This attempt included several firsts for me: it was my first summit attempt on Shasta, my first peak ascent solo, and my first serious attempt to summit something on my split snowboard.
So many firsts usually end up being a disaster. This trip did not start out well. I wasn't able to leave the Bay Area until late on Friday May 16 and consequently did not arrive in Shasta City until about 1:30A.M. My plan was to arrive by 10:00pm and overnight at Horse Camp and then ascend via Avalanche Gulch.
Obviously, I wasn't up for loading up and climbing up to Horse Camp at 2am. So instead I slept in my car at the KOA campground just outside of town. In the morning, I realized that I forgot my crampons and had to wait until the Fifth Season opened up to rent a pair. They don't open up until 8 or 9 and so I had to wait around a while. After renting my crampons, I drove up the mountain to Bunny Flat. When I arrived, the parking lot was overflowing with cars. I suppose this was because the weekend of May 17 was the first "green light" weekend in a while.
As I was getting ready, the Ranger picked me out and said "solo?" while shaking his head. These guys don't like people going up solo. I can understand this since I can believe that most rescues involve solo climbers. By the time I waited in line for my $15 summit pass and my poop bag and finally got on the trail, it was almost 10:30a.m.
My split board worked quite well. I had some trouble with the skins at first; they didn't slide well. I fell going up the first hill thinking they would slide and gashed my arm (I didn't realize how bad until I was totally down from the mountain). For those interested, I was using Burton skins on a Burton CustomS Snowboard.
Other than my first little problem, skinning felt like cheating. Even with a heavy pack, I easily passed snowshoed and cramponed climbers. This was good because I was able to make up time. I was quite the anomaly on the mountain with my split board. A lot of people stopped to ask me about it. A lot of older mountaineer types had never seen anything like it.
The day was beautiful, and although you could see the wind blowing snow off the tops of Red Banks, it didn't look too bad. As I rounded the approach to 50/50 Flat (around 9000'), the wind became noticeable and I had to put on my parka and hat.
The wind was mostly gusty and not really any worse than you would have if you were out on the High Traverse at Alpine Meadows in Tahoe. As I approached Helen Lake, I passed a climber who was totally wiped out. He was really struggling and I think he was way too out of shape to really be doing this. I tried to give him some encouragement.
About 100 meters short of Helen Lake, the slope became too icy to skin up anymore. I took off my skis and put crampons on. The extra wieght of carrying my snowboard (split into skis) with an already heavy pack made this extra 100 meters the toughest of the day. I think it took me 30 minutes to go that 100 meters.
High Camp at Helen Lake
It felt great getting to Helen Lake. I was able to finally put my heavy pack down and take some rest. After allowing myself 5 minutes to rest, I realized how much work was left ahead of me.
The winds seemed to pick up quite a bit and many of the other climbers had already built snow walls around their tents and dug their kitchens. I began by putting up my tent, a little 3-season tent from REI called the Clipper. Basically, I can't afford a good 4-season tent and since the weather was clear this seemed like it would be fine. I do know that this tent performs well in high winds and that's why I decided to lug it up the Avalanche Gulch instead of digging a snow coffin.
I built my snow walls first. Then I set up my tent. Building the walls was a lot of work. Looking around, I was the only solo act in town. I now realize why going solo is so much harder; you have to do all the work. I was able to make quick work of the wall because I dug down into the snow where I was going to put my tent. This allowed me to build twice as high a wall in half the time. I lucked out and was able to use a kitchen that had been dug by some other climbers and was unclaimed. I got to work boiling water and making diner.
By the time I finished dinner and boiling water for drinking, the winds picked up dramatically. I had hoped to be able to hang out with the other climbers and socialize. Instead, everyone took refuge in their tents.
The long night.
The wind was fairly gusty all night. Every now and then it would let up and you could go out to relieve yourself or just walk around. I went out at about 1 am. The sky was cloudless and the full moon illuminated the whole mountain. It was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Too bad it was not to last. Around 4am, the wind changed again. Gone were the periodic gusts, we now had sustained 80+mph winds. Honestly, I can’t really say how strong the wind was except to say that I have been on ridges in 80mph winds in winter and these winds were stronger than anything I’d ever encountered before.
The wind was so strong that that you had to really dig in and brace yourself so that you wouldn’t be blown down the boilerplate 2000’. Visibility went to zero and the bright moon would flickered almost extinguished at times by blowing snow.
My tent held out fine. My snow wall worked well. I cannot say the same of some of the other tents at Helen Lake. Many tents were obliterated; even some of the 4 season tents had been knocked down. There was a guy who was standing in his kitchen in his sleeping bag hoping up and down to keep himself warm. There were 2 guys, who dug snow coffins. I have no idea how they fared.
I had my hands full making sure my tent was properly staked down, at times, being afraid to leave the tent for fear that it would blow away. It turned out that the only real problem I had, and a major one at that, was that snow had completely drifted on the inside of my snow wall. My tent was half buried in wind packed, drifted snow. This helped keep my tent from blowing away but it also made taking the tent down a nightmare.
As the winds showed no signs of letting up, and since I hadn’t gotten any sleep, I decided that no summit would be possible that day and that I should come down. I decided to wait until there was enough daylight to take down my tent.
Taking down the tent in high winds with blowing snow, by myself, was pretty damn difficult. Getting the poles down was easy, but actually packing up the tent was nearly impossible. After I collapsed the tent, it was summarily buried in about 6 inches of windblown snow. Digging out my tent was probably the single most difficult thing I had to do on the whole trip. As I tried to put my tent into the stuff sack, it blew away. So I had to rig something on my pack that was really pretty ugly.
Once I had the tent packed up, I was ready to put my snowboard back together. This was actually pretty easy. I had oiled all the binding and clamping components so that no ice could build up and jam the mechanism that holds the board together. I did 1 really dumb thing; I took the skins off before the board was completely together. This was really, really dumb, the skins will keep the board from flying away in high winds. One false move and I would have been walking down. Fortunately for me, it worked out and I got the board together. I put my pack on and strapped into my snowboard and started down the boilerplate. I was down in no time although I wouldn’t characterize the descent as especially fun. Snowboarding on ice for 4000 vertical feet is no day at the beach let alone with a heavy pack on your back.
I made it back to the car, huge chunks of ice clogging the area around my face. My hair was actually frozen to my helmet and my goggles.
For icing on the cake, my car wouldn’t start. Woohoo! Oh well, I’ll be back up to try again and I chalk all this up to a big learning experience.
Despite the windy conditions, I found Shasta to be quite approachable. From a ski or snowboard mountaineering perspective, this is one of the easier mountains out there. I don't mean this in an arrogant sort of way. However, if you are familiar with Tahoe climbs like Castle Peak, Donner Summit, Mt. Rose, or Mt. Tallac you will find the riding no more difficult. The climbs are also similar in steepness and difficulty. The difference with Shasta being that it is much longer and therefore you need to be in much better shape.