Disasta on Shasta

June 3-5, 2001

random trip report

Synopsis: on Mt. Shasta we are visited by high winds that destroy one of our tents and prevent us from summiting.

Note: the pictures taken by Justin, with his digital camera, are hyperlinked to hi-res versions. The others are scanned from my snapshots.

After an enjoyable outing on Mt. Conness, my coworker Justin Lee wants to do another climb before he moves back to Texas. So we decide to try Mt. Shasta, via the most common route: From the Bunny Flats trailhead (6,000') to Helen Lake (10,440') on the first day, then up Avalanche Gulch to the summit (14,152') and back to Bunny Flats on the second day.

The Shasta climbing route advisory web page has thinly veiled warnings about high winds at Helen Lake, and rock and icefall in Avalanche gulch. But this is our only possible time window, so we decide to go ahead regardless.

The logistics are daunting - a million things to remember. Justin rents crampons at Marmot Mountain Works. After losing my water bottle in Alpine Lake last week I buy a nylon/velcro strap thing at Any Mountain for tying it to the outside of the pack. Justin will use Mike O'Brien's tent. Lynne has us wear Maori amulets for good luck.

We leave at noon Sunday.

Packing the car. Note foreshortened ice axe.

On the road we realize we've forgotten various things, ranging from stakes for Justin's tent (important) down to half-and-half for coffee (quickly lifted from a convenience store).

We pull into the Mt. Shasta City (actually a tiny town) around 5. From town there's a direct view up Avalanche Gulch, which looks more or less vertical at the top.

The town has a new-age flavor: several meditation centers and crystal/pyramid stores. We eat at Mike's American/Italian restaurant (highly recommended). Justin chats up the cute 19-ish waitress, who says she's going to climb Shasta the next day, same as us.

The next morning, after breakfast, our first order of business is to buy tent stakes. Ace Hardware opens at 8 AM and has them. Then we visit the ranger station, buy hiking permits, get 'waste disposal' kits, including bulls-eye target paper and instructions for rolling ('like a burrito'). The ranger warns us about rock/ice fall, and when he learns we don't have helmets he advises us to leave only when there's daylight, 5 AM or so.

Shasta viewed from the trail head. Avalanche Gulch faces us. Helen Lake is in rocks halfway up. Ridge at top is Red Banks.

We drive 12 miles to the Bunny Flat trail head and get there around 10 AM. We talk with 2 guys getting back in their car, looking slightly shell-shocked, who say that they were turned back earlier that morning by high winds at the top of Red Banks - 'people were just standing there'.

We walk a couple of miles through forest to 'Horse Camp', a ranger hut with solar toilets and spring water. We chat briefly with Ryan, the 'caretaker dude' and snowboard instructor.

We start out on the Olbermann Causeway (named after a previous caretaker who moved all the rocks) which crosses some meadows, then turns into a steep switchbacked path leading up a slope of volcanic rock and ash, with a bit of class 3.

Me just before the steep part. Note jury-rigged water bottle.

Justin starts to feel the burn.

This goes on for quite a while, and leads to '50/50 flat', roughly halfway from Horse Camp to Helen Lake. Immediately after that we enter a snowfield, 'Standstill Hill', which leads with ever-increasing steepness up to Helen Lake. Justin's crampons keep falling off - they weren't properly adjusted by Marmot. He uses the 'MF' phrase, the first of many times.

We arrive at Helen Lake at 2 PM That morning's summiters are returning and breaking camp. They generally look exhausted. Few have summited. They talk of tents getting blown away and high winds on the upper mountain.

We choose a protected site and pitch tents. I try to wind-proof my tent, burying the tent pegs under packed snow and placing 4 heavy rocks inside the tent, in the corners. Justin's tent is a goofy-looking hexagonal dome that appears ill-suited to high winds.

Our tents. Note deteriorating weather.

Justin, seeking an Allen wrench to adjust his crampons, stumbles on a Christian prayer circle; their leader has a wrench.

Tired, and with nothing to do until supper, we crawl in our tents and rest. We emerge at 5 PM and have supper: reconstituted 'beef stroganoff'. We have forgotten spoons, so Justin slurps his straight from the foil envelope. I eat mine using a plastic trowel that Justin has brought; its intended use is the burial of human waste.

There are three other tents at the lake. Two are on the frozen lake, ringed by snow walls. One of them flies a string of Tibetan prayer flags. The cute waitress is not present.

Clouds move in from the valley and soon cover the upper mountain. We chat with a ranger who is inspecting the lake's campsites and is enraged at the amount of garbage and mess, especially a particular group (some big-talking 50-ish guys from Yreka) who have left a pile of peanut shells and other trash. He warns us several times about removing crampons before glissading, and not climbing into deteriorating weather conditions. I intend to call Lynne on my cell phone, making fake static noises mixed with phrases like 'Deteriorating weather' ... 'climbing' ... 'stranded high on the mountain'. But there's no signal.

At 6 PM a light snow begins to fall. I view this as a good sign - cloud cover often means warmer temperatures and low wind. How wrong I am!

Again, there's nothing to do, so we retire to our tents to rest, perchance to sleep. I'm bundled up in down jacket, balaclava, fleece pants, wool socks, and Lynne's 20 degree down bag, so I'm quite cozy.

The snow taps its rhythm again the taut tent fly and time drifts by very slowly. I'm not sleeping. It seems to stay light forever.

Shortly after it gets dark, the wind picks up. It's gusty - a few seconds of calm, then a surge of wind, then calm again. It gradually builds. Around midnight, I take a sleeping pill and make earplugs out of toilet paper. Neither has much of an effect.

The wind keeps getting stronger and stronger. By 2 AM, the gusts are enormous blasts that slam the tent, flexing its aluminum frame, pushing the roof of the tent down almost to my face, and shaking the floor of the tent. It's like bombs hitting the tent. Somehow their spacing suggests that there's a malevolent consciousness behind them, hammering our tents over and over, trying to destroy them and us. Later we hear estimates of 80-100 MPH.

My face is burrowed in my bag, and when I poke it out a cold dampness covers my skin: the wind is blowing snow in through the tent's mesh vents. I look around and realize everything in the tent is covered with snow, and clumps of it have accumulated along the edges. I shake the snow off the bag. By poking at the roof of the tent I shake off a few inches of snow that have accumulated.

The wind hammers my tent over and over. I'm starting to worry about our ability to make it through the night. What if we can't? A nighttime descent to Horse Camp or 50/50 Flats would be nearly impossible, even without the snow and nightmarish wind. There's nothing to do but tough it out until morning. I lie there and ponder the miracle of human physiology, in particular heat production. Fortunately it's not very cold; 25 degrees or so.

Justin is having a much harder time of it. The blasts of wind, hitting his tent from the side, completely flatten it; then it springs back into shape. He's using his arms and legs like internal tent braces, pushing the tent from inside, trying to keep it together.

Finally something snaps and Justin's tent collapses on top of him. He yells to me, and I tell him to come over to my tent. Leaving his fallen tent, carrying bag, pad, and flashlight, he's greeted by a savage blast of ice-laden wind that tears his glasses from his face and instantly numbs all exposed flesh. Somehow he retrieves his glasses from a snowbank and staggers into my tent, wet, cold and exhausted.

The storm rages on and the hours drift by; our intended departure time of 5 AM comes and goes. I propose that we basically call the climb off. Gradually the gusts become less frequent, like nearly-done popcorn. At 7 AM it's more or less calm and there's light. We emerge from the tent. It's mostly clear. Several inches of fine, powdery snow have fallen.

The ruins of Justin's tent.

We have breakfast - coffee and oatmeal. There's only one cup, so I slurp my oatmeal from last night's beef stroganoff packet (not a recommended flavor combination). Using the gas stove, we melt snow to fill our water bottles. Justin's toes are numb. At 8 AM the sun comes up from behind Shasta and warms us considerably.

A very strong climber in a bright green jacket reaches Helen Lake from below, looks back for a few minutes, then continues up Avalanche Gulch at an amazing pace. Later his climbing partner arrives, headed in the same direction but much slower.

We stash the remains of Mike's tent within my tent, prepare our packs and equipment and head up the hill. The new snow is layered on top of hard, icy old snow; it fills in the hollows, so some shiny ridges of old snow are visible. The crampons get good traction on the old snow but sink into and slip on the powder.

We start up the huge snow slope at 8:30 AM. The Red Banks, crenelated cliffs of orange/red rock, loom high above us at 13,000'. After a half hour we pass the first band of rock - a good pace. We gain slowly on the climber in front of us. There is no rock or icefall. We feel more sanguine, and decide to head towards the summit, with a turnaround time of 1 PM, and see how far we get.

As we climb through 11,000 and 12,000 feet our breathing becomes labored, and we take rest stops with increased frequency. I settle into a groove where I exhale on each footfall; this makes me breathe more rapidly, and I feel OK. Justin has continued problems with crampons falling off.

Halfway up. Our camp is in the line of rock to the left of Justin's arm.

My water bottle slips out of its holder; I hear a 'clunk' as it hits the snow. It slides downhill for about 30 feet and mercifully stops. I put the bottle in my pack and curse the salesman at Any Mountain Sports.

I retrieve errant water bottle (clearer in hi-res version).

We reach the slower climber resting at the base of Red Banks. His name is Darryl, he's from BC Canada, and he and his friend Dave are on a climbing vacation; they're planning to drive to Rainier and climb it next (my kind of guys). Dave is a maniac who spends an hour a day on Stairmaster, top setting.

We team up with Darryl and traverse left above the Red Banks, then climb a short slope leading to a plateau. Above the slope we can see blowing snow; still, it's a shock when I emerge onto the plateau and am hit by a wind of 35-40 MPH.

Just below plateau. Note blowing snow.

I huddle behind a rock for shelter. A hundred feet away is the start of Misery Hill.

Justin and Darryl catch up. The wind and blowing snow makes it hard to relax or converse.

Huddling on plateau. Fierce wind.

We're bummed out by the wind but decide to keep going. We follow the glissade track up Misery Hill, then the snow ends and, still in crampons, we follow a switchbacked cinder/rock trail.

Even though the wind chill is about zero, I'm generally well protected and the heat of climbing keeps my body at a comfortable temperature. My ice axe hand, though, keeps going numb from cold, so I alternate hands and keep the other hand in my coat pocket; this works. Justin stops me and wants to head back - extremities are getting frozen. But he changes his mind. We trudge up the hill, too concerned about survival to worry about how tired we are.

Near the top of Misery Hill we run into Dave, who has summited and is coming down. He tells us that the wind is twice as bad near the summit, that the summit is at least an hour away, and that he regrets having summited. So we decide to turn around after reaching the top of Misery Hill. From here we can see the the summit plateau and the summit pinnacle, which looks far away and high. It's noon, an hour shy of our turnaround time, but there's no doubt that turning around is the right thing to do.

View from the top of Misery Hill. Summit pyramid at right. Justin looks like he's ready to turn around.

Another view from Misery Hill. Shastina at right.

We labor down Misery Hill in crampons. In the steep slope above Red Banks we remove crampons (Justin has given up on his anyway) and glissade a bit. Unfortunately the new snow has filled in the glissade runs, limiting their effectiveness: you can slide only in the steep parts, kicking your feet to keep moving, and you act as a snowplow, getting snow everywhere.

We meet some other climbers resting above a chute in the middle of the Red Banks. We glissade down the chute, which is about 45 degrees and would be terrifying were it not for the new snow. We continue glissading left of The Heart, and on down Avalanche Gulch. Every now and then we have to stand up and find another glissade path, and eventually we give up and walk.

At 1 PM we're back at Helen Lake. My nylon pants have somehow been ripped wide open in the crotch area. I chat with a guy from San Diego who has tried Shasta for 3 years running, and been turned away by weather each time. I wish him luck. Justin is feeling very nauseous. He uses his waste disposal kit.

We break camp and assemble our packs, which is tedious and exhausting. I groan as I hoist the 40-pound pack onto my tired body. At 2 PM we set off down Standstill Hill, which is slushy and irregular snow: a nightmare for Justin, not so bad for me because I have ski poles for balance.

We reach 50/50 flats, glad to be on solid ground again, and take a lengthy break. The descent to Horse Camp is hard. My knees, especially the recently-operated-on right one, are getting sore; I can use the ski poles to reduce the shock but that's more work for my arms.

Painful descent. Sierra Club hut visible just below treeline.

We rest for a long time at Horse Camp; I put on dry socks and change into shorts. We set out down the 2-mile home stretch, setting a blistering pace on the mellow dirt trail. With great anticipation we discuss the fast food we're going to get back in civilization.

At 4:30 we're back at the car. We decide to head directly back to the Bay Area, stopping of course at the local Burger King. In the car, the rank odor emanating from our packs is temporarily masked by that of french fries.

Injury report

Slightly stiff lower back. A few twinges from right knee, and a couple from left hip. No toe problems. Justin has no problems other than all-over soreness.


The trip totally fulfilled its main purpose: to give Justin a good taste of mountaineering before he heads back to the flatness of Texas. We got more than we bargained for, but that's what makes it fun.

We're only slightly disappointed about not summiting. The weather made it impossible for various reasons: 1) the night wind delayed our start by several hours; 2) the layer of powder made climbing significantly harder; 3) the wind above Red Banks was hazardous.

Our preparation for the trip wasn't 100%, and Shasta made us pay for it. The main items: Mike O'Brien's tent wasn't appropriate; a four-season tent would be nice. Justin didn't have layered lower-body clothing; we didn't check Justin's crampons in advance. Other omissions, like the lack of spoons, were just irritating.

Other Shasta trip reports

Amar Andalkar (skiing)

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