As a mountaineer, I always want to keep challenging myself and building on past climbs. With the job hunt in full swing, I can’t afford to take much time off to travel, so I had to find a peak that I could climb over a long weekend. I talked to my friend Andrew and we decided to climb Mount Shasta in far northern California over the Memorial Day weekend. I have traveled with my friend Andrew before- back in 2013 we drove across the Southwest and climbed to the tallest peak in Texas. This made planning the trip easier because we had similar goals. Due to dangerous rock falls, Mount Shasta is actually best to climb in May/June when the snowpack is larger and covers most of the rocks. The weather is also generally good in the late spring.
The preparation for the climb took about a month and involved training hikes, buying gear, researching everything we could about the climb, and deciding on what gear to bring. 3 weeks before, I climbed Mount San Gorgonio on a 24-mile day-hike as a test to see if I was ready for the rigors of Shasta. In the final week, we booked hotels, constantly checked the weather, and finalized the packing list, which included mountaineering gear (crampons/ice axe), camping gear (sleeping bags, tent), clothes, and packaged food (we opted against cooking due to weight and the short length of the trip). We both packed 2 days before the trip and spent the last day reviewing our packs and checking the weather.
On Friday, May 22nd, we met in Sacramento to start our journey. I drove my car up from LA and Andrew took the bus. That night we drove an hour up to the tiny town of Williams to shorten the drive tomorrow and went to bed around midnight. Andrew, a tech person, was impressed by the hotel’s RFID keys.
The next morning we went to Granzella’s a local deli and popular rest stop on the freeway to buy sandwiches for the hike. We bought 2, one for dinner and one for breakfast on the day of the hike. This part of the state is famous for olives, so we made sure that one of the sandwiches had an olive spread. From Williams, we then drove 90 minutes to the town of Redding. Being the largest town in the northern part of the state by far, Redding is on a lot of maps, so it was very exciting to see it in person. The town is at the northern end of the 500-mile long Central Valley so while the city itself was in a flat area, it was 5 minutes away from hills and within view of beautiful tall mountains.
While in Redding, we checked out the Sundial Bridge, a 700-foot long pedestrian bridge over the Sacramento River. Given Redding’s remote location in the state and less than stellar reputation, the bridge and surrounding park was a pleasant surprise. The undisputed highlight of the park was this grizzled mountain man tossing logs into the water for his dog to fetch. By tossing logs, I mean throwing what could have been 5-foot tall trees a good 100 feet into the river using a technique similar to the hammer throw. It was very fun to watch.
After the bridge, we quickly visited nearby Whiskeytown Lake before heading to the mountain. After stopping in the hippie-town of Mount Shasta to carb-load on a 2nd lunch, we drove up to Bunny Flats, the start of the trail. We then registered, bought our permits, put on our heavy packs and set off. At 7,000 ft, the weather was chilly and we wore light jackets. Our hike was only 1.6 miles and 1,000 feet up to Horse Camp, which was both the snowline and treeline. It was the last spot to camp on dry ground and the last spot to get water without melting snow. There was also a cabin with cool reading material on the history of the mountain. The mountain was packed with people, probably because of the long weekend and the rare streak of good weather.
For some reason that I still don’t know, about 90% of tourists to the mountain were Indian- that’s a couple hundred people. None of the Indians camped out or were attempting to summit, they merely walked to a viewpoint of the mountain near Horse Camp and went back. I asked one guy and he said he was surprised as well.
We then set up camp nearby on a dry patch of ground, relaxed, ate dinner and went to bed around 8:30 pm. There were some loud campers nearby, but I was able to sleep fine.
We woke up at 1:45 am and prepared for the summit attempt. After putting on the warmest clothing we had, attempting to put on sunscreen (it froze inside the bottle), refilling our water, strapping on our crampons (spikes) and turning on our headlamps, we set out just before 3 am.
The first part of the climb was up the Avalanche Gulch, a wide-open slope rising 4,400 feet up the mountain. The slope at the bottom was relatively mild and so we were able to walk quickly over the crisp ice and snow. We attempted to follow in the footsteps of previous hikers, but eventually got lost. About 1,500 feet up, we stopped for our first water/food break at the 50/50 Flat, At that point, we must have been disoriented because we suddenly lost the trail and were walking on fresh snow. We knew we had 700 vertical feet until the next landmark, Helen Lake, but we were not totally certain of where it was. As we climbed, the slope got much steeper to around a 35 degree pitch. Eventually our headlamps were close enough to realize that we were headed straight for a rock band. We decided to climb diagonally up the mountain to what looked like a flatter section. After about 5 minutes of this, we reached a plateau and lay eyes on the frozen “lake” at 4:50 am.
Helen Lake is the most common camp for people to summit the mountain, but has no available water. People who wanted to camp there had to bring cooking gear to melt snow. Despite all of this, there were at least 80 tents and we could see a moving constellation of hundreds of headlamps climbing up the slope to the Red Banks through an area called The Heart. The 2,500 ft. pitch up to the Red Banks is considered the steepest part of the climb, but luckily we were aided by the hundreds of climbers who have kicked steps into the snow, essentially turning this section into an incredibly crowded staircase. Because Andrew and I were some of the strongest climbers on the mountain, we often got stuck behind slow climbers. We then had to pass them on the slope which involved hiking very quickly on the slope itself which was quite tiring. After 30 minutes of this section, we took a quick break to watch the sunrise.
We then continued up the slope to the Red Banks, a steep band of red rocks at the top of the Avalanche Gulch. The entire section took 2 ½ hours and we didn’t take any breaks. We planned on stopping for food and water, but couldn’t find any flat spots so we kept going. Eventually we made it above the Red Banks onto the ridge, where we stopped for food and water. The problem with this spot was that it was extremely windy and cold. The wind was so strong, that my hands started to freeze and we quickly moved on. After 15 more minutes of climbing, we reached the bottom of Misery Hill.
Misery Hill is a 1,000 ft tall snowy hill that, while not the steepest part, is the toughest part of the climb because of the mental drain after ascending the Red Banks and the altitude (13,800 ft.). The top of the hill was a false summit, which also adds to the mental drain. Despite feeling exhausted, we slogged up, one foot in front of the other for about an hour until we reached a flat section.
From here, the summit itself was finally in view. We trudged for 5 minutes along the flat section and then 10 minutes up the final steep section to reach the summit at around 9:30 am.
While both Andrew and I felt tired on the ascent, we both became rejuvenated upon reaching the summit. We took some pictures, signed the summit logbook and began the descent.
At this point in the day, the snow had softened considerably, which made it much easier to walk down the mountain because I was able to slide a few more inches on each step. The descent to the top of the Red Banks took only an hour. There we rested and snacked for 20 minutes. We then took off our crampons and prepared to glissade down all the way to Horse Camp. Glissading, a fancy word for sliding on your butt down a snowy mountain, is probably the most fun activity in the world. We definitely were having more fun than anyone on the mountain. I traveled up to 20 miles per hour. The entire descent down the final 4,400 ft from Red Banks to Horse Camp took just 40 minutes (compared to 4 ½ hours on the ascent). We laughed the whole way down. Because the snow was so slushy at this point in the day, our shoes, socks, and bodies were drenched in icy cold water, a small price to pay for the joy of sliding down the mountain. We hobbled into camp right at 12 noon.
After resting and removing the water from our shoes, we quickly packed up and walked back down to Bunny Flats. The Indian tourists were still there- hundreds of them. Right around 2pm, we arrived back at the car. At 2:40, we checked in to our hotel at the bottom of the mountain and took a long well deserved nap.
We recovered for a few hours before driving to a few of the other towns in the area. We first stopped in the town of Weed, which is known for its famous sign: one arrow pointing to Weed and the other to College. Unfortunately, they updated the sign.
The next stop was Dunsmuir for dinner at Yaks (one of Yelp’s Top 100 Restaurants in America), beer at a local brewery, and a trip to a beautiful waterfall.
The region feels like the Pacific Northwest with a lot of trees and waterfalls. Both physiologically and culturally, this area is quite different from the rest of California. Interestingly, this region (along with a few counties in Oregon) has tried to split from California to create its own state called Jefferson due to lack of representation in the state legislature (Siskyou County has 40,000 people while just LA County has 10,000,000). The movement is actually serious, as a number of county board of supervisors including Siskyou where Mount Shasta is located have voted to form Jefferson. In our little jaunt through the “state” it was more common to find Jefferson flags than California flags. At dinner we overheard talk about a State of Jefferson fundraiser and at the brewery we saw a State of Jefferson Beer Tour map. The movement has a very long way to go and will most certainly never be voted on by the California legislature, which would have to approve such measure.
We then returned to the town of Mount Shasta to catch the sunset.
The next day, we drove back through the town of Chico, stopping briefly at Lake Shasta and Red Bluff.
Once in Chico, we drove around the beautiful town, got lunch in a very strange bear themed bar and went on a tour of the Sierra Nevada Brewery. I would have to say that Chico is probably the nicest small town I have ever been to.
After, we headed back to Sacramento to part ways after a perfect trip. At the end, we agreed to climb another peak next year- probably Rainier.