Driving down the highway, the massive Mount Shasta towered on the horizon as we all started to get stoked for the climb ahead. In a day, would we be standing on the summit with our heads held high? Only physical conditioning, weather, thin air, and the route stood in our way.
Navigating the complicated forest road system to get to the Brewer Creek trailhead, we ran into locals hauling lumber out of the forest. The guy stopped, rolled down his window, and with a cigarette pressed between his lips told us the road was “warshed out.” Not a great way to start the trip…
Looking like city-folk in our not-yet-so dusty Jeep, we decided to push on and hope for the best. Fortunately, the Jeep handled well as we crossed the “warshed-out” parts of the forest road. Learning fast not to listen to the suggested navigation route Google was trying to send us–some barely looked like roads. After roughly an hour of navigating the rough forest roads, we found the trailhead. After stashing beer in the snow patches near the Jeep, we added the last gear to our packs by strapping on our skis with boots attached as there wasn’t enough snow to start skinning from the road. Skins are nylon and/or mohair fabric that adheres to the bottom of skis to provide friction from sliding backwards up a slope.
We chose the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge route to avoid the more common Avalanche Gulch climbing route on a busy, holiday weekend. We needed to acclimate, so we climbed roughly 2,000 to 3,000 feet and set up base camp on the first day. The second day would be spent skinning and climbing to the summit before skiing back to the car.
Approach to Base Camp
The road was covered with snow on the last quarter- to half-mile from the trailhead (7,300 feet). After reaching the trailhead, we registered for the summit ($25 per person) and started hiking the dirt trail. We crossed small patches of snow for the first 800-ish feet. My approach shoes were soaked, but I was happy not to be wearing my ski boots. After finding enough consistent snow, we stashed our approach shoes in the trees, marked the map, and transitioned to our ski touring set-ups.
Having started later in the day, the snow was soft and the steeper slopes were a little sloppy. I found it easier to make my own track than to follow existing ones. We saw remnants of small slides on various slopes and made note of them. The snow pack was decently compacted and the snow forecast for the week leading up to the climb didn’t seem to be unstable as the rangers had predicted.
The approach to our planned base camp was very straight-forward, and we set up camp at 9,900 feet. Using a three person tarp tent, we avoided the rock bands where others had pitched their tents. A nice snow wall to block the gusts of winds made our camp quite comfortable. After setting up camp, Will wanted to get a few turns on his demo skis. Who were we to disagree with a few practice turns before dinner? We skinned up the slope just above the camp. The snow was already starting to harden, so Andy and I headed to a slope more exposed to the sun as opposed to the wind.
After one lap, it was time to boil more water and start dinner as the sun started setting and the mountain shadow appeared on the horizon. Even though we were on the opposite side of the mountain, it was not a bad place to watch a sunset. It was time to curl up in the sleeping bags and hope that the sun setting didn’t make for too cold of a night’s sleep.
The Climb: Hotlum-Wintun Ridge
The sun filled our tent and woke us up. We boiled water, ate breakfast, and finalized our summit packs. I added ski crampons to my bindings to help with the firm snow we had to skin up.
I felt nauseous. Was it the altitude or nerves? I chalked it up to being nerves as this was my first 14,000 foot volcano climb and ski. We left camp around 7:30 am, which was 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Skinning straight up the firm snow was better than making switchbacks. We watched the other climbing parties ahead of us. Some skinning the entire way up to the traverse while others only skinning part way and transitioning to boot (or hike) up the steep section.
As the slope became steeper, I decided to make a couple of switchbacks paired with kick turns. The snow was finally starting to soften. I lost my balance as my one ski dangled from my toe piece. My heart began to race. I slowly put my weight on my ski that was still holding me to the slope and positioned my other one to where it needed to be to recover from my almost-fall. I am still learning my skinning technique and make sure to pay extra attention where my weight is being distributed.
I finally make it up to where the guys were waiting at the traverse. After I popped a few gummy bears in my mouth, I put on my climbing helmet, strapped on my crampons to my ski boots, and put my skis and poles on my pack leaving the skins on to dry for the last 1,500 feet to the summit. With my ice axe in hand it was time to follow the boot pack stairway to the summit.
The added weight on my pack and thinning air made for slow and steady movement. It was time for rhythmic mountaineering with every other step pulling my ice axe out and moving it forward for an anchor in case I were to fall. At times, I was kicking new steps because the current ones were high steps for me. It was just as exhausting to step high as it was to kick mid steps up the boot pack, so I decided which one to do in the moment to where I was comfortable with my balance.
The snow continued to get softer. I wanted to summit and felt exhausted but strong enough to push through. I was happy I would be skiing down instead of plunge stepping–pushing my heels into the snow to make a reverse boot pack–down the entire volcano. Only 700 feet to go. The closer the summit, the more the boot pack disappeared. Early climbers, who had to hike back down, decided to follow the upward route and ruin the pristine boot pack.
The clouds were starting to roll through. I was warm and wishing for a small breeze to cool my body temperature. I had to just get to the top, and I could refuel with snacks and water before heading back down on skis. The steepness of the climb started to taper as I approached the summit.
As I approached the summit, I saw all the climbers from our route and other routes diverge to the high peak. It was holiday weekend after all. I had a quick snack, headed to the crowded summit, and then started to prepare for my ski descent down. I HAD SUMMITED and was elated.
Ripping skins and putting away the ice axe and crampons, it was time to ski. Hoping my jello legs would carry me down the mountain with a little grace. I did have to stop a few times to shake out the legs before making it back down to the tent.
The top snow was chunky and heavy but still not too bad for a late, spring day. As we approached the tent, the snow was sticky causing me to jerk forward and back at times. We packed up camp and with our heavier packs and made it our mission to ski as far as we could to the car, which would mean not following the same route we came up.
The snow below treeline was fine and had small sun cups at sections, along with melted divot traces of past hikers. We had one more stop to pick up our stashed approach shoes, where we transitioned the day before. We picked up our shoes and followed Will, stopping only to check the map to make sure we were heading in the right direction. Coming to the end of the snow with another snow patch in sight, we slowly walked across a dirt patch without taking the skis off. We would do this a few more times before crossing a large log for the finale. We had made it back to the Jeep and cracked open the stashed beer.
Map and Climb Profile
- Osprey 60L Pack (though could have done smaller)
- GoLite Shangri-La 3 Tarp
- Sleeping Pad
- Down Sleeping Bag
- MSR Reactor Stove + Pot + Fuel
- Avalanche Gear – Shovel, Beacon, Probe
- Ski Gear – Skis, Boots, Ski Crampons, Poles
- Climbing helmet
- Boot Crampons
- Ice Axe
- Ten Essentials
- Base layer (top and bottom)
- Buff and hat
- Ski Bibs
- Rain Jacket
- Belay Puffy
- Mittens and liners
- Ski socks
- Wool socks
- Down booties
- Approach shoes
- First aid kit
- Toiletries, Sunscreen