Full pictures here:
Shasta holds a special place in the hearts of many California backpackers, mountaineers and weekend warriors. It took a while for me to get there. I first went with speed climbing and ultra-running sensation Leor Pantilat one April and we froze our butts off. I didn’t yet own insulated mountaineering boots, and I turned back at Helen Lake with numb toes in extremely high winds. It was hard to stand in Avalanche Gulch at only 10,000 ft. Leor Pressed on up to the Red Banks before deciding the winds were too high to get on the ridges.
After my first expedition to Nepal, I was looking for something truly alpine feeling again. That winter, I watched the weather religiously, and after a long dry period and some of the highest temperatures forecasted in a while, I dropped everything and dashed up I-5 to Shasta for a blitz on Casaval Ridge, the wildest route on the relatively accessible south side of the mountain.
Cozy inside my sleeping back in the Bunny Flat parking lot surrounded by 10 feet of snow, my alarm jolted me awake at 2:15 AM. Just getting the courage to get out of the bag can be the crux of the day. For whatever reason, I was feeling pretty psyched off only a couple hours of sleep, and I quickly got dressed, burritoed my tent, pad and sleeping bag, slapped on the snowshoes and headed out into the darkness. Navigating mostly based on intuition, I made it to treeline and saw the moonlit mountain above me. Shasta is a monstrosity, rising approximately 7000 ft from the trailhead and towering above the surrounding forests. I was going light, fully committed to a day climb. The only luxury I’d afforded myself were my heavy but super toasty double boots that I’d used in Nepal. I still had a recollection of my frozen toes last time, and make no mistake about it, this was the heart of winter and it was below zero with a healthy wind chill.
I reached the base of the ridge, strapped on my crampons and climbed the moderate snow slopes to a group of rock pinnacles. The jagged volcanic rocks making up Casaval Ridge are truly wild, and the route winds in and around them over its lower half. Frozen water, frozen gummy bears. I guess that’s what I get for coming up here. I was nearly to the Catwalk, Casaval’s famous crux when the sun finally, and sluggishly made its first appearance. Quite sketchy late in the season when the snow has melted away, I didn’t find the Catwalk too spicy…it was about a foot and a half wide with an impressive view a few thousand feet down to the blank white expanse of Avalanche Gulch. Just above the Catwalk was where things got interesting. The upper mountain was plastered with a fresh coat of rime ice. There was a short, maybe 20 foot section of rime ice mushrooms up a steep face. Kicking my crampons into the poor, awkward and oversteepened ice required delicate care, especially since I’d only brought one ice axe and it wasn’t holding any better. I climbed a cheval (one leg on each side) of a narrow ridge to the beginning of a broad plateau.
I could now taste the summit, but ominous storm clouds formed to the northwest. I could hardly believe it as it was so early in the day, but I had to take note. I decided to continue on, but I was definitely a bit on edge with the weather. I’d already thought the weather was a possible issue, and I knew of tragedies high on Shasta in the past. I carried a GPS and had preprogrammed waypoints for the descent route in case I lost visibility entirely. As long as I could keep moving, I’d be fine.
Misery Hill turned out to be just that. Not because of the height, but because of the awful rime ice again. After the 600 foot ascent, I made the short traverse and ascent of the summit block, and quickly found myself on the summit in some of the most unique and foreboding light I’ve encountered—bright sun on blindingly white snow but with a black sky all around. I didn’t linger and quickly was plunge-stepping my way down. I went down an iced up gully through the Red Banks which required some care, then made quick work of the slopes leading to Helen Lake. Once again, I encountered brutal winds low on the mountain, reminiscent of my earlier attempt, but by the time I reached treeline, it was getting warm enough that I took my shirt off and postholed the last stretch to the trailhead. I finished only 11 hours after setting off that morning, in what I consider to be one of my strongest days ever in the mountains, without a hint of physical discomfort and in a truly beautiful setting. I was back on campus (a six hour drive!) for dinner.