Mt. Shasta P5K WSC

Sat, May 25, 2002

With: Tom Burd
Ron Burd

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
previously climbed Sat, May 12, 2001

Ah, the Shasta dayhike in May. I had done this very hike solo the previous year, which gave me the impetus to try Rainier a month later. Ron, Tom, and two others had joined me on the Rainier outing, and though only three of the five made it to the top, we all had a pretty fine time. So when I suggested Shasta to my brothers, they were both eager to give it a try. We had done a half day of acclimatizing on Mt. Lassen the day before, an easy warmup for what would be a strenuous climb of Mt. Shasta. Avalanche Gulch, the easiest route up Mt. Shasta, still involves 7,000ft of climbing and 12mi roundtrip. An early start provides a buffer should bad weather develop in the afternoon, and to avoid climbing after the snow has softened by late morning. In May, the entire route is typically covered in snow, and this year was no exception. While it is not at all unusual for folks to climb Mt. Shasta in a day, this is generally more common later in the season as the snow begins to melt off and makes the lower half an easier climb. Though we were hiking on a busy Saturday during Memorial Weekend, I believe we were the only three doing the dayhike approach that day.

The alarm went off at 2a in our comfy motel in the town of Mt. Shasta. Get up, breakfast, pack, drive to Bunny Flat, fill out permit forms, start hiking at 3:15a. Not a fast start, but not bad either. For two miles we hiked along the path beaten in the snow, headlamps glowing to lead the way. It had snowed over a foot less than a week earlier, and much of the route looked freshly white. It had been warm the last few days, so the snow was well consolidated, but not frozen in the lower elevations - apparently it had not gotten to below freezing during the night. Temperatures were probably in the high thirties when we started, and fell to below freezing before sunrise as we gained altitude, but we were never very cold. There was almost no wind, and the constant hiking kept our bodies rather toasty.

The trail out of Bunny Flat leads to Horse Camp, which is not the most direct route to Avalanche Gulch. I had gotten a bit lost the previous year down here, and did the same (or thought I did) again. When it seemed we were passing by Avalanche Gulch, I called a halt to consider our position. I thought that Horse Camp was at the base of the gulch, but it's actually a bit to the left and south of the base. We were probably about 200 yards short of the stone structure at the camp when we left the trail to head through the trees in search of our intended route. We found ourselves walking by several tents, which made me realize we were walking through the Horse Camp area afterall. Shortly we popped out from under the trees, and by the light of a nearly full moon, we could see all of Avalanche Gulch before us, all the way to the top of the Red Banks.

Onward. It's a long trudge up the gulch, with half a dozen hillocks to conquer before reaching Helen Lake. I told the others we had reached Helen Lake several hillocks too early, and it wasn't until an hour later, around 7a, that we reached Helen Lake at about 10,000ft. There had been a few tents on the lower flat areas, but at Helen Lake there were a about six or so. There would be three dozen here by the afternoon, when things got considerably busier on the mountain. We took a break here for about 15 minutes, which gave us time to have a small snack, some water, and put on our crampons. I knew it got steeper above Helen Lake, and this seemed like as good a spot as any to put them on.

Clouds had come in to obscure the moon, but it was getting lighter with the coming dawn and we had been able to turn off the headlamps well before Helen Lake. As we climbed higher, the sun began to break through the now thinning clouds, lighting the valley below and Castle Crags about 30mi away to the southwest. Ron and Tom began to slow down, and I left them about an hour out of Helen Lake. The slopes were steepening, and I was grateful that there had been others before us this morning to kick steps in the harder snow found on these slopes. We had seen one climber descending to our left on our way up, and I figured he must have made an early start from Helen Lake to be descending already. About half an hour later I met up with his partner who was coming back now as well. They had indeed started from Helen Lake, about the time we had started from the trailhead, but they had not made it to the summit. His partner had quit early on him, and after reaching the base of Misery Hill, he had also decided to turn around, uncomfortable with the prospect of continuing alone. The weather was fine, so that seemed odd to me, but I offered to let him join us if he wished to continue on to the summit. He never did acknowledge the offer, but went on about how disappointed he was after having driven from so far away (I didn't ask where he drove from). He also told about the difficulty they had breaking the trail up the slopes (I thanked him for his nice steps), and how that had taken it out of his partner. I again offered to let him join us if he wished, but again it seemed he didn't hear me or he really didn't want to go to the summit and would rather just blame his partner. We parted, and I motored slowly up to the top of the gulch, reaching the crest at 9a. Ron and Tom were now far behind, Tom going quite slowly and Ron just in front of him.

It would be some time before they joined me, so I climbed the small high point called Thumb Rock a few hundred feet up and SE of the saddle. I got a fine view looking down Sargents Ridge (which lines the east side of Avalanche Gulch) and across to Casaval Ridge (on the west side of the gulch). Other climbers came up to the saddle and rested before pressing on. Above, thin clouds were blowing over Misery Hill, but the weather seemed to be holding nicely. There seemed no need to hurry, so I was pretty relaxed waiting for the others to join me. At 9:45a Tom and Ron arrived, both quite weary. It seemed the altitude was having a time with them. Ron didn't look too bad at all, but declared that he'd gone far enough and would go back. Tom on the other hand, looked more beat, but sounded more determined. He would continue. I would have expected it the other way around, as Ron had made it to the top of Mt. Rainier while Tom had not. Tom had had to turn around to take his friend Jeff back down the Cleaver after Jeff had gotten too spooked by the exposure. This may have been why Tom was more determined than Ron to reach Shasta's summit. I tried coersion, cajoling, and other testosterone-rich verbal assaults to motivate Ron, but he wasn't swayed in the least. He simply smiled and said "nope," and would let nothing change his mind. I recognized the immovable decision syndrome (it is a family trait we share) and so gave up trying to persuade him. We left Ron after Tom had a chance to rest, and continued our way up.

From this point on, I never left Tom more than about 100 feet behind me. I wanted to see him get to the top, while at the same time I was ambivalent about the summit myself, having already been there. I was more interested in seeing one of my brothers to the top than taking myself there solo again, so I figured I'd hang out with Tom and take our time getting there with enough energy for him to get back down again without passing out. The ridge we climbed took us to the top of the Red Banks and the base of Misery Hill. Looking up was somewhat discouraging, noting four other climbers as mere dots near the top, and knowing that you still were a ways from the summit. Onward we went. I'd climb and wait, Tom would catch up, then up we'd go again. Halfway up the hill we stopped for a break and I found myself feeling pretty sleepy. It was nice resting in the warm sun. Higher and higher we went. A few other climbers were now beginning to return from the summit. At the top of Misery Hill we could finally see the ice-encrusted summit and I noted the clouds building behind it. We walked across the plateau, the frozen, wind-sculpted surface crunching under our feet. I had found winds over 60mph the previous year, but now it was little more than a stiff breeze. Tom stumbled as we neared the fumeroles below the summit, and we took another break in the sun here. It seemed Tom was going to fall into apathy while I was falling asleep again, so I got us up and moving once more.

The final climb to the summit is not nearly as hard as it looks from below, and in about 10 minutes we reached the summit. There were four others when we got there at 12p, and there were others coming up not far behind us. The south sides of the rocks sported ice sculptures up to a foot long, evidence of some serious wind and weather not long ago. The clouds were thicker now, and building on three sides, but it was a nice day for a party on the summit. I recognized the summit rocks I had climbed the year before where I was stopped by 80mph winds. I had not been able to lift myself up the final five feet due to the force of the wind and the ice pellets blasting across the very summit. Today we walked around, signed the register (getting in a last poke at Ron), and generally lazed about. To the north was a lower, second summit that caught my attention. While Tom was still packing up his things to go, I hiked down then up the ridge a few hundred yards to the other summit. There were no tracks in the snow along here, and I felt I had a small part of the mountain to myself. Looking back, another group of climbers were making their way up to the summit as Tom was about to start down. We met up again down by the fumeroles, and headed back across the plateau while even more climbers were making their way across towards the summit - dozens of climbers would reach the summit today.

Climbing back down Misery Hill, the snow was beginning to soften and it seemed we might have a fine glissade down Avalanche Gulch. We caught up to a group of three climbers also on their way down who heard us talking about glissading. One asked if we planned to glissade down, and when we replied in the affirmative, he asked if we'd show them how to do it. That struck me as kinda funny because for the most part it's as hard as sitting on your butt and going for a joyride. On the other hand, if you've never done it or if conditions are dicey, I could see how it might be intimidating. I happily offered them instructions when we got back down to top of the gulch. The snow got ever softer and I was concerned we may have missed the optimal glissading window. When we reached the descent point into the gulch, we put away our crampons and put on some snow pants in preparation of a wet slide. The top of the gulch is the steepest and most likely place we might find ice. I gave a few sentences of instructions to the other three, but left them with the most important safety point I knew about glissading - whenever possible, let someone else go first. If they look like they're having fun, you will too. If they scream in terror, get injured, or die, you then have the opportunity to reconsider. With that I launched myself down the slope. It wasn't nearly as grand the exit I'd hoped for as I was unable to get up any appreciable speed in the mushy snow. I had to use my hands to push me along in places, and my progress was just enough to keep me trying. Tom came down behind me, and we eventually dropped over 700ft down the gully. One of the other climbers came down not far behind us, but his friends were nowhere to be seen. He eventually gave up waiting for them, and decided to continue down to their camp at Helen Lake and wait for them there. When we could glissade no more because we ran out of slope with sufficient angle to it, we plunge-stepped our way down to Helen Lake.

A number of other groups had already arrived there to set up camp, and several persons were skiing and snowboarding the slopes above the lake, wiling away the afternoon. As we continued down below Helen Lake, the crowd of folks coming up grew more numerous. The weather started to deteriorate as heavy clouds began to roll in from the west, and it looked like the weather might break before we got down. The other climbers heading up seemed unconcerned, but I was happy to be on the way out rather than the way in. Below Horse Camp, it was sometime after 2:30p and the climbers continued to stream in the other direction. One group of seven had 4 kids and 3 adults who told us they were on their way to Helen Lake. It didn't seem they had much chance of getting there before dark at the rate they were moving, but I suppose they could always camp on one of the lower benches if they didn't make their intended goal. Right before the parking lot there were many day visitors playing in the snow in the meadow. Several were staring back up through the trees at the mountain. I turned to look and asked them what they were looking at.

"Are those climbers up there?" she asked, pointing to some tiny dots on the lower slopes of Avalanche Gulch (which I never knew was viewable from the parking lot).

"Yes," I replied, to which she and her friend responded with "Wow..." The uninitiated are always the ones most easily impressed in just about any endeavor, I thought to myself.

Ron was waiting for us in the car when we returned at 3:15p, and it wasn't thirty seconds later that the rain began to come down. Tom and I raced to get out of our hiking gear and into some clean clothes and sandals. As we piled in the car it was coming down quite hard, and it continued for about 15 minutes while we drove down the road back to town. It stopped by the time we got to town and we had no more rain on the drive home, but apparently they had a bit of a storm with thunder and lightning up on the mountain. Dayhiking had its advantages, even if it did make for a long day. Tom slept most of the way home while I rode in the front with Ron who drove us back to Berkeley. Ron never expressed any regrets in not joining us to the summit, he seemed to have enjoyed the short two days all the same...


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