| Skiing in the Cascades: Lessons on Humility
Mount Shasta - 14,162 feet
Mount Shasta (14,162) – Avalanche Gulch (Misery Hill -> Left of Heart Variation)
Total vertical skied = 8,000 feet
Prominence = Most I’ve ever laid eyes on
Skiers/Climbers = Ben (Benners), Rick (Mtnfiend), and Alex (Ahudge)
Mount Shasta was a bit of an out of body experience, at least for me, and I’m pretty sure I can say the same for Ben, Rick and Alex. We embarked on a journey to the Pacific Northwest with plans to climb and ski Rainier, Adams, Hood, Baker and all 3 of the Sisters outside Bend in a 10 day period. Chris Davenport did twice that in nearly as much time 2 weeks prior, so we naively assumed it could be done. Nobody, and I mean nobody, is supposed to plan a 2 week trip in May, in the Cascades and get 14 straight days of bluebird, summer-like conditions, immediately followed by 3 whole weeks of apocalyptic, hurricane force, whiteout conditions. That’s what we experienced for 7 of the 10 days. Anyways, good for Chris, as he really knows how to pick em.
I did say 7, though, and since we all view ourselves as glass half full types, we made sure we took advantage of whatever weather windows Mother F’ing Nature sent our way. After getting nearly blown off the Fuhrer Finger the day prior at 12,000 feet, the 4 of us sat in the Whittaker Café somewhat dejected, contemplating our future. We went back and forth for at least a hour until Ben pulled up the Shasta 72 hour forecast. We actually saw a sun, with blue behind it and nothing else, for 48 straight hours. It was a sign and it meant a little detour. None of us were thrilled to put nearly 3 years of planning and anticipation on hold to hit a peak completely off our radar, but it was the first sign of hope since landing in Washington on the 1st.
We loaded up the Dodge Grand Caravan and made our way South, hitting every Chipotle and REI we could find en route. After a quick stop in Portland for maps, burritos and other misc items, we made one last stop in Medford, before reaching the Shasta parking lot and crashing for the night.
A hauntingly beautiful night
The morning brought a much welcomed sight.
Shasta in all her glory
Now that’s more like it. Enough can’t be said when waking up to the sights, sounds and smells of a clear, clean, crisp morning in the mountains, after being socked in for days. Shasta had always been an afterthought in my mind, taking its place behind the Northern Cascade volcanoes. This proved foolish logic, as this was one of the most inspiring, uplifting scenes of my life.
"Wake up in there, we've got blue sky a**holes"
artistic view of our campsite
non-beetle kill forests are cool
We obtained our $20 climbing permit, filled out our wilderness camping permit and were on our way from the Bunny Flats Trailhead, departing around 10am for the 3,500 slog to the Lake Helen campsite at 10,430 feet. We only had to shoulder our skis for maybe 150-200 yards down trail before hitting skinnable snowline. This was our first time in the region, and the trees really caught our attention. Some of them seemed perfectly symmetrical.
And the views to our backs weren’t too shabby either as we crested tree line.
looks like a nice ridge traverse
skinning up to Lake Helen
It was pretty hot on this day, Avalanche Gulch serves as an alpine convection oven, and there is no escape. We all applied multiple levels of 30-50 spf sunscreen and we all still got fried. My recommendation is to just cover yourself with zinc and just deal with it.
We reached a snow covered Lake Helen in 3 hours or so and watched some of the afternoon skiers make their turns down the Gulch. A digging of the sites was in order….
Rick getting friendly
Try not to judge Rick in image 11, I think after 5 days around one another, him and Alex got pretty close. Regardless, their tent construction exceeded ours tenfold, so I guess they can play grab ass all they want.
After setting up camps and melting some water, Ben, Alex and I decided to go for a late afternoon tour up the hill a ways, while Rick took a load off. The westerly facing aspects were breakable crust, so we used that for climbing and then reached a rock outcropping about 1,000 feet up, where we took off the skins and got some surprisingly nice turns back down to camp.
skinning up for some late afternoon turns
looking down at camp
Alex showing why he's in charge
It was time for a much needed dinner and we feasted pretty well, with Ben and I splitting a big bag of 4 Cheese Tortolini and Rick and Alex braving some Backcountry Pantry entrees. As the temps dropped, the Jetboils worked less and less effectively, so melting water became a chore.
After enjoying the sunset…..
Campsite view sunset
We called it an evening with an early wakeup alarm in anticipation of BLUEBIRD WEATHER. Well, we should’ve known better.
Sometime around 3:30am, a few gusts of wind hit the tent and woke us up. We all figured this would pass and we’d get to experience the forecast we drove all the way down here for shortly. Well, not 15 minutes later, gust after gust hit the tent, sending blowing snow underneath the fly and creating a thick layer of snow accumulation on the tent and in the sleeping bags. After we reached our first breaking point, Ben and I sat up, numb to the snow blasting our faces, just staring off into nothing, wondering what the hell was going on. After we reached our second breaking point, a snow drift had conveniently begun to form inside the tent body and one of the vestibules was basically under 2 feet of snow. This forced us out of the tent and into Rick’s 4-Season Sierra Designs. We laid there with pretty miserable looks on all our faces, wondering if we should go out in this or not. Ben and I, now tent-less, figured we’d stand a better chance out there than down here, so we packed up and just went for it. Rick and Alex said they would catch up in 5 to 10 minutes, which they did.
After making it around 1,500 feet up the Gulch, the winds didn’t seem as bad now, but we could see what we had in store ahead, with the ridgelines just clouded with blowing snow. Is this what we get for driving 8.5 hours out of the way? Thanks Mother Nature, you can be so kind sometimes.
At least the sunrise was solid…..
Morning shadow alpenglow
We were able to skin pretty much up the entire amphitheatre with relative ease and then were forced to shoulder our skis about 100 feet below “The Thumb”. After some rime ice, class 3 to 4 scrambling, we reached the wind blasted ridgeline. But the views improved, which was nice.
With our skis now on our backs, the sailboat effect made our progress arduous, so around the base of “Misery Hill”, we donned skins and switchbacked up the slope. Misery Hill takes on a new meaning when you have sustained 30-40 mph winds and some 50-55 mph gusts. The rime ice bulge features made for some surreal climbing venues, and helped me forget about the commotion engulfing us. We took one last quick break, where we lost sight of Alex and Rick, and were finally able to enjoy some Reces Pieces, Emergen-C concoctions, and some Pringles in relative peace and harmony.
This was short lived, as the strongest of the gusts awaited as just below the final summit pitch, which I shall refer to as “The Grundle Field” (a shortened version of Long’s Boulder Field, covered in rime ice bulges and a smoking plume of sulfur emitting foul stenches nearby). As we stashed our skis, I thought to myself, “well, Ben's finally done it. Guy went ahead and shat his pants and we are pretty far from a change of clothes”. I felt bad for the guy, till we crested the hill and noticed sulfur misting out of a cave, 150 feet below the true summit. My mistake Ben.
nearing the finish line
The stench didn’t seem to deter our new friend, Andrew, who was the only other climber that day who made it past Misery Hill. Having been here before, he showed us the easy traverse around the Grundle Field and the backside of the summit ridge to the summit. This was nice, as the summit wasn’t obvious to either of us and saved us some time.
We reached the surprisingly very unique, exposed summit and let out a rather large sigh of relief, as this would end up being 1 of only 2 summits we would reach on the entire trip.
National Geo shot on the summit
Aside from the lack of possibility of a summit ski descent, one thing I realized about Shasta was that it’s a skier’s mountain, where Rainier is more of a climber’s mountain. The number of potential lines that shoot off this massif is overwhelming. The turns were phenomenal straight out of the gates.
skiing down Misery Hill with a nice backdrop
spindrift deposited powder
We skied a kind of variation of Misery Hill, staying far skier’s left, enjoying some spin drift deposited turns for a couple hundred feet, before swinging hard right back to the ridge and the Trinity Chutes. We opted to take the Left of Heart Variation, as opposed to the middle Trinity Chute, since we were a tad worried about the wind and new snow. They looked pretty loaded. What we decided to ski was loaded, but we didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.
Here is Richard giving a quick free clinic on how to ski a tight chute……
Rick eyeing his line
making short work
and ripping out the exit
We skied down the flanks of the Red Banks, which loomed overhead as kind of a “Rime Palisades” similar to the aesthetic features of Keplinger’s Couloir. Only difference is we had 4,000 vertical feet of powder, so we took advantage and opened up our turns big time. If you like wide open, GS turns in the backcountry, ski Shasta. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Hands down the best snow I’ve ever skied out of bounds.
blowder powder with a rime encrusted Red Banks
Ben showing how small we really are
About halfway down, it transitioned perfectly to corn and we skied right down to camp. Upon arrival, we noticed that the Marmot Limelight 3 had been literally ripped to shreds. Had I known conditions were going to be like this, I would’ve brought a 4-season, I guess you can’t put all your faith in a forecast in the PNW.
This was neither here nor there though, as our endorphins were riding high somewhere up on cloud 9. Mangled tent aside, I’ve never reached that level of euphoria before and with that simple fact, I’m calling this the single best ski descent of my life. Ben more or less agreed and Rick and Alex’s giddiness revealed their opinions on the matter as well.
This shot speaks for itself.....
Rick is a proud man
The wind was still pounding us pretty hard as we packed up, making it a royal pain in the ass. But just as Rick attached the final piece of gear to his pack, the wind completely subsided and it was at that moment we realized that mother nature was doing this on purpose. Davenport can have his 14 day PNW weather window in May, the Fuhrer can give us the Finger, we can drive 16 round trip hours to salvage the trip, the clouds can block out view of all objectives for all 10 days of the trip, we can climb and ski in a near hurricane force storm, but I couldn’t let this one go, this was too much of a coincidence. This mountain was alive and it was toying with us. Doug Coombs once said
“These mountains are alive and they’ll make you more alive. Or they’ll make you dead. You need to read them cause there’s always bad luck, its always just there”.
I couldn’t help but think about this, feeling as if the mountains were trying to tell us all something. We couldn’t figure it out. We weren’t being dumb, we weren’t cocky, weren’t reckless, weren’t immature, but then I guess none of this matters when you are talking the unpredictable weather of the Pacific Northwest. I’m sure there are more unforgiving corners of the world and larger trips, expeditions and years of planning ruined due to storms, so it’s good to keep this all in perspective.
Anyways, this was a humbling experience and a learning one at that. We spent the majority of the rest of the trip trying to avoid the storms, unsuccessfully. We were able to find some pockets of reprieve in the trees outside Bend and on South Sister, but more importantly, we were able to enjoy one another’s company and see parts of the countryside that was new and exciting to most of us. It was fun to straddle the crest of the Cascades, with the lush, green valleys of the western side and the dry, sage infested, pine tree forests of the east. Bend and Eugene were cool towns and we got a historical lesson on the Timberline Lodge, a place I’ve personally looked forward to seeing since Kubrick’s “The Shining”. At the very least, it was 10 days NOT spent in a cubicle.
At the end of the day, a good one of these will always help you forget a good old fashioned wind storm….
Post Climb grub
Thanks for reading.
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