Skiing Mount Shasta

By GearCooper Olin

The 2014-15 winter season was one of the warmest and driest winters in the recorded history of the western United States. The lack of snow has been debilitating for any decent snowpack to form, and no doubt put a damper on many snow-centric backcountry adventures for those seeking some skiing solace away from commercial resorts.

However, in mid-March, reports started coming in: Mount Shasta, being its own behemoth 14er straddling the northern California border, had been one of the only places in the western US that received a decently average snowpack. With this glimmer of hope, our team knew it would be worth the 11-hour drive to make a backcountry excursion.

If you are not familiar with Shasta, then allow us to introduce you: Shasta towers above its neighboring landscapes by thousands upon thousands of feet, as well as dominating the sky in every direction. It is an anomaly so great that from nearly 100 miles away it looks almost cartoonish in its larger-than-life scale, especially in comparison to the other mountains on the distant horizon. Oh, and did I mention it's also a standalone active stratovolcano?

Shasta is also home to the largest glacier in California and creates its own weather patterns: its steep escarpments reach up into the atmosphere and catch storm systems blasting through the jet stream. Throughout the 1930s, one of its gulches was celebrated as one of the longest and continuously steepest ski descents in the world--and it still falls short of the summit by 2,000 feet.

The green light for low-avalanche conditions, plus temperate weather to help soften the snow, were met with eager excitement to get on the road. We left our offices around noon on Friday, slipping through LA's notoriously heinous traffic early. We emerged unscathed, and again just missing getting snarled in Sacramento's equivalent. After a couple stops along the way for gas and pizza, we found ourselves 6,750 feet above the world at the Bunny Flat Trailhead around midnight.

From our small bivy in front of my parked car, I found it impossible to sleep. As I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag, I gazed out onto the face of avalanche gulch and saw parties already well on their way, specks of light in the distance. We even had met a party of six leaving as we pulled into the parking lot--they were eager to view the sunrise from the summit. Above it all, I could also see the sky-splitting Milky Way, making this mountain feel even more immense.

When the alarm went off at 4am, it was just an excuse to wake my climbing partner. Excitement had already propelled me out of bed to immediately prep for the day's adventures: quick filing of some permit paperwork, carefully applying my ski skins, testing that our avy beacons all worked, and other miscellaneous triple-checks and we were off! The official Departure time: 5am.

From the parking lot, we were able to skin in a direct path toward the summit ahead and above us. By the first of dawn's light, we were well on our way above the tree line and higher than any other mountain around us--except, of course, for the trail that lay before us. Thankfully, the weather was warm and sunny, and the mountain seemed nothing but incredibly vast as we made our way up its face.

We traveled along the eastern side of Avy Gulch (Green Butte) Ridge before traversing the steeper sections to get to the equivalent elevation of Lake Helen. By 8:30 am we had reached base camp at 10,200 feet base camp, as the sun finally had made its way over the eastern ridges of Green Butte and Sargents Ridge.

From here the steepness became noticeably greater. The icy conditions (and me failing to bring my ski crampons) meant it was time for me to break out the ice axe and ski boot crampons; meanwhile, my partner continued his zigzag pattern across my tracks in his ski crampons. By noon, I had managed to stairmaster my way up the 2,500-foot escarpment to Red Banks at 12,800 feet. I was greeted by a fantastically exposed ridgeline with giant red rock cliffs of red rock mingling with violent masses of dark igneous rock protruding on either side, and the first views of Shasta's massively huge, ancient and crevassed glaciers off the northern banks. It was a spectacular sight.

Next came a sharp left toward the summit, and with it increasingly frozen snow but with less of an embankment. I strapped my skins back on and continued my steady progress in skis, all the while psyched for the summit. We trudged along the icy and exposed ridgeline and up what is self explanatorily known as Misery Hill.

Though we had passed what I believed to be the best snow for skiing, the day had been great so far. The high elevation was noticeable, but we both felt strong and capable of pushing the final few hundred feet for the summit. While finishing Misery Hill and getting our first glimpses at the summit plateau and summit block just a couple more hundred feet above us, we realized that that the once-calm weather around us was deteriorating quickly. Large thunderheads seemed to be popping up all around us, when just minutes before, there was not a single cloud. Alerted and aware of the dangers of thunderheads on mountaintops (especially considering the warm and humid day this had become), but keen to push on, we enjoyed a quick meal and observed what was happening around us. Within minutes it was clear that things weren't getting better. In the time it took us to have several more short discussions, a whiteout had pressed in around us, reducing our visibility to just a few feet in every direction and inducing a rather curious sensation of vertigo. The near-jet stream wind was persistent. Suddenly, Shasta's ability to generate its own weather was now our big concern. We yelled in each other's ears as we quickly bundled up to combat the powerful winds and near 40° temperature drop while we waited to see what would happen next.

Realizing our vulnerabilities with the reduced visibility, the icy exposure around us, and that the ski-able softer snow was below us anyway, we decided to make the safe call and put the summit fever behind us. With the altimeter reading nearly 14,000 feet, we ripped off our skins and turned our skis towards all those turns we had worked so hard to earn. I knew the summit would be reserved for another day, but for now we had over 7,000 vertical feet of soft, steep snow below us to enjoy.

With lungs and thighs burning, the mountain proved its magnitude to us. We cautiously cruised down the frozen sheets of Misery Hill, careful not to veer too close to the 100+ foot cliffs of the north face as our skis chattered violently along its edge. Once down into softer snow, we found some excellent chutes to blast through along Red Banks before traversing all the way east past the Heart and Thumb Rock towards some untouched lines near the Green Butte that I had spotted that morning. From here, the steepness amplified as we took turns carving alongside rock outcroppings and cliffs for thousands of feet before reaching Lake Helen. We'd make 10-20 turns before stopping to fall over and catch a breath. We leapfrogged each other hooting and hollering the entire way.

After Lake Helen, the steepness subsided, but opened up to another 2,500 vertical feet of massive snow-covered, cornice-capped dunes. Launching off each cornice dropped us into a valley 100 feet down, netting us the speed to make it up to the next little summit to repeat the process. It was the closest feeling to skiing on the moon that I can think of--that, or perhaps, if the entire Sahara Desert was tilted on its side and covered in snow.

Finally, at a breathable elevation from Horse Camp to the trailhead, we finished another 1,500 vertical feet winding through trees, troughs and river banks before we were spat out into the parking lot. It was 5pm.

Though we may have fallen short of tagging the summit, we weaved together a line that surpassed anything I've ever experienced. As a skier, this was easily one of the greatest days of my life. I got to feel the magnitude of Shasta--complete with its sheer volume, relentlessly shifting weather, and enormous glaciers--all while putting myself right in the middle of its beauty.

For your own Shasta adventure, there is a host of amazing information online for trips reports, including the Shasta avy reports (seasonal), incredible guide services, community forums. For real-life help, the super-psyched staff of Five Seasons ski shop in the small town of Mt. Shasta that are always happy to pick up the phone and answer any questions pertaining to the mountain conditions. I cannot wait for next season to get back on the mountain and enjoy the view from the summit--but I'm most excited and to experience it all over again from atop my backcountry skis!


Check out others who have skied Mt Shasta!

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