This was my third ascent of Mt. Shasta with my climbing partner, Sid. Our first ascent was via the Bolam Glacier while attending the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare School 23 years ago. After a long hiatus from the mountain, we returned last year and climbed it via Green Butte Ridge. This year we decided to try the Casaval Ridge. We knew it was a winter or early spring route and leapt when we saw what looked to be a good weather window that aligned with work demands. As it turns out we hit it just right. With just a couple days notice, Sid drove south from Oregon and I drove north from the San Francisco bay area after work. We met in Mount Shasta City on Monday night and stayed in town, planning on a good night sleep, a hearty breakfast and starting out first thing in the morning. When we stopped by the ranger station in town, we got a very helpful briefing on the expected weather and route.
We started from the Bunny Flats trailhead at around 11am and headed to the Sierra Club Hut, where we chatted with a few hikers before heading up the toe towards the rocky ridge. As was pointed out in the route description posted by Diggler and Pellucid Wombat, this initial step is longer than it looks, with a gain of 1,500 feet. It is a long hike up the slope to the initial ridge line. We used snowshoes and moved at a reasonable pace. We acquired the ridge in the mid
afternoon. We had been debating about where to camp. We knew some people camped at this point of the ridge at 9800 feet. Others continue moving up and bivouac higher at around 10,200 feet. We were trying to figure out what would work best with our descent from the summit. We saw that some people camp higher and after reaching the summit descend the west face and traverse to get back to their campsite. We decided we could descend by way of Avalanche Gulch and traverse back to our campsite on the lower ridgeline. The advantage lies in not having to carry full packs the additional 400 feet while still having a very nice campsite with great views. It also took advantage of the hard work of some previous climbers who had dug well protected sites for their tents at 9,800.
After deciding to stay at 9,800 feet, we set up camp, melted snow, took in the views and had dinner. We decided to plan on an early morning start and tried to get some sleep. However, neither one of us could sleep and by 12:30 AM were up making coffee, getting gear ready and having another bite to eat.
By 1:45 AM we're heading up to acquire the higher ridgeline. Winds were very mild. Once we acquired the ridge, the initial movement was over easy ground on top of the ridge. Soon though, we were being pushed down on the west side of the ridge by the gendarmes and other rock formations. We had read all about the exposed nature of this route and have no doubt that it is. The downside of the alpine start is we couldn't see much beyond the stars above and what was in the cone of light from our headlamps on the ridge. We rightly surmised that we better be careful because the slope below was steep, though we couldn't see much of it.
We have heard varying accounts of the steepness of this route. The ranger had told us the steepest portion is 42 degrees, and is on a section called the wineglass. We know that visually assessing slope angle is very subject to personal perspective, but at around 11,600 feet we were forced to move perpendicularly up the ridge (rather than traverse) and it certainly seemed steeper than 42 degrees.
We were frontpointing and making full use of our ice axe to gain the ground. Luckily this was a fairly short section and it was too dark to see what we were climbing over - even still it had a pretty high pucker factor. After this we were able to continue our traverse along the ridgeline, generally staying as high on it as the gendarmes allowed.
We eventually reached the wineglass, though there were two formations that seemed to fit the description given at the ranger station. I took one and Sid took the other. Luckily we ended up at the same spot at the top. From there we moved up to the first catwalk and started moving along it. We came to a place where the snow had built up significantly on the catwalk. Movement beyond this point required traversing a very narrow, sloped ledge. We felt it was too dicey given the exposure below it.
The build up of snow before the dicey ledge, however, had created an escape route which allowed us to move towards the second catwalk without backtracking which was a much more attractive route, while still offering the thrill of some exposure. Following the catwalk we moved up and towards Misery Hill, the summit plateau and eventually the summit at around 10AM. The wind had picked up but was still not too bad. However, we did keep a low profile for our obligatory summit photos.
To move back to our camp we entered avalanche gulch in the vicinity of Thumb Rock and Konwakiton Glacier. We traversed to the southwest, achieving a glide path straight into the ridge at 9,800 feet and our campsite. We did not have to do any additional uphill climbing to reacquire the ridge. By this time the snow was getting soft and wet. Our crampons were beginning to look like 70's era platform shoes with the thick layer of snow adhering to the bottom. I eventually took off my crampons and plunge stepped back to our campsite. After a little food, a lot of rehydration and some rest, we packed up and continued down the mountain, post-holing most of the way until we got down to the Sierra Club Hut and put back on our snow shoes.
We found the Casaval Ridge very rewarding. It lived up to all the positive route descriptions we had read. We were lucky and hit the weather window just right and had a memorable, exciting climb.