Thursday, July 6, 2017

Mount Shasta (CA) - Avalanche Gulch

The weekend was shaping up to be pretty damn good, with a tour planned for the SW Chutes on Mount Adams one day, and an offer for a spot on a Mount Saint Helens permit on the other.  Unfortunately, by mid week the forecast started changing for the worse, with a heavy amount of rain and snow expected for the area during the days leading up to our departure. With only a few more ski weekends available, I reluctantly bailed on the trip and started looking for greener (or bluer) pastures. Going off a tip from a friend, I checked out the forecast for Mount Shasta, which indicated amazing weather for Sunday. With that, Andrew Boes and I got to work planning out a tour via the Avalanche Gulch route, which also happened to be the most popular for climbing Mount Shasta. Through a series of back and forth emails and phone conversations we discussed everything from gear to whether we should do it as a one or two day trip. With Saturday projected to have high winds, we were a bit hesitant to camp above treeline (at Helen Lake) and we were pretty set on doing it in a day. Of course, the disadvantage of this was having very limited time to acclimatize and having to ascend all 7,200’ in one shot.

With our plan established, we left from Eugene at noon on Saturday, reaching the town of Mount Shasta at around 4:30pm. We did make one stop along the way, for some burgers and shakes at In-N-Out, which is always a treat when heading south. Once in Mount Shasta, we stopped at the ranger station to pick up our permits before heading up the road toward Bunny Flat, located at the southwest base of the mountain, around ~6,900’ in elevation. Although I knew there would be quite a few people climbing the mountain on such a beautiful weekend, I was taken aback by the amount of cars and how packed the parking lot was.

Mount Shasta, in all its glory! 

Looking up at Avi Gulch, on the drive up to Bunny Flat from the town of Mount Shasta.

Apparently, we weren't the only ones with this idea...

After finding a parking spot we found a nice place to lay out our bedrolls. From our location we had an amazing view of the mountain, looking straight up Avalanche Gulch. Based on the cloud movement near the summit, it was clear that the winds were pretty strong, confirming what we had been told at the ranger station. With the forecast for Sunday calling for little to no wind, we were optimistic with a tad bit of skepticism. Since it was only 6pm and a few hours from when we’d plan to retire for the evening, we drove back into town to carbo load at a small Italian tavern, which was much nicer than the freeze-dried meal I had planned to eat.

Setting up basecamp

Back at Bunny Flat and with the sun starting to set, we both retired to our sleeping quarters, hoping to get in as much sleep as possible before the alarm went off at 2:30am. That night I didn’t sleep very well, drifting in and out and only getting about an hour or two of actual sleep. For some reason my alarm didn’t go off, but luckily I happened to be awake around the time we’d planned to get up. I quickly threw down some cold breakfast and headed to my car to apply skins and make some final gear preparations, before meeting up with Andrew and starting our tour up the mountain.

With the only light coming from our headlamps and the crescent moon, we had a hard time finding the trailhead. In fact, for the first mile or so we weren’t even on it; instead, we were bumbling through the forest, trying to avoid intermittent dirt patches and side hilling. Eventually we found ourselves back on track as we entered the drainage that led to the foot of Avalanche Gulch. From the drainage we had a great view of the challenge in front of us, with the Milky Way in full view and a line of headlamps headed up toward the summit of Mount Shasta. The temps were very pleasant, and I was happy to be putting in some miles before the sun came out and began baking the gulch.

Following the lights up The Gulch

At around 8,000’ we reached the timberline and our route began to steepen, as it left the drainage and snaked through a few offset hills. The boot pack up the hill was both wide and tracked out and small sun cups flanked both sides. The further we climbed the firmer the snow became and eventually we reached some icy sections. I was actually pretty happy about this, since it meant that there had been a freeze cycle and we’d probably have some nice corn snow on the way down. The last pitch up to Helen Lake was both steep and firm and most folks were taking off their skis, throwing them on their back and hiking up. I followed suit and after another 200’ of climbing I found myself at the tent city nestled into the depression at Helen Lake, which was still under snow at this point in the season.

The start of the 50/50 climb

The sun just starting to illuminate the valley below. Castle Crags can be seen on the top-right.

The final push up to Helen Lake

Andrew, reaching the flat at Helen Lake.

The encampment at Helen Lake

Another view of the encampment, with Castle Crags in the background.

Although we were already at the halfway point, we knew that the hardest part was still in front of us. Both Andrew and I were feeling pretty good and after putting on our crampons, we jumped back in line and continued up the steepest section of the ascent. With the well-established bootpack, it was basically like climbing stairs for 2,500 vertical feet. I put my headphones in for this section and kept my head down as I climbed in fits and starts, stopping every 15 or 20 steps to take a breath. For the most part I followed the pace of both the hikers in front of and behind me, but I did pass some that were obviously struggling with the altitude. Of course, I was also passed by much stronger climbers, including a couple of SkiMo guys with their mini backpacks and skinsuits.

Jumping back in line

Getting steeper

Will this climb ever end?!

A view of the Trinity Chutes, on the way up.

Suns out, guns out!

The Red Banks, living up to their name.

A close up view of the conglomerate mass that makes up the Red Banks' features

In just over 2 hours from where I left Helen Lake I finally reached the bench near the base of Thumb Rock, at 12,800’. The sun beams had finally reached our route and the bench was warming up quickly, with a dozen or more hikers/skiers laying around and soaking it up. It seemed that about half the people there were feeling some level of altitude sickness, with some complaining of minor headaches and others hunched over in obvious discomfort. Before long Andrew showed up and was also feeling the effects of the thinning air. After giving him a few minutes to catch his breath, I asked what his thoughts were on summiting. He thought it would probably be a stretch and that instead he would plan on getting as far as he could by noon and use that as his turnaround time. Since I was still feeling relatively strong, I decided that I would push forward to the summit solo, touching the top, and then meet back up with him on the way down. With that we bid each other a farewell and I started my climb up Misery Hill – it was a little after 10am.

Reaching the bench, near the base of Thumb Rock.

Watching people ascend Misery Hill, from the bench.

Andrew, reaching the bench.

Although the gradient had lessened as the route headed up Misery Hill, it certainly did not feel any easier. I was really starting to feeling the altitude and hoped that I would catch a second wind. Misery Hill has a two pitches with a false summit separating the two. Feeling pretty tired, I stopped for about five minutes in between the two. I actually wish I would have waited a little longer, since I had to withstand an onslaught of guided clients that were on their way back down from the summit, half of which looked completely spent and had the 100 yard stare.

Looking up at the second pitch of Misery Hill.
The skiing was actually pretty good on skiers left / hikers right.

Nearing the top of Misery Hill

Getting rushed by the crowds coming back down from the summit

At the crest of Misery Hill I stopped and took off my skis, since I was at the top of the good skiing and felt I could move faster to the summit without them. What I didn’t see from my location was the long flat section that connected me from the summit pitch, and about halfway across it I was wishing I had brought my skis with me. Since it wasn’t worth turning around to get them I continued on, at a slow and steady pace.

The flats between Misery Hill and the summit

Looking back south, from the flats.

The final 300’ push to the summit switchbacked up a rather steep rise. The narrow path did create some minor traffic jams but everyone was friendly and courteous, stepping aside for each other when appropriate. There were some pretty nasty foot traps in this section, as the dwindling snowpack uncovered some caverns between the rocky surface. After a few more bends I reached the final straightaway to the summit, where I saw 6 or 7 people with skis on – you mean I could have skied off the summit?! As I climbed up the final rock steps to the summit platform a huge sense of relief and accomplishment came over me. I had bagged my first 14’er! What was truly amazing was that there wasn’t even a light breeze, especially considering that there were 60+ mile per hour gusts the previous day. Before heading back down I took in the amazing view and had a nice couple take a summit photo of me.

The final push to the summit

The summit, now in sight.

Skiers, at the summit.

The author and the token summit shot. Thanks friendly couple for taking the photo!

Heading down from the summit was certainly easier than going up, and aside from dealing with a few traffic jams, I was making pretty good time. This also included the flat section between the summit and the top of Misery Hill, where I actually had enough energy reserve to do a bit of jogging. Once I was back at my skis I made some final gear preparations and dropped in for the first turns of the day, traveling along the eastern shoulder of Misery Hill, which contained the most snow coverage and least amount of traffic. I ended up having to stop about halfway down the section to rest my lower legs and feet, which were feeling the burn and starting to cramp up a bit. I also downed some ibuprofen and electrolyte pills which was probably more for the placebo effect more than anything else. For the second pitch down Misery Hill I crossed over onto the main route, finding some nice corn snow off to the side to harvest.

When I got to the bottom of the hill I couldn’t find Andrew. When I also didn’t find him at the bench at the base of Thumb Rock, I assumed that he must have gone down to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. From the bench I headed down the same way we had hiked up, finding some better corn snow located on the eastern edge of the main bowl below the Red Banks/Thumb Rock. Once below the narrow upper section, which was pretty chopped up from the boot back, the slope provided facilitated some amazing turns and I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear the whole way down to Helen Lake, ~2000’ below.

Since I didn't have my ski buddy to take photos of, I picked this guy out and took the following five shots of him descending Avi Gulch, between Thumb Rock and Helen Lake.

Looking back up at the main bowl of Avalanche Gulch, between the Red Banks and Helen Lake.

I stopped briefly at Helen Lake to rest my legs and look for Andrew, and after a few minutes of not finding him, I dropped in for the second half of the descent. Surprisingly, the terrain found within the 50/50 section (between Helen Lake and Horse Camp) was surprisingly fun; albeit the snow was starting to become pretty soft. By the time I reached the drainage near the treeline, the snow had turned to mashed potatoes and skiing became more about getting back to the car as fast as possible, rather than enjoying turns. Skiing down the drainage was interesting if nothing else. With the heavy foot traffic the snow was pretty beat up, and the best approach was to ride the flanks on either side of the trough. The further down I went the flatter it got, but never to the point that I had to push with my poles or sidestep up a hill. In fact, other than a small patch of dirt, I was able to ski all the way back to the parking lot, sans skins!

Skiing between hills, between Helen Lake and Horse Camp.

Looking down into the drainage that leads back to Bunny Flat

Starting the drainage section

The Hershey Highway... 

One last parting shot of Mount Shasta on the way out

Back at the car I was relieved to find Andrew, who was packing up his camping gear and greeted me as I walked up. Apparently he was feeling pretty sick up on the mountain and really needed to get down, although he did say he was able to enjoy the skiing along the way, which I was really happy about. While I changed out of my ski gear, Andrew helped pack up my sleeping quarters, and before long we were on the road and heading back north. Stopping for dinner and beers at Caldera Brewing, we reminisced on yet another great spring (or is it summer?) tour!

The Avalanche Gulch route is the most popular on Mount Shasta, and for good reason, it provides a non-technical approach to the summit, requiring little more than endurance and the ability to handle a high elevation environment. Although its popularity is mainly due to climbers, the skiing is pretty fantastic too – especially between the Red Banks and Helen Lake. It also provides plenty of line options for all skill levels, like the Trinity Chutes for the more experienced shredders. The other cool part is that you can essentially ski off the summit, giving you nearly 7000’ of uninterrupted turns; granted, they do flatten out below Horse Camp. Of course if you’re looking for a secluded nature experience this is not the route for you -- you’ll basically have to fall in line, climbing up the face like ants to sugar. I’m already looking forward to my next tour on Shasta, which should happen very soon on the Hotlum-Wintun route!

The tracks from our tour:

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