Above Helen Lake - early morning on the longest day
What would you expect from summer solstice in California – blue skies, sandy beaches, “beach boys” on the stereo? How about snow, ice axe, crampons and frozen water bottles? Mt Shasta is “only” 14,000 and a few feet but sure packs a punch. From an elevation of around 3000 a road rises up from the town of the same name to a trailhead at 7000ft. A 45 minute hike from here takes you to Horse Camp at 7800 feet and a great setting off point for the ascent. Mt.Shasta is part of the Cascade chain of volcanoes that includes Lassen and Rainier – it’s in the north of California but only around 4hrs driving from the bay area. The “ordinary” route up Avalanche Gully (actually a lot safer than it sounds at this time of year) is just a snow plod but the amazing thing is that it’s on the SW face and yet has complete snow cover from 8500ft right to the summit at 14179ft!!
Chatting to another happy camper at the water tap I enquired as to his intended start time – 12.30am was his answer!! We decided to lie in ‘till 4.30am and were away at 5.20. Even at under 8000ft there was a frost and within 30 minutes we were on snow – nice crisp snow. Apart from 2 other laggards everybody else seemed to have been away hours before us and little dots of light could be seen all the way up towards the Red Banks – a band of rocks broken by some easy gullies which we would climb through. The sun was slow to reach our line of ascent and we were wearing pretty much all we had. We eventually reeled in quite a few of the early starters and there were a steady stream of people who had turned back – mostly because of altitude problems – something we were alert to having left the Bay Area at around 50ft of elevation at 1pm the previous afternoon (this was the whistle stop trip!).
Nearing the Summit
Through the rhythmic plod of crampons on crisp snow our attention was suddenly focused by shouts of “rock, rock” and the first of a few missiles came bounding down the slope. All followed the same fall-line though so it was easy to select a safer line. Above the Red Banks the angle eases but a keen NW breeze blew up and kept the temperatures low. Shasta is a huge but isolated mountain and gets a lot of weather – hence the amount of snow in mid June – so, with almost 6,500 to climb from our camp it had a high mountain feel that you simply don’t get on the Colorado 14ers or even Whitney. Approaching the summit pyramid a stench of sulphur reminded us that Shasta is a dormant, not extinct, volcano – with a sea of clouds below us we summited at around 11.20 and signed the logbook. It seemed that many of the guided groups had turned around below the Red Banks and of around 150 starters perhaps only 50-60 had reached the top. Some had started from higher up the mountain at Helen Lake but whilst this shortens the summit day it means that:
- You carry the camp kit up higher
- You camp on snow
- You probably start with a headache from the elevation
On balance we figured that the Horse Camp option was the right one. A steady descent with increasing headaches and lots of sunburn (we should have stopped sooner to put sunblock on!!) saw us taking down camp around 3pm. Back at the car at 4pm and on the road back to the Bay area for about 9.30pm – so, somewhere around a 33hr round trip from San Francisco and a memorable solstice. Next time we might take a little longer to relax in Shasta town after the climb but it was fun!!
Not far now - soon be time for tea!
Next up – pacing at States and then off to Colorado for more altitude and less comfort – it’s got to be done!!