Thin air and nice climbing up the Avalanche Gulch

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Trip Report
California, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Jun 1, 1996
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Created On: Nov 19, 2002
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Mt. Shasta is located in Northern California and has long been regarded as a place of power and mystery. Truly, it stands as a lone sentinel in the Siskiyou range, dwarfing all other peaks in the area. It is the highest volcano in the Southern Cascades with a total elevation of 14,146ft. My friend Dustin Dawson and I had attempted to climb Mount Shasta in the winter via the Casaval Ridge but were turned back by a storm at just over twelve thousand feet. We were looking forward to returning to the mountain after our initially humbling experience. This time, we wanted to try to descend by skis and a snowboard so had decided to try to reach the summit by Avalanche Gulch, a less technical route with a 2,500ft. snow bowl that rose from our planned campsite at 10,500ft. Initially, we had scheduled three days to do the climb but a work conflict limited us to two days. Neither of us were looking forward to climbing so high from sea level in such a short time, but we felt strong and were optimistic about our chances.

The weather report called for sunny skies so we rolled out of Eugene at 5a.m. with our "ultralight" mountaineering gear in the back. Somehow our promise to take only the essentials had turned into 50+ pounds of stuff we couldn't live without in the harsh alpine environment. The climb began at the Bunny Flats trailhead at 7'000ft. After shouldering my pack, I felt decidedly unlike a bunny and hopping was definitely out of the question. The "flats" were also short lived, as the trail steepened almost immediately. We began hiking just in front of a group of high school students and it was not long before they began to pass us at regular intervals. My request to trade packs with one of the girls in the group fell on deaf ears as the day hikers scampered up the slope with rabbitlike agility. After two miles or so we reached the Sierra Club hut, a stone emergency shelter that was constructed by Italian stone masons in the1800's. We talked with the caretaker for a few minutes and I removed my boots to inspect a hot spot on my heel. I should have known better than toattempt such a major undertaking in my new plastic boots. I already had a blister and the climb had only just begun. Copious amounts of molefoam and athletic tape had me back on my feet. I swore someone was trying to be clever by putting some rocks in my pack, but an inspection turned up nothing. High gravity, perhaps.

The suffering would now begin in earnest. Almost immediately after leaving the hut we hit the snow. The glare was extremely intense, with the snow acting like a reflector for the sun's rays. In these conditions, one must be careful to cover any exposed skin with sunblock. I've even gotten burned in the ear canals and nostrils before. Not a pleasant experience. We switched into pack mule grind mode and arrived at camp after a few blurry hours. I set up the tent as Dustin started to melt snow for water. Altitude sickness is a common occurrence and one precaution is to drink constantly. When we had camp set, we got inside the tent to escape from the sun and rest for a bit. I dozed for a while and got up in the late afternoon to make preparations for summit day. I also carried the snowboard up the basin a little way to try some turns. This was rather difficult for a couple of reasons. First, the snow was old and had melted into a texture known as Sastrugi. Basically, this resembles a carton for ostrich eggs, a totally different substance than resort snow. Second, I'm a pretty lousy snowboarder, having only attempted it twice before. As intrepid an adventurer as I pride myself in being, even I can spot potential for busting my ass badly and the 45 degree slope looked like a good candidate for this. At that point, I decided that the glissade down the mountain with ice axe firmly in hand was a safer proposition.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to eating. When we had dispensed with two freeze dried dinners apiece, a carton of Stove Top stuffing, some chocolate and a couple of energy bars we decided to turn in for the evening. My mattress pad had found the perfect rounded out hole in the snow under the tent floor and I drifted off to sleep wondering why the mattress in my apartment wasn't this comfortable. At 1:30am the two gallons of water that I had consumed throughout the day caught up with me. I got out of the tent under clear skies with the nearly full moon shining on the route up Avalanche Gulch. I felt a certain type of awed and excited anticipation that I have only experienced when being in the very heart of a tall mountain. It is here where I am able to attain a clearer sense of perspective on the world at large and my place in it.

3:30 a.m. was only a quick nap later when the alarms on our altimeters sounded. In about a half an hour, we had ingested as much Powergel and dry bagel as we could stomach. We grabbed our axes, strapped on our crampons and prepared ourselves for the thinning air and the steepening terrain ahead. My revised summit pack was truly a joy to carry with only 15 pounds in it. More and more I credited my judicious decision to leave the snowboard behind. In front of us lay the majority of the climb; 2500 vertical feet of snow that led to a saddle on the right of a cliff band known as the Red Banks. Another party had passed us soon after we had woken up. We could see them climbing by headlamp above us. Our lights stayed in our packs. I have always felt that headlamps take your attention away from everything around you and confine your focus to the two square feet directly below. Unless it is absolutely necessary, I prefer to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The moon was so bright that all of all of Avalanche Gulch was illuminated and seemed to glow in a vibrant but dark yellow hue. We had been climbing for about 45 minutes when Dustin realized, to his extreme dismay, that he had forgotten to bring his sunglasses. There was really no alternative but to go back to the tent to retrieve them. Itold him that I would wait for him at the top of the Red Banks and continued to try to find a comfortable pace. Shortly, I caught up to the last climber in the party above us. He was a man in his late forties from the Bay Area with his two sons. They had tried this route the year before but had also gotten stormed off the peak. I passed the oldest son next. He was about my age and had recently finished Army training in the Netherlands. Instead of the gentler but longer slope to the right, I decided to climb directly up through the Red Banks. It certainly looked shorter, but the couloir that I had chosen turned out to be at just the right angle to fool me into thinking that the top was only anther thirty feet away. After one-hundred or so feet of this, I adjusted my pace accordingly. Mountains are not climbed with short bursts of power, rather they must be met on their own terms with tenacity and perseverance. I reached the top of the Red Banks and met the youngest son. He was a singer in a band and a part-time student in San Francisco. He and I snacked and watched the light of the morning change from deep violet to a warm orange. The shadow of Mt. Shasta crept through the sky to the valley floor beneath us, the summit disappearing in wispy trails on the horizon. Dustin must have been climbing like an animal, because he showed up just about thirty minutes later. He rested for a few minutes and we discussed the next part of the route, a section known as Misery Ridge.

While not technically difficult, Misery Ridge is a test of willpower and endurance. It is still over one thousand vertical feet to the summit in about one mile of distance. The ridge is rather exposed and is subject to high winds. Fortunately, we didn't have to contend with this. Altitude, however, is a factor that not much can be done about save adequate physical conditioning. At this height, the air is pretty thin and judgement begins to become impaired. One must be deliberate in all actions and caution must be exercised at all times. I was keeping a pace of 20 steps to 10 breaths as I traversed up the slopes. I thought the summit must certainly be just on top of the slope in front of me. There were wands marking the way to aid climbers in inclement conditions. I counted only four to go until the top of the rise. When I reached that last wand, I saw that the route continued further up following four more wands. I had crested what is known as a false summit. Moving slowly, I reached the top of the next hill to what proved to be yet another false summit. These took a serious toll on my motivation, and I stopped for a bit to rest. At this point, the kid from San Francisco passed me. This undergraduate grunge rocker was quite a climber. After hearing him mumble something about wishing he had a cigarette, I decided that maybe I was just weaker than I had thought.

The true summit, a decomposing cinder cone, came into view. Just a long flat section and then a steep ramp would bring me to the top. I caught up to the kid at the ramp as he was gazing down into a steaming bowl just beside the cinder cone. Shasta has two sulfur hot springs near the summit, showing evidence of volcanic activity just under the surface. When John Muir climbed Shasta by this same route, he was trapped near the summit bya fierce storm. He huddled next to the steam vent for warmth and waited the storm out. At just before nine a.m., I made the last few steps to the top. The sky was a deep blue and I could see all the way to Mt. Lassen in the south and the rim of Crater Lake as well as Mt. Thielsen in the north. Number two son soon followed, then Dustin arrived. Five hours of solid climbing had brought us to the top of our little corner of the world. We hung out on the summit for about an hour, taking the obligatory victory photos and munching snacks from the food bag. The dad and the other son arrived and we exchanged congratulations and readied ourselves for the descent.

It is important not to become complacent after reaching the summit of a peak, as the greatest danger is frequently on the way down when one is tired and thoughts wander to beer and Mexican food back in town. I climbed down about five hundred feet and then removed my crampons to do a sitting glissade. Basically, this is just sliding on your butt using the ice axe to control the speed. Instead of traversing back across the ridge, I noticed a faint glissade path that went down directly through the Red Banks. I contemplated the steepness and decided to give it a try. Because it was still pretty early, the sun had not had a chance to soften the snow in the gully I had chosen. The trough was almost pure ice and I found myself nearing mach 1 with 2500 feet of snow dropping away beneath me. I rolled over onto mt ice axe to arrest my slide, and the pick promply caught bringing me to an immediate halt. My feet could not gain purchase in the ice, so I had to haul myself up by the axe shaft to get the headloose. Even with the brakes on full, it was an awfully fast slide to where the slope mellowed out. I joined the main glissade chute and continued to descend. About halfway down the face, I paused to switch brake hands andcatch my breath. While enjoying the view I became aware of a whirring sound that was rapidly getting louder. As soon as my mind made the connection, a grapefruit size rock flew past me about thirty feet to the left. I doubt that even my helmet would have been much help against the size and velocity of that projectile. I took off the brakes and cruised down almost all the way to the tent trying to keep my heart palpitations under control. My snow pants were shredded from the ride but I was more or less out of harm's way. It had taken me just one hour to go down what had taken five to ascend.

Dustin made it safely and we packed to go. The lower slopes were gentler so we decided to try and ski. Dustin had more success than I did. Snowboarding on rough snow with a heavy pack proved to be an exercise in futility, so I relegated myself to a standing glissade. We made it back to the car without incident and grinned at each other in the afternoon sunlight. Mt. Shasta was kind to us this time. Yet another lesson of respect and humility had been learned. A mountain cannot ever be conquered, it can only momentarily grace us with good fortune. A toast was drunk to the majesty of Mt. Shasta and memory of the trip stored away to save for a rainy day.


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Thin air and nice climbing up the Avalanche Gulch

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