Skiing at Mount Shasta

At 14,179 feet Mount Shasta is the second highest peak in the Cascades and is visible from much of northern California and southern Oregon. Driving south to it from Bend, I first saw it from 80 miles away, on the north side of Klamath Lake. On monday and tuesday I did a ski trip to the mountain, which was good timing — perfect weather and no weekend crowds. I camped on the mountain monday night, climbed to the summit early on tuesday, and then skiied back down.

Tuesday was an interesting day. This was the first time I’d climbed a 14er, first time I’d hiked through the night, first time I’d needed an ice axe or crampons, the ride back down was the best skiing I’ve ever done, and after perfectly executing almost the entire trip I screwed things up about as badly as I ever have just a short distance from the car.

After driving to the trailhead at Bunny Flat on Sunday evening and car camping, I set out early the next day and reached the camp at Helen Lake (10440′) at 10 am. Maybe a later start next time. I skiied a couple thousand feet into the early afternoon and practiced crampon techniques and self arresting in the afternoon. Self arresting is the use of an ice axe to stop yourself after you begin sliding down a slope. With steep, smooth, hard snow in the morning you can slide for thousands of feet at many places on Shasta, and every year on the mountain such slides cause severe injuries and the occasional death. I’d wanted to practice this stuff a couple weeks ago at South Sister but didn’t find the opportunity, and doing it here in the soft afternoon snow was not very effective; I was mostly just killing time and waiting for the sun to go down.

Eventually it did go down, and I set out to climb the remaining 3700′ at 2:30 am. This was the Avalanche Gulch route, used by the great majority of climbers this time of year. Not having climbed this high before I didn’t know how long things would take, so left early to make sure there was time. The moon was nearly full and there was no need for a lamp, great to look back over the ghostly white mountain. Just before dawn:

The climb went smoothly and I reached the summit around 8:20 am. There were a couple groups of climbers that reached the top at about the same time, and we chatted for a while before heading down. Me in front of the summit:

The snow up high was still hard in most places, and poor skiing. I headed down to the 13,000′ level, where there is a lip separating the steeper gulch below from the gentler grades of Misery Hill above (great name). There are several ways to enter the gulch, of varying difficulties, and after some scouting I opted for one of the Trinity Chutes at skier’s right.

These are about the most challenging lines to take when getting back into the gulch, but still comparable to the double black terrain at a resort (well, at Squaw or Alta, the main resorts I’ve skied at). The difference, of course, is there is no ski patrol here and self sufficiency is paramount. The main risk in these conditions is falling and sliding into rocks or taking the aforementioned ride 3,000′ down down down to Helen Lake. To mitigate this I had an ice axe in hand along with ski poles, but the most important thing is simply to ski cautiously. The entrance to the chute (a little over 40 degrees, gradually tapering), and the gulch below:

I waited until 11:30 am for the snow to soften a bit and then started in. The first 20′ were firm (expected) before I got to an area with more exposure that was forming corn snow. From here, the snow stayed excellent throughout the remaining 6,000′ of the descent. Simply incredible stuff, and easily the best run I’ve ever done. Corn snow makes for great, fast, smooth skiing, and somehow conditions never turned to slush even towards the bottom.

Unfortunately, buzzed by the skiing and with my guard down, I got disoriented and missed the trailhead, making my way to skier’s right when the exit was actually on my left. With all the ski tracks in the area and the bootprints left by an army of climbers this was some major league incompetence, but even worse was my response afterwards. It took some time for me to realize I’d missed the trailhead, but rather than backtrack and see where I went off path I instead kept on going, intending to find the road to the trailhead despite having no map, GPS or solid idea for where the road was relative to me. I kept this up for over an hour, going down out of the snow and into increasingly thick brush, before realizing the absolute stupidity of my behavior and turning around. This was around 2:00 pm and I had plenty of light to get back, so I climbed up close to treeline and traversed a couple miles to Avalanche Gulch for round 2 of the descent. Not an optimal route but I wasn’t taking chances at this point, and I got to my car around 6:00 pm. Could have gone a lot better or a lot worse, lots here I am still thinking about.

This entry was posted in Skiing. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.