Mighty Shasta has been on my radar for quite some time and I thought it would be fun to head out there in the spring for an extended weekend of hiking adding some cool northern CA county highpoints in the area as well. I was interested in hitting challenging but doable Casaval Ridge or maybe the west face instead of the standard slog up Avalanche Gulch.
A winter of high winds had scoured the mountain above treeline so much that the snowpack was only 51% of normal, which pretty much meant Avalanche Gulch was my only option. A query or two for a climbing partner proved fruitless since I wanted to hit it on a Thursday, the first day I was out there. I'm not much of a cold weather camper, so a dayhike was in order going as light as possible.
Slideshow for Entire Weekend
Day 1-Shasta Dayhike via Avalanche GulchDay 1- May 22, 2008
Mt Shasta, CA (14162')
12 miles RT, 7300' gain
From Bunny Flats (6950') via Avalanche Gulch
I was not near as organized for this trip as I usually am as what I would get to do was all dependent on the weather. The forecast looked good throughout the weekend until the day before I left. Thurs was calling for sunny skies but high winds. The rest of the weekend there was a 20% chance of snow. Going solo, I decided to deal with the wind instead of getting shut out by precip.
Shasta looms over the town of Mt Shasta. This was taken after I finished the hike.
I flew into Sac-Town and was given a Kia Spectra for my rental car, which did much better on the back roads than I thought it would. I made the long drive up I-5 and my little car was getting hit by a stiff headwind from the north. This was not a good omen! I made my way up to the town of Mt Shasta and carbo loaded at a pizza place for the huge day. To stay acclimated, I drove all the way up to the trailhead and camped just below Bunny Flats on the south side of the road. Shasta was socked in and the wind was still stirring in the trees as I setup my tent.
I was in bed by 9pm and surprisingly slept well, although I ended up waking up an hour too early as I forgot to set my GPS to Pacific time! Oh well, I could use the extra time as I fumbled around getting all my gear ready and finally set out at 2:15am under a nice full moon with a temp right at freezing. There were 8 other cars in the lot, so I was expecting some welcome company higher up as I assumed these folks were either at Horse Camp or Helen Lake. It turns out there would only be 4 others trying for the summit.
It didn't take my eyes long to get adjusted and my headlamp did a good job of highlighting the boot prints in the hard snow. The trail was easy to follow up to Horse Camp as it climbed gently. It took me about an hour to get to Horse Camp and I was feeling a bit sluggish. Some shot blocks cured that problem and I was feeling better as I approached the steeps. Casaval Ridge would be my handrail to the left as I pretty much followed the drainage up to the base of Avalanche Gulch.
Casaval Ridge and the shadow of Shasta.
The snow was very firm but was heavily sun cupped, which got to be real annoying as I wasted energy going over these. I followed uphill steps as best as I could to conserve energy for the long day ahead. The wind began to pickup as expected as I climbed, but thankfully it was a localized wind that was behind me for the most part. I made it to just below Helen Lake in about 3 hours and decided to gear up here as I knew I would be more exposed to the wind at Helen Lake.
The sun was finally starting to light the valley below and I couldn't wait until it finally hit me as the temp had dropped to 18 degrees. When I finally crested the bench at Helen Lake, I could see the route to the right of the Heart up to the Red Banks, a tall volcanic wall of red rock that blocks easy passage to the upper reaches of the mountain.
Afternoon shot of the Heart (center) and the Red Banks. The route goes up the thin strip of snow to the right of the Heart. We then traversed left below the Red Banks, which wasn't the standard route.
The snow was very thin as expected, but at least it was very firm and the avy risk was nill. The slog to the Red Banks seemed to go on forever. About halfway up I spotted a group of 3 climbers who were traversing across a scree field too far to the left. Apparently they had somehow missed Helen Lake, but got back on the right side of the Heart. I kept checking my GPS and was amazed at how much vertical remained to the Red Banks even though it looked so close!
Video from 11600'
I think at one point I had 1200 feet to go in only .3 mile! I still felt pretty good despite the slog up the uneven snow and finally caught up to the group at the base of the Red Banks.
I guess I didn't read the climbing advisory close enough as I was supposed to go the leftmost chute on climbers right of the Heart, which is directly above the sliver of snow we came up. For some reason I thought it said to hit the chute all the way over to the far left of the Red Banks. I chatted with the group of 3 for awhile and found out Shasta was there first mountain! They sure picked a doozie! They seemed to have the basics of ice axe/crampon placement down though, so they must have done their homework well.
We climbed together for awhile traversing below the Red Banks looking for the a reasonable chute. I found a long ice axe and a set of crampons during the traverse and left them there for the return. The problem was we didn't return this way, so I didn't get them! I saw old tracks on this traverse, so some had gone this way. This traverse was above about a 45 degree snowfield but the slope was fairly mellow near the Red Banks.
Traversing below the Red Banks.
The first 3 chutes we came across were very steep and filled with ice. It looked like we might have to traverse all the way around. I got tired of traversing and spotted a short chute that was only about 15 feet high, but there was a brief section of about 5 feet of ice that led to dry rock on the right. I decided to front point up this and yelled at the guys to keep traversing around the Red Banks as this was not a place to learn how to front point!
This is the chute I climbed to split the Red Banks. There was a short 5 ft patch of thick ice to front point up.
This chute quickly dumped me out onto the s.w. slopes of Misery Hill. This little false summit is pretty mellow, but it is aptly named as the north wind now greeted me stiffly.
Misery Hill lives up to its name.
I left my crampons on as I was too tired to take them off. It's about 550' vertical to the top of Misery Hill, and it wouldn't come soon enough! I could see spindrift racing over the summit and knew that I was about to get hit by a freight train.
I topped out on Misery Hill and sure enough, that north wind hit me like a hammer. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I told myself it's only .3 mile and 400' vertical to go, so how tough could that be! Looking back at the time stamps on my camera, it took me ~ 1 hr 15 min to go that distance! I would guess the winds were gusting to 50-60 mph, not enough to completely knock me down but enough to give me a serious case of the drunken sailor walk.
I tried to move as fast as I could during the brief lulls in the gusts. I could here it roaring up the mountain many times just a few seconds before it hit me. I finally got to the saddle between one of the false summits and this is where it was the worst as the saddle acted as a funnel. I actually started walking backwards at times and made better progress. I had to sit down a few times as the wind was really testing my resolve, but I knew the summit was very near. Once past the saddle, I found a trail that traversed below the ridge crest in a wind shadow to the summit.
Finally nearing the summit!
This gave me a couple minutes to regroup before the beatdown I took on the summit. Luckily none of this terrain is exposed, or I wouldn't have attempted it. I finally topped out at 11:15am and did an about face, taking no time for pics or signing the register. It was time to get the heck out of Dodge!
The visibility was now becoming a factor as clouds raced across the summit plateau and dropped the visibility to an eighth of a mile or less. I would not have continued to the summit had I not had a GPS as going down the wrong ridge would be bad news on this bad boy. The walk back over to Misery Hill wasn't much better even though the wind was generally behind me now as it still knocked me off balance a lot.
A figure emerged from the clouds as I descended down Misery Hill. I gave him the grim beta about the conditions up high and asked if he had enough left in the tank to make it. Jason said he did, but he didn't have a GPS. I suggested he call it a day and he did. He had come up the wrong chute as well on the Red Banks, so this time we stayed on the ridge crest which took us right to the proper chute. It didn't take us long to get underneath the cloud ceiling at 13200'. I was so glad to see blue skies again! The group I came across at the Red Banks was taking a break here, as they decided to bail at Misery Hill.
We all descended down the proper chute, which was all snow and was an easy downclimb. The worst was now behind us! I was looking forward to my reward with a long glissade, but the snow was still too hard to let her rip. I descended a couple hundred feet below the banks before removing my crampons for the glissade. The glissade was very bumpy with small rocks to watch out for from time to time, so I had to go real slow. The snow was so firm that it ripped both of my pant legs to shreds! I ended up suncup surfing instead as I was getting tired of braking so hard with my ice axe.
Jason descending Avalanche Gulch with Casaval Ridge in background.
Jason and I regrouped at Helen Lake. He's from Chicago and was making his
2nd attempt of Shasta. I'm sure he'll have a much better summit experience than I did! We said our goodbyes at his campsite above Horse Camp. There were quite a few groups heading up for a climb the next day and I doubt many of them were successful. I think I picked the best day of the weekend because a foot of snow dumped at Helen Lake on Fri and summit chances were minimal the rest of the weekend due to whiteouts.
The hike down was not near as bad as I feared as I recovered pretty well. It was uneventful other than a tourist who got a picture with me. I chatted with him and his friend on the way down for awhile. I made it back to Bunny Flats at 4:30, good for 14.25 hour slog, not exactly a speed record! I must say Shasta was the toughest ascent I have ever done and that includes Rainier and Kili, although I have had some much tougher descents. The wind really beat me down. Shasta sure has my respect as a formidable mountain!
Day 2-More Weather on LassenLassen Pk (10457')
5 miles RT, 2000' gain
May 23, 2008
Lassen is the highpoint of Lassen Volcanic National Park and is an active plug dome volcano, the largest in the world. Once again the weather did not cooperate as it was snowing when I arrived. A couple snowboarders were just leaving. The rangers overhype this hike when there is snow with discouraging signs at the TH, but it is probably necessary to keep unprepared tourists out of trouble.
I set out at 1:30pm after a leisurely morning. The trail was well marked and was wanded by the rangers. The park still has a lot of snow as there were high walls of snow along the recently plowed road. The trail traverses above a small pond before zigging up to the s.e. ridge. I had my snowshoes on initially for traction, but they were unnecessary. The trail traversed a few snowfields, but a couple inches of new snow and good steps were ample traction. Once above the low treeline, the trail was mostly windscoured.
Visibility wasn't great, but it would be hard to screw up the routefinding on this well marked trail. I crested the first gentle false summit and couldn't see the true summit until I dipped down into the drifted saddle. I skirted the left side and wrapped around to the summit area, which sports 3 highpoint candidates amidst a weird looking seismograph shelter. I climbed 2 of the candidates, which were class 3 with no exposure covered in hoar frost.
View from the base of 5th class false summit to other summits.
The other spot to the north of the tower was class 4 when dry, class 5 with hoar frost. No way was I going up that! I spent a good half hour or so enjoying the summit until the snow picked up. The crater was barely visible. The snow picked up on the way down until I hit treeline. I was back at the car at 4:30. I talked to the ranger down the road and he had just closed the road for the evening. Good thing I got Lassen this day!
Day 3-Brokeoff attempt and Black ButteBrokeoff Mtn (9235')-attempt
5 miles RT, 1500' gain
May 24, 2008
After a nice stay at a lodge in the town of Mineral south of the park, I headed back up to take a shot at Brokeoff. It had rained all night at the lodge and the snowline started at ~6000 ft. This county highpoint is in the s.w. corner of the park and the trailhead is just inside the boundary.
I set off in moderate snow at 6:45am with hopes of hitting a couple lower cohp's about 3 hours to the south later in the day. I quickly lost the trail in the new snow. This trail doesn't see near as much use as Lassen, so I just followed the creek up the drainage and watched my GPS so I could stay close to the trail plotted on my loaded map. It's amazing how much lower the snowline is in the Cascades since it's so close to the ocean. There was still plenty of drifts in the trees, but they were well consolidated. I don't think I postholed all weekend!
Plenty of scenics on this hike even though it was unsuccessful.
I had low motivation on this one and was content with just enjoying the scenery as the fresh snow on the huge trees was awesome. Visibility got worse as I climbed and I was only going about 500' vertical per hour, so I decided to call it a day at 8100' in the general vicinity where the trail starts traversing west to the south ridge. It was only 9:30, but I still had a chance at 2 short cohp's further south if the roads were good.
Video of conditions when I bailed
I met a couple on the way down who were glad to be following my tracks. I was surprised to meet them in this weather! I was back at the car at 11:15 and was happy that the road was just slushy.
Black Butte (7448')
4.3 miles RT, 1000' gain
This one is the Glenn county highpoint in Mendocino Natl Forest, and it is remote! It took me 3 hours to get from the southern end of Lassen Natl Park to the TH for this little 7er. Even the lower peaks in CA have a bit of stature to them since I had to drive all the way up from about 700 feet off I-5. The Kia did surprisingly well on the dirt roads as the last few miles got a bit sketchy as they were muddy. Luckily the road wasn't steep, but I decided to park my car about 1/4 mile below the lower trailhead just to be safe. I've already had enough bad luck with cars on remote cohp's!
There was plenty of snow to be had on this hike up north facing slopes. It reminded me of some of my Teller county winter hikes in CO, but it was much greener. It got pretty steep and deep near the top, but at least there was no postholing like I normally face in CO.
Steep and deep nearing summit of Black Butte.
I topped out in about an hour at 3:30, so nearby county highpoint Anthony Pk was out of the question. I doubt the Kia would have made it to that TH though as the road looked to be steeper on the map. The descent was pleasant, although the snow was a bit slick with a couple inches on top of a hard layer. The drive to this one was longer than the hike!
Day 4-Mt St Helena & VacaMt St Helena East (4220')
Mt St Helena (4343')
10.3 miles RT, 2100' gain
May 25, 2008
St Helena towers over the famous Napa Valley in Napa county above the town of Calistoga. I couldn't believe how impressive this 4er looked, which is lower than most of the bumps in the plains of CO! This one starts at a busy pass along SR-29. The crux is getting across the road to the TH! I started at 7:15am and moved well in the thick air. I was glad to finally be able to wear summer hiking clothes. What a difference a day makes.
Typical views along the fire road up St Helena.
This hike ascends a nicely engineered trail to a fire road after a little over a mile, then you follow the fire road all the way to the top. There are a couple minor descents along the way. The Napa county summit is the east summit of St Helena, which is just a short side trip off the road. I tagged the cohp first and then made the short 10 minute stroll over to St Helena's true summit, which has better views. You can see the ocean, SF, and the Sierras from this peak on a clear day, but it was too hazy. On the descent I passed many people as this is a popular hike. I must have been moving 10 times as fast as I was on Brokeoff, as I was down by 11:15. On to Vaca!
Mt Vaca (2819')
1.8 miles RT, 250' gain
Via Mix Canyon Rd
A recent TR suggests this highpoint is not open to the public as it is now owned by the county. Mix Canyon Rd is supposedly open to local residents only, but I did see a lot of bikers going up this steep, narrow road. Suttle's guidebook suggests there is a right of way all the way to the summit, but it was published in '94. I decided to play dumb if I was caught.
I drove all the way up the steep, narrow, winding road to the gate closure and high tailed it in my sandles up the dirt road to the ridge. A car approached from behind and I darted into some brush. I proceeded up the road to tower #20 at the right fork mentioned in the guidebook and found the obvious highpoint outside the fence on the west side. I jogged back and completed the hike in 30 minutes.
Day 5-Carpenter Hill, The GimmieCarpenter Hill (828')
.6 mile, 150' gain
May 26, 2008
This is the lowest cohp in CA and is less than an hour from the Sacramento airport, so I hit this on my last morning there. There are a lot of houses around this hill, so I approached from the south via Iron Point Rd. I parked the car across the street in a commons area.
I don't think anybody has had a problem with whoever owns the summit here and it was easy to stay out of people's yards on the south side. You don't have to squeeze through a fence on this side like you do on the north side. The highpoint is a pile of rocks on the west side of a gated tower. This one took about 20 minutes with some hoopla on the summit after the completion of this fine CA cohp 6 pack! What a diverse group of summits from Shasta down to Carpenter Hill. Thanks for reading if you made it this far!