Report from June 23rd, 2019
Come one, come all, to one of the great centers of California backcountry summer skiing: Mt. Shasta, CA.
People certainly got the memo that Shasta has been going off. I rolled up to the usually sleepy and very rural Brewer Creek trailhead (still impassible to cars to the actual trailhead due to snow) on Saturday evening to find maybe 40 cars, a factor of ten more than I’d ever seen there. I guess the secret is out, the Hotlum-Wintum route is some of the best backcountry summer skiing you can find in the Golden State, or anywhere else for that matter.
The crew was a loose assemblage of people I’d met, a fellow former friend of the Stanford Ski Team, Daniela, and a group of various friends from avalanche courses and touring (Sebastian, Greg, Anthony, and Frank). Earlier that afternoon, we had arrived in the wonderful little Town of Mt. Shasta, picked up our summit permits at the Fifth Season, and then split up. Daniela and co. headed up towards Bunny Flat to ride the mountain bike trails in the area, while Seb and I went to check out some of the local cliff jumping.
I am relatively new to cliff jumping, but after seeing a bunch of the Squaw crew getting after it last summer, I decided it was time to check out what it was all about. We went to a spot that Sebastian had been to before, and rolled up to find a healthy crowd of both tourists posing for pictures in front of the waterfall, and a group of more hardcore (locals?) jumping off the nearby cliffs.
I managed to get myself to do a 45 (or so) footer. Walking down to the spot, I was thinking about the tricks I wanted to throw, but as soon as I looked at the drop, I quickly thought “no way!” Pencil dives for the boys!
Someone threw a gainer off of the 45 foot exit point, it was one of the biggest tricks I’d seen in person in my life.
After seeing some locals hit the biggest drop, Sebastian stepped it up and went off the 75 or so footer. It was BIG.
Anyway, back to your normally scheduled skiing content.
After jumping and biking, the crew met up and drove out to the trailhead. Alarms set to 3 am for a 3:30 am departure, we went to sleep at 9 pm with mosquitoes buzzing outside our cars and tents.
The next morning (same night?), 3 am felt as early as it always does. We started walking right around 3:30. As the road was blocked by snow before the trailhead (about 1.5 miles out and melting fast), we cut straight up over snow patches, cutting the roads switchbacks. After stopping by the trailhead to pick up our wilderness permits, we continued up, dropping our shoes around treeline where the snow was clearly continuous.
Sunrise caught us a bit above nine thousand feet, a little lower than I would have liked. It was beautiful. Duh.
I managed to skin to about 10.5k, where failing skin glue and a steepening slope made me throw in the towel and transition to crampons. Others managed to skin to around 11k before transitioning.
While the sun was a bit higher in the sky than we might have liked, we were climbing fast and making good time. A strong breeze kept the snow just on the verge of softening while we climbed.
As usual, I started to feel the altitude around 12.5k when we crossed the ridge onto the upper sections of the Wintum glacier. Thankfully, there was ONE, WELL SET bootpack up the face all the way to the summit. The bootpack was so good my ice axe never came off of my bag. Climbing conditions were good, with the wind keeping the snow hard. We kept pressing up.
While the route itself was very crowded by my standards (I counted maybe 40 climbers on a route I’d usually be surprised to see two on, even on a weekend), the summit was an absolute nightmare. Huge groups (including a lot of guided clients…) clogged the summit block, with literal lines to get on and off.
Rangers were also hanging out checking summit permits, so make sure to bring yours if you plan to go climbing or skiing.
We hung around just below the summit, waiting for the snow to soften, eating off brand cheezits and gummy worms. One of the guys we talked to was a skimoer doing laps on the route. He casually mentioned a sub 4 hour round trip time on Avalanche Gulch. And we were feeling pretty good about climbing our route in under 7 hours…
Around noon, we dropped in. The first hundred feet were still somewhat sketchy and icy due to the wind (we watched one splitboarder slip down most of the section, only managing to arrest himself with his ice axe…), but quickly grew somewhat rippable and more fun as we descended down to the 12.5k point where we crossed over the ridge to the Wintum on the way up. Earlier, we had decided to continue skiing the Wintum lower than the normal 12.5k crossover point, and to cross back to the normal climbing route around 10.5k.
I got the pleasure of dropping in first below this point. Simply put, the snow was amazing. I have had the pleasure of doing many great corn runs, including many on Shasta, but this was one of the best that I can remember. I carved Super-G turns into the absolutely perfect 40 degree corn, going as fast as I possibly could, trying not to fall over with the oxygen quickly draining from my legs, it was just too fun.
It’s hard to overstate how great that two thousand foot section was. It wasn’t technical, difficult, or even very interesting skiing, but man was it good.
We crossed over the ridge at a flat bench around 10.5k, and continued skiing down the still very fun, but somewhat suncupped snow.
Below about 9k, the suncups got pretty bad.
Below treeline, they got really bad.
We followed a river with snow on the north facing bank down until we got to a road. Turns out, we had ended up maybe a hundred yards from where snow blocked the road, and from our cars. We skied to almost exactly 7 thousand feet, making it an even 7 thousand feet of skiing for the day. Not bad for one lap in late June…
Reveling in the day we just had, we cracked open a few beers, and bags of salt and vinegar potato chips. Jokes and stories were told as we reminisced about just how good we had got it.
Shasta is going off now, and everyone seems to have got the memo, so expect crowds even on routes other than Avalanche Gulch. The summer ski season has just begun. Here’s to another three months of skiing on California’s very own Mt. Shasta!