Ascent of Mount Shasta on 1992-08-20
|Date:||Thursday, August 20, 1992|
|Ascent Type:||Successful Summit Attained|
| Elevation:||14162 ft / 4316 m|
Ascent Trip ReportNo one drove by my car during the night, parked on the shoulder of the rutted dirt road in the woods just a little bit off of the paved Everitt Memorial Highway on the lower slopes of Mt. Shasta in Northern California. However, I was awakened from my peaceful slumber, curled up in the back of my car, by the chirps of my alarm clock at 5 A.M. I groggily went out into the pitch blackness and went to the bathroom and stretched, then returned to the car to eat some breakfast cereal and drink some water.
Twenty minutes after arising I started the car up and drove back down the narrow dirt road through the thick woods back to the Everitt Highway, going very slowly. There I turned uphill, and my poor car strained again as I forced it up the steep grades as the road switchbacked up Mt. Shasta in the dark. I was going slower than I thought I would be, and it was longer to the end of the road than I thought it would be, and when I finally arrived at the old ski bowl parking lot at the very end of the road it was starting to get light out. I found a place to park in the twilight, changed into my polypro clothes, got my pack together, checked my map, and started up the imposing bulk of Mt. Shasta rising before me.
My plan was to take the Avalanche Gulch route, the easiest on the mountain, but instead of going up the Gulch the whole way I was starting at the ski bowl to save myself several hundred feet of vertical. I would ascend the ski bowl, cross a ridge into the Gulch, and continue on up. I had noticed yesterday that there was hardly any snow at all on the mountain, so I did not bring any technical gear, leaving my ice axe, crampons, ski poles, and rope in the car.
I found a wide trail leading up from the parking lot through the rubble above it, and after a minute or so I saw that there was another parking lot higher up than the one I was parked in, with trails leading away from it, but I wasn't going to panic about not driving up an extra 40 vertical feet. My trail stayed to the left as it ascended into the ski bowl as dawn broke, and I was soon in my panting, wheezing grind-out-the uphill mode, stripping down to just a shirt as I sweated despite the windy cold of dawn.
The "ski bowl" was apparently an abandoned old ski area, and its namesake ravine was a wide above-timberline bowl full of rocks and criss-crossed by lots of rough dirt roads and trails, most switchbacking around in crazy patterns. I could not figure out which was the right path, so just made sure that I was always going up and staying as far left as possible, because I knew I had to cross the ridge on my left, the Green Butte Ridge, to get over into Avalanche Gulch. A couple times I left the road or trail I was on when I felt it was going the wrong way, scrambling up the miserable loose rock that abounded on this volcanic peak.
I got to a flat area in the upper Ski Bowl with a little abandoned blockhouse in in, and from there struck off cross-country towards a cleft in the Green Butte Ridge. The upper bowl was fairly flat and grassy, with lots of jumbled boulders sprinkled about, and I made good progress towards the ridge, picking up a dirt road briefly. From this road I climbed a short but very steep and crumbly pitch to what I though would be the ridge crest, but when I arrived up top I saw the real ridge was still a ways off over more rocks. After traversing across, finding a faint path and occasional small cairns, I finally reached a high notch in the rocky Green Butte Ridge and rested, eating a small snack.
It was still early, and the day was looking like it would be very clear, but it was also very windy. I saw Avalanche Gulch below me, a long, narrow, rocky ravine leading up toward the far-away bulk of Mt. Shasta. I felt I was making good time, and after my rest I started down into the gulch, traversing across a steep slope of crumbling rock on a faint path marked by very intermittent cairns. I lost this path after a bit, and then just tried to minimize my elevation loss as I neared the narrow floor of the V-shaped ravine. The ball-bearing scree was bad news. I now fully understood why Cascade volcano rock had such a bad reputation, after bouts with it on Rainier, Theilsen, and now Shasta.
When I reached the floor of Avalanche Gulch I decided to hike upward until I reached Lake Helen, marked on my map a bit above where I thought I was, and rest there. I looked for a path upward through the horribly jumbled rocks in the gulch, but found none, which I found curious since I was now on the main route upward. Therefore I just sweated and cursed my way uphill, seeing a couple of other climbers for the first time, and a bunch of tents up on a hump in the gulch to my left. I climbed halfway up the hump, and saw more tents up on a little rise ahead, so I just cranked out more uphill feet, tired but wanting to find Lake Helen.
After a discouraging steep rocky slope I arrived at the top of the rise, near a couple of pitched tents. I saw no lake at the tents below me I had passed, and none where I was, so I figured that Lake Helen was at present non-existent. Another hiker passed me here, and he confirmed my suspicion, telling me that Lake Helen appeared rarely, and it was down at the lower hump when it did. I was glad to hear that I was now well above that landmark, and had a long rest, at about 10,600 feet.
From where I rested a long, narrow snowfield started up the now-steeper gulch, and the guy I had spoken to got out his crampons and ice-axe to ascend it--he said this was his first time with crampons on, and I told him to be careful about stabbing his inside ankles. I had left my snow gear behind, so I ascended up the crumbly rock to the left of the snowfield, and I was soon wishing I had brought it, since climbing the snow would have been a lot easier.
After a bit the snowfield forked, and I could see way above me the upper end of the gulch--it seemed to end at a band of strikingly red cliffs and towers, called the Red Banks. It looked like a long way up, so I just resigned myself to a long, brutal uphill grind over miserable rock--it seemed that there was not one rock on the whole mountain that was firmly in place, and every step caused a miniature avalanche of scree. Rocks bigger than a couple feet across were very rare, and I always made towards them because they moved the least when you stepped on them.
I stayed to the left of the left fork of the snowfield, seeing that despite the handicap of the rock that I was way ahead of the guy with crampons (I guess he was just a bozo) but that the few other climbers in the gulch were taking the right fork. It looked like the right fork led to a less steep portion of the Red Banks above, so I decided to cross over the left fork. The snow was hard and slippery, so I found a pointed rock and very, very carefully crossed the fifty-foot wide band of snow, kicking steps and always poised to self-arrest with my rock. This treacherous crossing erased any ideas I had about climbing up the snowfield without ice gear.
I then crossed the very steep rocky area between the two forks of snow, which I latter found out was called "the Heart" due to its very distinctive appearance from below. This was the steepest and most miserable section of crumbling talus, an almost convex bulge in the already steep gulch. I tried to make upward progress while I was crossing it, keeping my eyes on the red rock barrier above me to see where it might be breached. After many rests and hard progress I reached the upper area of the Heart, where I could finally see what the terrain ahead looked like. The right fork of the snowfield ran up into a couple of very long, narrow clefts in the Red Banks, but there was a OK-looking talus slope that appeared to pass around the Red Banks to the right. All I had to do to get to it was cross the right fork of the snowfield, so I found another pointed rock and gingerly crossed, leaving the Heart.
The talus leading up around the Red Banks was of the ball-bearing variety, and even a fairly worn path leading up along the Red Banks was difficult walking, since you slid down half the distance you stepped up with every step. After more panting and rests I saw I was coming to the crest of a ridge, at a notch between the Red Banks to my left and a prominent butte called "the Thumb" on my right. With a last burst I staggered up to this notch, found a sheltered alcove in the concave Red Banks face, and took a long rest.
The sun was now out in force, but the wind was still ferocious despite it being a clear day. I put on more sun-block, ate some crackers and candy bars, drank some water (I was glad I had brought three whole quarts), and looked at my map. I was at 12,800 feet, 5000 up from the car and 1362 short of the top. However, a glance down the other side of the ridge I was on was most discouraging. A large glacier, the Konwakiton, occupied the slope on the other side, with a nasty deep bergschrund at its upper end. My plan had been to go around the Red Banks by circling behind them on this slope, but even if I had managed to cross the bergschrund twice I still would not have wanted to walk without an ice axe or crampons on the glacier. I thought that I may have to abandon my attempt, but I knew I had to give it more of a shot.
Therefore, after my rest I reluctantly descended the scree slope I had just laboriously ascended to try to find a break in the Red Banks. Going down was fun, since I could almost ski in the pebbles, but the Red Banks presented a continuous band of cliffs, only about ten feet high, but still insurmountable. After going down about halfway back to the snowfield, though, I found a small cleft where the cliffs were only maybe five feet high, so I decided to attempt to scale the barrier there. The rock in the Red Banks was horribly soft and crumbly, but I carefully lifted myself up the rotten wall and found myself on the flat but tilted lunar-like surface of the Red Banks.
I hiked up a bit, and found a second band of cliffs barring my progress, but again found a cleft, this one longer and gaining more vertical, but less steep. Once up it I could see no more cliff bands, instead just easy hiking up to a hump of grey rock silhouetted against the blue sky. I tried to remember where my cleft was, and a blue backpack someone had stashed a ways below caught my attention. It was a longer way to the hump than it looked, but, again tired and wheezing, I arrived at a round windbreak of rocks, a logical resting place. There were a number of people hanging out there, some going up, others descending, and I was discouraged to be told that the large rocky mound ahead was not the summit, but a false summit know as Misery Hill. These people were the first I had been next to since the guy with the crampons way below.
I was determined to make it now, though, and as it turned out the rest of the climb was pretty easy. There was a well-beaten, easy to follow trail up Misery Hill, switchbacking nicely, and I, with a second wind, hiked up quickly. Near the top it slabbed along the crest of the hill, and here I started playing tag with a group of a guy and two women, who I think were part of a huge strung-out group on the mountain. At the top of Misery Hill there was a very flat snowfield to cross, with a well-beaten down path across it, and I had no trouble crossing it in just my hiking boots (there's no place to slide down to and hurt yourself on flat snow). The summit pinnacles rose on the other side of the snowfield, only a hundred feet or so above the snowfield.
I left the snow and again followed a path that led past a couple of hot springs and sulphur-stench vents that reminded me that I was indeed climbing a volcano. It then climbed steeply up the rotten rock pinnacle to my left, but I didn't care anymore about the rotten rock in my excitement. A little scrambling and I finally staggered up to the windblown summit of Mt. Shasta, 14,162 feet above sea level and the highest point I would reach all year. It was 12:30 P.M., 6 1/2 hours since I left my car.
The summit area was a series of rocky pinnacles connected by a narrow ridge, obviously part of what used to be a crater rim. It was very, very windy, and I had to put socks on my hands to keep them warm as I rested, took pictures, signed the register, and ate lunch. The view was expansive and wide ranging, but sort of distant--Mt. Shasta's isolation from any other peaks of remotely equal stature made the view like that from an airplane. A couple of forest fires were visible in the distance, as well as I-5, the Trinity Alps, Mt. McLoughlin in Oregon, and Mt. Lassen to the south. No Pacific Ocean, though.
The guy and two women arrived shortly after me, and we took pictures for each other and traded comments about the wind and other subjects. A guy and his kid came up after that, by which time I figured I best head down. Before leaving, though, I explored the summit area a bit, finding a windbreak along the ridge where perhaps Colin Fletcher had camped out, as he related in his book The Complete Walker III. Once just below the summit ridge I checked out the hot springs, little puddles of scalding water in the vestigial "crater" of the summit area, then returned to the snowfield to start my descent. The guy and two women were resting in a windbreak near the hot springs, since it was less windy there than on the summit.
Crossing the snowfield and descending Misery Hill was as breeze given the easy nature of the trail, although it was still very windy, I was thirsty, and starting to get a bit tired. At the windbreak below Misery Hill I rested for a while, and when the guy and two women caught up to me we got to talking about the best way down. They had come up through one of the narrow, snowy clefts in the Red Banks from the snowfield in Avalanche Gulch, and didn't want to go down that way--they said it was all full of crummy ice. I told them how I had found a way through the Red Banks, and that the back way on the Konwakiton Glacier was impossible. I was ready to go long before them, so I took off down the tilted soft-rock surface of the Red Banks, angling downhill towards what I thought to be the area of the clefts I had ascended.
I did an excellent job of routefinding, because I soon saw the stashed backpack on the moon-like rock surface (I was curious what it was doing there, but it was out of my way, so I didn't go to it), and I easily located the first cleft. Going down it was very tricky, and I resorted to controlled sliding down on my butt on the slippery, rotten, crumbling rock. A short hike brought me to the second cleft, which I again somehow located very easily despite the tendency for clefts to be very difficult to locate from above. This one was steeper, and I carefully lowered myself down with a few minor slips that were basically unavoidable but not serious.
I then scree-skied down the talus slope to the right fork of the snowfield, a lot of fun, and after sampling the snow I felt it still too hard to safely descend without an ice-axe. So I had to climb down the whole way on the rocks, staying beside the long, narrow snow on occasional faint footpaths that often used the rock-ice conglomerate at the snow's edge for better footing. The going was slow, and hard on my feet and knees, but at least I wasn't sweating, and I avoided the miserable Heart.
When I was down a ways I looked back and saw people atop a high cliff on the Red Banks, motioning to me. It was the people I had spoken too, and they were trying to find out from me how I had descended the Red Banks. I motioned for them to go back a bit and then down, since they were way out on the downhill edge of the Banks, and they needed to find the clefts about halfway back up. The guy up there, too far away to hear, still didn't understand, and I kept on making signs with my arms, but that was all I could do to help. I kept on descending, and when I looked back I saw tiny figures trying to downclimb a sheer cliff of the Red Banks. I felt maybe that I should have waited at the rest stop above to show them the way, and when I had downclimbed almost to the base of the snow and I saw no sign of them above, I thought that they might have had an accident.
My slow progress down the rocks was getting easier as I neared the bottom of the snow, and I suddenly saw the guy and two women glissading down the snow. Since they had ice-axes, they could safely control their long slide, and despite the way they got lost on the Red Banks they reached the bottom of the snow the same time I did, taking about five minutes to descend what had taken me an hour on the rocks. This, of course, taught me a valuable lesson: always bring your ice axe, or at least a ski pole, when there's any snow at all on the mountain.
I briefly talked to the glissaders as they got up to hike again, but they were more interested in laughing about all the snow up their butts than telling me about how they had finally gotten down off of the Red Banks. I left them as they rested, and was soon forcing my way down the rock of the Avalanche Gulch, looking for and finally finding a faint path that a backpacker was also using.
After passing and briefly chatting with the backpacker I left the path and angled across the steep slopes fo the Green Butte Ridge, aiming at the pass to the Ski Bowl. I did a good job of finding and staying on another faint path, marked with a few small cairns, that led to the pass. I realized that, despite the elevation I was saving by using the Ski Bowl as my trailhead, starting at the base of Avalanche Gulch was probably an easier way to go, since there was no dumb ridge to cross and the route was much more easy and direct.
At the pass on the Green Butte Ridge I rested, now very tired, footsore, and a little dehydrated--I was almost out of water. I then wearily made my way down into the confusing network of roads in the Ski Bowl, again traversing across grassy boulder fields and blindly following whatever road seemed to take me where I wanted to go. After a rest inside the abandoned blockhouse, where I had the last of my water and food, I trudged on down, staying on roads whenever possible to save my feet and knees, following a series of cairns that tried to lead people on the best way down. At one point I passed an uphill backpacker, resting and smoking, who said he was headed for Lake Helen. When I told him there was no Lake Helen, he said he knew--he was a ranger, which I hadn't thought of because of his smoking. He pointed out to me the raging forest fire at Round Mountain off in the distance before I left him.
I arrived back at my car after another fifteen minutes of easy hiking on dirt road. I slowly and carefully took off my boots, changed clothes, drank a lot of water, took a picture, and explored the parking lot a bit, finding a nice map at a register that I should have signed out at but hadn't seen in the morning darkness. I filled out a card there anyway so their records would be complete at least.
Refreshed, I then drove down the winding Everitt Memorial Highway. A little below the Ski Bowl there was the parking area for Avalanche Gulch, and, now that it was daytime out, I could see the whole mountain, the Heart and its enclosing snow colouirs very prominent. I stopped here to take a picture before continuing down the steep road down into the town of Mt. Shasta, CA.
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