Apr 29 2013

TR: Shasta via Avalanche Gulch


Shano Collins rips up Shasta corn.

Ordinarily April is a good month to ski Mt. Shasta, but May is more reliable weather wise. However, the weather pattern for this season was well established; the much anticipated big storm at the end of the season was not going to arrive. That meant, as soon as we could coordinate schedules and head north, the better.

Fortunately for us, not only did our schedules manage to synch up, so did the weather. A quick call to Chris Carr with Shasta Mountain Guides indicated what we suspected, there was not a lot of snow, but enough. The West Face was possible, but the entrance had been scoured by the wind. On the other side, the road to the Hotlum-Wintun trail head was still blocked with snow miles from the trail head, same for North Gate. The good news was the winds that had been raging for the past week, preventing access to higher elevations or the snow from morphing to corn, were forecast to back off on Friday, the exact day we had chosen for our trip.

Full moon rising – colored and magnified by Earth’s atmospheric lens.

As usual it took longer to assemble all the parts for the trip than anticipated, but Shane, his dad Ross, and I were finally on the road by 2pm out of Truckee. We arrived at the Bunny Flat trail head with light to spare, paid the summit fee, pocketed our receipt in case Ranger Rick wanted proof we were law abiding backcountry taxpayers, then backtracked a half mile to a vagabond camp site with the promise of less trail head noise for a good night’s rest before the grind up Shasta’s flanks. While heating a leftover steak, rice and bean concoction the promised full moon rose over the eastern horizon, bloated and orange as the light of the sun disappeared.

Since it was relatively warm, maybe 40° F at 9 pm, we figured it best to be hiking by 5 am to summit by noon when Shasta’s corn ordinarily ripened. Ross programmed his Blackberry to wake us at half past three and we hit the sack by 10 pm for five hours of sleepless rest.

Full moon sets over the Trinity Alps as daylight dawns.

While boiling water for breakfast I remembered I forgot to bring skins for Shane’s skis. As it turns out, we were all using crampons just past Horse Camp and the potential handicap of walking the first mile or so in crampons versus skinning was easily overcome by Shane’s twenty-something vigor compared to the senior status of Ross and myself. Thankfully the snowpack was firm the whole way so using skins actually cost us the time to transition to steel points while Shane simply charged on. The better option would have been to use ski crampons and skins up to Helen Lake. In the end it didn’t hurt him at all; Shane bagged the summit, we did not.

We left Bunny Flat a bit behind schedule, but early enough that, even filtered through the trees there was enough light from the full moon to illuminate the way. By the time we reached treeline the moon was getting ready to dip beneath the Trinity Alps to the west while the sun hid below Sargent’s Ridge. Ross and I had managed to keep up with Shane while skinning, but as soon as we stopped to switch to crampons he disappeared until the Raven rocks around 9,600′ where he politely waited for us to catch up and take a hydration break.

Shano and Ross, ready to move on from Helen Lake.

Where age became undeniably apparent was from Helen Lake to the top of Red Banks, an unrelenting, monotonously laborious 3,000-foot climb past The Heart, a patch of wind scoured rocks that saps the energy and drive of every ski mountaineer that climbs by. At 35° it isn’t that difficult or steep of a pitch, but it is long enough that you need to take a few breaks and steep enough, and featureless enough, that there is no good place to take a rest. It was only a year ago I remember climbing that pitch in three hours but today I felt like a slug and it showed; including two seemingly short fuel breaks I took five hours to get from Helen Lake to the plateau that accessed the Trinity Chutes, West Face, or the run under the Red Banks.

Ross Collins gets in a rhythm beside the Red Banks.

Ross was at least an hour ahead, and Shane was calmly waiting at the edge of Red Banks when I finally pulled in. Thankfully Shane had only been waiting ten minutes since returning from the summit, or so he said. We took five to compare our climbing miseries in getting to and past Red Banks and shared what liquid was left to hydrate a bit before the fun began.

“What’s your preference for goin’ down,” I quizzed father and son?

Ordinarily I’d lobby for dropping down one of the Trinity Chutes. Today’s climb had truly sapped my strength and though I knew I could rally I was relieved when Shane said, “Let’s drop in here. This looks great.”

The first few turns were typically steeper, but not extreme, maybe in the low 40°s. From there on down to Helen Lake it was sustained 35° with corn ripened to perfection. Our actual descent didn’t start until almost 3 pm, so I was concerned that the snow would be mush. In fact it didn’t mush out until treeline, yielding 5,000-vert of 2-inch deep corn with a shiny veneer of Lilly’s Lace the whole way down. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Father (Ross) and son (Shano) rip it up in Avy Gulch on Mt. Shasta.

Shasta is going off right now. If you’ve been thinking that this is the year you’re going to do Shasta, or you’ve been waiting for the right time, that time is now. Shasta did receive a ton of snow early season, but not much since. Conditions experienced resembled mid-June even though it was only late April. If Shasta is on your bucket list for this season do not wait. Make a plan and execute it this week.

A view of our route up (green) and down (red).

…and routes to consider for the future. ;)

© 2013
Related Posts
Mt. Shasta via Brewer Creek
Mt. Shasta’s West Face
Mt. Shasta’s Hotlum Glacier
Mt. Shasta from the North
Mt. Shasta, the Masta

  • http://twitter.com/andylewicky Andy Lewicky

    Alas, even Shasta got hit this year. Will Hotlum be doable when the road opens, do you think?

  • Dostie

    The whole east side will certainly be doable. What is unknown is how much dry trail will be ‘required’ to access snowline, and how suncupped the snow will be down low. My guess is the snow will be patchy down low, and as implied above, the optimal window of opportunity will be short. However, Shasta is always a worthwhile adventure as long as you’re ready to play with whatever cards she deals. ;)

  • blabla

    is the picture of your route (red and green lines) a current photo of the mountain? if so that certainly strikes a blow towards skiing the west rim/bowl in the next week or two..looks like the top if getting messy

  • Dostie

    Taken by the jibmaster hisself two days after my party of 3 did it (about 5 days ago as I write). Indeed, the snow is thin for the time of year is it (early May 2013). That’s why I said what I said at the end. If you hesitate you’ll get there late.

  • http://jasonflaherty.com/ Jason Flaherty

    Great trip report! Headed up soon. Did you nail Lassen too?

  • http://jasonflaherty.com/ Jason Flaherty

    It’s doable now. Take a couple days and enjoy the woods :)

  • Dostie

    Nah, but it is on the radar for this weekend (mid-May’13). That or kiting. Leanin’ towards the water. ;)