I chose July to return to Mt. Shasta, as this year it was a low snow year and I knew there would be less snow than usual, making a somewhat easier climb. I was joined on this trip by my friend Eric, whom I have known since high school. We both drove in to the Bunny Flats Trailhead on the southwest flank of Mt. Shasta. Our chosen route: Avalanche Gulch, also known as the Traditional John Muir route. In two days, we would climb 7300 feet and cover 7 miles.
Day 1: With fully-loaded packs, we started up the gradually sloping trail through the forest. Eventually the trees disappeared as we climbed higher. The sun brought temperatures up into the 90’s. In less than 2 miles, thankfully, we reached the Sierra Horse Camp. Here we refilled empty water bottles with cool spring water and sat in the shade. We felt fully rejuvenated and proceeded onto Helen Lake.
The walk from Horse Camp to Helen Lake was a bit warm, that’s for sure. But the surrounding rocky landscape was dramatic, interrupted by the occasional melting snow patch. A cricket or bird would break into song occasionally. Eric and I proceeded in a stride that seemed effortless, so interesting was the scenery. We took frequent breaks to cool down and hydrate. We encountered one other pair of climbers along the way. About 5 hours after we started our journey, we arrived at Helen Lake.
We each pitched our tents in one of the crescent-shaped stone shelters for protection from Shasta’s notorious winds. We tied our tents down securely and spent the rest of the day barefoot, relaxing at our base camp. It was warm, but somewhat breezy. Hours passed as we told stories, laughed heartily, and took in the scenery. Eric sketched a bit and I wrote in my journal. At about 7 pm, we decided we’d had enough sun and retired to our tents.
Day 2: The alarm woke us up at 3 am. After a quick breakfast of granola bars and water, we packed up supplies for the summit hike. By 4 am, we bid adieu to Helen Lake and were off. After expending some major energy trying to ascend a scree slope to the base of the Heart, we opted to hike on the snow. The crampons gripped the snow firmly and our pace quickened. At the base of the Heart, we decided to go left. Although we knew most climbers go right, we thought this route looked more fun, plus we would avoid the gnarly ascent through Red Banks. The day’s warmth had carved out fanciful asymmetrical shapes in the snow, making the route more beautiful and giving us nice platforms to stand on or step into. We reached the base of aptly-named Misery Hill and changed footwear for the scree hiking.
We took a couple of extended breaks on Misery Hill and on the snowy, flat terrain above. We opted for a slow, steady pace and passed several hiking pairs resting. Eventually the rocks became larger, more solidly stacked up. No more of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back walking characteristic of a scree slope. We clambered over the rocks and Eric became as agile as a mountain goat.
The summit quickly came closer and we veered back onto the sandy trail. We could see a group of three hikers resting and snacking up top. We smiled, knowing that the climb was successful. We sat on the summit for about an hour, stretching, napping, writing, eating. It was great to relax and bask in our glory of success at summiting Mt. Shasta.
The descent, as always, was far easier for me. Eric has weak knees so he always suffers on the way down. We took it very slowly. My lungs got a break as my legs took over the work. We passed lots of people now, all on their way up. Close to Red Banks, we affixed crampons once more and followed a narrow band of snow through the pumice cliffs. There was a glissade chute there for anyone willing, but Eric and I deemed the snow conditions too poor for glissading.
After getting off the snow, it was back to conquering scree walking. Helen Lake couldn’t come fast enough. At the lake we spent quite a while eating, airing out, and sitting down.
We packed up our camp and put on our heavy packs once again. We met some other climbers preparing for their summit bid and again relaxed in the shade while refueling on snacks. The last one and half miles back to the car were a breeze. Smiles and words of congratulations came from most of the aspiring climbers we met on the way up the trail.
Eric and I agree: What a trip!
Mt. Shasta Summit Hike - Weekends Outdoors