Sunday, June 16, 2013

Shasta 1, Me 0

Shasta wins the battle, but my consolation prize is a vertical mile of sweet corn skiing on Hotlum-Wintun Ridge

Put simply, Mount Shasta (14,179') is huge. Rising a staggering 10,000 feet from the valley floor below, it's the third most prominent mountain in the continental United States and the largest stratovolcano in the Cascades by volume.  Its smaller satellite peak, Shastina, is itself the third highest mountain in the Cascade range (though by looking at it you would never guess). Shasta offers seven named glaciers, including the Hotlum and Wintun glaciers, which framed our route: the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge.

Aerial view of Mount Shasta*

The Hotlum-Wintun Ridge isn't really a ridge, per se; rather, it's more of a face that climbs the volcano slightly above the adjacent Hotlum and Wintun glaciers. Not only is the Ridge far less crowded than the standard route up Avalanche Gulch (which faces south), but it holds snow later in the year and happens to be one of the longest continuous ski descents in the United States.

The climbing routes of Shasta's northeast side

My group originally planned to climb Saturday afternoon from the Brewer Creek trailhead to 10,000 feet, where we would spend the night to allow ourselves time to acclimate. We hoped to continue to the summit on Sunday. However, with thunderstorms forecasted Saturday night and Sunday, we resolved that Saturday would be our best and only chance to ascend the entire 7,000 vertical feet. It would be a long and brutal day, but we were determined to give it our best shot.

At 10:30 Friday night I met ski buddies David, Galen, and Sam at the trailhead. Although we were eager to discuss the upcoming day, there was no time for chatting. Our 2 AM wakeup call was rapidly approaching. After a short night that seemed like the blink of an eye, we were on the trail by 3 AM.

We hiked perhaps two miles before we could step into our skis. For several hours this was my view...

...until the approaching day began to reveal itself

Snow conditions soon had me back to booting. The hard refreeze, huge suncups (suncraters?), and steep slope made it a challenging day for skinning.

Looking over my left shoulder at sunrise

Shasta is deceptive. For the entire climb, the summit feels within reach... but you never seem to get closer.

Galen nearing the area where we would have camped if we could have made it a two-day trek

Peering north from 10,000 feet

David and Sam catching up after resolving crampon-related technical difficulties**
By 9 AM we were well above 10,000 feet when David and Sam began feeling symptoms of acute mountain sickness.  The decision to attempt the entire climb in a single day was finally coming back to bite us.

Hard-earned shade at 11,200 feet**

As the ridge steepened, we were all bootpacking

Falling up the mountin may be the best way to describe this**

It only got steeper from here

At 11,700 feet we took another break. Our pace had begun to slow dramatically. With ripening corn conditions, David and Sam decided to ski down.

Galen and I pressed onward. After another 500 feet of climbing, we began our traverse to the final ramp up the Wintun Glacier. (Without roping up, it's nearly impossible to summit directly from the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge. Generally you must traverse clockwise around Shasta to the Wintun Glacier for the final ascent.) However, the traverse was far from obvious, and we soon realized we overshot our exit. To get to the final ramp, we would now have to downclimb a few hundred feet. Exacerbating matters further, it was already after noon, and 2,000 feet of climbing remained. It was a tough decision, but we realized we likely would not reach the summit before our 2 PM turnaround time. So rather than retrace our steps for an unattainable goal, we decided to continue up the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge to maximize our ski descent.

Taking in the view at 12,200 feet while contemplating our next move

Decision time-- instead of continuing the other way across this scree slope, we headed around back around this outcrop to the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge
Back on the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge
Just below 13,000 feet, we'd had enough. Our pace had slowed further, and my legs were spent. After a brief rest, I snapped a few photos of the adjacent Hotlum Glacier, and we geared up for what would be an epic, vertical-mile descent.

Crevasses near 13,000 feet on the Hotlum Glacier

View south from Hotlum-Wintun Ridge at 12,800 feet

Panorama from Hotlum-Wintun Ridge at 12,800 feet. Hotlum Glacier is on the left.

And then we were off, leapfrogging each other the whole way down.

Galen carving up the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge

Snow conditions were excellent up high


Shasta bliss**
Below 9,000 feet, the now softened suncups were much more manageable than they were that morning. We descended Brewer Creek (the prominent ribbon of snow at center of the above picture) down to 7,600 feet.  Nearly an hour after beginning our descent, we dismounted our skis and stumbled the last mile and a half to the trailhead, where we found David and Sam waiting in the parking lot. Beers were consumed, and plans for the next assault on Shasta began.

Shasta may have won this round, but it isn't a trip I'll soon forget.

For another perspective on this trip, visit Sam's trip report at the Kickturner.

*Photo courtesy Ewen Denney / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL
** Photo courtesy Galen Carrico

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