With a huge storm pointed at California this weekend, we thought why not take a look back at our friend Shane Ricketts’ Mount Shasta Backcountry skiing adventure he had a few years ago one early October.
Sitting on the couch on what seemed like a typical evening in early October, the TV glared with the normal mundane shows. Suddenly, your cell phone illuminates in the darkness. Picking it up, you notice it’s Zack sending the forecast for Mt. Shasta. Just a few hours north, Shasta was expecting to receive nearly SEVEN feet of snow! The itch for some turns is real, especially in it being October, so you suggest to head up there the upcoming weekend. But with the forecast calling for winds approaching nearly 100+ mph, it just doesn’t look feasible. Instead, plans are made to go Mount Shasta backcountry skiing the following weekend after the final storm rolls through.
Mt. Shasta Trip Shapes Up!
It had been nearly four months since you strapped in but fortunately with so much time until the upcoming mission, preparations could be carefully made. Backcountry gear was pulled out of the closet, shed, and garage, but you notice that a few of the major pieces from last season are missing such as ski straps. Wanting to buy your gear locally, you head over to Sports LTD to pick up the missing pieces along with a map of Mt. Shasta.
Time Ticks Slowly Until The Trip
Back at home, you begin to study the map trying to determine the possible routes for the ascent. Texting back and forth with Zack, you continue to narrow down the ways up to the summit. The upcoming days to the trip are packed with work, but you can’t help but think about the lone mountain standing above the landscape.
With only a few days left until the mission is kicked off, you check the Shasta Avalanche Center to make sure you understand the types of hazards to look out for. It’s so early in the season that they aren’t even reporting yet, but luckily the local mountain shop next to Mt. Shasta, The Fifth Season, provides a base weather/snow report when you do head up in early or late season to give you an idea of what to expect.
Info line 530-926-5555 – daily updates in the off season
The Day Before Christmas For A Snow Lover
The rally point was set for Friday after work at the bottom of Mt. Rose Highway on the outskirts of Reno. From there, you hop into Zack’s truck and drive northward towards Mt. Shasta. Wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, the temps hover in the mid-60s. The only indication that fall is here are the smells of the air and the leaves changing colors. Grabbing a quick sandwich in Susanville, you continue heading towards the final destination. Around sunset, the landscape transforms from sage brush into more mountainous terrain covered in large looming pine trees.
Watch out! Deer Everywhere… Including On The Road!
Like clockwork upon entering the pine forest, deer begin to appear on the sides of the road. Suddenly out of nowhere, a deer comes into sight right in front of you staring blankly at the headlights. Swerving around the buck, your nerves are frayed from the experience, but you keep plugging forward.
Once through the town of Mt. Shasta, you pull onto Everitt Memorial Highway. Not a single patch of snow was seen for the entire journey until pulling into the Bunny Flat parking lot. There were about 10 cars but not a single one stirring. A sense of calm floods your emotions. You made it! Walking over towards the trail, a couple inches of snow could finally be seen. Zack looks up with a big grin, gives a thumbs up and says, “GOOD!!!” Slowly looking up, the sky is crystal clear with the temps hovering around 18 degrees. Upon setting up for the night, Zack takes advantage of the weather and hikes up the trail to get some night shots. In the meantime, you set the alarm for 4 am and crash for the evening.
Exhausted From The Drive You Wake Up With The Alarm Blaring…
Slowly opening your eyes, the cold smacks your face with a briskness. The day is finally here! It’s time to summit Mt. Shasta. But first, coffee is needed to warm you up. Sitting on the bed of the truck, Zack and you stare at the Jetboil hoping your thoughts quicken the coffee being brewed. Finally it’s ready. The first sip burns every taste bud on your tongue, but you’re happy with the caffeine and the warmth. Breakfast consists of a big burrito containing eggs, greens, and prosciutto. With your body fueled up, you quickly head down to the USFS stand to get permits and log your plan.
50 Yards In And The Headlamp Goes Out
Since it’s still before sunrise, headlamps are switched on in the pitch-black darkness as you begin trudging up the mountain. The light from your head illuminates the smoke billowing from your mouth. Hiking about 50 feet up the trail, you’re able to strap in and start skinning. After only a few minutes, one of the headlamps dies. A quick discussion is made, and the plan is to move forward but being very aware that both of you need to stay close since your light situation isn’t ideal.
The quiet serenity and crispness makes the trek invigorating. What seemed like a half hour looking towards Horse Camp, about 2 miles from your vantage point, a headlamp can be seen quickly moving up the slope. Even though it wasn’t the route you were taking, that person was most likely heading to Casaval Ridge while your route was heading to Avalanche Gulch. Weaving your way through brush, the snow was firm but easy to skin. After about 2.5 miles of meandering, the brush quickly disappeared and a huge blank canvas of snow could be seen as far as the light could highlight. Continuing at a pretty good pace, there wasn’t much talking. Instead, both of you just take in the moment and the outdoors.
A Mt. Shasta Sunrise – A Sight To Behold
The darkness slowly recedes to a glow over the ridge, highlighting the sun attempting to rise but still not visible. Around halfway there, you stop and re-fuel again. Sitting on your gear having a couple of stroopwafels, another backcountry skier passed by. Exchanging quick pleasantries, you find out his name is Peter and he’s actually coming from Reno to scratch that snow itch just like you… and just like that, he was back off onto the trail. For your final climb, the gradual angle turned into a major ascent that was super steep. There was a skin track but it was so icy and frozen solid that a new trail had to be cut. The pace slowed as the steep climb began.
All was going well until the last ½ mile pitch where you lost traction and slid 30 feet back down the mountain. If it weren’t for the poles grabbing into the snow, you would’ve slid and not stopped until something like a rock or debris broke your slide with conditions being so firm. You were so close… this small setback wasn’t about to end your ascent, so you continued on.
Arriving At The Top… A Sense Of Relief And Accomplishment
Finally making it to the top at Helen Lake, Zack shows you his phone …elevation is 10,800 feet. WOW! Hanging out at the top, you take in the sights looking over all the topography and watch the sun come up. Looking down to where you skinned up, Peter comes back into view also struggling with the firm conditions. On one of the ridges, mountaineers are noticed heading towards Thumb Rock. It was inspiring to see people enjoying the mountain in their own way, but now it was your time for the dessert…. snowboarding down the mountain.
So Many Options!
Like a massive blank canvas, there are so many options to choose from. Where should you drop? Finally, you see the line you want. You decide to hit the SW face of Avalanche Gulch while Zack heads to the other side of the gulch to get some photos. Strapped in, you push your way forward and initiate the first turn. The freedom of riding down is amazing! Taking huge arching turns in the bowl, the snow is very firm, slick, and fast. With a vertical drop of nearly 7,000 feet, the ride seems like an hour… the way down was so long, multiple breaks were needed to rest the legs. Getting closer to the end, the terrain transforms to a landscape dotted with rocks and brush.
Weaving through the obstacles, you finally pull right up to the car. Taking a few deep breaths and looking around, you prop your gear against the truck and pull out a couple beers. The cold suds are the perfect reward as you talk about the experience along with a few other folks. Sitting there you notice throngs of tourists pulling into the parking lot to play in the snow. A few them ask “You climbed that?!?! And rode down it??!” A sense of accomplishment floods over you again. With your thirst quenched, it was time to head home. Gear is stowed and you pull out of the lot. Looking through the windows back to Mt. Shasta, you both vow to come again.