After reading numerous trip reports describing the Avalanch Gulch route on Mt. Shasta, I was torn between a fast one-day climb to and from Bunny Flat and a more conservative two-day approach. I decided to go easy and spend a night at Helen Lake before heading for the summit.
First off, to give anyone reading this some perspective, I'll describe my fitness level. I'm by no means a hardcore hiker/climber, and my attempt on shasta was my first fourteener in a few years. Besides the gym a few days a week and occasional commuting on a road bike, the only preparation I did for shasta was a 15 mile hike in Big Basin Redwoods State Park and a quick sprint up Mission Peak (2517') which is only 20 minutes from my home in Mountain View, CA.
I packed up my gear which with water, food, and heavy mountaineering boots added up to about 30lbs, tossed it into my car and left Mountain View at 7:30pm on August 11, 2005 (a thursday evening). After some initial U-turns trying to locate the self-registration booth in Mt. Shasta where I picked up my waste-disposal kit (free), wilderness pass (free), and summit pass ($15), I pulled into the Bunny Flat parking lot about 1:30am on Friday. There were maybe a dozen other cars in the parking lot. I reclined the seat, and passed out.
I woke up about 7:00am, and I decided I might as well head up to Helen Lake and start acclimatizing since it was light out and my sleep had been restless anyway. At 7:45 after a quick breakfast I was on the trail. The Avalanch Gulch route ascends gently through the pines toward the Sierra Club's Horse Camp Cabin with awesome views of Shasta along the way. Though I was cold when I had gotten ready in the morning (partly due to lack of sleep and food), I warmed up quickly, and had to strip layers down to shorts and a t-shirt. I stopped at the spring at Horse Camp to top off my water, and continued onto Oberman's Causeway by 8:30am. I didn't see anyone on the trail up to this point, and I couldn't see anyone up ahead of me this morning either.
After crossing Oberman's Causeway, the trail (scree this time of year) switchbacks up a couple of hills to 50/50 flat (at least what I believe to be 50/50 flat) at about 9200'. There are a couple of wind breaks here, and I saw one tent here. The trail is well marked with small red flags every 50' or so, but you can hardly go wrong picking out your own route as long as you're heading up hill. When I reached 50/50 flat it was 9:45am, and already getting warm (though an occasional cold breeze down the gulch from up high on Shasta was a reminder of why I was carrying mountaineering boots and cold weather clothing.
I was shaking off the long drive and restless night now and I continued across 50/50 flat to another series of switchbacks. I was at Helen Lake (10,440') by 10:30am, and I set my pack down in an agreeable windbreak. There were only 4 or 5 sites filled (though no one was in camp at this time). I was suprised how quickly I had reached Helen Lake, and in hindsight I think I would have done a single day climb instead of camping, but since I had brought everything this far I setup camp and made the most of a gorgeous day.
I secured my tent well as a breeze was getting stronger, and explored my route for the next morning. Helen Lake was mostly melted out, but I could reach snow maybe 50' from my campsite. I headed a couple hundred feet up the mountain and surveyed the climb. A large rockslide had (recently?) occured off of the Casaval Ridge starting at about 12,500' or so and continuing on down to maybe 10,800'. During the middle of the day I frequently heard other small rock slides making their way down the mountain. The route most climbers were taking was up the left side of the slide and then across the slide and up to the right of the Heart. From there, I could see paths up through the two left most of the three chimneys in the Red Banks on the climbers right of the Heart.
Later on that day I met a climber heading up to the summit (he had left his vehicle in Bunny Flat around 8:30am and was already above Helen Lake around 11:30am so he was making excellent time. We talked briefly and he headed on up while I headed on down to eat.
The day at Helen Lake was hot and fairly boring with the only excitement coming from defending my food from a relentless chipmunk near my camp and watching thousands of butterflies passing through my camp heading on up the mountain (why?). Later in the afternoon a few more climbing parties showed up as well as a climbing ranger who checked for our permits and described the route conditions. He said that a moat was opening up near the leftmost of the three chimneys in the Red Banks to the right of the Heart and said to check it out in the morning before trying it.
By 7:00pm I was in my tent since I was tired and already plenty sunburned. As is the norm when ascending from about 80' in elevation here in Mt. View to 10,400' in elevation in less than 24 hours, I couldn't sleep at all. About midnight I reached into my tent vestibule and grabbed a couple handfulls of trail mix and no sooner had I put it in my mouth than I heard an ominous rustling. I jerked around to defend my food and only caught a glimpse of a larger (this was no chipmunk) "thing" bolting with my food. I'm sure everyone around was wondering what was happening because I crashed and banged my way out of my tent in a hurry with my headlamp trying to foil the food-thief, but there was no sign of it or my food. Dismayed (now I only had a Red Bull, bagel, a couple of powerbars and a couple granola bars for the rest of the trip), I layed back in my tent, and waited for the alarm on my watch to go off.
At 3:00am, it did just that, and I stuffed my clothes down into my sleeping bag to warm them up before putting them on. I gulped down my bagel with the Red Bull, pulled on my clothes, and stepped outside. The Milky Way and all of the other stars and far away galaxies were brilliant. Despite the lack of a moon (it set around midnight), the sky was so clear that I could see fairly well without my headlamp. I went ahead and put my crampons on my boots in camp, secured my helmet, collapsed my tent, and headed out. Other people were awake in camp, but I was the first one to hit the snow at about 3:45am.
I was cold initially with two t-shirts, a soft-shell jacket, shorts, shell-pants, light gloves, and a wool face mask, but I quickly got comfortable as I started up the mountain. Seeing the other headlamps darting around behind me was good motivation (competition), so I made quick progress up along the rockslide. The snow was deeply sun-cupped and frozen solid and it was a pain to negotiate. I quickly found channels near the main glissade trail that were smoother and I could move up them much more quickly walking sideways. When I would get tired of having my left leg uphill, I would switch to my right leg and continue on. Occasionally I would switch off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust so I could monitor my progress.
By 5:45am I was at the base of the Red Banks (the climb up to the Red Banks progressively steepens from Helen Lake) and saw the moat at the base of the chimney the clmibing ranger had mentioned. Nonetheless, it wasn't bad looking, and I wanted to use this first channel because it would allow my to continue on snow all the way to the base of Misery Hill.
The chimney was steep and icy so I negotiated it slowly and reached the melted out Misery Hill by 6:15am in time to see a marvelous sunrise with Shasta's shadow stretching out far to the west. I removed my crampons (my feet felt 100 lbs lighter!), and was happy to walk up the scree of Misery Hill. Misery Hill did not live up to its name for me, and I made quick work of it as the warm morning sun shone on me. From the top of the ~30 switchbacks that make up Misery Hill, the summit was clearly visible. Driven my excitement I nearly jogged across the summit plateau (except for across the frozen little pools that were on the trail every so often). I passed the sulfur springs, and headed up the last few very short switchbacks onto Shasta's summit!
It was 7:30am (It took me about 4 hours to reach the top from Helen Lake and a little less than 7 hours total from my car) on Saturday, August 13, 2005, and I had the entire summit so myself! I took pictures, signed the summit register and LOUNGED! It was a bit breezy, but the sun was warm, and I nearly dozed off up on the summit. I wanted to glissade most of the way back to Helen Lake, and I knew I'd have to wait till the snow softened about 9-10am so I decided to spend my time on the summit waiting!
About 8:30am, a young man and his dad arrived up from one of the ridge routes. Quickly following them was a climber who had come up Avalanch Gulch behind me. We exchanged congratulatory remarks and I headed down to see what the snow was like near the Red Banks. About 9:30am the snow in the Red Banks was still solid, but I wanted to get down and back to my car since I was driving home today so I carefully started down the same chimney I had come up. I had to be very careful with my footing and ice axe placement so as not to slide. By this time the climber I met on the summit had caught up to me and we both felt safer with another climber around. Part way down the chimney we met a climbing party (half of which was continuing on to the summit, and a couple turning around).
After helping the descending climbers with some glissade and self-arrest techniques, my new climbing partner and I removed our crampons and climbed into the glissade chute. He set off first and was gone in a near blur. The snow was still pretty solid, but there wasn't much to hit on the way down, so when he was safely ahead of me I started down. The glissade down was extremely fast (only partially controlled), hard (got the bruises to prove it), and totally exhilarating! From the bottom of the Red Banks to my actual campsite at Helen Lake was only an 18 minute trip!
I packed up camp, and headed out to my car, passing maybe 50 people on their way up to Helen Lake to camp and try the summit.
It was a fantastic trip, and I recommend it for anyone! If you're worried about your chances of summitting, I recommend spending the night at Helen Lake and getting an early start. Besides allowing you more time for the summit and less danger of rock fall, you'll get the pleasure of a spectacular sunrise!
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