Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch
MT SHASTA – 08 Jun 2011 to 13 Jun 2011
This writeup is my experience on Mt Shasta .. a failed attempt for the summit due to bad weather , but a very great experience and learning for me. Just want to share my learning’s with others of my kind (who are new to the sport of mountaineering). Experienced climbers might simply want to avoid reading this
08 Jun 2011 –
I get on the Flight from Atlanta to Sacramento … and with lot of delays I reach SAC at 12:00 in the night … pick up the bags , rent a car and drive to Bunny Flat Trailhead.
TIP – Try to avoid very hectic plans that steal you off good sleep before the hike. Starting the hike with low sleep the night before is not good.
09 Jun 2011 –
Drive through the night to reach Bunny Flats Trailhead (6800 ft) at 4:30 am morning, so lost on most of the sleep for the night.
I stopped on the way at “Shasta Base Camp” store to pick up rental snowshoes and poles. They were really very kind to let me pick up the stuff so late. I guess it was Taylor who I talked to and he agreed to leave the stuff near the door so that I could pick it up anytime.
Tried to get some sleep in the car from 4:30 to 6:30.. only to be woken up by climbers getting ready for the day … so I got up too , and started packing bags etc for the climb.
TIP - I think it’s good idea to sleep at Bunny Flat since you get a chance to start the acclimatization sooner.
The hike from Bunny Flats to Helen Lake (10,400 ft) , goes via Horse camp (7800 ft). There was lot of snow at the trailhead itself (might be about 6 – 10 ft).. so I had to use snowshoes right from the beginning.
I started the hike at 8 am in the morning … Since it was early , the snow was not yet melted too much .. making progress easy till Horse camp. There was no one else till the first 1 mile , hence I had to rely on the GPS to get me to Horse camp.
Not having used snowshoes too much , I had to struggle going through the snow .. and the shoes kept coming off , requiring me to remove my pack from the shoulders and then adjust the shoes … this was pretty frustrating. Snowshoes are helpful; but at times it feels more cumbersome !
Rested at Horse Camp. The Sierra Club maintains the stone hut at horse camp and though the hut was under snow till the roof there were benches outside where I rested and had some energy bars \ water. Its very important to keep eating and drinking during the hike. (Even if you feel you are not hungry)
TIP – I used a hydration water pack inside by bag. This allowed me to drink water often without having to get the bag off to get to the bottles. If you have a hydration bag , use it !
After Horse camp (7800 ft) , you hit the real mountain. It gets steep and there are no landmarks .. you need to follow a general gully going up the Avalanche Gulch. For me this was a tiring climb. Snow was soft by now and snowshoes is a must here. I did see some people without snowshoes , but I think that is painful.
Another problem is that unlike normal forest hikes , where you have a landmark to walk towards … in snow due to lack of such a landmark , distances are very deceiving. What feels like a 15 min walk away , might take an hour to get to and it tends to be very discouraging after some time. The worst part on the hike to Lake Helen , was the last 500 ft of elevation. It was a snow slope leading to Lake Helen camp , and it felt never ending !
Finally after 7 hrs of climb, I reached Lake Helen (10,400 ft) at 3:00 pm. There were around 10 tents already setup. I had a hard time finding a spot to setup my tent. The snow was soft .. so had to stomp on the snow to make it a bit level before I setup my tent. After some struggle I finally got my tent up.
TIP – Please take a snow shovel along .. or borrow it from other hikers (ofcourse if they are done with using it). You can dig a 2- 3 feet deep square hole in the snow to build your tent on. The excess snow can be used to build a wall around your tent , thereby increasing wind protection.
I did not have a shovel , so I setup my tent and put in the pegs as deep as they would go … hoping that during the night the snow would freeze and make it a solid placement.
I was out of water by now and would need 6 liters for the summit climb next day. Borrowed a shovel from the Climbing Ranger to dig a hole in snow … setup my stove there and started the long task of boiling snow to make water. Have a early dinner at 7:00 pm … of rice \ chicken soup and some energy bars and then I go to bed.
TIP – Though carrying stove , fuel is a extra weight , the advantage is that you don’t need to carry water for summit climb. You can boil the snow. Just by carrying around 1 kg of fuel and stove , I am able to prepare 6 or more liters of water .. which reduces your load for the hike.
The Climbing Rangers advised us to leave early for the summit climb. I planned to get up by 3 and leave by 4 next day. Well , I was tired now and so tucked myself under 2 sleeping bags …. And dozed off … zzzzz
10 JUN 2011
3:00 am ; woke up to the noise of other climbers… I could hear people wearing crampons … and the clinks of the ice axes as they made their way up the mountain.
It was damn cold and I dare not even get my hand outside the sleeping bag … It took me a lot of effort to just get out of the bag … and I just sat there watching at the tent door , wondering if I should open it …
Let me tell you , the weather was actually nice , it was not windy.
Finally better sense prevailed and I got off and put my boots on … This was the day … only one attempt at the summit .. so I had to give it the best. I put on as much layers as I could … 2 thick nylon socks … gloves .. balaclava , etc and got out to a chilly world. The stars were the brightest I had ever seen … it was a beautiful scene.
As I looked up the steep snow \ ice face … I could see climbers headlamps … that made me speed up … I quickly packed my bag with water , energy bar , emergency reflecting sleeping bag , headlamps … put on my crampons … and started the climb.
The initial few 100 feet were not too steep and I kept on a nice steady pace … but then the real slopes started… This section from Lake Helen(10,400 ft) to Red Banks (12,800 ft) is supposed to be the crux of the climb… and its really steep .. getting to 35 degrees angle. As it got steeper , my speed reduced to a crawl. I tried setting up a breathing pattern … Left foot up … breathe … ice axe … right foot up .. breathe … … … I kept doing this
I had started the climb at 4 am … and now at 5 am , slowly the sky got lit up a bit … and I turned back to see where I am … and was shocked to see I was still so close to the Lake Helen. I had lost all the perception of distance. I kept climbing and as I got higher , the slope got steeper. This really is the most difficult climb I have ever done. Had done Mt Whitney last year , which is much higher than Shasta , but it was nowhere as steep as this.
The climbing rangers (John and Forrest) were supposed to start the climb from camp at 6:30 am …
At 7:30 am , 3\4 way till red banks … I see the rangers climbing up to me as if this was just a walk in the park ! And very soon they pass me by , saying “Slow and steady .. way to go” I took it as a compliment and kept with my slow pace
At this point I was just a few 100 feet below Red Banks and I could see some small clouds gathering around the top of red banks. But overall the weather was great.. I could see a very nice panoramic view from here of the entire route and the small mountains miles away. Views like this make it worth all the effort
Within sometime , the clouds started increasing and it started to snow lightly. The ranger said they did not expect this and would assemble at red banks before pushing ahead.
Very soon , the visibility dropped to within 100 feet and the wind picked up , and the snowflakes got bigger. The slope at this point was steep so I could not remove my back pack to get to the snow goggles too. To add to it , my hydration pack line , got frozen … the water in the pipe was ice now and so I was out of water too. I had extra bottles in my bag , but I thought I ll just push to the Red Banks and then get the water.
But just as I reached the Red Banks .. maybe a 100 ft below it (12,700ft) , I saw a few climbers turn back. I kept pushing for some more … and then stopped to think where is this leading to. I am tired … its snowing , visibility is low .. its cold … and logical to turn back. Though it was a tough decision.. I think it was right looking at my ability and experience.
Another thing I realized pretty soon was that since the angle of the slope was steep , getting down was really more difficult. It was painfully slow … ice axe to support , one leg down … check to see if crampon is stuck well in the ice .. then another leg down .. hoping that the crampons hold … Doing this for 2000 feet to get to Helen Lake sounded very tragic to me. I did this for maybe 500 feet or so … and then realized I cant keep doing this with the fear that I will fall .. on each step. So I thought of Glissading.
TIP – Take crampons off when you glissade … they can get stuck in ice \ snow and throw you off balance. If you read accident reports .. this is one of the main cause of accidents on Shasta.
The glissade start was scary … with 1500 ft below me at 35 deg of steep slope … I was not sure if I ll be able to control the slide. But I did it for a few feet and very surely , the ice axe held me well. Wow .. this was fun… after this there was no looking back. … I glissaded the entire 1 km or so to the Camp … tearing my pants at several places
TIP – Do glissade down if you get a chance. This steep section will give you a nice lesson in arresting a fall too … and give you confidence on such slopes in future … that you know that you can stop a slide \ fall with the ice axe .. and what you learnt in theory \ Mountaineering school does indeed work !
Finally I reached Lake Helen (10400 ft) , it was snowing and my tent had all snow and water in it. This is because I had brought down my tent so that it does not get pulled away in the wind.. and in doing so I let the poles out of the door .. so could not close the tent door …
TIP – When you go for summit attempt , it’s a nice idea to bring down the tent to avoid it being ripped off by winds .. but in doing so make sure you dismantle the poles and close the tent door. This way it will not allow water \ snow inside and keep it dry in case you have to use the tent for one more night.
After packing up … which took a very long time , since I was exhausted from the climb , I headed back for the parking lot. On the way I glissaded , snowshoed .. walked on boots etc tried all different things to see whats easier. Glissading is good if the slope is steep .. else on soft snow and low angles you end up getting stuck and waste a lot of energy. Finally after lot of failed glissading attempts , I decided I ll simply use snowshoes. The last 1 mile to the parking lot was most tiring … I was really dehydrated and exhausted from the climbing over the past 2 days.
At 3 pm , I reached the parking lot …so relieved to see the car … dumped all the stuff in the car and drove off for the Crater Lake trip…
A very nice climb overall .. sad that could not make it to the summit though ... well next time :)