Tackling Tahoe’s tallest neighbor: A summer update on climbing Mount Shasta
Towering 14,179 feet above sea level and about 250 miles from the Tahoe basin, Mount Shasta has always loomed large in the hearts and minds of local adventurers. Whether to climb or ski, hundreds of Sierra dwellers make the annual pilgrimage to Shasta to bask in the power of its imposing flanks, and belly up to the challenge of its proud summit.Though climbing the second-tallest Cascade stratovolcano is never a gimme, a successful ascent in 2008 is not the ridiculous proposal it was known to be in yesteryear. John Muir famously described his thoughts on the feat in one of his 1874 notebooks: No amount of fatigue will be felt, or weigh at all against the glorious prize of beauty and instruction to be obtained from its high star, though all with one accord, Indians and White regard the excursion as absurd and impossible.What Muir knew, and what many of his contemporaries did not, was that the surreal experience of gazing from Shastas summit would squash any lingering misery of the uphill journey. Having just snowboarded off Shastas lofty summit on Monday, I can attest that, despite a meager snowpack, those glorious feelings that drew Muir are still ripe for harvest. The only caveat is that not all of Shastas 17 established routes are still optimal for safe climbing.
High mid-winter winds and an extremely dry spring have left the typically snow-chalked routes on the southwest side of Shasta in poor shape for this time of year. The now loose and rock-strewn routes include the Avalanche Gulch route (John Muir Route), the Casaval Ridge route and the Clear Creek route.On the north side of the mountain the snowpack is better established. But most of the technical routes, including the Whitney Glacier and the Hotlum-Bolum route, have begun to ice up, making for demanding climbing conditions suitable only for experienced alpinists.But moving right around, the east side of Mount Shasta is still in good shape for moderate climbing and even some skiing. The most notable route in condition is the Hotlum-Wintun, which connects snowfields between two glaciers and is known to be nearly as easy as the Avy Gulch route that 95 percent of first-time climbers attempt.
Bela Vadasz, co-founder of Truckee guide service Alpine Skills International, made the decision to move most of his remaining guided beginner outings this summer to the Hotlum-Wintun route for safety reasons.For a safe experience we want to climb snow that covers the loose, rickety rock, said Vadasz. Climbing the still snowy routes on the east side of Shasta has a more remote feel, but the caloric expenditure is about the same as climbing the Avy Gulch route.Having guided on Shasta since 1976 and summited the peak over 65 times, Vadasz understands the freedom of running up as a skilled climber, and also the danger of an ascent without proper experience.Shasta can be a devil of a mountain, said Vadasz. The climb can be straightforward, but like any climb, there is no problem until there is a problem.Interested in safely summiting Mount Shasta this summer? Take a hard look at your alpine climbing experience. Even with prime conditions, the climb is long, steep and inherently dangerous, requiring proper use of crampons, an ice axe and a thorough knowledge of self-arrest techniques.With a 90 percent summit rate in his organizations 30 years of guiding on Shasta, Vadasz feels learning by example is the secret to a successful summit bid on your first attempt. And not just for the technical skills youll acquire, but the more subtle lessons that keep your energy levels up.The greatest advantage of climbing with a small guided party is that the pacing and time management are taken care of, said Vadasz. You dont have to be the engine. You can follow along and get into the rhythmic pace of a professional climber. That improves success rate dramatically.
When I climbed the Hotlum-Wintun with my wife Allison, we decided to go for it at noon the day before. Arriving at the trailhead at 10 p.m., we woke up at 4 a.m., summited at 10:30, rode down to our car by 1 p.m. and were back in Truckee by 7 p.m.Though our climbing speed set no record, our hurry-up offense was a perfect example of the limitless opportunity for grand-scale adventure that Shasta holds. Does shredding 6,000 feet of snow in the middle of June sounds like a perfect Monday? With experience you can be climbing up to such bliss in mere hours.While wild winds, dangerous avalanche conditions and deteriorating snow wont always allow you the same success, Shasta will rarely deny you an adventure of epic proportions. If you have the gusto, and gain the experience, there is really nothing to it but to do it.