Open Season: Big Game Hunting On Mt. Shasta
By Seth Lightcap | May 21st, 2012
Words and photos by Seth Lightcap
Unless you have the freedom to beeline straight to Northern California in the next 48 hours, do not call this number: 530-926-5555
That’s the number for the Mt. Shasta Climber’s Hotline sponsored by The Fifth Season mountain shop in Mt. Shasta City. It’s a recorded message that is updated daily with the current climbing and skiing conditions on the 14,179-foot tall Mt. Shasta, the second highest volcano in the Cascades.
Calling the Shasta hotline is not to be taken lightly. Spontaneous calls have been known to send ski fiends into a frenzy. No doubt jobs have been lost and relationships trashed because of Shasta hotline calls. But if there is even the slightest chance you can drop everything and run to Mt. Shasta this very minute...dial the number now. Yes, right now. Then call your boss and start coughing...
Despite a lackluster winter in Tahoe and the central Sierra, Mt. Shasta caught the brunt of northern trending storms which stacked the snowpack to near average depth. The gargantuan flanks of this mystical peak have now ripened into golden fields of corn snow that beg for 200 foot radius GS turns. If you’ve ever laid eyes on the mighty Mt. Shasta, or better yet, been able to shred it, then you know these runs are all par five. Six thousand-foot descents drop off the summit plateau on every aspect. The only caveat is that you’ve got to earn every turn, so get stoked to spend some hours putting one foot in front of the other if you want to slay this giant.
As usual, May is the month to find primo conditions on the southwest facing routes that are the easiest to access. The Bunny Flat trailhead is the starting point for most adventures at the moment with the trailheads on the north and east sides still a few weeks from melting out. Vinnie Poch, a Shasta ski freak who works at The Fifth Season, suggests you get on these south facing routes now, otherwise look around the corner come June.
“The skiing has been phenomenal, but if it doesn’t cool down the south side is gonna go quick,” said Poch. “But then we’ll just have to move to the north and east sides of the mountain.”
Brennan Lagasse rips the northeast face of a Mt. Shasta sub-peak known as Shastina. The Whitney glacier pours down between the two peaks.
On your first Shasta ski trip climbing the Avalanche Gulch route from the Bunny Flat trailhead and skiing the Red Banks bowl or the West Face is a sure bet. Once you get accustomed to the climbing logistics and the lay of the land the potential for linking multiple descents and stacking up big vertical is endless. If you want to bag the summit and ski down in a single day be ready to leave the trailhead at 3 or 4 am. You’ll need about seven hours to the climb the 7,000 feet to the summit. The other option is to camp midway up which substantially shortens the summit push.
Allison Lightcap and Brennan Lagasse tour alongside the Whitney glacier. The north, east and south sides of the mountain are home to active glaciers.
For the next month or more you’ll be able to skin right from the car up to about 10 or 11,000 feet. Beyond that, the pitch steepens dramatically and most routes become a bootpack. Crampons are crucial, as you’ll be trudging up frozen slopes pre-dawn. Climbing with a whippet self-arrest pole or ice axe is also a must. The routes vary in exposure but there is always the potential for an awkward slip to turn into a very long tumble.
Allison Lightcap crunches across the rime-y northeast ridge of Shastina.
Weather and wind will make or break your day on Shasta. If the winds are cranking stay low as anything above 10,000 feet won’t stand a chance of softening up.
North facing slopes between 11,000 and 14,00- feet still hold some transitional winter snow. Allison Lightcap found a panel of the porn-y stuff slashing off Shastina.
If you don’t have the crampons and ice axe necessary for the mission you can rent them from The Fifth Season or the Shasta Base Camp in Mt. Shasta City. Without that gear excuse, the only thing standing between you and a 7,000-foot backcountry ski descent is a fair bit of travel time (it’s a long way to Shasta from anywhere) and of course, the gusto to climb this bad mother. All things considered, the ascent is not a super human feat, though. If you’ve ever pulled off a 10-hour day in the mountains and you’ve had some experience climbing above 12,000 feet, then the climb shouldn’t be a problem for you.
You reap what you sow on Mt. Shasta. Allison Lightcap harvested first tracks down a 3,000 foot panel of perfect corn as a reward for dropping off the summit into the Wintun glacier before the Brewer Creek trailhead on the east side of the mountain was open. We climbed back up the Wintun to the summit and dropped down the West Face to the car at Bunny Flat.
Just like a hunting season, to get in on the Shasta season you’ll need to fill out a wilderness permit and purchase a summit pass if you plan to climb above 10,000 feet. Permits cost $20 and are available at all the trailheads. If you have the motivation to climb but are shaky on the technical skills you can also hire a ski guide from Shasta Mountain Guides. They offer both group and custom backcountry ski trips until the snow is gone.
Do you catch my drift? There’s really nothing to it but to do it. So take a deep breath, think about how rad it would be to cap off your winter with an epic descent off one of the finest ski peaks in the world and then pick up the phone. Now dial these digits and make it happen - 530-926-5555.
Location: California Mount Shasta CA Keywords: Featured Ski Snowboard Backcountry News Travel