Mount Shasta - Avalanche Gulch, June 2010
Mount Shasta as seen from near the town of Weed, CA.

Tired of the recent weather and needing a change of scenery, I decided it was about time for a road trip down south where I was hopeful to find some sun and corn snow. First up on my volcano-bagging agenda was Mount Shasta and being that I was flying solo, just the standard Avalanche Gulch route would do.

The big draw of course would be the ride down off of the summit, or more accurately from somewhere above the infamous Red Banks. Alas I only 'boarded Shasta back to the car from Lake Helen camp (10,400ft to ~ 7000ft) as the upper mountain was way too firm and windy for my taste and I was in no mood for getting knocked around with a couple sails on my back. With the snowpack reportedly 140% of average and conditions unseasonably cool and icy, I was content just with completing the route on foot. Though the winds subsided somewhat in the afternoon, the icy slopes from about 11k and upwards weren't going to soften anytime soon.

Predictably, a shit-show of epic proportions was well underway on that long slope below the Red Banks by the time I emerged from my tent around 6am on summit day. At least 40 parties camped at Lake Helen the night before, almost all of which posessed little to no prior mountaineering experience. With no less than three ice axes either skittering down the firm snow or miraculously stuck upright in the ice, followed by a couple trekking poles, an empty water bottle, a backpack and yes...inexplicably...THREE (live) bodies zipping on by, I began to wonder if I wasn't in fact still dreaming. Later that afternoon another person was apparently also pelted by falling ice and suffered a broken leg. In all 3 climbers had to be evacuated by helicopter. I tried to explain the benefits of using the ice axe leash to one of the people I saw retreating below the Red Banks that morning, but my efforts were mostly lost on him. Most if not all of the retreating parties did so because of the strong winds in the viscinity of the Red Banks. Of all the parties, only about 3 or 4 made it to the summit that day myself included. (Photos: SV)

Click thumbnails below to enlarge...
Shasta from Bunny Flats
A morning view of Mount Shasta's Avalanche Gulch from the parking area at Bunny Flats.

After 8-hours of driving in a near constant downpour, I arrived in sunny Shasta City. I proceeded up to the end of the plowed Everitt Memorial Highway at the Bunny Flats parking area. As with a number of other parties, I settled in for an unexpectedly chilly night of car camping. The clouds lingering around Mount Shasta vanished overnight leaving in its place some high winds streaming over the Red Banks.
Approaching Green Butte Ridge
I somehow missed the obvious cattle trail as it makes a jog to the left right above the parking area, and instead proceeded to work my way up a forested ridge just east of the lower Avalanche Gulch drainage. I emerged from the trees only to find myself approaching a feature named Green Butte, from where I could enjoy a commanding view of the entire Avalanche Gulch area as well as Sargents Ridge. This accidental approach variation allowed for some solitude as well as a more aesthetic way to reach camp at Lake Helen.
Climbers on Green Butte Ridge with Avalanche Gulch behind
Looking ahead at a party of three on Green Butte Ridge with Avalanche Gulch at left. With scarcely 3500 feet to climb in order to reach camp, I tried my best to slow my pace and took numerous breaks along the way.
Upper Avalanche Gulch and Red Banks from Lake Helen camp
A twosome on skis stops to rest on a knoll above Lake Helen.

The Lake Helen camp seems less like a lake and more like convienient flattish area near an old terminal moraine directly beneath the main bowl of Avalanche Gulch. Countless other parties took their places alongside my tent as the afternoon wore on, while a couple parties on skis descended from a saddle lookers left of the Red Banks (left of a feature called The Heart).
Distant view of Lassen Peak from Lake Helen camp
At around 10,400ft, Lake Helen is a high camp comparable to Mount Rainier's Camp Muir. Thie views from here are far and wide, and off in the distance it is easy to make out the southern-most volcano of any significance - Lassen Peak.
View of Shasta City with snow-capped Siskiyous Mountains in background
Here's a view towards Shasta City and the snow-capped peaks of the nearby Siskiyous Mountains. While a far cry from the Cascades of Washington for the most part, the Siskiyous nevertheless struck me as being more alpine than I had expected. If nothing else, there seems to be no shortage of ski touring terrain out here!
My afternoon tracks above camp
After a brief nap I figured the snow was about as soft as it was going to get on this day and toured up above camp for some turns. I skinned and booted up to a break in the ridge near the left edge of the photograph (contrast enhanced to show tracks) and rode back down from there. The first pitch was still mighty firm, despite being fully exposed to the afternoon sun. This did not bode well for the upper-mountain softening by afternoon of the following day.
Climbers above Red Banks
Climbers above the infamous Red Banks.

As mentioned previously, I left my tent around 6am and casually wandered up towards the Red Banks. The winds were howling even down at camp all that night and morning, and looking up I could see the entire slope above littered with people either still ascending or already in full retreat. I made my way up through the aforementioned chaos taking a couple hard hits to the chest from falling ice before nearing the Red Banks proper. A number of variations seem possible, and I decided on a short but steep pitch near the right edge to see me through. A short bit of front-pointing got me above the difficulties after which I continued again along a worn path up Misery Hill to a bit of a plateau.
After Misery Hill with summit in view
Looking towards the final summit tower from the broad summit ridge.

Above the plateau, a seemingly endless grind sees one to a bit of a false summit from where the true summit can for the first time be seen. Continuing along a worn path, I descended to wide flat area below the final rimed-up summit tower and noted much to my surprise that the wind here was all but gone.
Trail onto summit ridge with Mt. McLoughlin in distance
Path to the summit ridge with Mount McLoughlin in distance.

Still following a worn path, I continued up traversing beneath the summit block, then a couple switchbacks before reaching a saddle in the final summit ridge. An easy, albeit once again windy walk along the ridge saw me to the true summit.
Summit panorama looking SE
Summit panorama looking to the southeast from the second highest of the Cascade volcanoes.

Note the summit register box at far left. I stayed long enough to snap a few photos before heading back down in hopes of getting out of the wind. I'm not sure if it's a common experience, but it was nice having Shasta's summit all to myself.
View of Whitney Glacier with Shastina just beyond
View of Shastina from near top of Misery Hill (taken on return). Near upper left of photograph is the top of Whitney Glacier which I have read is the longest in the state of California. I noticed a party of two heading down this way as I was still making my way to the summit.
Afternoon scene at Lake Helen camp
Looking down on Lake Helen camp later that afternoon. Note the helicopter and snowmobiles. Apparently the events of this day were not out of the ordinary as similar rescue efforts have been conducted multiple times this season already. The poor rangers appear to have their work cut out for them this season!
Last look back at Shasta from hwy 89
View of Mount Shasta from Highway 89 en route to Lassen National Park.

I took a short nap upon returning to camp before packing up and riding back down. The 3500+ feet of turns all the way back to the parking area were smooth and ripper, and over with all too soon. The parking area was practically standing room only when I got there. The assortment of ambulances, SAR vehicles and helicopters flying in and out was mesmerizing and probably a suitable response to situations that were sadly entirely avoidable. I was in a hurry to get out of there and pointed the car in the direction of one of California's less-crowded national parks where hopefully I would find some respite from the hubbub on Shasta.
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