The Bolam glacier is very smooth, presenting few glacier travel challenges. For that reason, combined with its moderate steepness and opportunities to bail to ridges or moraines, it is considered a good choice for parties new to glacier travel and as a first glacier route on Shasta. It is also reputed to have little rockfall due to its northwest aspect.
Two days are plenty for this route. Chargers might want to do it in a day, but bear in mind that the approach is longer than the usual south side routes and that a very early start would be needed. The Northgate approach works for this route, as described on the Whitney glacier route page
(a personal side note: the road to Northgate is not paved, and not suited to a car like a Prius unless you are into swearing and frustration; I also found the first part of the approach in the forest tedious, without views or elevation gain, but that’s just me). Because of the need to traverse west, Marine Camp at around 10,700ft works well for this route, and positions you both higher on the mountain and closer to your second day’s line. You may lose the luxury of running water and some protection from wind, but you do gain around 1,200ft and stunning views of the north side of the mountain, Shastina to the west, and the valley.
With the usual caveats for describing glaciers since things can change from year to year, the Bolam is known to have three main crevasses, which comprise the upper and lower bergschrunds. The lower ones can be avoided altogether by traversing west underneath them, towards the base of glacier, leaving two prominent rock islands to your left until you are pretty much in the middle of the glacier. From there you hang a left and head up. On the way, you may notice two miniature “icefalls”, although like other glacier features on the Bolam they are very low key (don’t expect to see large seracs or anything). Your next task is to tackle the upper bergschrund, which is wide and spans most of the glacier. It can be skirted by traversing all the way to the Whitney-Bolam ridge, or crossed if bridged (in mid July 2011, after a very heavy snow year, at least two passable bridges existed on the ‘schrund). If you do venture on the Whitney-Bolam ridge, bear in mind that it will be bare except for very early in the season, and that it is extremely loose. Large rocks are very easy to dislodge and pose a serious threat to climbers below you – don’t become an accidental murderer. If there are parties ahead of you, also be aware of their position and the fall line.
In terms of slope angle, the Bolam stays in the mid 30 degree range below the bergschrund. Above it, it steepens somewhat approaching the 40s, mellows for a short while, and then steepens again to perhaps the low 40s for a short section near the “shark’s tooth” – a prominent rock that you will pass on your right. After passing the shark’s tooth, you will have several gully options that will take you to the North Summit. From there, you need to weave your way through rocks and make your way to the true summit, a short distance away to the south.
Variations to this route are possible. To the east of the main glacier lies a very broad gully, known as the Bolam Gully. At its base are the two other crevasses on the glacier. One spans the slope between the two rock islands, while the other is cosmetic only and lies directly beneath the lower island (it is possible that these two cracks are one and the same if not bridged, but they appeared distinct when we were there). By negotiating the first crevasse, it is possible to gain the upper glacier by heading in between the two large rock islands, which would offer a more direct route. If possible, bridges through the middle of the crack offer a more mellow passage in terms of slope angle. You can a also skirt the crevasse on the left hand side, but the terrain there appears steeper and may merit some protection depending on your skill level. From there, you may cross to the west in between the two rock islands to the middle of the Bolam, or continue straight up the Bolam Gully, eventually joining the Hotlum-Bolam ridge route near the top.
It is possible that other cracks are present on the Bolam. In July 2011, these were all that we saw, but then again things were looking bridged after a very heavy snow year. It is always wise to rope up and at the very least practice what you came for: glacier travel! As with other north side routes, ice can form later in the season, making the route more serious. Earlier in the season, the route in my opinion does not present major difficulties, but is on the long and sustained side. Start slogging early and budget some contingency time.
Should you need to bail from the route, you can always escape to the Whitney-Bolam ridge by traversing west, or to the Hotlum-Bolam ridge by traversing east. The benefits of doing that are mainly limited to not having crevasses underneath you. To descend, you can retrace your steps, descent the steeper Bolam Gully (keeping in mind that in its lower portion you will be on steep terrain above the lower crevasses), or head further east towards the Hotlum-Bolam ridge and descend that route. A combination of these options is also possible, starting from the west high up and heading towards the east lower down (Bolam glacier, followed by Bolam Bully, ending near the Hotlum-Bolam ridge for an awesome glissade towards camp after you’ve passed a long rib of scree).
Crampons, ice axe and standard glacier travel gear. Pickets or ice screws may be desirable depending on conditions and experience.