Monday, April 28, 2008

Shasta, Lassen and 11,000ft vertical in 3 days in California

This past weekend was one of the best mountaineering experiences of my life.  About a month ago I got a new 

AT ski of Garmont Boots, Black Diamond Skis and Dynafit bindings. For those that don’t know this setup is about 15lbs lighter than my downhill setup.  
The backcountry setup allows me to put climbing skins on the bottom of my skis (like carpet that won’t let me slide backwards when climbing). The bindings lock into the toe of my boot with pins so my heel is free to trek up the mountain with me skis on like cross country skiing. At the top I simply lock down my heels, tighten my boots and

I essentially have a downhill setup. So, with this new gear I can finally combine my love of mountaineering with my lifelong love of skiing into ski mountaineering… a dream come true. No more sore knees from hiking down the mountain… just smooth turns.

About the time that I got my ski setup I started to think about some big trips I wanted to do. Because of the ridiculous amount of snow the Northwest had received and the threat of avalanches still I decided I wanted to start my ski mountaineering resume to the south in California with both Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta… together in one very ambitious weekend. It didn’t take long to convince my buddies, and fellow mountaintechs Aaron Hartz and Chris Holm to join me for the trip. Over some beers at my place we planned out our trip and what gear we would need. We decided to climb Lassen first as the 10,457ft peak would give us some experience 

and altitude acclimatization before attempting Mt. Shasta at 14,162ft the following two days. Mt. Lassen would be the first significant climb for both of them but with Chris being one of the best mountain bikers I know and Aaron being the best skier I know I knew they were very strong and would have no problem on the standard routes up both peaks.

We watched the weather all week long and decided that the best weather window for our trip would be Thursday through Sunday so we all took Friday off of work and drove the 7 hour drive to 

Lassen National Park on Thursday night only to find that the gate to the park was locked! So, we decided to simply sleep in the visitor parking lot in plain sight of any Rangers that would hopefully come open the gate for us the next morning.

By the time the sun came up I was getting nervous nobody would arrive and open the gate for us but at about 8:30 a ranger 

finally showed up and kindly opened the park for us. apparently were going to be the only ones in the park climbing for the day! After a quick breakfast and packing our gear we headed out from the Devastated Trailhead toward Lassen which didn’t appear to have any tracks on the Northeast Face at all. With skins on we quickly found ourselves above treeline looking up at the enormous Northeast face wondering which way was the best route for us. We decided that it would be best if we made it out of the shin-deep snow and onto the ridge as quickly as possible so we chose a fairly steep chute up towards the lower summit of Lassen of just heading up the face. On several occasions on the way up I cut out some blocks of snow and gave them a pat test to see if they would release and they did but it took quite a bit of slapping so I felt confident that the snow was stable for our ski descent. Thankfully, Aaron agreed with me.

We each took turns kicking steps into the snow in the lead up the chute. It was very exhausting and by the time we all got up to the ridge all of our legs were burning so it was time for a break. It was pretty amazing looking down on our tracks up the Northeast Face and then up through the steep chute we chose. Our steps looked very rhythmic and symmetrical the whole way up… as if we were a team of robots or something, one pair of footsteps for 3 people the whole way up. From there it was a fairly level walk over to the summit pinnacle which we had to skirt around the backside to get to. I don’t think we came up the recommended route as my guidebook and a few web sites suggested as what we encountered was as technical as 

wanted to attempt without a rope and harness. I checked with Chris and Aaron and both said they felt comfortable so we pushed on. Any fall near the summit would definitely require knowledge of how to self-arrest. Both Chris and Aaron had just completed a mountaineering course at OSU so I felt confident in their abilities.

The final push to the summit required scrambling over some rocks with crampons on which was a bit dicey but we all made it. On top of Lassen is a USGS earthquake monitoring station that looks like a very falic monument propped up directly on the summit. It was also painted camouflage, who knows why? This was Chris and Aaron’s first significant mountaineering summit and both were pretty psyched to have made it, especially Chris who had climbed the entire day in downhill ski boots with very sore feet. All three of us had on our Mountaintech Gore-Tex Pro Shells on and looked like the three amigo’s. 

We took some great shots and I got some video from the summit before we headed down about 200 feet to the entrance of the Northeast Face from the summit crater.

Our descent was epic. The clouds had just gone over the ridge so at first we were 

in shadow but the snow was perfect. Soft enough to kick up some slough on the steep slopes but not too deep that we got bogged down in it. Hartz took off first and after watching him cruise down the slope I followed with Chris afterwards. It should be noted that as of this year Chris Holm is a converted skier from snowboarder and in just a year he absolutely rips! Although it took us from 11am to about 4pm to climb Shasta it took us about 40 minutes to ski down. We were the only ones on the entire mountain the whole day and we left our mark on the mountain with huge arcing turns the entire way down. We could see our bootpack up the chute from down below and after asking Chris and Aaron we all agreed that the climb was definitely worth the descent. We definitely earned our turns. They were some of the 

best turns I’ve ever made on a big mountain. Near the bottom we followed the 1920 debris flow until there were too many rocks then headed back through the trees skiing to within about a quarter mile of the car.

After a few celebratory pulls from the bottle of Port we headed out of the National park back towards Mt. Shasta, stopping for dinner and drinks at an Olive Garden. In two hour s of driving we found ourselves at the Bunny Flats trailhead at Mt. Shasta, this time surrounded by droves of other climbers camping out in the parking lot awaiting the climb the next day.

About 10 minutes into our climb from Bunny Flats Chris broke down in pain because of the downhill boots he was still wearing. The metal hinges of the boots were digging through the liners and beginning to really bruise his ankle bone. 

We had gone through all the moleskin and duct tape but thankfully Chris remembered he had some medical tape with him. After wrapping his feet in several layers of tape he rammed his

feet back into his boots like a champion, told us not to bother asking him how he felt anymore, and continued on like the animal he is. After climbing Lassen the day before the skin up to Lake Helen on Mt. Shasta from 6,900 to 10,500 was absolutely exhausting. Our tired legs combined with the heat of the sun on the southern face of the mountain reflecting off the snow really beat us down.

At one point about 500 feet below our campsite on the last steep slope of the climb Chris and I experienced something I’ve never felt before on a climb. In about 2 minutes, according to Chris’ watch that was hanging on his backpack, not on his wrist, the temperature rose from 60 degrees

to 85 degrees. It was like all the heat from the sun on the

snow got reflected to our precise location. I had been climbing with my Gore-tex windstopper jacket on which breathed great in the normal heat of the day but in those two minutes I had to tear it off and literally fall to the snow to stay cool. Chris and I both grabbed clumps of snow and held the coldness against necks trying to circulate the cold through our blood to cool down. In a few minutes the heat went away as a cloud drifted overhead and left us in shadow dropping the temp back down around 60 degrees. Aaron was above us about 300 feet and remained in the shadow of a cloud the whole time so he got a good laugh out of our predicament.

Camping at Lake Helen was beautiful. Chris and Aaron setup my marmot tent for themselves while I setup in my Tripod Bivy nearby. We all ate some great Mountain House dinners and then chilled out on the rocks to watch a fantastic sunset. We could see Lassen in the far 

 and definitely still felt it in our legs. Clouds had moved in above us and for a while before the sunset began the top of the mountain was obscured. A climbing team next to us noted that their barometer was calling for rain so for a while I began to give up hope for a summit attempt on the next day. Thankfully by

the time the sun had set the sky was beginning to clear up so I told Chris to set his watch for 5am so we could get an early start. We still had nearly 4,000 feet to climb but it is at altitude and we would be moving slow. I was hoping that after a night at 10,500 we wouldn’t encounter too many altitude problems. Also, by getting up early we would be climbing in the mountain’s shadow up Avalanche Gulch so the snow would be firm for our crampons. The only concern was estimating how long it would take us to get to the summit because we did want to give the snow a little bit of time to heat up in the sun for our ski descent as well.

We left camp at about 6am after a quick breakfast of Mountain House ham and eggs. The previous

night we had used nearly all of my jetboil fuel to melt snow for the summit attempt and barely had enough for breakfast in the morning. Chris got a great shot of my reflective windstopper running jacket at 5am with his camera flash. Most of the other climbers had already left camp way before us and we could see their headlamps as little beacons of light meandering up Avalanche Gulch. I found this odd as half of them had skis and would surely be coming down icy slopes that wouldn’t have time to soften in the sun beforehand.

We took our time slowly up the Gulch to save energy and to save Chris any pain we could on the ascent. It was definitely visibly hard for him to front point with ski boots on. As we continued up our campsite appeared smaller and smaller below us until we got up past “the heart” to the base of the Red Banks which although they looked small from afar were actually about 5 stories high. We took a good break before heading up the very narrow chute through the Red Banks that would lead us up to the final push to the summit over Misery Hill.

Once on top of the Banks we met up with a couple that had camped next to us from the Bay area. The girl described Misery Hill as the worst thing ever but as we took our time going up it didn’t seem quite as bad as she described, maybe because we had gotten used to the

altitude over 3 days. We also took a couple Aleve just before heading up Misery Hill because each of us had a very slight headache from the altitude, but it certainly wasn’t anything to be worried about. While climbing up Misery Hill in the sun it became apparent that we were going to have a very choppy ride down from the summit over a lot of rime ice and snow that refused to soften up even under the midday sun.

On top of Misery Hill we could see the summit. It looked very jagged and very technical but as the couple pointed out the trail twisted around the backside and up to the summit without the need of a rope. We crossed the fairly flat summit crater towards

the true summit until we came to a rock where we dropped our packs and headed to the summit with just our ice axes

and cameras. On the final 200 foot push to the true summit we passed an area of sulphur springs where we could see steam coming up from the rocks. Apparently John Muir spent a very cold night at the springs trying to stay warm in a blizzard many years ago. They certainly didn’t look as impressive as the many vents on top of Mt. Hood. It was very windy heading up to the summit rocks but in one spot in the span of about 2 feet the wind was completely cut off by the rocks and we had a relatively calm final 40 feet to the top.

The view from the summit was amazing. We could clearly see all the way south to Mt. Lassen and all the way north to Mt. McLoughlin. We were so far up that we couldn’t even see the parking lot or Avalanche Gulch. We could only see the broad summit snow slopes below of Shasta. To the North on Shasta

was a massive crevasse at the top of one of the volcanoes few remaining glaciers. The summit rocks themselves were barely wide enough to get the three of us on top of them together with pretty severe exposure on all sides. We all took turns signing the summit register and taking photos at the top. To our amazement an older gentlemen, probably in his late 40’s actually caught up to us at the summit even though he had started from the parking lot at the same time we had left camp 3,500ft above the parking lot. To our credit he was carrying just a light pack and had been climbing in the Sierra’s for weeks and seemed in marathon shape… too bad we’d have to blow by him on the way down with our skis.. haha.

After spending about 20 minutes on the summit we headed back down to our bags, threw on our skis and began a very choppy and icy decent from the summit crater down Misery Hill to the top of Avalanche Gulch. Once at the top of the Gulch we had to decide which route to take down.

The chutes still seemed like they would be a bit icy and dicy so we decided to try the very steep skiers right of the “Heart” variation. Chris dropped right in without hesitation while Hartz and I watched from above. He’s become a scary good skier in just a year. Hartz and I dropped in and followed each other down past the Red Banks where I then broke off to the right and traversed to a huge snowfield for fresh tracks. The snow in the Gulch was much softer and the skiing actually became really enjoyable.

We then packed up camp, talked to a forest service employee and then headed down towards the car. Again, I decided to traverse far right up onto Casaval ridge to hit a small chute down from the ridge for some fresh turns. Having dropped down nearly 5,000 feet from the icy summit the snow had become very heavy and was awkward to turn in with a full overnight pack on my back but it was still far better than hiking all the way down. We were able to ski all the way down to the parking lot within 15 feet of Chris’ car. It took us about an hour and half to get down from 14,200 to 6,900. Not bad.

We stopped in at the Billy Goats Tavern for some much deserved beers and burgers before heading home on the 5 hour drive back to Corvallis. We were all super stoked that we bagged and skied two of California’s highest peaks. Shasta is the 16th highest peak in the lower 48 states. We had climbed over 11,000 ft in just 3 days after a winter of riding chairlifts on weekends. It was definitely an accomplishment and I’m so glad that three of us were able to share it together. Shasta was definitely a great climb and we had the best skiing of the weekend at Lassen all by ourselves.  Check out the photos from Shasta by clicking the title of this post and click the video below to see our ski descent via my helmet cam of Lassen.  I now have two new climbing and skiing buddies and I’m super excited that they had a great time and would like to do some more peaks with me… after a good long rest beforehand… J

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