Descent of Mount Shasta (14,162 feet)
by Paul Richins, Jr. (updated 6/14/02)
By far and without question, the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge is the safest (no threat of rock fall or avalanches) and best route for free-heel skiers and boarders on Shasta. This route has the best snow conditions of any route on the mountain providing a near-perfect descent on velvet-smooth spring corn snow. The descent from the summit down the Wintun snowfield for more than 4,000 feet is a thing of beauty. Below is an excerpt from my popular guidebook, "50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney". From the many excellent ski and snow board descent routes on Mount Shasta, I have selected the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge route as it is one of my favorites and, by far, the best route on Shasta. A summary of the book along with a complete list of all the summits described in the guidebook can be seen by clicking on "50 Classic ....."
Click on 50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits to purchase the guidebook. It is also available from the publisher, Mountaineer Books in Seattle, by calling (800) 553-4453 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and is in selected book and backcountry ski stores. Go to amazon.com to search for any book of your choice.
Mount Shasta's Hotlum-Wintun Ridge
"Go where you will within a radius of from fifty to a hundred miles, there stands the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in perpetual snow, the one grand landmark that never sets. While Mount Whitney, situated near the southern extremity of the Sierra, notwithstanding it lifts its granite summit some four or five hundred feet higher than Shasta, is yet almost entirely snowless during the summer months, and is so feebly individualized, the traveller often searches for it in vain amid the thickets of rival peaks by which it is surrounded."
--John Muir, Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta, 1877
Mount Shasta, rising to an elevation of 14,162 feet, is one of the largest Stratovolcanoes in the world. Its enormous bulk has been estimated at 80-84 cubic miles in volume. Not only is its sheer size overwhelming, but it dominates the region for miles towering 10,000 feet above the Sacramento River and the towns of Mount Shasta, Weed and McCloud.
A chain of towering volcanoes extend from southwestern Canada through Washington, Oregon and into northern California. These fire-born, ice-carved giants dominate the Cascade Range. Nowhere else in the 48 contiguous states has nature so dramatically linked these two great forces-volcanic fire and glacial ice. Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak anchor the southern end of the Cascade Mountain Range. Mount Shasta, the second highest peak in the Cascade Range rising to an elevation of 14,162 feet, is only slightly lower than Mount Rainier (14,410 feet). Mount Shasta has seven named glaciers with the larger being the Wintun, Hotlum, Bolam and Whitney Glaciers perched on the east and north slopes of the peak.
Winter storms dump abundant amounts of snow on the slopes of Mount Shasta. Twenty- to thirty- foot drifts at the 7,000 to 8,000-foot level are not uncommon. In the winter, the weather on Mount Shasta can be abominable, especially above tree line. During major storms that hit with regularity, gale-force winds pushing storm clouds laden with wet Pacific Ocean moisture in the form of snow, blast the peak relentlessly.
The combination of ample snow lasting into the summer months, the great vertical relief of the peak, and the usually good weather in the spring, combine to make Mount Shasta, arguably, the best ski summit in all of California, if not the United States. Where else can one find a ski or snowboard descent of 7,000 feet without the added danger of crevasses found on Mount Rainier or Mount Baker. Yes, one can ski from the summit of Mount Rainier descending 10,000 vertical feet, but crevasses and hard ice are encountered over the top 4,500 feet. Mount Shasta is a fair weather peak by comparison, with far superior skiing. On a good day the skiing on Mount Shasta rivals that of the best ski resorts anywhere in the world, without the hassle of lift lines and crowded slopes.
There are numerous excellent routes on Mount Shasta's north, east and west sides. In Fifty Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits, I describe four of the best descent routes on the mountain-Whitney Glacier, Bolam-Hotlum Ridge, Hotlum-Wintun Ridge and Cascade Gulch. The Whitney Glacier (north side of the mountain) is the largest glacier on the mountain and is the most difficult with an ascent/descent of over 8,600 feet. Due to the many large crevasses and seracs on this route, it is best done early in the season: February and March before the crevasses open up. To illustrate, a good friend was recently skiing this route in the first week of April and fell into a crevasse. Fortunately, we were able to rescue him with our climbing rope. The Bolam-Hotlum Ridge (northeast side) and the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge (east side) provide exquisite 7,000-foot descents. On the west side of the mountain, Cascade Gulch provides a superb descent from the saddle between the main summit of Mount Shasta and Shastina as well as an opportunity to ski from the main summit. Cascade Gulch is at its finest in April. Nearby, Avalanche Gulch is the standard route used by hundreds of climbers attempting the summit each weekend. This route is also a favorite of backcountry skiers and boarders but, in my opinion, is a poor choice. The route becomes sun-cupped early in the spring ski season due to the westerly exposure and is greatly overused by climbers. The steep sides of Avalanche Gulch are prone to winter and spring avalanches and the sanitary conditions at Lake Helen (base camp for many climbers) are atrocious due to overuse. Of the four descent routes described in the book, my favorite is described below.
The Hotlum-Wintun Ridge is simply one of the best ski and snowboard descents in California. It is rare to find a descent of any considerable length, let alone one that drops 7,000 feet, with uniformly excellent snow from the top to bottom. The descent of the Wintun snowfield, from the 14,162-foot summit to the 10,000-foot level and beyond, is one of pure enjoyment and exhilaration. Standing on the top one can look down directly upon the route as it continues unobstructed for 4,000 feet and beyond. This route has something for everyone--easy access, moderate terrain for intermediate skiers/boarders, and steeper terrain for experts. There is intermediate skiing and boarding below 11,400 feet in wide-open bowls. Between 11,400 and 12,400 the terrain becomes a bit more difficult requiring a strong- or advanced-intermediate skills. From the summit the top 2,000 feet is for the advanced/expert skier/boparder.
The summit can be accomplished in a long single day, or over two to three days with a basecamp placed near the 8,500-foot level or the 10,000-foot level. Basecamp can be established after a short three to four hour approach. A base camp will afford the luxury of exploratory day trips as well as a trip to the summit. Nearby is the Hotlum Glacier where ice climbing and crevasse rescue techniques can be practiced. What would be ideal for a 3-day trip would be to establish a basecamp at the 10,000-foot level on the first day. On Day 2, ascend to the summit and return to your camp. On Day 3 again go to the summit and return to basecamp and then ski out to the car. The skiing between the summit and 10,000 feet has to be the best 4,000 feet in California, if not the U.S. With a basecamp near 8,500 feet, this descent can be extended another 1,000-1,500 feet with a short traverse out of the Wintun/Ash Creek drainage back into the Brewer Creek drainage.
The dirt road to the trailhead and parking area (7,200 feet) is not plowed and usually has melted free of snow by the first week in June--in heavy snowfall years, a bit later. This trip is best from May through mid-June when the snow turns to "spring corn". In May, the parking area and the upper end of the road will be covered with snowdrifts from the prior winter and one may have to walk and ski 2-4 miles along the road to reach the end of the road. However, by the time the road is snow-free, the snow conditions will be past its prime as the bottom of the mountain will be suncupped. So, do not wait for the road to open all the way as the best time to descend this route is during hot weather in the Sacramento Valley in late May or early June. From the end of the road, the Brewer Creek Trail's general direction is south-southwest for the first 2+ miles and then turning west. After signing in at the trailhead, follow the route of the Brewer Creek trail or alternately set your sights on Mount Shasta's summit and head in that direction. Both will lead you to the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge and the proper route to the summit.
Up to 8,400 feet there are numerous spots to camp. The low growing trees on the rounded ridges provide protection from the wind and offer excellent campsite opportunities. The last trees on this route disappear around 8,600 feet. There are nice tent platform in the volcanic rock and sand at 10,000 feet and 10,500 feet. At at the saddle overlooking the Hotlum Glacier (climber's right) are two tent platforms with stone walls to protect against the wind. This 10,800-foot campsite provides excellent views of the Hotlum Headwall, and the seracs and crevasses of the Hotlum Glacier.
The route from the end of the trail to the summit is straightforward. Follow the ridge between the Wintun and Hotlum Glaciers to the summit. Around 11,400 feet the ridge becomes more distinctive. Ascend on the snow by staying to the right (climber's right) of the rocky ridge line. Near 12,400 feet, the ridge steepens markedly. From the tree line or your basecamp, the area above 12,400 feet resembles the nose of the ridge. At this point traverse left onto the Wintun Glacier/snowfield and continue to the summit. The summit is still 1,800 feet above. Keep on keeping on.
The 7,000-foot ski descent from the summit is worth every ounce of effort it takes to make the climb. Your climb and ski/snowboard descent well be long remembered and often discussed. On the summit, climbers coming up the standard Avalanche Gulch route will be surprised to see you standing there with your skis or board. The summit offers superb 360-degree views of the mountains in southern Oregon, the Trinity Alps and Lassen Peak.
From the summit ski down the upper hourglass shaped slope and onto the Wintun Glacier. Continue down the Wintun staying to the skiers left of the large rock in the center of the Wintun snowfield. Continue down this large, beautiful snowfield staying to skiers right of the ridge line that you followed on the ascent. Continue your turns to about 10,100-foot level and then traverse across the ridge line and pick up your ascent route to your camp near 10,000 feet. If your camp is below 10,000 feet you maybe able to continue down the Wintun snowfield a bit further, but be careful not to get too low as you may have to climb up and out of Ash Creek to get back to your camp.
It is a little tricky finding the trailhead on your return as it is in heavy timber. From around the 8,400-foot level, set you compass and follow a 40 degrees magnetic north reading. Or aim for the small sub peak located north of the main peak and crater (Ash Creek Butte-8,378 feet) directly across the way.
Your goal when setting out in the morning should be to reach the summit in time for a descent no later than 12:00 noon or 1:00 PM. This will dictate an extremely early start in the predawn morning. A rule of thumb when calculating the time it will take to reach the summit is to figure 800 to 1,000 feet per hour for the most fit climber. Most climbers take considerably longer, so plan accordingly. Your reward for such a ridiculously early start will be a great sunrise and optimum snow conditions on the descent. Beginning your descent later in the day may result in less than ideal snow conditions as the snow turns to "mashed potatoes" in the afternoon. Heed the advice of the celebrated French guide and author, Gaston Rebuffat:"Rise early. Fix a time-table to which you must try to keep. One seldom regrets having made an early start, but one always regrets having set off too late; first for reasons of safety-the adage 'it is later than you think' is very true in the mountains-but also because of the strange beauty of the moment: the day comes to replace the night, the peaks gradually lighten, it is the hour of mystery but also of hope. Setting off by lantern-light, witnessing the birth of a new day as one climbs to meet the sun, this is a wonderful experience."
Gaston Rebuffat, from On Snow and Rock, 1959.
In a Nutshell--Trip Summary
Trip duration--1-3 days
Best time to go--May to mid-June
Level of difficulty--Intermediate skiing/boarding below 11,400 feet; advanced intermediate 12,400 to 11,400 feet; and advanced/expert (Black Diamond/Double Black Diamond) from the summit
Mileage--About 6 miles to the summit, longer if in early spring one must ski up the dirt road for several miles.
Elevation gain--7,000 feet from the trailhead.
Snowboards--Highly recommended. Great slide for all whether on a board, or using fixed-heel or free-heel skis.
How to get there: Mount Shasta is located about 50 miles south of the California-Oregon border and about the same distance north of Redding, near Mount Shasta City and Interstate 5. Mount Shasta City, located at the base of the mountain, is a clean and charming community of about 4,000 residents.
From Mount Shasta City (Interstate 5), proceed east on Highway 89 to McCloud. Continue east for about 3.5 miles and turn left on Pilgrims Creek Road (NF 13), a paved road. Proceed 7.5 miles to Military Pass Road (NF 19 ) and turn left. The road to the Brewer Creek Trailhead is well marked. Proceed along Road NF 19 for 9.7 miles and turn left onto road 42N02. After 2.9 miles make another left onto road 42N10 and proceed 3.0 miles to the Brewer Creek parking area at 7,200 feet. The roads to the parking area are easily passable in a sedan.
Wilderness Permits: Before you begin your climb, register with the U.S. Forest Service in the town of Mount Shasta or at the various trailheads. A fee is required to park and to go above 10,000 feet. If you plan more than one trip a year, it may be wise to purchase an annual use permit, which includes parking. The annual pass can be purchased at the District Ranger Office in Mount Shasta City. The Forest Service has an informative web page. It contains valuable information on climbing Mount Shasta including road descriptions. Their web page address is http://www.r5.fs.fed.us/shastatrinity/
Equipment and Mountain Conditions: The U.S Forest Service has much useful information on their website for climbers, skiers and boarders wishing to ascend Shasta. It contains info on the routes, access roads, weather, avalanche conditions, permit requirements, and equipment. They also have a climber's hot line, phone 530-926-9613. The Fifth Season, a mountaineering shop in Mount Shasta City, has a wide selection of telemark skis, randonee skis, and climbing equipment. They sell an excellent map of Mount Shasta with detailed information on the various roads used to access the trailheads on the east and north sides of the peak. Phone: 530-926-3606 and 530-926-5555 (snow and road condition report).
Click on 50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits to purchase the guidebook. It is also available from the publisher, Mountaineer Books in Seattle, by calling (800) 553-4453 or e-mail: email@example.com and is in selected book and backcountry ski stores.
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