Skiing Mount Shasta's Avlanche Gulch
Shasta remained as one of the last big Volcanos I had left to ski in the Cascadian range. It towers over northern California at an impressive 14,179 feet with a ski descent of more than 7000 feet. As we approached the mountain it looked impossibly large with the tip disappearing deep into the clouds. In past years I had hoped to climb and ski the Hotlum-Wintun ridge but due to an incredible snow year the road to that side of the mountain was still closed even in late May twelve miles from the trailhead. So just before nightfall we travelled up to Bunny Flats to catch a few hours of sleep and try our hand at a real alpine start on Avalanche Gulch.
On our more recent skis in the Eastern Sierras we had some big approaches, but always managed to keep our alarm to a civilized time beginning with the number 4. For Shasta, and later for Rainier, we set the alarm for the truly hostile time of 2am. Maddy and I met up with Chris, a friend from college that had the unfortunate disadvantage of living at sea level so some extra time was factored in to make up for slowing down above 12,000 feet. Something about 2 am starts always feels more exciting than 5 am and has the incredible advantage of getting most of the climb over with before you can truly see the summit.
Just before sunrise in Avalanche Gulch
Avalanche Gulch, although being the most benign ascent of the mountain, has snuck into the 50 Classic North American Ski Descents for its awesome vertical and consistent skiing. In the spring it is a herd path of humans cratering the snow with deep late day hoof prints. We found this path from the parking lot but opted to sneak off to the right of the normal track, however this put us high on the ridge to the right of the gulch. At night the drop was precipitous and it was incredibly tough to judge scale. Looking down we could see trees in the middle of the gully and if they were small stunted timber line trees the drop in to regain the route would only be around 50 feet, but in the shadows it was impossible to tell if these trees were bigger. The trees were bigger and we found ourselves side slipping down 200 vertical feet at a 45 degree angle to the safety of the gully floor. It is amazing how getting a little off route on even a “walk up” climb can lead to some immediate excitement.
I love see the volcano's shadow on a clear day.
Down in the gully we were excited to leave the rime iced ridge in favor of softer skiining through 2 inches of blown in snow. As we approached the Red Banks the slope pitched up to 35-40 degrees and we managed to keep our skins on through alternating bands of rime ice and even deeper blown in pockets. For May the weather was quite chilly and we fought to gain the ridge line and some much needed sunlight as soon as possible. Although the route is mostly south facing, the huge ridge of Avalanche Gulch shelters the snow from sun until a couple hours after dawn.
From the ridge above the Red Banks we continued skinning up Misery Hill. From my days of living in Portland I was used to really slowing down above 12,000 feet but after skiing a dozen or so 13 to 14 thousand foot peaks in the last couple weeks the going felt relatively easy and we managed to keep our skis on our feet all the way to the summit. My one piece of route finding advice would come after Misery Hill. It looks as though you will have to some rather technical scrambling to gain the true summit, but aim to the left at a notch between the 2 peaks just above the fumeral and with a little help from some ski crampons you can probably make it all the way to the true summit, the knob on lookers right.
The slog up Misery Hill, at least its getting warmer.
The skies that were blue for the whole ascent were blown in with clouds from a classic Cascadian inversion. Looking out over a sea of white from a lone island peak is like no other experience in skiing, especially when it is followed by the most solid 7000+ foot run of skiing I have ever had. It is rare to find these massive peaks in good condition from summit to car, but the cold temps kept the lower elevations from being too soft and the new snow gave us just enough of a blanket over the ice to make the descent a blast. We survived 200 feet of full rime ice to great turns all the way to the bottom.
Victorious summit shot above the clouds. There is a 200 foot drop off behind us followed by a couple thousand foot slide.
Just enough blown in freshness to make the turns look good!
Maddy descending into the clouds!
Shasta was the perfect descent to start our Volcano missions and the skiing never got better. I still want to return for the Hotlum-Wintun route, but in early season Avalanche Gulch should not be missed!
- Doug Stenclik