Mount Shasta – 4/23

After a fun few weeks enjoying the mountain west, Taryn and I decided to turn our focus towards the west coast. Taryn had several things to wrap up in Salt Lake City so I drove the van out to San Francisco to spend a week hanging with friends. Some yummy dinners, excellent surfing, and a impromptu cacao ceremony later and I was picking Taryn up from the airport.

It was Friday and we had originally planned to spend a weekend together with friends in the city before embarking on mountain adventures. But, in what would become a theme for the spring, the extended forecast up and down the west coast was looking questionable. Our first objective, Mt. Shasta, showed decent weather the following day, but then days of cold and stormy weather in the following week. We realized if we wanted any hope of skiing Shasta it had to be the next day. So in classic David and Taryn style we loaded up the van and set out through afternoon traffic on the five hour drive to Mt. Shasta.

The sun had long set by the time we began the final drive up to Mt. Shasta so we were left with some mystery for the following day. We quickly organized our gear and settled in for a short night of sleep.

Our alarms went off at 4:15am and we were out and moving by 5. A well traveled skin track led us up through the forest and we enjoyed the peaceful warmup, winding through some impressively ancient trees materialized for a moment by our headlamps.

After 30 minutes or so we began to near treeline. The ski track grew fainter, filled in by sunny days and blowing snow. As we continued up we began to see headlamps up the hill and rather far to our left. Luckily around this time the terrain began to be lit up by the pre-dawn glow and we got our first view of the day’s route. Now able to get our bearings, Taryn and I realized we had managed to miss the turn into Avalanche Gulch and instead were skinning along the ridge line overlooking the gulch. Fortunately slope down into the gulch was edgeable and we were able to traverse across without having to lose any vert.

Once back in Avalanch Gulch proper we found a well trodden skin track and were able to settle back into a nice peaceful rhythm.

Continuing upwards we got to enjoy a beautiful sunrise. One perk of the late-night trailhead arrivals is the joy of seeing the surrounding landscape for the first time while you are already immersed in the experience. I had never been to northern California before this adventure and it was a wonderful surprise to see all the snow-capped mountains surrounding Mt. Shasta.

It was only about 7am by the time we reached the final knoll in the gulch and we got the nice ego boost of skinning past a couple multi-day groups as they crawled out of their tents and prepared breakfast.

By the time we were part way up the headwall proper we had passed all the single day parties. This ended up proving fortuitous. Without a clear path to follow we plunged ahead up the headwall, taking turns putting in the booter. Had we looked more closely at the map (or had we been following another more-informed party) we would have realized that the traditional climbing route cuts out climber’s right partway up the headwall, traversing to lower-angle terrain above a long cliff band. We didn’t know it at the time, but a section of the climber’s route was swept clear of snow making for very hazardous travel. On our descent we saw almost all parties turning around at this point.

The wind began to grow stronger as we got higher and Taryn began to really feel the altitude. Fortunately neither was bad enough to force a turnaround so we continued plodding upwards. At around 9:15am we crested the top of the headwall and were greeted by a bleak view ahead. The slope above was completely windswept and plumes of the what little remaining soft snow there was were being blown of the edge of the ridge. Even with foreshortening, the next little bit looked daunting. But at this point we knew we were less than 1,000 ft from the summit so we zipped up our jackets and trudged ahead.

The wind made it hard to enjoy our surroundings, but the views really were all-time. There’s just something special about the perspective you get on the flank of a volcano.

Cresting that climb we could see the summit only 300 feet above. As we descended down into the flat caldera before the final climb to the summit Taryn informed me that she was feeling quite nauseous and dizzy and was thinking of turning around. While I’m normally a fan of listening to one’s body, it seemed a mistake to turn around so close to the summit, especially when we had been keeping such a relentless pace. I talked Taryn into taking a five minute rest and we found a nice rock to shelter behind.

As luck would have it the rock must have been near some geothermic activity. Not only could we feel a bit of heat emanating from the rock, but the strong sulfur smell provided cover for me to release a few truly terrible altitude-fueled farts.

After a couple minutes of rest, Taryn’s dizziness began to subside and to my joy she decided to ditch her skis and push for the summit. We emerged from behind our rock back into the howling winds. A short boot and easy scramble and we were on top! The relentless wind didn’t invite a long stay on top, but the skies were largely clear and we enjoyed the amazing 360° views.

Taryn began the descent back to her skis while I stubbornly tried to ski from as close to the summit as possible. We reconvened as we trudged back across the caldera, thankful it would be the last little bit of up for the day.

The skiing down the upper windswept slope was heinous as expected, but soon delivered as at the top of the headwall. Some delicate sidestepping and we were looking down at 6,000 feet of open skiing back to the car.

Not only had the wind done a number on the snow, but it also had prevented any sort of corn cycle. The boot up had provided a bit of a preview on snow conditions and we knew the skiing wasn’t going to be great but as Taryn eased out onto the face I could tell it was going to be downright bad.

A thick wind/sun crust made every turn treacherous and we resorted to long traversing runs linked with jump turns to navigate the upper slope. Luckily we were now sheltered from the worst of the wind, and the late morning sun and thickening air allowed us to relax and enjoy our deliberate pace.

Nearing the bottom of the headwall the snow quality improved dramatically. The particular elevation and aspect must have seen the perfect conditions to actually corn cycle and for a magical 1000 feet we were able to open it up and let the skis run. We yelled with joy as we partied skied side by side down the wide expanse of Avalanche Gulch.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. As we exited the headwall and started skiing out the past the knolls the snow became more and more unconsolidated and we giggled at each other as we lurched down the grabby snow like two drunks. The snow was downright soupy by the time we re-entered the forest, but we managed to wallow through the unsupportive snow all the way back to the car without taking our skis of, making for almost 7,000 feet of continuous descent!

Despite the windy weather and variable snow, I couldn’t ask for a much better day out. The sun was shining, the views were world class, and we had the upper third of the mountain entirely to ourselves. Sitting back at the car enjoying a early lunch I felt nothing but gratitude that the weather and the mountain had offered us a brief window and that Taryn and I had done our best to seize the moment. Now it was just a question of what to do with our afternoon…





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