17 March 2014

A Quick Weekend to Mt. Shasta

The plan was thus:
  • Drive to Mt. Shasta Friday after work (a mere 8hrs, 39mins from Seattle sans traffic)
  • Make it to Bunny Flat trail head (6,940') and camp at some point on Friday night/Saturday morning
  • Get up and skin to high camp at Helen Lake (10,443') on Saturday
  • Make camp, eat food, go to bed early Saturday night
  • Sunday morning have Alpine-ish start, depending on expected sunrise and snow conditions
  • Summit! Complete with cheers over a Rainier Beer just to let Shasta know who's really the big 14'er in the area
  • Ski back to Helen Lake, break camp, ski to car
  • Make long drive back to Seattle (a mere 543miles post 14,000' climb/ski)
  • Work on Monday - be sleepy all day and not care cause our weekend was epic!
And that's more or less how it went. Minus, unfortunately, the summit. We did drink our Rainiers though. And my tutu and I were nearly blown off the mountain! I should also mention 70-degree temps, overnight freeze fest, icefall, and epic windburn. Here is the full report:

Mt. Shasta, California

Friday at 3pm four Seattlites loaded up a Chevy Silverado in Kent and departed for Shasta. I'm not going to lie to you - the drive was long and not super awesome. But we took turns napping and driving and listening to RadioLab podcasts, and hey, 10-hours in a car (stupid traffic) is really just a first-world-problem.

We arrived at the trailhead around 1:30am and had setup camp by 2:15am. I'd like to report that we slept well, but all four of us were freezing and got very little sleep until the sun came up and warmed our shelters. This did not bode well for the upper mountain.

I crawled out of bed at 8:30am, and we were off the the crack of 10:30am. We were met by two buddies who drove up from Berkeley, and our group of four became six. As we set off on skins the sun was up and blazing, and it was HOT. Like, 70-degrees hot. The snowfield felt like a fiery inferno, and I put on lots and lots of sunscreen!

View of Shasta from Bunny Flats at 10am on Saturday.

Tutu makes it's California debu. Check out the undulations of Avy Gulch -> called The Serpent. Photo by Pam Spier.

The crew making the climb to Helen Lake at 10,443ft.

Nearly there. Ryan, Nick, and Pam charging toward the lake.

We were able to skin directly from the parking lot following the standard Southwest Route via Avalanche Gulch. From Bunny Flat we ascended 3,500' covering just over 3 miles to get to Helen Lake. I arrived at Helen Lake around 3pm, so it took me 4.5 hours to cover the distance. I am not sure if it was the heat, the lack of sleep, or the fact that I had been sick earlier in the week, but I was definitely not having my best day on the mountain physically or mentally, so I was happy to have the leisure to take my time.

The route finding was very straightforward with lots of people out on the mountain although it seems like mere pittance compared to the hordes of folks I'm used to seeing on Rainier. The snow was perfect for skiing - spring corn - and not as perfect for skinning but wasn't too sloppy either. An avalanche had been triggered earlier in the week, but we saw no signs of it or any other instability.

Once at Helen Lake, we dug right in - literally - and built some pretty substantial snow walls to protect us from the anticipated wind. My tent partner and I ended up digging an extra few feet while trying to figure out how to set up the Nighthaven (a floorless tent from an outdoor retailer who shall remain nameless due to the amount of swearing that took place whilst trying to set up said tent), but we eventually set it up and relaxed to eat some food and enjoy the view.

We were in bed by 7:30pm (and it was awesome).

Camp! We were not lacking in color.

Owly posing in front of the Red Banks.

Yet another volcano in the distance. D'oh. The ol' summit list just keeps getting longer...

Nick taking in the sunset

Imran enjoying the view.

Sunsets do not disappoint in the mountains. Here's the view from my tent.

The alarm went of at 4am, and we (the four of us from Seattle - as we were slower than the pair from Berkeley) were off by 5:20am. I know nearly an hour and a half seems like a long time to get ready in the morning, but for some reason things always take longer in the mountains. And at elevation. And when the wind is blowing 20-40mp against your tent begging you to stay inside just one. more. minute.

We ascended via Avalanche Gulch under the light of the full moon. The snow was firm, so we opted to boot pack rather than skin, which was absolutely the right decision. The snow was crunchy and mostly-solid, and when we did punch through it was only a few inches.

Pam climbing with the sunrise

Going was steady, but I felt particularly slow. About an hour out of camp, big ice chunks started raining down on us from afar. Unsure if it was coming off of the Red Banks, or just from the climbers above, we (Pam, Nick, and I) all moved to climber's right to try and get out of it, but it was pretty sketchy for a while. Three of us (myself included) got charlie-horses on our thighs from rocks. Pam and I were hit in the stomach. I was also hit by a really large chunk on the boot. As the smallest target, I am not amused I took the most abuse. 

But we assessed the danger and opted to keep going, taking the longer route to the right mostly out of the danger. One other party had ascended before us in the morning, and we later found out that they descended due to the icefall danger. 

The wind was at our backs and every now and then it would blow you up the mountain! I felt so strong in those moments. The winds were sustained at 30-40mph in the gulch, over 40mph at the ridge atop the Red Band, and gusting to 60mph. Not ideal.

Even with the help of the wind, I felt like I was moving too slowly. I don't yet own an altimeter, so I wasn't sure of the time or of my elevation, and I continued to get more and more frustrated as it appeared that everyone was pulling away from me as huffed and puffed on the way up. I was caught and passed by the two super-freaks from California (okay, they just have really good fitness, and do not, like me, suffer from shortness) who checked in on me, but continued up. 

With the foreshortening that makes things appear both closer and further away in the mountains, I felt like I wasn't making any progress. And due to some bad math on my part, I was discouraged to think I'd only gone a mere 1,200ft, when in fact it was closer to 2,220ft. Thankfully, I was close to Pam, and we stuck together to the very end. I remain thankful for her kind words of support.

When we finally crested the col to the climber's left of The Thumb, a prominent feature climbers right of Red Banks that we all agreed looked more like a middle finger on this day than a thumb, both Pam and I were nearly blown over crossing the ridge to meet the boys who were huddled behind a rocky outcropping in shelter of the wind. The ridge crossing wasn't exactly corniced or overly exposed, but it wasn't a place you really wanted to fall either: 

Ridge crossing. You can see the spindrift blowing off the top of the ridge.

The route up through the red band.

A view of 'Misery Hill' and the false summit from our protected rock.  It's hard to see the snow blowing off the top, but it was significant.

Finally all together again, we discussed our plan of attack, or rather, plan of continuation. Once again, I was proud to be part of a group with honest communication in the backcountry, and all of us had our say. I was the only one who definitely didn't want to continue (I was feeling very weak from my ascent, which was not as bad as I thought: I covered 2,500' in 3 hours). Everyone else "could go on if someone really wanted to". Everyone looked up at Misery Hill and the false summit with the huge spindrifts coming off in every direction we could see, knowing the summit was somewhere beyond and 1200' further up, and lost motivation. So we opted to call it a day at a high point of 12,900', transition to skiing, and make our way back to camp.

In what can only be described as The Most Impressive Group Transition of All-Time, the 6 of us, plus one snowboarder who climbed up right behind us, managed to pull our skis off our packs, pull the skins off the skis, hydrate, fuel ourselves, pull on and off countless layers, and ready ourselves to ski down, all in about a 3'-square space.

I mean, it was tight. We couldn't even get everyone in a picture:

Imran, Nick, and Me

It was roughly 9am when we started down. I'd like to say the ski down was pleasant. Blower. Super fun. But sadly, it was not. It was unpleasant. Icy. Survival Skiing. I'm pretty sure Imran won the award for best side slipper, slipping down at least 1500'. Who knew he was a snowboarder in a past life?

But the sun was out, we were in a fun group, and by golly we were going to have a good time. Here are some of the "skiing" photos:

Leaving our shelter


I know what you're thinking. That looks like powder off his tails. It is not.

Camp down below center of ridge mound. Shows you just how far we have come.

We all made it back to camp in one piece, with only one ski going rogue on an adventure of it's own. No one was happier to be back than Imran, who showed us his best mountain man pose:

I don't always ski Shasta, but when I do, I prefer "blower ice".

We asked our new friend Andy to take a group picture. He's not so good at capturing the jumping photos, but don't we look like we're having a damn good time?


Team Tutu!

Finally out of the wind and in the sunshine, we lounged, ate, shared a 'Cheers' over our not-summit summit Rainiers, packed camp, and headed down.

The ski descent to Bunny Lake much reflected the ski descent from the Red Banks. The snow was hard, icy, and unforgiving under our now-heavier packs. It eventually softened up around 7,500', and we were grateful for the mercy it showed on our legs. People who were just skinning up as we were skiing down (at 11:30am) definitely had the right idea.

Even Matt brought a special tutu for the occasion! I'm corrupting the ski community one tutu at a time. 

Back at Bunny Flats we got some strange looks from the people at the trailhead for our heavy packs, bright tutus, and epically windburned faces. They were just jealous! 

Epic Windburn

All in all I give this adventure weekend an "A-". We win for planning, group decision making, and fun-having. We lose for wind, wind, and Windy McWinderson. Thanks everyone for the great adventure! Let's pick another big stupid adventure and do it soon!

Not-summit summit beer. Yes I am wearing plenty of sunscreen. 

Check out those tights!!!


Anonymous said...

As a veteran of dozens, (yes dozens), of Shasta ascents, I feel ya. I have repeated nearly to the T your exact trip (although from Berkeley, not Kent) on more than a few occasions. You made the right choice.

March ascents are a gift; the wind is a powerful foe this time of year. Of all my trips I have only a handful of winter summits and they were all brutal (except the 1991 drought and calm).

Thanks for posting such an entertaining report. You got a great group there!


Anonymous said...

•Summit! Complete with cheers over a Rainier Beer just to let Shasta know who's really the big 14'er in the area

Based on this part of your plan, I guess Shasta let you know who's boss and that you under-estimated her.

Kristina said...

Anonymous #2: I wish you had left a name so I could follow up - but if you were a regular reader of my blog you will know I like to infuse humor into my writing, thus the joke about drinking a Rainier on the summit of Shasta.

I am an experienced mountain climber, and am well aware of the dangers and struggles climbers face on any mountain. The weather wasn't in our favor, and out of respect for Shasta we descended without summiting.

Every day on every mountain is different, and my top priorities remain to be safety and making good decisions in the mountains. We started our adventure with the proper amount of deference for Shasta, and I look forward to having another opportunity to visit the beautiful mountain.

Thomas alwa said...

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