Hi everyone! David here. I’ve been doing a real bad job getting outside in California, but I finally took a little time off and headed up to Mt. Shasta about a month ago. Mike had 5 days off of work, my dad drove down from Corvallis, and we converged on Shasta for a weekend climb.
Mike had a bunch of years-old Clif bars and oatmeal, I picked up 3 footlong sandwiches from the Subway in Redding, we had a couple freeze-dried Pad Thai dinners, and we each grabbed some bags to poop in from the ranger station, so we were ready for a couple days out!
Shasta is a little taller than 14,000 feet and the trail begins a little under 7K, so most people camp at around 10,000 feet for a night and attempt the summit the next day. Of the two most popular (and less technical routes), Avalanche Gulch is the most popular in the early season and Clear Creek is popular in the later season after some of the snow melts. We wanted to do Clear Creek, but there was still about 2 miles of snow-covered, unplowed road before the trailhead so we went with the path of least resistance and attempted Avalanche Gulch. The distance is only about 11 miles round trip, but I can personally assure you that Mt. Shasta is a serious slog! Ice ax and crampons are a must. We saw a few groups go up the 35ish degree Avalanche Gulch in rope teams, but most don’t.
A couple logistical things for people who want to attempt the summit: the Avalanche Gulch route starts at Bunny Flats trailhead, just about a half hour from Shasta City off of I-5. To go above 10,000 feet you need $25 cash to buy a summit pass at the ranger station (good for 3 days). There’s no additional fee to park, and there are a few campsites next to the Bunny Flats trailhead that are also free. The road to Bunny Flats is plowed year-round so if you’re crazy enough to want to climb Shasta in the dead of winter, you can!
Summitpost said that about 30% of Mt. Shasta attempts are failures, and I was pretty confused about why that number was so high. But don’t worry – we figured it out soon enough.
The first ominous sign was the weather forecast that said gusts would be up to 100 mph on the summit. The second bad sign was when we saw rescue teams assembled at the trailhead and heard the sound of a helicopter coming in. Someone fell down Avalanche Gulch in the high winds and needed to be rescued. The helicopter wasn’t able to do much in the wind, but the rescuers managed to get the climber out on a sled (and I believe she was ok; just a broken bone or two). We talked to one guy who made the summit that day (and almost got blown off the top). Everyone else we talked to wasn’t able to even get up Avalanche Gulch before turning around.
Needless to say, we weren’t feeling great about our chances, but the forecast for the next day appeared to be a little better and so we headed up to Helen Lake camp to brave the wind. When we got there we realized that we had to spend about the next 4 hours digging out a campsite, building walls of snow around the tent, and making a cooking area out of the wind. Don’t forget your shovel! After 3,000 vertical feet of climbing with a heavy pack, hours of shoveling was a lot more work than I was anticipating! Helen Lake was pretty darn windy as well. Even with our questionable wind shelter, the tent was shaking a lot.
The wind was ripping through camp in the early evening, but when we woke up at 3 am, things were really calm. The snow was iced over, so we put on our crampons right outside of our tents. Almost immediately after leaving camp, we started climbing the ~2500 vertical feet of Avalanche Gulch.
The climb was interrupted about 30 minutes after we started by Mike having to poop in a bag right on the side of the steep gulch (not a good place to poop in a bag!). I’m not sure if it was the elevation or the moist subway sandwiches from the day before, but Mike was having some digestive problems for the whole day. Pro tip: always make sure your first aid kit has Immodium. Ours did not! Mike produced about 5 full pounds of poop in one go and was holding more in for the rest of the day until we got all the way back down to the bathrooms at Horse camp (Editor’s note: …did you ask Mike’s permission to broadcast his digestive issues to the internet?).
Avalanche Gulch is a *long* slog. Post poo incident, the next three or so hours were pretty much slow switchbacks upwards on the 35-degree incline. We were exhausted by the time we got to the top – but we still had over 1500 feet to climb. The altitude started hitting Mike pretty hard. There’s no really good way to acclimate for Shasta – it’s so much higher than all of its surroundings. And Mike had never been above 12,000 feet before, aside from a quick drive to the summit of Mt. Evans in Colorado.
We’d left ourselves lots of time, so we kept pushing on (and wondering how Mike’s intestines were doing). You can’t see the true summit of Shasta until you’re ~500 vertical feet below it, but it was pretty demoralizing when we thought we were basically there, only to see that the true summit was a traverse and more vertical climbing ahead.
We were pretty much beat, and Mike took his pack off and was prepared to call it a day at that point. But a few minutes pack-free and he felt a lot better, so we headed up the last few hundred feet. The last few switchbacks up to the summit are a little rockier, icier and windier, but not really any more difficult than what comes before (just more elevation). The summit area itself is fairly large but with a small true summit that can only fit a couple people. We could see all the way down to Mt. Whitney in the south and up into the Oregon Cascades in the north, and a lot of thin clouds below.
Things softened up on the way down, but not so much that I would have felt good about glissading all the way down Avalanche Gulch, which is what a few people did. As we’d learned from the rescue just the day before, it’s a long ways down the gulch if you lose control. And I promise that none of those people looked like they were in control – but it was fun to watch them cruise down the mountain at breakneck speed.
After getting back down the gulch, we spent about an hour packing up camp, and then trudged back to the parking lot, sinking in about calf-deep with every step. Mike spent a good 20 minutes on the toilet at Horse camp also (Editor’s note: perhaps this should be called Mike’s Toilet Blog?). We didn’t actually get back to the cars until 5:30 pm or so. Shasta proved to be quite the slog, indeed. But the views were spectacular and Dad and Mike got to poop in a bag! I’m sure the readership will be interested to know that I didn’t poop at all this trip, at least until I got to the Pizza Hut Express in Redding.