Summiting Mt. Shasta

The best, most grueling 36 hours of my life

June 28, 2019


21 miles

Elevation Gain

7,122 feet

Max Elevation

14,180 feet


When my buddy asked me if I wanted to come along for a hike up Mt. Shasta, I didn't think much of it at first. Sure why not? What is there to worry about? Shasta is a different beast though. Safely summiting tests your technical skills for ascending steep faces, glissading down snow, and skiing difficult terrain.

The Plan

Leaving from the Bunny Flat trailhead on the south side of Mt. Shasta, we would ascend to Lake Helen via Avalanche Gulch. This is the most popular route up Shasta and is fairly heavily trafficked.

We would make base camp at Lake Helen, do a final safety practice session of self arrests and glissading, and get to bed early in preparation for an alpine start.

We'd be up extremely early the next morning for a summit attempt. After summiting, we'd glissade and ski back to basecamp, break down our gear, and ski/hike back to the car.

Day 1: Ascent to Lake Helen

Our approach to Lake Helen started off well enough. We had a ridiculous amount of gear: a full backpacking setup as well as a day and a half of food. Josh and I planned on skinning up and skiing down so we had a pair of skis along as well.

Hiking the first mile over dirt in ski boots was a total drag, but soon enough we were in consistent snow and we got to skinning.

The next 4000 feet of climbing was long, slow, hot and exhausting. Being June, the snow was complete mush and terrible for skinning. Unfortunately hiking wasn't much better — McKenzie and Jeevan were taking that approach with crampons and they were post-holing their way up.

Finally, around 4PM we arrived at Lake Helen (10,443'). We made camp and took care of some final gear-checks and safety practice.

The Lake Helen base camp was bustling — we would be far from the only people attempting the summit the next morning. Dinner was a quick backpacking meal of Mac and Cheese, followed by some liquid courage.

Finally, by 8:00 we were off to bed, mentally preparing ourselves for the next morning.

Day 2: Summit and Descent

At 2:00 AM we were trying to convince ourselves to get out of our warm sleeping bags. After some quick coffee and oatmeal, we were ready to get going.

Our approach this morning would take us up above Lake Helen to the Red Banks at 12,800 feet. This would be the steepest most dangerous part of our climb.

The approach to the Red Banks is steep and exposed. Crampons are an absolute necessity and there's a constant danger of taking a fall and needed to self arrest. Some groups elect to use rope teams for this part of the climb but many groups, including ours, did so without.

After several hours of climbing we'd managed up several thousand feet of the face and were greeted by an incredible sunrise and impressive shadow of Mt. Shasta on the valley floor.

It was one of the most impressive sights I've ever seen — one that you know you're only experiencing because of the incredible situation you've put yourself in. This view was the perfect energizer to push us up to the top of the Red Banks (13,240').

After pushing over and along the Red Banks, we made our way over to Misery Hill. This hill looks like it might just be the peak — but rest assured it's not. Nonetheless it's a grueling climb up this hill to the final plateau before the summit.

Beyond this stretch of flat ground, you can see the peak and it looks like it's right in front of you, and miles away at the same time.

By this time, we were at 13,840 feet and running extremely low on energy. We still had a final push to the summit — but we took some much needed breaks along the way.

Finally, around 10AM, we made it to the summit! It had been an extremely long morning, but we were blessed with fantastic weather and absolutely stunning views.

After snapping a few pics and celebrating our victory, it was time to start our way down...

By this point I was so exhausted the camera had to go away — so the photographs end here. Our adventure didn't though. On my ski down to Lake Helen I took a large fall and damaged my ski bindings enough that I wasn't confident skiing in them the rest of the way down. So while Josh had a nice ski back to the car, I joined McKenzie and Jeevan for a slog through summer snow.

We made it back in one piece though — having hiked 20 miles and 7,000 feet in ski boots. The blisters were extensive, and the muscle aches were already starting to set in. Despite being one of the most physically demanding experiences of my life, it was also one of the most rewarding.

This trip went beyond the type-2 fun I usually go for and stretched well into type-3 territory — but I'd still do it again without thinking twice.