Monday, April 21, 2014

Mt. Shasta climb and ski descent via Avalanche Gulch

Mt Shasta -14,179 ft.
Ski mountaineering via Avalanche Gulch - April 19, 2014
12 hours roundtrip 

12 hours condensed into ~6 minutes of pure joy accompanied by very undramatic music

Mt. Shasta is an enormous, dormant volcano in the southern Cascades and is part of the same volcanic arc that includes Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and many others.  The mountain is a striking natural landmark in northern California with a prominence of over 9,000 ft.  With a 3-day window, Luke, Trish and myself, made the 12-hour drive from SLC to northern California to climb and ski the mountain in a days time; a feat usually done in 2-3 days.     

We left SLC on Friday morning and found ourselves at Bunny Flat trailhead that evening. The summit is approximately 5 miles and 7,000 vertical feet away from the trailhead parking lot where we slept that night. Fortunately, enough snow still lingers at the trailhead so we could use our skis directly from our car.

Mt. Shasta 

We left the trailhead at 3 am on Saturday morning with our skis and skins on our feet and a day pack on our back with food, water, avalanche gear, ice axe, and crampons.  The snow was frozen solid, which made skinning fairly challenging. Nevertheless, we climbed with our skis and skins for over 5,000 vertical feet past Helen Lake to the base of the Red Banks face.  At this point, we packed our skis on our backs and put on our crampons to tackle the steep, icy slope. We slowed down considerably and the wind picked up dramatically.  The blustery wind caught our packs with the erected skis like a kite and made us swagger up the crusted slope like drunkards. We debated on our strategy; make zigzags across, or beeline up the 40 degree slope. We decided to charge it. 10 steps forward, rest. 8 steps forward, stare at the elusive ridge line and wonder how it could still be so far away.

Boot packing it up Avalanche Gulch

Looking down Avalanche Gulch from the Red Banks face
In the midst of turmoil, out of nowhere a team of elitists marched past us in tight lycra with minimalist cutting edge gear and legs like a Apollo Ono. We gawked in admiration and confusion. Turned out they were Team Nike. No joke.

Finally, we reached the saddle, putting us at the top of a key landmark; the Red Banks. We took brief respite from the wind in a rocky nook. Ate, hydrated, and dehydrated. We continued to chat with Team Nike, who turned out to be pretty cool, and genuine, despite their streamlined appearance and one sexist remark, which we enjoyed: a new verb, to chick: when a chick out performs you, and you don't expect it, or like it. It's becoming a fast favorite in our vocabulary.

At this point we had nearly reached 13,000 ft. With the terrain ahead of us and the hammering wind, we opted to ditch our skis in the rocky nook and pick them up on our way back. With conditions as they were, we didn't expect to miss out on any epic turns between the summit and the Red Banks.

The combination of gale force winds (60-80 mph) and the high elevation made the going slow above the Red Banks.  The wind literally blew us over several times onto the hard, icy surface on our way up Misery Hill.  We realized we made a good decision about leaving the skis behind.  Once we reached the top of the aptly named Misery Hill, we questioned whether it was safe to continue onto the exposed and rocky summit block.  After a couple minutes of cowering in a ditch from the smothering wind, I left my pack, stood up and started walking towards the summit.  The decision had been made; Luke and Trish promptly followed.

The true summit of Mt. Shasta at 14,179 ft. and 60 mph winds
We reached the summit around 1 pm without any extraordinary occurrences. While on the true summit, we held onto the rocks so the wind wouldn't blow us off the exposed peak.  Without delay, we made the descent back to our skis at  the top of the Red Banks in a little less than an hour.

The descent from the summit back to our skis was delightful compared to the torturous struggle it was to climb at altitude in the unrelenting wind. The snow began to soften ever so slightly, giving cushion to our tired joints. We adjusted to individual speeds, enjoying the expansive view, the solitude, the elated feeling of accomplishment, and the knowledge that the trial was behind us with some unforgettable skiing about to ensue.

With the wind still blowing hard, the snow near the Red Banks hadn't softened up, despite the abundant sunshine. We skied down the steep crust, which quickly transitioned to variable crust and perfect corn. We skied 6,000 vertical feet to our car in about 45 minutes and enjoyed the entire ride.  A 12-hour adventure and another mountain in the books.

Myself, Trish, and Luke on Mt. Shasta