November 2007, having not climbed any large peaks in quite some time, I decided to tackle Mount Shasta. I studied the different routes up the mountain online, and after careful consideration I decided to go up the Casaval Ridge Route. I plot out my route, make maps and an itinerary. I’m hoping to be able to climb this in December. Throughout November there have only been a couple good dumps of snow on the mountain. When December arrives, some stronger storms finally began hitting. I was really hoping that Shasta would have received a much larger amount of snow, and the weather would have been colder by now. After all, this is a La’ Nina year! As the storms and the very high winds buffet the mountain the first week of December, I’m now worried I might not get a shot at it. Finally I see a couple day break, and I’m estimating that the winds should be very low. I contact the parks service, confirm the conditions, and decide to go after it. Most people climb the Avalanche Gulch route, this is the easiest route which runs along the south side of Casaval Ridge. Casaval ridge is only a good route if it is well encased in snow and ice, but this being early in the season it would not be.
I arrive at the bunny flat trailhead early Tuesday morning on December 11th, after leaving Redmond, Oregon at 4:00am. This is the only access to Mount Shasta this time of year. There is around a foot of snow at the trailhead. I fill out the required permits and began my snowshoe approach. I plan to get to around 10,000 feet and set up camp. The trailhead starts at around 8000 feet. The snow is a little soft, but not bad and I make good time. The weather is also not too bad, sunny and cool. I reach what’s called the Sierra Club Lodge, which is a cabin sitting out in the woods. It made for a good resting point. I take down some water and food here before continuing on my way. From here on the route becomes a steep climb for the most part. Getting to the cabin was easy.
The Initial Climb
As I’m heading up the route, I can see large puffs of snow being blown off the ridge tops. This can’t be a good thing I’m thinking. The weather called for mild temperatures and 15 mph winds for the most part. The wind below tree level is nothing at all. As I began to climb the steep ridge that connects into Casaval, I start to experience some light gusts. The snow here is around two feet deep or so. I continue climbing the ridge, still in snowshoes at this point, and it’s tuff going. I stop and take a rest near a large log. I put away some more water and a gue packet. I brought around two liters of water for this trip. I plan to melt more water at my base camp when I arrive. As I rise above tree line the views are breathtaking. Now it’s a very steep climb for about another 1000 feet or so, up a loose rock covered slope. The loose rock is covered in about two inches of ice, which breaks loose as I step. I try to pick a path that hugs the larger deposits of snow, mostly right along the edge of the top of Avalanche Gulch. Now I’m starting to get hit with some winds. As I look up, large puffs of snow are coming over the top of the steep ridge that I’m climbing. This is my first clue that the winds will be much higher than forecast. I finally reach the top of this steep ridge. A huge gust of wind hits me, nearly knocking me over. Each gust of wind carries a piercing blast of granulized snow which stings when it hits my face. I continue to work my way along the top of this first ridge, all the while taking pictures of the massive scenery. Each time I here a gust of wind working it’s way along the mountain towards me I have to quickly take a knee to avoid being blown over. These winds were definitely bigger than forecast. Now I’m also starting to feel pretty lousing from the exertion and altitude. I decide to stop at 9800 feet and set up my base camp.
Deciding to bring a tent on this trip was a very bad idea. This part of the ridge is very exposed on either side. I now have a strong gusty wind that is coming down the mountain from the Northeast. I find a large boulder and decide to put my tent on the Southeast side of it. My biggest worry here is if an unexpected storm comes in it would completely expose me to the strong Southwest wind. I fight with my tent for nearly an hour and actually get lifted partially into the air a few times. After cursing and completely wearing myself out, I finally get some points tied down. The wind I would estimate to be gusting around 50 miles per hour at this time. As the winds come down the mountain they are swirling like giant snow tornados. I finally get my tent firmly secured to every rock, snag, and whatever else is available. I build two rock walls, one wall across the north side and one along the southwest side. Now I’m exhausted, and feeling the altitude and slight dehydration. So I take out my boiling cup and pack it full of snow. I used all my water on the way up. I set up my stove and dig for my matches. Only one problem, I didn’t have them. When I arrived at the trailhead, I made a last minute gear change and like an idiot left all of my fire starting stuff in the truck! I realized this was a potentially fatal mistake. So I immediately called off the summit attempt and planned to leave the mountain at first light. I called my contact person and told them when I expected to be back to my truck, and that I could get in very bad shape by the time I got there, since I had no water. As the evening wore on and night came, the winds only got bigger. I would guess the winds at around seventy-five miles per hour at this point. Now I’m getting a little worried. Fifty feet out the front of my tent is a 1000 foot drop into Avalanche Gulch and the wind is blowing into it! I lay on the downwind side of my tent and can’t get out of it at all. I had set my expedition pack with thirty pounds of gear in it just outside my tent in between the rock wall. The rocks on my wall are ten to thirty pounds in weight each. About midnight the winds are around one-hundred miles per hour now. My tent feels like it want to take flight, and it is very spooky wondering how hard of a landing I would have hitting the bottom of the gulch.
I crawl out of my tent as daylight arrives on Wednesday. The winds are very light now, with only the occasional gust. When I get out of the tent I find that the rock wall on the southwest side of my tent has been totally destroyed, and most of the heavy rocks are gone. I also find that my pack is gone as well. That had to be an intense wind to lift my pack and these rocks overnight is what I’m thinking as I stand there in total amazement. I walk the fifty feet from my tent to the edge of the gulch where there is a deep couloir. I’m convinced my pack and gear are down there. But as I look back down the ridge where I came up the day before, I notice something. I walk that way and see it’s my pack. The pack is resting about one hundred yards down from my tent with some gear strung out in between. I’m very happy to find it on the ridge and not in the gulch. The sun is now rising and I snap some cool photos before breaking down my camp. I decide to strap on my crampons for the initial descent down the steep ridge. As I take each step the loose rock covered in ice breaks loose and slides for several feet. I finally get back down to where there is snow and switch to my snowshoes for the rest of the journey back. At this time I’m feeling dehydrated and sick. I reach my truck in record time, and unload my gear. When I look back at the mountain the winds are very light and the sun is shining. Except for last night, my weather window would have been perfect to have to have tried for the summit today. I drink two bottles of water here and another large big gulp in the town of Mount Shasta. I also grab a massive hamburger.
Every time I go on a climb or hike I prepare for the worst weather. I have went out so many times and been told the weather would be sunny and mild and get slammed with some big storm or other event. Forgetting a critical piece of gear was stupid. I usually always have a couple means of starting a fire when I’m out. I knew I had screwed up, and so deciding to abort the mission was the right thing to do. Even if I had engineered some way of gathering water, I would have been in a potentially life threatening situation had I been forced to stay longer had weather turned bad. I’m hoping to get another shot at this mountain, but I think I will have to wait until next season. Since this trip I have decided to travel more fast and light for solo attempts. I have now cut my pack weight down considerably and don’t bring a tent anymore, just a bivy.