Mt Shasta Avalanche Gulch
Mt. Shasta via Avalanche Gulch (14179')
Date: 28-29 March 2015
Type: Mountaineering (Beginners)
Duration: 2 day
Distance: ~12 miles round trip
Elevation: 6900’ to 14179' (~7280’ gain)
Route: Bunny flat trailhead -> Towards Horse camp -> Avalanche Gulch (50-50) -> Avalanche Gulch (Helen Lake) -> Red banks -> Misery Hill -> Summit
After a lot of anticipation, postponing and cancellations I finally got to go on my first “Mountaineering” trek here in the US up Mt. Shasta via the Avalanche Gulch route. I was part of the “Mountaineering Connections” group led by Marek. Thanks to Jugal, I came to know about this event in time to register. Due to very adverse weather, this trip was postponed from the previous weekend to this one. This meant I wouldn’t be able to head out from the bay area till after 11pm. (Had already made Friday night plans). Jugal, PT and Sushanth were very accommodating about the start time. Having packed stuff and bought a lot of new gear I was finally on my way to Mt. Shasta (12:00am)
We reached the town of Mt. Shasta at 5:30am and decided to sleep in the car. At 8:30am after a good 3 hr sleep we drove over to Bunny Flat trailhead, picked up Ian and drove back to the town of Mt Shasta to rent the remaining equipment. We also got a very awesome breakfast at Yak’s cafe in the town. My Saturday morning breakfast was garlic bagels with cream cheese & butter. It was 10:15am by the time we got fitted with the rentals and got back to the trail head. Repacking the bags and meeting up with Marek & others put us at 12:00pm and it was quite late into the day to start our hike to base camp.
The group - Marek, Jugal, Sushanth, PT, David, Ian, Susanne and I.
The first hour of hiking took us to the base of Mt. Shasta. We skipped Horse Camp owing to the late start that we had that day. Slowly the gradient increased and I started slowing down. Jugal kept his pace and chugged along ahead. I followed him. The separation amongst the group increased as well. It was very fine powder snow and there were a lot of ski mountaineers on the slopes. That’s when my thoughts drifted towards skiing more often. I suppose one needs to be proficient with double- - triple black diamonds along with a lot of backcountry skiing to attempt skiing down Mt. Shasta all the way from the top :) One day, possibly I could do that. I was jolted back into reality by the sheer energy it took me to continue climbing higher towards and over what seemed like infinite hills of snow. Our initial plan was to camp up at Helen lake (10500’) but given the time we started and also having to practice self arrest skills, we ended up camping at 50-50. Jugal reached 50-50 campsite at around 3:15pm I suppose. I reached at 3:45pm and he was already napping. I joined him too. There was AT&T LTE network there (imagine that). By 5:45pm all of us were at the flat area and starting setting up camp. It was quite fun shoveling out snow and pitching up the tents. I was very happy with my tent setup. As Marek advised I will need to carry extra paracord to secure the tent from side winds. Self arrest skills were demonstrated by Jugal and all of us practiced them. It is indeed quite intuitive once you know it and have practically tried it a couple of times. This however doesn’t mean that it’s equally easy to do. After practicing self arrest skills (falling back, falling front, head first, tripping over, pushing each other :D) we started our most interesting task - melting water for summit day as well as cooking dinner. A new experience I must say - melting snow to make water is a lot of work and not fun after a while.
I finished my dinner, clicked a couple of sunset shots and quickly got into my tent and the cozy warm sleeping bag. It was 9:30pm already. The hike up to base camp with the rental technical boots had left me with a wounded right leg. Shoe bite isn’t serious but isn’t fun either. Thanks to Jugal for the moleskin; i put that on and went to bed. I hadn’t decided if I wanted to attempt summit the next day but decided to go as far as possible - I would be trying out my new crampons and ice axe in the process and was pretty excited about it. We were to be up and out by 5am but it turned out to be 6:20am by the time we got up, strapped on our crampons and got on our way. The weather I must say was just perfect. Clear skies, almost zero winds, extremely hot days - it was like climbing in summer but the winter route. Perfect conditions for a summit attempt. Since Jugal, PT, Sushanth and I had to get back to the bay are Sunday night/Monday morning, we had a turn around time. I started the hike and we were on headlamps for about an hr before the sun rose.
By sunrise, we were at Helen lake. The sight was just gorgeous. Rolling hills and ridges all covered with white snow and a couple of skiers could be seen in the most remote and ridgy areas bidding their time to start their descent down to the trailhead. After a quick break, we continued ahead towards red banks at ~12k feet. (Helen Lake was at 10500’). It was about an hr and half and I slowed down. I felt great in terms of energy and had no issues with the altitude but my leg was now hurting bad and I wasn’t sure about pushing it any more. The slopes were still quite icy and I did have to use my strength to dig into it with the crampons. I finally decided to head back down to camp. There’s always a next time and I didn’t want to risk the wound from opening up further which would mean no activity for quite some time after the trip. I informed the same to Marek and the rest of the group and started heading down by myself slowly. By just doing it myself I understood what Marek showed me about the various ways of climbing down. You just have to do these like any other skill to become proficient with it. I decided against glissading since the slope was still pretty icy and I did not want to risk a uncontrolled descent. About 200 feet above Helen lake, I started practicing self arrest.
When icy and at a decent slope, self arrest becomes that much more difficult to execute efficiently and effectively. After a couple of real fall scenarios I kind of got a hang of it. But as Marek says, I totally go with it - 1st rule - never fall down - 2nd rule - if you do, self arrest immediately. Gaining speed just increases the difficulty of a self arrest later. I practically realized that as well. By 10am i was back down at the campsite and pretty much relaxed the entire day waiting for Jugal, PT and Sushanth to get back. Took a nice nap, melted more snow and just relaxed at the campsite. PT and Sushanth as well joined me short after.
Jugal and Ian after summiting reached base camp at 4:45pm. We quickly packed our bags/tents and started our descent. The descent was quite enjoyable. We glissaded as much as possible which was not too much and mostly post holed our way back down. We reached our cars at 7:15pm right before sunset culminating an ultimate weekend wilderness mountaineering experience.
Shasta remains to be visited more often and I plan to get up to the summit one of these days. As always - the journey is much more fun and just being in the mountains gives a deep sense of fulfillment..And also the famous saying by Ed Viesturs - “Going up is optional, coming down is always mandatory!”
Map: (Copyrights - Timbertrails: http://timberlinetrails.net/ShastaApproach.html)