Skiing on Mount Shasta
Ski & Snowboard Descent
Go where you will within a radius of from fifty to a hundred miles, there stands the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in perpetual snow, the one grand landmark that never sets. While Mount Whitney, situated near the southern extremity of the Sierra, notwithstanding it lifts its granite summit some four or five hundred feet higher than Shasta, is yet almost entirely snowless during the summer months, and is so feebly individualized, the traveller often searches for it in vain amid the thickets of rival peaks by which it is surrounded.
John Muir, Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta, 1877
Mount Shasta, rising to an elevation of 14,162 feet, is one of the largest Stratovolcanoes in the world. Its enormous bulk has been estimated at 80-84 cubic miles in volume. Not only is its sheer size overwhelming, but it dominates the region for miles towering 10,000 feet above the Sacramento River and the towns of Mount Shasta, Weed and McCloud.
A chain of towering volcanoes extend from southwestern Canada through Washington, Oregon and into northern California. These fire-born, ice-carved giants dominate the Cascade Range. Nowhere else in the 48 contiguous states has nature so dramatically linked these two great forces, volcanic fire and glacial ice. Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen anchor the southern end of the Cascade Mountain Range. Mount Shasta, the second highest peak in the Cascade Range, rising to an elevation of 14,162 feet, is only slightly lower than Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). Mount Shasta has seven named glaciers with the largest being the Wintun, Hotlum, Bolam and Whitney Glaciers perched on the north and east slopes of the peak.
Winter storms dump abundant amounts of snow on the slopes of Mount Shasta. Twenty- to thirty- foot drifts at the 7,000 to 8,000-foot level are not uncommon. In the winter, the weather on the mountain can be abominable, especially above tree line. During major storms that hit with regularity, gale-force winds pushing storm clouds laden with wet Pacific Ocean moisture in the form of snow, blast the peak relentlessly.
The combination of ample snow lasting into the summer months, the great vertical relief of the peak and the usually good weather in the spring, combine to make Mount Shasta arguably the best ski summit in all of California, if not the United States. Where else can one find a ski or snowboard descent of up to 8,000 feet without the added danger of crevasses found on Mount Rainier or Mount Baker. Yes, one can ski from the summit of Mount Rainier descending 10,000 vertical feet, but crevasses are a risk in the top 4,500 feet. Mount Shasta is a fair weather peak by comparison, with far superior skiing. On a good day the skiing on Mount Shasta rivals that of the best ski resorts anywhere in the world, without the hassle of lift lines and crowded slopes.
There are numerous excellent routes on Mount Shasta's north, east and west sides. In "Fifty Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney" I describe four of the best descent routes on the mountain:Whitney Glacier, Bolam-Hotlum Ridge, Hotlum-Wintun Ridge and Cascade Gulch. The Whitney Glacier is the largest glacier on the mountain and is the most difficult with an ascent/descent of over 8,600 feet. The Bolam-Hotlum Ridge (north side) and the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge (east side) provide an exquisite 7,000-foot descent. On the west side of the mountain, Cascade Gulch provides a superb descent from the saddle between the main summit of Mount Shasta and Shastina. Nearby, Avalanche Gulch is the standard route used by hundreds of climbers attempting the summit each weekend. This route is also a favorite of backcountry skiers but, in my opinion, is a poor choice for the ski mountaineer. The route becomes sun-cupped early in the spring ski season due to the westerly exposure and is greatly overused by climbers. The steep sides of Avalanche Gulch are prone to winter and spring avalanches and the sanitary conditions at Lake Helen (base camp for many climbers) are atrocious due to overuse. Of the four descent routes described in the book, my favorite is described below.
The Hotlum-Wintun Ridge is simply one of the best ski and snowboard descents in California. It is rare to find a descent of any considerable length, let alone one that drops 7,000 feet, with uniformly excellent snow from the top to bottom as you will here. This route has something for everyone--easy access, moderate terrain for intermediate skiers and steeper terrain for experts. The summit can be accomplished in a very long single day or with a base camp established after a short three to four hour approach. A base camp will afford the luxury of exploratory day trips as well as a trip to the summit. Nearby is the Hotlum Glacier where ice climbing and crevasse rescue techniques can be practiced.
The dirt road to the trailhead and parking area (7,200 feet) is not plowed and usually has melted free of snow by late April or May--in heavy snowfall years, a bit later. This trip is best from April through mid-June when the snow turns to "spring corn". In early spring, the parking area and the upper end of the road may still be covered with snowdrifts from the prior winter. From the end of the road, the Brewer Creek Trail's general direction is south, southwest for the first 2+ miles and then turning west. After signing in at the trailhead, follow the route of the Brewer Creek trail or alternately set your sights on Mount Shasta's summit and head in that direction. Both will lead you to the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge and the proper route to the summit.
Between 8,400 feet and 9,600 feet there are numerous spots to camp. The low growing trees on the rounded ridges provide a bit of protection and offer excellent campsite opportunities. Higher up, the saddle between the Wintun and the Hotlum Glaciers provide excellent views of the summit, the Hotlum's headwall and the crevasses of the Hotlum Glacier.
The route from the end of the trail to the summit is straightforward. Follow the ridge between the Wintun and Holtum Glaciers to the summit. Around 11,400 feet the ridge becomes more distinctive. Near 12,400 feet the route steepens markedly. At this point ascend the shallow gully in the center of the ridge or traverse left onto the Wintun Glacier/snowfield and continue to the summit. The summit is still 1,800 feet above. Keep on keeping on.
The 7,000-foot ski descent from the summit is worth every ounce of effort it takes to make the climb. Your climb and ski / snowboard descent will be long remembered and often discussed. On the summit, climbers coming up the standard Avalanche Gulch route will be surprised to see you standing there with your skis or board. The summit offers superb 360-degree views of the mountains in southern Oregon, the Trinity Alps and Lassen Peak. Your goal when setting out in the morning should be to reach the summit in time for a descent no later than 12:00 noon or 1:00 PM. This will dictate an extremely early start in the pre-dawn morning. Your reward for such a ridiculously early start will be a great sunrise and optimum snow conditions on the descent. Beginning your descent later in the day may result in less than ideal snow conditions as the snow turns to "mashed potatoes" in the afternoon. Heed the advice of the celebrated French guide and author, Gaston Rebuffat:
Rise early. Fix a time-table to which you must try to keep. One seldom regrets having made an early start, but one always regrets having set off too late; first for reasons of safety, the adage 'it is later than you think' is very true in the mountains, but also because of the strange beauty of the moment: the day comes to replace the night, the peaks gradually lighten, it is the hour of mystery but also of hope. Setting off by lantern-light, witnessing the birth of a new day as one climbs to meet the sun, this is a wonderful experience.
Gaston Rebuffat, from On Snow and Rock, 1959
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