Ascent of Mount Shasta on 2013-05-18

Climber: Rich Stephens

Others in Party:BMS 914 -- Trip Report or GPS Track
Date:Saturday, May 18, 2013
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Mount Shasta
    Elevation:14162 ft / 4316 m

Ascent Trip Report


I made a solo climb of Shasta in 2012 via the Clear Creek Route (grade I) located on the east side of the mountain. I discovered Shasta as a beautiful mountain with vibrant energy. I was determined to climb it again the following year but this time via a more technical route. Bart volunteered to come along on this trip and with the added safety factor of a climbing partner, we settled on the Hotlum Glacier route located on the northeast side.

Hotlum Glacier Route Decision

Starting at the Brewer Creek Trailhead at 7290 feet, this is considered to be a grade III route and a bit more technical. On the drive up there, we were actually still talking about the exact route we would take because some trip reports had mentioned the need for technical ice climbing equipment for this particular route. We eventually agreed to give the Hotlum route a good shot.

Getting to the Trailhead

We picked up our permits ($20) at the ranger station in the little town of McCloud, CA along with our poop bags (free). The rangers told me previously that the weather was forecasted to be partly cloudy with a low chance of precipitation. However, the mountain itself can have very unpredictable weather and as it turned out, we spent most of the day in windy, blowing snow, and foggy conditions. The rangers also indicated that we would be able to drive up to the Brewer Creek Trailhead. With snow still on the ground and fallen trees laying across the road, we could not make it all of the way to the TH and we had to park the rental car just a couple of miles from the TH at around 6700 feet.

Getting to Basecamp

We carried our heavy packs for 3 hours and up 1800 feet along Gravel Creek and established basecamp (~8500 ft) at the foot of the mountain in order to conserve our energy for the climb. Some climbers like to pack higher to establish basecamp but I have a hard time seeing the logic in this unless you have severe altitude issues and you need to acclimatize higher. We set up Bart’s very small, but very light, 2-man tent and started to melt snow for water. The weather was pleasant and the wind was calm. When the sun dipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped to the 30’s and eventually into the 20’s. With the tent being so small, it was plenty warm and comfortable inside. To save on weight, we didn’t bring a lot of fuel so I was trying to conserve it as much as possible. The night before, I put snow in my Nalgene bottle and placed the bottle in the tent but it didn’t melt much. I should have put it in my sleeping bag. For the climb itself, I ended up taking this Nalgene bottle full of snow and carrying it under my coat near my stomach to generate enough heat to melt the snow for water. This, along with one bottle of Mtn. Dew, is all I drank during the entire 16-hr expedition.

The Initial Ascent

We left basecamp at 0430 hours. The sky was clear, the wind was calm, and the snow was hard and easy to walk on. Perfect conditions for a snow climb! We each had new crampons and they penetrated the snow easily. We worked our way up the mountain, zig-zagging as much as possible to avoid climbing straight up the steep slopes. The weather remained pleasant and we took small breaks to catch our breath. Bart started to feel cramps in his legs. Perhaps we didn’t melt enough water and we weren’t fully hydrated when we left basecamp. He indicated that it was easier on his legs to go straight up the slope but this was something that I just couldn’t do efficiently. At any rate, we continued on upward towards the Hotlum glacier.

The Glacier

Just about the time we approached the actual glacier, the sun started to rise and the mountain “woke up”. The wind picked up and the clouds rolled in and engulfed us. We roped up with me in the lead and we trudged our way slowly upwards. Visibility was less than 100 feet and it was difficult to see much of anything. Since I was in the lead, I was on the constant lookout for crevasses. Sometimes I could not see a crevasse until it was only a few feet away. When I got a visual, I would stop and yell “crevasse” to Bart. I would take my ice axe, and while approaching the crevasse slowly, I would probe on each side until I had a good idea of where to step across. Bart was ready to drop and bury his axe instantly if needed. We crossed most of the crevasses this way and it made us a bit nervous because if I was to fall in and unable to help myself, it would have been completely up to Bart to get me out. There would have been no chance of asking other climbers for help because we didn’t see any other climbers on the mountain. Bart did mention that he saw that a couple of climbers had signed the summit register that day. According to our situation with just the two of us, we were alone and therefore the risk was high.

Each side of the glacier was populated with seracs and on occasion, the wind would completely blow the clouds away for a few seconds to allow a quick look at the magnificence of the mountain. The wind continued to blow snow and we didn’t realize it at the time, but it was scouring our faces. After the climb, my nose and lips were swollen, peeling and very painful for up to two weeks. If only I could have covered them up with my balaclava.

As we continued upwards and when we needed to take a break on the steep, icy slope, I would take my ice axe and drive the shaft down all of the way up to the adze. Then I would wrap the rope around it a few times to stop any possible slides. We also avoided setting anything down on the slope unsecured. I didn’t want to do want Maurice Herzog did in his 1950 expedition to Annapurna where he set his gloves down on the glacier to get into his rucksack. His gloves slide away and never to be seen again. He ended up with severe frostbite on his hands. Even though it wasn’t terribly cold that day, I brought an extra set of gloves just in case.

The Headwall

At 12,300 feet, we managed to get to the top of the glacier where we reached a headwall that Bart estimated to be at 5.8. The options at this point were to either go to the left or right around the headwall. Going left will apparently result in a 55 degree ice gully that will take up to the top of the headwall. Going right will take you through another ice gully but isn’t quite as technical. We had discussed the options previously and concluded that since we didn’t bring technical ice climbing tools, going to the right would be the best option. We exited the glacier on the right side, we unroped, and continued up a very steep and wide path with large rocks on each side. At this point, Bart attempted to climb this section on the rocks and I remained on the snow. I don’t know which way was more efficient because both ways seemed to consume a terrible amount of energy. Since Bart was cramping quite a bit, I always wanted to keep the option open of abandoning our summit bid and I wanted to be sensitive to his needs. He wanted to continue to endure the pain and keep climbing rather than have to come back and do this all over again.

The Ice Chute

The wind continued to blow snow and we were still engulfed in clouds. At this point, I felt like the mountain wanted to find out what kind of mountaineers we really were. Once up the steep slope and with about a 1000 ft to go, we reached an ice chute. It seemed to me to be a river of frozen ice with light snow on top. Bart estimated it to be 60 degrees at the steepest section and maybe 100' high. We did not attempt to go up this icy chute but crossed over it to see what the next chute was like. The next chute was also just as steep but not as icy. The only efficient way to go up this was to kick steps. With my energy almost completely drained, I used the weight of my boots and holding my ice axe in one hand, started to kick in steps as efficiently as I could and hoping that they would hold for Bart. The higher we got, the more we became exposed to the hazards below but it didn’t really seem to be of high concern because the fog masked any danger below.

The Summit

The terrain leveled out a bit and I could tell that the summit was finally in reach. I took shelter from the wind behind a large rock and texted a couple of climbing buddies indicating that we were only 250 feet from the summit and that we were very tired but that everything was okay. It would be another 45 minutes before we actually reached the summit.

After 10 hours of ascending, we finally reached the summit. Miraculously, the clouds left us for just a couple of minutes to allow some sunlight to warm our faces. We were low on food and liquids and we ate whatever we could to get enough energy for the decent. I had an extra 5-hr energy drink that I gave to Bart. We were both beat after 10 hours of climbing and I was looking forward to having gravity assist us on the way down. We took a few pictures, signed our name in the register and left on the opposite side of the summit.

Bart wrote in his trip report: “It was cold on the summit, and I had rime ice all over my equipment and clothing, making some of my zippers tough to operate. After a few minutes, the clouds broke up and the sun even shone down on us. Had the forecasted good weather FINALLY made an appearance? Alas, it was not to be, the clouds reappeared and dumped more snow on us, most small granules the winds (and little vortices that were showing up) had picked up off the mountain. It had the effect of almost sandblasting our faces.”

The Descent

We decided previously that we didn’t dare descend back down the Hotlum glacier so we left the summit and steered a course that took us down and across the Wintun glacier. Even though it was crevasse free, the slope on this side of the mountain was the steepest slope that I had ever climbed on. The slope was a few hundred feet across and continued down into the clouds and out of site. Glissading would have been out of the question and perhaps even suicide if an ice axe was accidentally lost during the process. Bart played it safe and decided the best way down is to climb down facing the mountain. With hundreds of feet to go, this would have taken hours to complete. I suggested that he hold his axe in his left hand and plant it and then take a step down. This way, if you slip or fall, you can hopefully catch yourself with your axe which is firmly planted in the snow. He picked up on this technique right away and we descended quickly. At times, the clouds would blow away for a few seconds, just enough time to determine the correct bearing for camp. We soon discovered that we had descended straight down the glacier too far and we quickly changed our bearing and traversed a great distance to the left to get back on course towards our camp. At times we also glissaded. We finally were able to descend beneath the clouds.

Camp didn’t look too far off but distances can play tricks on you when you are on big mountains like this. With still a few thousand feet to go, I figured that we could be to camp in a couple of hours but as it turned out, two hours later wouldn’t even get us close to getting off the mountain. We glissaded some and eventually reached a point where the snow ended and we could remove our crampons. With only a few hundred feet above camp, we walked over some flat, rocky terrain and then down a very steep slope covered by snow. Bart said that he actually slipped once or twice on this slope and self-arrested. He indicated that he was tired of what this mountain was throwing at us and he was ready get off of it. I can’t blame him for that statement! Even though I was drained of energy, the mountain seemed to revitalize me somehow and I was so happy to be there at that very moment. What a great day of mountaineering! Despite the hardship that we endured that day, I felt attached to this beast and actually felt like a real mountaineer!

Back to the Trailhead

We staggered into camp at 2000 hours. Rather than stay another night and recoup, we agreed that it would be best to pack everything up and spend the next two hours walking back to the car. Bart was very low on energy and said that he was “running on fumes.” This concerned me and we took a short break and ate some food and that was enough to get us back to the car by 2200 hours so that we could make the 3.5-hour drive back to Susanville. We checked into a motel at 0130 and with no restaurants open, we retrieved a few snacks from a nearby grocery store. By this time, we had stayed up for more than 24 hours and finally, we could rest!

Below are the waypoints that I used. Verify these on Google Earth before you head-out.

41.40910-122.19485Actual summit

Here's a short video clip of the conditions:
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:7166 ft / 2184 m
    Elevation Loss:5645 ft / 1721 m
    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads
    Weather:Cold, Very Windy, White-out
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:7166 ft / 2184 m
    Route:Hotlum Glacier
    Trailhead:Close to Brewer Creek TH. Blocked by snow.  6996 ft / 2132 m
    Time Up:10 Hours 0 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Elevation Loss:5645 ft / 1721 m
    Route:Wintun Glacier
    Trailhead: 41.429340, -122.156150  8517 ft / 2595 m
    Time Down:5 Hours 0 Minutes

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