The Whitney Glacier route ascends the longest glacier in California for virtually its entire length (two miles). Done early in the season before the glacier opens up, the route is of moderate difficulty with maximum snow slopes of 40 degrees (and that only for short sections), and easy glacier route finding. Later in the summer, you may find yourself pitching out the section near the ice fall in the middle of the route.
In contrast with other glacier climbs on Shasta, the Whitney route lies in a deep valley between Shasta and its satellite Shastina. This highly scenic route gives a strong feeling of being surrounded by snow and ice from the moment you set foot on the glacier till you pop out on the summit plateau. It is also rarely climbed, meaning that you will probably be alone on the mountain until you reach the summit plateau.
Done in firm snow conditions and decent weather, a strong party should easily be able to complete the route in under four hours. Poor conditions will increase the time required. In contrast to routes on the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers, there is no way to skirt the crevasses on the Whitney. This route requires honest glacier travel skills, including crevasse rescue.
Though this route can be done in a day car-to-car, most parties will want to take two days. Some may even want three if they find summit day particularly exhausting. If you're a Shasta-in-a-day animal, then ignore my camping recommendations. I will first describe my recommended approach, then outline a few variations.
The easiest approach starts at the North Gate trailhead and follows the trail (assuming it's not buried in snow) up to the regular North Gate high camp. It is possible to camp here, though you will add close to an hour to the approach on summit day. I would recommend continuing on to "Marine's Camp" (so called by the Shasta rangers because the Marines have been known to go there for training), which is situated at about 10,700 feet on a flat area on the ridge above and southwest of North Gate high camp. There are many excellent camp sites there, with well-constructed rock walls. Marine Camp has better views than the standard high camp due to its position on a ridge. The only drawbacks are the lack of running water and greater exposure to wind.
A sunset view of the traverse from Marine's Camp. You're aiming for the higher of two talus piles about a 1/3 of the way up the Witney-Bolam ridge (middle distance).
The approach traverses west from Marine's Camp at a roughly constant elevation for about a mile. From Marine's Camp head west to where the ridge drops off towards the lower Bolam Glacier. Head south until you spot the use trail that angles down toward the glacier. Failing that, just pick a spot to drop down that balances unnecessary loss of altitude with unnecessary altitude gain. It is neither necessary nor desireable to go all the way up the rocky ridge to the snow--you will simply lose all the elevation you gained in doing so. If you're getting a pre-dawn start it's not a bad idea to scope out the descent to the lower Bolam the day before so you don't lose time wandering around in the dark trying to find a reasonable way onto the glacier.
Cross the lower Bolam Glacier (probably not necessary to rope up), a couple of talus ribs and a couple more snowfields until you reach the old lateral moraine left by the Whitney Glacier in its glory days. You're aiming for the higher of two talus piles on the Whitney-Bolam ridge more or less level with Marine's Camp (see photo at left). From the moraine descend about 100 feet to the edge of the Whitney Glacier and rope up. From Marine's Camp the approach should take less than an hour of easy walking.
The rangers at the Shasta ranger station recommended an alternate approach that also starts at the North Gate trailhead, but traverses lower. From the low end of the North Gate high camp head directly up and west to a bench on the ridge above, and contour west. We spent some time scoping this out through binoculars from the road, and it didn't look appealing. It looks like you will spend a lot more time winding your way through old moraines, gaining and losing altitude as you go. It may be possible to camp on the bench, but I wouldn't count on it. Camp sites along the traverse, including the old lateral moraine of the Whitney glacier also seem limited. Once you reach the lateral moraine, search for the most reasonable path down to the glacier.
It is possible to start from the Whitney trailhead. This road is considerably rougher than the North Gate road. If you haven't been there before it's probably wise to contact the rangers for current road conditions. From the trailhead grovel your way up thousands of feet of loose talus and sand until you reach the toe of the Whitney glacier. If you choose to go this way you've already passed the entrance exam for Sufferers Anonymous, so it probably won't bother you that the lower half mile or so of the Whitney is a horrendous mess of blocky ice covered in loose rock and sand. Enjoy.
The Bolam and Coquette Falls trailheads are yet another possibility. I have never used either TH, so I can say nothing more, though mrchad9 seems to have some experience in that area (see comments under additions and corrections).
We roped up at the rocky area in the foreground. The seracs seemed stable, so we traversed directly below them. It is also possible to stay on smooth ice by going down and around the dirty mess on the east side of the glacier.
From the rope-up spot described in the recommended approach, you have two options. You can traverse straight across, passing under a small ice fall, or drop down along the edge of the glacier a few hundred feet until it is possible to walk on relatively smooth ground out onto the center of the glacier. The first option is more direct and doesn't involve any elevation loss, but it's a lot rougher, and if you're worried about crap falling off the ice fall, then you might feel more comfortable taking the low route.
Once in the center of the glacier, walk more or less up the middle (once you're there, you'll see why) until you're a few hundred vertical feet below the Shasta-Shastina saddle.
It should be obvious why the recommended route stays more or less in the center of the glacier. The rocks on the foreground came from the Whitney-Bolam ridge just out of sight on the left. Passing the dirty ice fall at center left is the technical crux of the route.
The next section of the route is the crux in terms of glacier travel. Because we're talking about an active glacier, I can only offer some general guidance. The upper Whitney glacier pours in from the east over some sort of buried obstruction. The left side is the steepest, more broken, and covered in debris that rains down from the Whitney-Bolam ridge. The right side is obstructed by a large, messy bergschrund that contours up and around, following the Shast-Shastina ridge. Somewhere in the middle is a path that balances the risk of being too close to the rock fall and being too close to the big cracks on the right. In late season you might find yourself having to pitch it out until you gain the lower angled terrain above.
Once past the icefall area follow the glacier up the valley. As you approach a large bowl you again have at least two options. It is possible to head more or less directly south to the left of a prominent serac, thereby gaining the Shast-Shastina ridge. This option allows you to enjoy the slog up Misery Hill. The more direct and aesthetic route heads east, up a steep (average 35 degrees, spots to 40 degrees) slope that ends at the summit plateau. If you choose the latter, just stay well away from the Whitney-Bolam ridge to minimize the rockfall danger. In late season this section may give pause to those who are not absolutely confident in their snow travel skills. Running belays might be a safe choice when snow conditions are hard and fast.
The most interesting way to finish the route is to head left up the headwall to the summit plateau. If you head for the saddle, you will join the Avy Gulch route at Misery Hill.
Some observations on the route description found in Climbing California's Fourteeners
are in order. Their description is rather confusing. They recommend passing the ice fall between Shasta and Shastina on the left, but this is by far the worst possible place to cross--it is steepest and most broken there, and more exposed to rock fall from the Whitney-Bolam ridge to boot. The Fourteeners
description is accurate is mentioning a crevasse (they call it a Bergschrund, I'm not sure that is accurate, but the idea is clear enough...) above the icefall that can pose significant challenges. Earlier in the season this hole should be reasonably bridged. We spoke to a guide who did that route in late summer who said they had to pitch this section out. Fourteeners
also mentions gaining the Shasta-Shastina saddle, but this is rather confusing, as the saddle is below the ice fall and only half way up the glacier.
Again, many options. Climbing California's Fourteeners
recommends descending the route, though this does not seem like a good idea. There are better options that allow you to descend unroped, and thus make better time. If you camped near the lower Whitney glacier, or started your day climb from Whitney trailhead, then the best option is to descend/traverse the upper Bolam glacier until it is possible to descend snow/class 2 rock/sand to the lateral moraine of the Whitney glacier. If you camped at Marine's Camp or the North Gate high camp (or if you started your day from the Bolam or North Gate trailhead) the best option is to descend the Hotlum-Bolam ridge. You might also choose to descend the Bolam Glacier, or the chute above the east end of the Bolam Glacier. Of course, another cool option might be to stash a vehicle at Bunny Flat and glissade Avalanche Gulch for a complete traverse of the mountain.
If done in the winter, all you probably need are skis and skins (or snowshoes, if you are so inclined). If done on foot in the spring or early summer (meaning that the snow is relatively soft and the crevasses are still well bridged) then ice axe, crampons, helmet, and crevasse rescue gear are mandatory. As the season progresses the route becomes more technical. An ice tool and a few ice screws may be useful under late season conditions. Pickets could come in handy as well.
Since I'm not sure how many people read the "Comments" and "Additions & Corrections" links, I've decided to put the best such additional info here. Where appropriate I've edited them for brevity, etc.
I climbed the Whitney Glacier Route in spring 2002. We took the lower approach from North Gate that was mentioned in the approach description. It was a slog with lots of traversing across talus-laden gullies. However, a possible merit of this approach is that it puts you closer to the bottom of the glacier, which means more time on the glacier proper. We camped near the bottom of the glacier, finding good campsites and running water. We descended whatever route is (climber's) left of the Whitney Glacier. I remember the very top of the descent being steep and icy in patches. I think that descending the Whitney Glacier would be foolish. We saw nobody else on the route.
offers a dissenting view of descending the route:
"I think the user comment about "descending the route is foolish" is a bit much, but of course it depends on conditions. I ascended and descended Fourth of July weekend with no problems. The descent down the route gave my group time to have fun in the ice-falls, which we had skirted around quickly during the pre-dawn ascent.
Page maintainer's editorial:
lavaka has a point, but I'll stand by my recommendation not to descend the route unless you have a good reason and conditions allow. Softening snow bridges and gloppy snow could make the descent more hazardous than when you came up. And then, the Bolam is faster...
mrchad9 - May 23, 2013 6:15 pm - Voted 2/10Better Approach and Camps
Having been to all the trailheads on the north side of Mount Shasta and visited most of the areas in question, the unanimous consent of those who have tried the different approaches is that Coquette Falls trailhead is the best and easiest approach for the Whitney Glacier. There is far too much bushwacking from Whitney Falls (loose talus and sand is not the problem as indicated above). North Gate approach is too far to the east (an extra mile of walking and traversing) and the trailhead is even lower on the mountain, though if you lack high clearance or fear scratches on your vehicle it is the only option. Coquette is much closer to the glacier and an easy and straightforward ascent. Like the rangers I recommend traversing lower than the above writeup indicates if you start from North Gate. Heading all the way up to Marine Camp requires traversing the Bolam Glacier and misses the bottom portion of the Whitney Glacier. The traverse at 8600 feet is not difficult, but not as good as from Coquette. There are good camping options in the basin at 9600 feet below Bolam Glacier, and a very easy approach from Coquette with your pack. Other options are on the broad Whitney-Bolam ridge at 10400 feet, or on the moraines at the base of Whitney Glacier. All offer easier approaches to the base of the glacier than described above and I think most suitable camps than Marine Camp. Marine Camp is best utilized for ascents of the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge. Also I vehemently disagree with the author's recommendations on optimal descent routes, as descenting the Whitney Glacier is typically not difficult and is the preferred option by most parties. Another option would be the Whitney-Bolam Ridge, perhaps preferred when there is either snow on the ridge or the glacier is more ice than snow. In no case would most find the Bolam Glacier or Hotlum-Bolam ridge to be preferred descents, except perhaps in the rare case where Marine Camp was utilized... but that in itself is unusual for the Whitney Glacier (as noted that camp is best for Hotlum-Bolam ridge ascents). These comments simply based on numerous ascents of the north side of the mountain, but feel free to make your own decisions.
aliqat - Dec 17, 2013 5:19 pm - Hasn't votedMt Shasta Whitney Glacier
I climbed Mt Shasta via the Whitney Glacier over the July 4th weekend 1975. We hiked up a sandy and rocky and trail less route to the base of the Whitney Glacier, at 10,500'. We camped there and started the climb around 3:00am. I remember the route appearing to have a lower and upper icefall separated by a short steep snow field. I still remember a party member (there were 4 of us), stating to the leader about going off to the left to avoid the icefall, and the leader answering back with you can go left if you choose however the rest of us are going that way, pointing up the icefall, lol. Anyway we climbed several fairly steep sections that required front pointing up seracs as it was broken up as that was a light snow fall year. We were in a maze of crevasses and the upper icefall was steeper then the lower one. We finally after 4 hours came to the saddle and a long miserable scree slope to below the summit which we gained around 8:30am. We descended the long scree slope and it was still below freezing so we decided to descend the climbing route we used on the accent. It was a little tricky in spots however worth the effort as that was a very good climb that I still remember today. We all came from the Seattle Wa area and rented a van for the 500 mile drive each way. It was crystal clear out and cold and was a great climb. Three of us later in 1978 climbed Liberty Ridge on Mt Rainer and made the summit. In summary the Whitney Glacier is a great climb when the ice is exposed and fun. Ron
clmbr - Jun 1, 2014 1:36 pm - Hasn't votedMt Shasta Whitney Glacier by clmbr
Well, I would reconsider some of the info above about Whitney Glacier route and how to access it. The first time I climbed Whitney Glacier with a friend of mine was the longest approach from Bolam TH (5,5000) in the summer of 2,000; I call it a complete route. Since then I’ve been climbing this route on average once a year and have never seen any other climbers; it’s one of my most favorite routes on Mt Shasta. However, to make the approach easier I usually go through Hidden Valley and the Cascade Gulch to Shastina’s saddle and drop a few hundred feet down to the glacier by traversing just above and along the middle bergshrund. From there depend how I feel and what I want to do I use different approach to climb to the summit. I used to climb this route with my full backpack (even camping on the top), and most often solo. Because of that I’ve learned (and still do) something new about this route any time I climb it. The overall route architecture obviously stay the same but the obstacles, or I would rather say interesting and exciting features, may change dramatically from climb to climb. Sometimes it’s a lot of ice climbing requiring two ice tools; some other times it’s just a snowfield. But even then or especially then be aware of hidden crevasses because Whitney Glacier, beside the prominent bergshrunds, has many (hidden) crevasses along its length. The other hazard, especially later in the season, a climber has to consider are constant (every few minutes) rock falls from both, Shastina and Bolam/Whitney Ridge; that’s one of the reasons the glacier look so dirty and dusty. Here are a few videos from my previous trips in various conditions that may give you a better idea what to expect (seeing is believing): Mt Shasta Whitney Glacier by clmbr