Trip Report: Mt. Shasta Summit and Ski With Blackbird Mountain Guides

Clay Malott |

Zeb dropping into the fog. Credit: Clay Malott

Report from 29th & 30th May 2022

Over the long weekend, I had the pleasure of climbing and skiing Mt. Shasta with Blackbird Mountain Guides, based in Truckee, California. Blackbird has an excellent track record of safe, successful summits, so I was super excited to join a guided trip to the summit.

After spending the night in Redding on Saturday, I drove to McCloud, a small town of just 900 people, dwarfed by the massive Mt. Shasta above. Its stature in person certainly lives up to its status as the largest Cascade volcano by volume.

In McCloud, I met our guide, Zeb Blais, who is also the owner and founder of Blackbird Mountain Guides. Zeb’s mountaineering resume is absolutely insane, ranging from ski descents of several of the seven summits, numerous 8,000+ meter peaks, and over 100 summits of Mt. Rainier. We did a quick gear check in McCloud and then drove to the Brewer Creek trailhead, a little over an hour away from McCloud.

Shasta on the drive. Credit: Clay Malott

The drive was no small feat, with massive boulders, ditches, and fallen trees standing between the car and the trailhead. Eventually, we made it to the Brewer Creek trailhead, where we unloaded our gear, packed our packs, and hit the trail.

Skinnable snow is all the way up around 8,300′ now, around 1,000 feet above the trailhead, so we began the trip in hiking shoes walking on dirt. Through the trees, Shasta towered above, leaving all of us dreaming about the 6,000-foot descent that was ahead of us as we climbed.

Climbing… Credit: Clay Malott

After reaching skinnable snow after about an hour of hiking, we picked a nice flat, protected piece of snow and set up camp. Winds were forecasted to be quite strong overnight, so we camped down low at about 8,400 feet behind some trees as shelter. As the sun began to go down, we set up our stoves and began melting snow into water. We filled our water bottles and made some hot water to make dinner; for me, some freeze-dried Chana Masala.

As we ate dinner basking in the last sun rays of the day, I got to hear a bit more about Zeb’s story and Blackbird Mountain Guides. Blackbird prioritizes safety first and foremost and is incredibly accomodating to guests’ objectives, which I certainly felt was the case on my trip. Throughout the trip, Zeb was always checking in making sure we were comfortable and getting the experience that we wanted. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like this is the case on all Blackbird trips, whether that’s summiting a technical peak in the Alps or getting into the backcountry for the first time on their unique AIARE 1 course. With such an experienced staff, Blackbird is able to create the perfect experience for any objective; my trip on Mt. Shasta was no exception.

Dramatic clouds on the summit near sunset. Credit: Clay Malott

At 8 pm, we climbed into our tents for the long, cold night ahead. Temperatures were forecasted to be in the low 20s, so I made sure to wear extra layers to bed.

The next morning, we got out of our tents around 6:45 am and made water and breakfast. We got a bit later of a start than we had originally planned since we thought giving the snow a bit extra time to warm up would be beneficial. We hiked over to the snowfield and began skinning toward the gargantuan summit at around 7:45.

Zeb leading the charge up to the summit. Credit: Clay Malott

Down low, the skinning was fairly easy but quickly turned into a very slippery ascent, where a melt-freeze cycle made the snow very slick and difficult to climb. We slowly ascended the massive snowfield until the slope became too steep to efficiently skin, where we pulled out our crampons and ice axes and began booting.

Skinning up the unfathomably large snowfields. Credit: Clay Malott
Scouting our objective while taking a break from booting. Credit: Clay Malott

One thing I really appreciated about Zeb’s leadership style on the ascent was that he explained all of his decisions to us in real-time. We weren’t blindly led up Shasta, we were part of the decision-making process and included in all of his safety mitigation processes on the way up. It’s quite refreshing to have a guide who is so competent, inclusive, and education-oriented.

Zeb and Ted booting up. What a view! Credit: Clay Malott

We ascended the Hotoon, a permanent snowfield between the Hotlum and Wintun glaciers. For the most part, the booting conditions were pretty good on the way up. The views during the climb were absolutely incredible.

Inching to the top. Credit: Clay Malott
Ants on a massive blank canvas. Credit: Clay Malott
Moving up with some beautiful orographic clouds as our backdrop. Credit: Clay Malott

Zeb had us short rope through some of the steeper, more consequential sections on the way up. He did a great job of breaking trail through some of the crust near the top of the climb and setting a sustainable pace that we were able to climb at all the way up.

Crawling up the final pitch. Credit: Clay Malott

We made our way up to Misery Hill, an aptly named small knob near the summit caldera. By this point, both Ted (the other client on the trip) and I were tired and breathing hard; turns out going from sea level to 14,000 feet and climbing nearly 7,000 feet in a day takes a toll on the body! Zeb was very patient and encouraging on the way up, exactly what I want from a guide on the way up.

Zeb, all smiles at the top. Even after all those summits, he still loves being out there! The enthusiasm is unmatched. Credit: Clay Malott
Looking down towards camp. What a view! Credit: Clay Malott

We finally topped out on 14,180′ Mt. Shasta at about 3 pm. We got some great photos at the summit before transitioning and beginning our descent.

Zeb dropping into the fog. Credit: Clay Malott

The descent was initially very challenging. The first thousand feet or so was extremely firm and chattery, which made the descent particularly tiring on already exhausted legs. Once we were out of the top chute that ran down from the summit block, the descent opened up into an absolutely massive snowfield that held some excellent packed powder that was an absolute dream to ski. We skied over a thousand straight vertical feet of this snow, which felt absolutely incredible. Up at 13,000 feet skiing incredible snow with a view that rivaled some of the best views I’d ever skied with. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Zeb milking the turns down the packed powder. Credit: Clay Malott
Small squiggles, big mountain. Credit: Clay Malott

We traversed back over to our original snowfield and continued to descend. The snow alternated between firm snow as we had at the top and the beautiful packed powder. Good turn, bad turn, good turn, bad turn. Eventually, the snow started to soften up a bit around 10,000 feet. For a few turns, we got some pretty excellent corn. However, it quickly turned to sloppy, wet snow that we fought through all the way back to camp.

We packed up camp and made our way back to the trailhead. We drove to the ranger station, had some cookies, and parted ways.

Overall, the climb and skiing were excellent. We had funky snow and weather conditions to contend with, but that didn’t stop us from having an absolutely amazing trip. I was really impressed by Zeb’s planning and leadership in the field and would absolutely recommend anyone to take a trip with Blackbird in the future.

Ants. Credit: Clay Malott

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