OverviewThe Whitney Glacier route ascends the longest glacier in California for virtually its entire length (two miles). Done early in the season before the glacier opens up, the route is of moderate difficulty with maximum snow slopes of 40 degrees (and that only for short sections), and easy glacier route finding. Later in the summer, you may find yourself pitching out the section near the ice fall in the middle of the route.
In contrast with other glacier climbs on Shasta, the Whitney route lies in a deep valley between Shasta and its satellite Shastina. This highly scenic route gives a strong feeling of being surrounded by snow and ice from the moment you set foot on the glacier till you pop out on the summit plateau. It is also rarely climbed, meaning that you will probably be alone on the mountain until you reach the summit plateau.
Done in firm snow conditions and decent weather, a strong party should easily be able to complete the route in under four hours. Poor conditions will increase the time required. In contrast to routes on the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers, there is no way to skirt the crevasses on the Whitney. This route requires honest glacier travel skills, including crevasse rescue.
ApproachThough this route can be done in a day car-to-car, most parties will want to take two days. Some may even want three if they find summit day particularly exhausting. If you're a Shasta-in-a-day animal, then ignore my camping recommendations. I will first describe my recommended approach, then outline a few variations.
The easiest approach starts at the North Gate trailhead and follows the trail (assuming it's not buried in snow) up to the regular North Gate high camp. It is possible to camp here, though you will add close to an hour to the approach on summit day. I would recommend continuing on to "Marine's Camp" (so called by the Shasta rangers because the Marines have been known to go there for training), which is situated at about 10,700 feet on a flat area on the ridge above and southwest of North Gate high camp. There are many excellent camp sites there, with well-constructed rock walls. Marine Camp has better views than the standard high camp due to its position on a ridge. The only drawbacks are the lack of running water and greater exposure to wind.
The approach traverses west from Marine's Camp at a roughly constant elevation for about a mile. From Marine's Camp head west to where the ridge drops off towards the lower Bolam Glacier. Head south until you spot the use trail that angles down toward the glacier. Failing that, just pick a spot to drop down that balances unnecessary loss of altitude with unnecessary altitude gain. It is neither necessary nor desireable to go all the way up the rocky ridge to the snow--you will simply lose all the elevation you gained in doing so. If you're getting a pre-dawn start it's not a bad idea to scope out the descent to the lower Bolam the day before so you don't lose time wandering around in the dark trying to find a reasonable way onto the glacier.
Cross the lower Bolam Glacier (probably not necessary to rope up), a couple of talus ribs and a couple more snowfields until you reach the old lateral moraine left by the Whitney Glacier in its glory days. You're aiming for the higher of two talus piles on the Whitney-Bolam ridge more or less level with Marine's Camp (see photo at left). From the moraine descend about 100 feet to the edge of the Whitney Glacier and rope up. From Marine's Camp the approach should take less than an hour of easy walking.
The rangers at the Shasta ranger station recommended an alternate approach that also starts at the North Gate trailhead, but traverses lower. From the low end of the North Gate high camp head directly up and west to a bench on the ridge above, and contour west. We spent some time scoping this out through binoculars from the road, and it didn't look appealing. It looks like you will spend a lot more time winding your way through old moraines, gaining and losing altitude as you go. It may be possible to camp on the bench, but I wouldn't count on it. Camp sites along the traverse, including the old lateral moraine of the Whitney glacier also seem limited. Once you reach the lateral moraine, search for the most reasonable path down to the glacier.
It is possible to start from the Whitney trailhead. This road is considerably rougher than the North Gate road. If you haven't been there before it's probably wise to contact the rangers for current road conditions. From the trailhead grovel your way up thousands of feet of loose talus and sand until you reach the toe of the Whitney glacier. If you choose to go this way you've already passed the entrance exam for Sufferers Anonymous, so it probably won't bother you that the lower half mile or so of the Whitney is a horrendous mess of blocky ice covered in loose rock and sand. Enjoy.
The Bolam and Coquette Falls trailheads are yet another possibility. I have never used either TH, so I can say nothing more, though mrchad9 seems to have some experience in that area (see comments under additions and corrections).
From the rope-up spot described in the recommended approach, you have two options. You can traverse straight across, passing under a small ice fall, or drop down along the edge of the glacier a few hundred feet until it is possible to walk on relatively smooth ground out onto the center of the glacier. The first option is more direct and doesn't involve any elevation loss, but it's a lot rougher, and if you're worried about crap falling off the ice fall, then you might feel more comfortable taking the low route.
Once in the center of the glacier, walk more or less up the middle (once you're there, you'll see why) until you're a few hundred vertical feet below the Shasta-Shastina saddle.
The next section of the route is the crux in terms of glacier travel. Because we're talking about an active glacier, I can only offer some general guidance. The upper Whitney glacier pours in from the east over some sort of buried obstruction. The left side is the steepest, more broken, and covered in debris that rains down from the Whitney-Bolam ridge. The right side is obstructed by a large, messy bergschrund that contours up and around, following the Shast-Shastina ridge. Somewhere in the middle is a path that balances the risk of being too close to the rock fall and being too close to the big cracks on the right. In late season you might find yourself having to pitch it out until you gain the lower angled terrain above.
Once past the icefall area follow the glacier up the valley. As you approach a large bowl you again have at least two options. It is possible to head more or less directly south to the left of a prominent serac, thereby gaining the Shast-Shastina ridge. This option allows you to enjoy the slog up Misery Hill. The more direct and aesthetic route heads east, up a steep (average 35 degrees, spots to 40 degrees) slope that ends at the summit plateau. If you choose the latter, just stay well away from the Whitney-Bolam ridge to minimize the rockfall danger. In late season this section may give pause to those who are not absolutely confident in their snow travel skills. Running belays might be a safe choice when snow conditions are hard and fast.
Some observations on the route description found in Climbing California's Fourteeners are in order. Their description is rather confusing. They recommend passing the ice fall between Shasta and Shastina on the left, but this is by far the worst possible place to cross--it is steepest and most broken there, and more exposed to rock fall from the Whitney-Bolam ridge to boot. The Fourteeners description is accurate is mentioning a crevasse (they call it a Bergschrund, I'm not sure that is accurate, but the idea is clear enough...) above the icefall that can pose significant challenges. Earlier in the season this hole should be reasonably bridged. We spoke to a guide who did that route in late summer who said they had to pitch this section out. Fourteeners also mentions gaining the Shasta-Shastina saddle, but this is rather confusing, as the saddle is below the ice fall and only half way up the glacier.
DescentAgain, many options. Climbing California's Fourteeners recommends descending the route, though this does not seem like a good idea. There are better options that allow you to descend unroped, and thus make better time. If you camped near the lower Whitney glacier, or started your day climb from Whitney trailhead, then the best option is to descend/traverse the upper Bolam glacier until it is possible to descend snow/class 2 rock/sand to the lateral moraine of the Whitney glacier. If you camped at Marine's Camp or the North Gate high camp (or if you started your day from the Bolam or North Gate trailhead) the best option is to descend the Hotlum-Bolam ridge. You might also choose to descend the Bolam Glacier, or the chute above the east end of the Bolam Glacier. Of course, another cool option might be to stash a vehicle at Bunny Flat and glissade Avalanche Gulch for a complete traverse of the mountain.
Essential GearIf done in the winter, all you probably need are skis and skins (or snowshoes, if you are so inclined). If done on foot in the spring or early summer (meaning that the snow is relatively soft and the crevasses are still well bridged) then ice axe, crampons, helmet, and crevasse rescue gear are mandatory. As the season progresses the route becomes more technical. An ice tool and a few ice screws may be useful under late season conditions. Pickets could come in handy as well.
Additional BetaSince I'm not sure how many people read the "Comments" and "Additions & Corrections" links, I've decided to put the best such additional info here. Where appropriate I've edited them for brevity, etc.
I climbed the Whitney Glacier Route in spring 2002. We took the lower approach from North Gate that was mentioned in the approach description. It was a slog with lots of traversing across talus-laden gullies. However, a possible merit of this approach is that it puts you closer to the bottom of the glacier, which means more time on the glacier proper. We camped near the bottom of the glacier, finding good campsites and running water. We descended whatever route is (climber's) left of the Whitney Glacier. I remember the very top of the descent being steep and icy in patches. I think that descending the Whitney Glacier would be foolish. We saw nobody else on the route.
lavaka offers a dissenting view of descending the route:
"I think the user comment about "descending the route is foolish" is a bit much, but of course it depends on conditions. I ascended and descended Fourth of July weekend with no problems. The descent down the route gave my group time to have fun in the ice-falls, which we had skirted around quickly during the pre-dawn ascent.
Page maintainer's editorial:
lavaka has a point, but I'll stand by my recommendation not to descend the route unless you have a good reason and conditions allow. Softening snow bridges and gloppy snow could make the descent more hazardous than when you came up. And then, the Bolam is faster...
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