Mt. Shasta - land of fire and ice
If Mt. Shasta is famous for its mystical qualities and picturesque scenes, the North side of Shasta is infamous for its obscure trails and unmarked dirt roads. Although climbing Mt. Shasta by any route offers challenges and beautiful scenery, we chose the northwest side to avoid the crowds (July 4th) and seek out a little bit of the unknown. Despite information on the climbing routes up the Bolum Glacier being scarce, we were not deterred, as a good adventure and practice on glacier climbing technique were our objectives. After navigating an unmarked dirt road (43N21) from US 97 to the Bolum trailhead, we were a bit shocked at the great distance between here and the start of the climb. Everywhere abounds evidence of the forces of fire and ice that formed and still shape this magnificant mountain. Cutting deep through the glacial till and loamy soil at the trailhead is the chocolate milk colored Bolum Creek filled with fine glacial silt coming straight off the Bolum Glacier. The trail starts off at about 6800 ft. by the river in soft pumice sand cutting through thick sage, manzanita, and sparse pines. Periodic floods are evidenced by the 'driftwood' everywhere around the trail, the dry sandbars, and the partially buried trailhead sign. Paralleling the river for the first .3 mile, the trail follows an old logging road that cuts straight up the lava shield of this ancient volcanoe. The soft sandy soil and round pumice pebbles makes for slow going with a heavy pack through this terrain. Soon the piles of large red and brown cinder blocks that abound everywhere on this part of the mountain come into view. These proved to be our nemesis one night as we were descending from the glacier and wearily searching for our base camp. Deep in the woods they are one of the only landmarks available on the micro-scale in this area. The problem arises from the absolute abundance of these features. They are deposited as glacial morraines in ridges and large piles throughout the woods on the flanks of the mountain. The resulting 'landmarks' can unwittingly turn into a confusing maze for the tired climber. After a couple of miles following the old logging road, the trail abruptly turns right (sw) and ascends a steep wooded canyon between two cinder block ridges. As the trail becomes very obscure, kind souls previously sojourning in this area have left numerous trail markers. Our packs being overweight with mountaineering and survival gear, and it being late in the day, we decided to drop the packs and make camp in the woods right as the trail traversed from one steep canyon to another. The mini-ridge between the two canyons provided a nice little steep ramp up to a tremendous pile of cinder blocks that formed another ridge that ascended steeply and 'Teed' into another high cinder block ridge. We immediately scaled these adjoining ridges to recon the area and establish our route up to the glacier for a 4:30 a.m. start the following morning. The route had become increasingly confusing, starting in the woodsy canyon and ridge area around our camp. I realized at this point that route finding would be a major challange leading up to and during the glacial part of the ascent for the following day, so I sat and studied the mountain for many minutes, picking out a probable route. As dusk approached, we quickly (and directly) descended to base camp. At 3:30 a.m. we arose, ate a bit, donned headlites, shouldered summit packs comprising lots of emergency equipment, complete waterproof cold wx gear, water, food, and the necessary climbing equipment (ice axe, snow shovel, rope, crampons), and set off in the dark for the summit. By 5:00 a.m. it was getting light, we could pick out the route, and see the mountain gleaming crystal white in the light of dawn.
THE CLIMB: From camp we basically ascended a steep woods gully just west of our tent, cut left and boulder hopped up and over the steep cinder block ridge that formed a 'Tee' shape. From there, we worked our way through a tangle of stunted pines, and deep, porous pumice sand, and up to a long straight dry canal pointing straight at the gap between the Shasta and Shastina summits. This shallow canal was cut into soft sand by flood waters probably during seasons of heavy snow/melt runoff. This canal leads up to an area (225 degree to summit mark) of small connected draws (timberline) that in turn leads up to a large steep ridge that rises up, bordering the Bolum Creek and ends at a couple of sloping tiered terraces that look like a huge bulldozer had made them. We chose the lower of the two terraces, climbed it to the left (east), and stopped to gear up when it ended at the toe of the Bolum glacier. At this point we could look down to the aluvial drainage plain just below the glacier and see several stone wall bivy sites which would make good high camps. Our plan was to traverse hard left across the bottom of the glacier and spend as little time as possible in the 'shooting gallery,' an area beneath steep rock cliffs where numerous loose rocks fell and hurled down the steep snow surface of the glacier. Once out in the clear with nothing above us but snow, ice and sky, we could go about the business of climbing straight up the glacier, ascending a steep snow field through the rocks, and climbing a couple minor rounded ridges to the summit. Once up in the middle region of the Bolum glacier, numerous crevasses and snow bridges began to impeede our progress. Some we jumped across, some we straddled and climbed across, some we crossed on ice bridges. After crossing the crevasse zone we made some real progress working our about 1/2 way up an icy apron of the Bolum Gulley. We had decided to go left up the Bolum Gulley, to avoid 2 pronounced bergschrunds high in the Bolum Glacier. At 3:30 p.m. with 1/2 the apron, 2 small rocky ridges, and the summit block yet to climb, we somewhat disappointedly realized the summit was beyond our reach that day, and we turned around at about 12,000 ft. Still roped up, taking long plunge steps with our crampon clad mountaineer boots, we made a quick descent of the glacier, taking great care around the crevasses. I knew full well the complexity of the route we followed on this climb, so I had taken care to memorize the terrain, landmarks and turns we had made on our way up. I felt good that the route was unfolding nicely as we descended. Little did I know the worst was yet to come. On our ascent from the base camp, I had noticed a surprising dearth of 'ducks' or route markers (only a couple), especially as compared to the wealth of them on the way up to base camp. After successfully navigating our way down the mountain to within 1/4 mile of our base camp, we just couldn't seem to reconstruct the path through the maze of cinder block ridges and woodsy gullies to our secluded little tent in the trees. Despite having navigated perfectly to it the night before after our recon session, in our present tired state we dropped below it and crisscrossed near it, but could not locate it. I cursed my Garmin 12XL GPS which at the last minute I had left behind because of a dead internal lithium-ion battery. It was dark, we were tired, our feet were sore, the terrain was trecherous after dark, and we didn't seem to be making much progress. Knowing we were in the right area, Sarah felt that we could pinpoint the tent better in the morning after resting and getting a fresh start. I reluctantly agreed and we found a soft bed of pine needles under a stunted pine to bivouac in. Despite the warm temperatures, we quickly donned all our gortex extreme weather gear and pulled tight the drawstrings on the hoods, just to keep the bloodthirsty mosquitoes from sending us into hypovolemic shock. I lay there listening to the cacaphony of buzzing insects around my head and under the tree. With the glacier not far above and this near tropical feel of warmth and insects, my mind drifted to another time and place; the south island of New Zealand where glaciers plunge directly into tropical jungles with no transition zone. It was a fitful night's sleep - we eventually got cold even though the temp never went below 60 degrees F. I tossed and turned and felt the mosquitoes drill into my face where it was exposed through the breathing gap in my hood. I had left the repellant in the car. I dreamed incesently about a gizmo that Peter Ostapchuk (Sarah's dad) had invented. I have no clue what it was. With the light of day and being somewhat rested, we eventually found the tent. When we dove into the tent to avoid the fresh onshaught of mosquitoes, I realized that it took the brilliance and presense of mind that only a rocket scientist and a wanna-be cosmologist possess in order to find our way home (you figure what proportion of which). The next day we drove to the Black Bear Restaurant in Shasta City for an excellent breakfast. The day was crystal clear everywhere you could see except for one tiny spot high in the sky. Boiling off the crest of the Shasta summit to the northwest was a fast moving billowing of clouds that looked like the exhaust plume from an Atlas rocket engine. I could have swarn the jet stream had touched the summit with 80 mph winds.
We didn't stand on the summit this time, but as adventures go, we did ok.
Being a basic glacier climb, bring the essentials: ice axe, crampons, rope (lots of cravasses and snow/ice bridges), cold wx gear, glacier glasses, sunscreen, emergency clothing, food, etc.
Optional: snow shovel, helmet (continuous rockfalls) ice tool (to climb out of a cravasse in the event you fall into one and are still conscious), cell phone, and if winter climbing, avalanche tranceivers, and probes.
The best sourcebook (that I have found) for accurate information on the north, west and east Shasta climbing routes is the recent edition of 'Climbing California's Fourteeners,' by Stephen Porcella and Cameron Burns.