I have been wanting to climb this mountain in a while. I decided to climb in early fall to avoid ice and snow and other climbers (who cause rockfall.) I was right in one area - this reduced the rockfall risk as my friend and I had the mountain to ourselves, at least on the Avalanche Gulch route. However, as we soon discovered, the reason we had the mountan to ourselves was because this time of year has some of the worst climbing conditions.
The hike from Bunny Flat to Lake Helen was nice. From here it looked like the Red Banks were deceivingly close - boy was I wrong. I did not bring an ice axe or crampons as I didn't think they were necessary, so I did not climb the very narrow snow patch going from Lake Helen up to the Red Banks; instead I climbed the very loose scree slope. This slope was so loose that I fell over every 10 steps or so. Falling once or twice is no big deal, but falling several hundred times really wears you out, so much so that it took us seven painful hours to get from Lake Helen to the top of the Red Banks. It's also good that nobody was below us, because every 50th step or so set off a veritable landslide of rocks that kept tumbling down, and futhermore sometimes we triggered chain events of rockfall that led to dozens of very large rocks, tumbing almost all the way down to Lake Helen. In one case, a fast moving rock hit a huge three-foot wide boulder and sent it rolling. I don't think I have ever been as exhausted as I was then. I contemplated turning back for a moment, but after climbing up a notch on the east of the Red Banks, the rest of the climb looked easier.
I was right. Once above the Red Banks the rest was a walk in the park in comparison. I have noticed that others complain about the scree on Misery Hill, but let me tell you, this scree was a piece of cake in comparison to the scree on The Heart in early fall. We reached the summit in the early evening, which was much later than we had hoped, but we didn't care, we weren't going to turn back just because of the time. Surprisingly, I had little problem with the altitude, at least physically, despite the fact that I reside at about 200 feet above sea level. Mentally I was a little loopy, but somehow my muscles kept right on moving.
The descent from the summit to the top of the Red Banks was fun - of course there was no snow to slide down, but we were able to scree-ski down Misery Hill. I was looking foward to a fun scree-ski down The Heart as well, as the narrow snow patch from the Red Banks to Lake Helen was far too hard, shallow, rocky and bumpy to glissade. Let me tell you I was very disappointed to find that the scree in this area was far too inconsistent to scree-ski down, as the scree is not rounded in shape but angular and made up of rocks from pebbles to cobbles and bigger, meaning that some steps were very loose and some steps set you on firmer ground. Therefore the descent of this slope took nearly three hours of slow, careful steps on my now blistered feet. Also, my gators came loose and my boots began to fill up a little, but I didn't want to stop descending as the sun had already set and light was diminishing quickly.
Once at Lake Helen we rested for a while, as it was now dark out and there was no moon, and we were really fatigued. In almost complete darkness with only a crappy plastic flashlight, we descended slowly and gingerly to Horse Camp due to the very dim light, and because of this, this part of the descent took three hours. Once at Horse Camp we drank copious quanties of the water from the artesian well as we had been out for hours. I would find out later that this water should be filtered or boiled, but we had no ill effects.
The last two miles down to Bunny flat also took much longer than I ever imagined - it was only two miles on a well-maintained trail, but it took over an hour.
The total trip took us nearly 21 hours. Clearly this time of year is not the best time to climb - not only did we have to ascend the miserable scree slope from Lake Helen to the Red Banks, but we were robbed of the quick and presumably fun glissade that summer climbers enjoy. I suppose I will be happy about my success in this climb after the blisters heal and the pulled muscles stop hurting, as I just returned home from the trip. The normal feeling of euphoria, such as I felt after Mt. Whitney, was simply not present after we reached the trailhead. Because of our poor choice of the time of year to climb Mt. Shasta, an otherwise foldly memorable trip turned into a living nightmare that I will not forget for some time.
In short, if you're thinking about climbing Shasta in the early fall, I recommend that you rethink your plan and wait until next summer. This trip has gotten mountain climbing out of my system for at least the rest of the year. I'll have to wait until next spring, when I will have forgotten how miserable it was to climb Mt. Shasta in early fall.
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