Shasta as a Side Trip on the PCT

Mount Shasta ‏Planning (Or Lack Of)

It’s Tuesday evening and I’m pushing miles so that I can get into town by 7. I wanted to get to the hostel I’d reserved a bunk at, do some chores, and get my butt out of town by noon the next day. But I also have been walking toward Mount Shasta for the last week and really wanted to attempt a summit (even though it meant a full day off the PCT during crunch time). Nomad (who I’d hiked with through the Sierra and had climbed Shasta before) had been off trail for a family emergency, but knew I wanted to do it, had a few days off, and decided to make it happen. As I was walking into the town of Dunsmuir,  he was leaving the gym and driving to Shasta. I finished up my already ambitious 34-mile day with the realization that I might be climbing a mountain the next day. Nomad showed up at 9 p.m. and we were on our way to Shasta by 4 a.m.

The Shasta Ascent

We planned to do the Avalanche Gulch route, a common one for people who don’t want to do a lot of technical climbing. In total we’d be doing 7,600 feet of gain over just 5.5 miles to reach the peak at 14,108 feet. The approach consisted of 1.7 miles of very normal, well-traveled trail up to Horse Camp (a good spot with pit toilets and water). After that, there’s a causeway used to prevent erosion. Once that’s over the trail turns to just loose scree, especially this late in the season. For every massive step forward, I slid the majority of the way back. Rocks tumbled down around me with every step and I often fell forward onto my hands. After what felt like ages of loose scree hell, we made it to the snow chute—a hell of its own consisting of an incredibly steep incline of icy, hard snow with no boot pack. It was about a mile long and absolutely kicked my ass. We didn’t use crampons because that’s just kind of how Nomad rolls and I didn’t have time to rent any. Every time I stopped to look up, it seemed like we were no closer to the rocks we were headed toward. At certain points I was so tired, and the snow so steep, I was just crawling up on my hands and feet, with my trekking poles dragging from my wrists.

FINALLY, we got to the plateau past the shoot. Nomad had made me lead the way because “I’m the boss and this is my experience” even though I had no clue what I was doing. I guess he figured if I really fucked up he could always course correct and get us back to safety.

Upon reaching the plateau, it turned out we needed to be on the other side of a large rock formation to continue our way to the summit. We could either go back down part of the chute and climb back around the other side (no thank you) or climb down a sheer rock face where a snowbank had separated from the mountain, make our way on to the snowbank somehow, and continue up. We opted for the latter and it was absolutely terrifying. While climbing down the rock face, rocks fell off as you grabbed them and tumbled into the crevice below. If you fell, you were going in between the snowbank and the rocks (at least 15 feet, and god knows how far if the snow didn’t hold) and definitely getting severely injured. The gap was wide and the rock face opposite of it covered in ice. I essentially wedged myself between the snow and the icy rock and tried to pull my body onto the snowbank without my feet breaking through the soft snow. I hugged the sno bank with my whole body and slithered up on top like a lizard. At this point I’m thinking the hard part is probably over, right? Wrong.

Next, we began to make our way up “misery hill,” a series of steep switchbacks (mostly scree) that gets its name because you are already thoroughly exhausted from the chute. Silently, Nomad and I made our way on and up. He was feeling lightheaded and I nauseous (either from altitude or exhaustion), but we pushed through. Finally, we made it to the last plateau before the summit. We traversed a wide snowfield (and each postholed) before getting to the last patch of rock and the climb to the peak.

The climb to the peak was surprisingly the easiest part of the entire summit. The rock was solid, the path clear, and our destination in view. We scrambled up quickly and enjoyed the peak to ourselves for a few minutes. The internal dialogue I’d been experiencing for the last seven hours (mostly just rants to myself questioning why the fuck I would ever do this) was silenced. I felt at peace and at home and in awe of everything around me. Several others who had taken other routes soon joined us at the top and we exchanged stories of our journey up. A father and son who had called the rangers beforehand informed us that the Clear Creek route was currently a lot safer than Avalanche Gulch, but we’d survived so there was no use in regretting our decisions.

The Shasta Descent

After about half an hour, some photos, and some slices of packed-out pizza, it was time to begging the descent. The scree was easier going down than up, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t still wipe out a few times. We made our way back to the snow and decided we’d attempt to glissade the whole way down the chute (around a mile total). It sounds fun and fast in theory, but in reality was painful and terrifying. I didn’t have pants so I used my rain jacket to protect my skin by sticking my legs through the arms and zipping it up in front. I had my ice axe out to drag by my side so that I wouldn’t start going too fast. This was the first time I’d actually used an ice axe for its intended purpose and I didn’t quite have the hang of it yet. All of a sudden, I was picking up tons of speed and my ice axe was flailing next to me attached to my wrist with the leash. Nomad was yelling for me to self-arrest, but I was struggling to regain my grip on the axe. I cleared a big gap in the snow that he’d gotten stuck in and continued down the chute, gaining more and more speed. Finally, I was able to get a grip of my axe and throw my body weight onto it, stopping my intense and unintentionally speedy glissade.

After that, I got way better at dragging my axe and managed a controlled glissade down the rest of the chute. It was slightly better than climbing up, but super-cold snow constantly rubbing against your body is not ideal, even if it means cutting your descent time in half. Near the end, I found myself saying out loud, “you’re tough, you’re tough, you’re tough” in order to convince myself to keep going.

We made our way to Helen Lake and began descending on the loose scree. This time we had a much better view of our route and it was a bit easier than the trek up. Soon, we made our way back to the causeway and then to Horse Camp. Having left the summit at 12:30, we were back to the parking lot by 3:30, a little shaken, but mostly intact. Casualties amounted to Nomad losing an ice axe, my hip belt detaching from my pack, and some very very sore knees.

In summary, it was an incredible experience that I could wait a while to repeat. It was one of the most physically and mentally challenging things I’ve ever done. I think if I’d spent another half hour deciding, I might not have done it (considering my lack of experience and knowledge of the mountain).  But Shasta taught me anything, it’s that if you want to climb the mountain, just climb the damn mountain—it’s unlikely you’ll regret it.


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Comments 2

  • Laurel : Aug 26th

    Super! I’m glad you went for it! I lived in the shadow of Shasta for 15 years, he’s in the background of my wedding photos, and still I never even tried to make the climb. Not sure my knees would make it now but if I get close to the mountain with 24 hours to spare I’ll find out.


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