winter backpacking and mountaineering. When the sun went down, heat was quickly replaced by cold with temperatures dropping close to freezing. It was as if cold was waiting to engulf all of us as soon as the sun went to bed. Hot chocolate and warm meals re-energized my body preparing me for summit bid the next morning. Having decided to start at around 3:30am we went to bed by ~8:00pm.

I had my tent all to myself but my gear took a better part of the space since I did not have a vestibule section. The night was windy and temperatures got to below freezing. With my alarm set to 3:00am I went to bed. My previous backpacking trips out in the snow left me cold during parts of the night and this time I switched my ultralight foam sleeping pad with a thermarest 2.8R sleeping mat. It was worth the switch since I slept well. At 3:00am I woke up to my alarm and was able to hear the others (Jugal & Saurabh) already up in their tent. The sound of the wind overpowered our dim sleepy voices. The base camp was bustling with people starting their summit bid. In mountaineering it is common practice to start at night and aim to summit early in the morning or before noon at the latest to mitigate the risk of being stuck outside for the night on the way back to camp. Storms also tend to brew up later in the day. When I zipped open my sleeping bag and withered out just enough to open a small slit in the tent to take a peak of the bustle outside I started getting cold. But this cold however was overcome by the sight of a lit up Avalanche Gulch route. It was a portrait that came to life and reminded me of the celebration that took place in Zermatt (Matterhorn), Switzerland in which the entire route from the bottom to the summit of Matterhorn was lit by climbers from all over the world in 2014 in preparation of the the 150th anniversary in 2015 of its first ascent (1865).

© Jugal - En-route to red banks

To rest further and to let the wind subside we decided to sleep in for an additonal hour and get a relatively late start so as to still be comfortable with a noon turn-around-time as well as late enough for us to be able to glissade down below red banks to Lake Helen. Saurabh started 25 minutes ahead of us while Jugal and I started at 5:15am. Far in the crimson pinkish red horizon the sun slowly rose. The initial climb towards red banks was challenging. The crux of AG route is the climb from lake Helen to the top of red banks. Although this and the thumb rock seemed right in front of us it turned out to be very deceptive. We kept climbing. The numerous tents at the base camp shrunk into miniatures and slowly disappeared out of sight but we never seemed to be getting to the top. Two some hours later topped out. Redbanks - sharp rock formations red in color is a beautiful sight especially with the white snow covering it. On the other side/north of the ridge (intersection of redbanks/casaval ridge and sergant ridge) is the Konwakiton glacier couloir. The steep slopes are formidable and lets just say, I wouldn't want to be stuck around there during a white out.

The route from above red banks at 12300’+ is pretty exposed but less in gradient when compared to the last part of the up-climb section. Walking west along the ridge takes you to the base of Misery hill. A steady 1000' climb puts you onto the summit plateau at 13600’+. I was a bit exhausted at this point and the only “matra” that kept me going is “one-step-at-a-time” and "one foot in front of the other". Aiming for the summit from the get-go is a very probable route to failure. Keeping very near and short milestones helps garner the spirit back and add that next push to moving steadily toward the summit. The last part of this climb was fueled by a can of 5 hr energy drink for me. I started seeing mild signs of altitude sickness with light-headedness, headache and nausea. Some rest and the energy drink boosted my energy back and helped in the acclimatization process. We (Jugal and I) summited at ~11:00am. We took a 15 min pitstop at the summit for pictures and snacks before starting our descent to the base camp. Down climbing although softer on our heart, is pretty tough on our lower body (legs, toes, ankles). Conditions were such that we had to down climb all the way below red banks before glissading.

©Jugal - En route to summit plateau (Me climbing misery hill)

I had issues figuring out how to get my crampons off to glissade which turned out to be a pretty interesting problem. Crampons is a huge no-no for glissading. As always after a while I figured out how to do it. The solution I came up with, was to either find a safe place to remove and stow them in or dig out some snow using our ice-axe so that I can make myself a good safe ledge to sit on. I went with the latter. The trickiest part however is to make sure everything is secured before glissading. The axe, crampons and the backpack all of which can slide down if not anchored properly would not only be a problem to us but also to other people climbing up or down the mountain. Glissading is fun but dangerous and should be done only if one is confident in breaking and control. It is very easy to gain momentum and end up sliding off the mountain. To be safe I started off in self arrest position with the pick of the ice-axe digging into the snow but that turned out to be too much effort and work. An easier and more effective approach was to use the tip of the shaft of the ice-axe to guide the descent, control velocity and glissading safely switching to self arrest if it got too hairy.

I reached the campsite (Helen Lake) at ~1:30pm. Took a short break and started packing my stuff. We started the daunting return journey from Helen lake down the mountain ~2:20pm. The down climbing was a lot of post hauling and it isn't fun with a heavy backpack. By the time I got to the car, it was 4 something.

Of the few interesting events that transpired during the course of this trip, one was Ang and Roxana stopping by my tent at Helen lake and the other was meeting a fellow mountaineer Kyle at the summit whose phone died and wanted a picture or two. Mt Shasta has been a great inspiration to my mind, body and soul. 4 climbs done and hopefully many more to come!

©Jugal - On misery hill. I'm trotting up slowly

©Jugal - summit plateau

At red banks on the way down

Elevation Map


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