The sweaty story of the first time I climbed Mount Shasta, not the usual way from Bunny Flat, but via the Old Ski Bowl and Green Butte.
I Wrote This Shasta Summit Article for Outdoor Adventure
This is an article I wrote in 1998 for the magazine Outdoor Adventure (sadly, no longer in existence) about my summit climb of Mount Shasta from the Old Ski Bowl to Green Butte and then on to Helen Lake and up Avalanche Gulch. It was one of the last magazine pieces I wrote. (I also wrote for VIA [then Motorland] and Sunset, plus other magazines and newspapers.) I’ve made a few minor edits and also added headers.
Important Safety Note About The Old Ski Bowl to Avalanche Gulch Shasta Summit Climb
Back when I did this hike, the stretch of Everitt Memorial Highway from Bunny Flat to the Old Ski Bowl parking lot was plowed earlier in the climbing season. However, now the Forest Service intentionally waits to plow this section so that fragile Panther Meadows below the Old Ski Bowl gets fewer visitors.
The Safety Problem with the Old Ski Bowl/Green Butte Route…
Is this: by the time you can drive to the Old Ski Bowl and climb above Green Butte to Avalanche Gulch and Helen Lake, much of the snow has melted along the Avalanche Gulch climbing route itself, increasing the danger of rock fall and injury.
Therefore, you should not attempt to do the route I describe here! It is usually not safe enough.
The Safe Route: Avalanche Gulch From Bunny Flat
Hike 44 “Mount Shasta Summit via Avalanche Gulch” in my guidebook 100 Classic Hikes: Northern California has a detailed description of this main route from Avalanche Gulch to Mount Shasta summit, beginning at at Bunny Flat.
Consider Climbing with a Guide Service
I highly recommend Shasta Mountain Guides. I’ve known the owners for years, along with several of their guides.
Another good option: SWS Mountain Guides.
Climbing Mount Shasta Via Old Ski Bowl, Green Butte, and Avalanche Gulch: My Story
While sweltering in the 100-degree furnace of a Sacramento Valley heat wave, I looked north at Mount Shasta, the 14,179-foot behemoth volcano with the eternal cool summit of snow. Since I was a young boy Mount Shasta had beckoned to me from the northern horizon of my home town of Redding, California; now I knew it offered the ideal escape from low-land thermal oppression.
I, my sister-in-law Patty, and our good friend Jan swore a solemn Three Musketeers pact to reach the top of the lofty peak, and with high spirits fueled by an overdose of unfounded optimism regarding the difficulty of the task, we set out early one afternoon up I-5 for the town of Mount Shasta. There we rented ice axes and crampons from the knowledgeable folks at The Fifth Season, who provided us with the latest weather report (thankfully favorable) and plenty of pertinent advice for managing our mountain assault.
Mount Shasta’s Old Ski Bowl: Our Starting Point for Avalanche Gulch Route (but see safety note above)
We drove up Everitt Memorial Highway to cooler climes on Mount Shasta’s lower slopes, home to a forest of stately firs and pines. At the Old Ski Bowl parking lot at the end of the road we struggled into hefty boots, slathered on sunblock, strapped on backpacks, then took the trail up through the loose volcanic sand. [This trail is Hike 45 “Old Ski Bowl to Green Butte” in my guidebook Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen, & Trinity Alps Regions.]
We’d chosen this route from the Old Ski Bowl because it started 900 feet higher than the more popular launching pad at Bunny Flat, leaving us only 6,400 vertical feet from Shasta’s summit. As we headed up the steep path above timber line, I pondered the mystique of Mount Shasta, an irresistible magnet for mountain lovers, but also a strong attractant for spiritual seekers who come in search of Lemurians, Saint Germaine, and other unorthodox religious experiences.
The peak definitely packs power. It may grudgingly tolerate most hikers on its slopes, but with a small shrug of one shoulder it sent a massive avalanche to destroy the ski lift in 1978, shutting the ski bowl forever—a definite sign of disapproval for development on its sacred personage.
From the Old Ski Bowl Past Green Butte
I kept a watchful eye for falling rock from the sharp slant of Green Butte as we slowly passed just below it, my thighs burning and my lungs cycling rapidly in the thin air. As the reality of the effort before us began to reach the rational though pitifully small part of what passes for my brain, I looked across at Sargent’s Ridge and imagined grueling forced marches endured by boot camp inductees. “You want to do this,” I kept reminding myself. “Think of the views, think of the glory, think of the stories. Ah, forget that—think about the next step.”
At increasingly small intervals we’d stop to rest, turning our gazes away from rock, ridge, snow, and glacier to survey the vast expanse of forest and peak that swept south, west, and east to far haze. With fresh inspiration, we’d continue the upward push.
Spending the Night at Helen Lake in Avalanche Gulch
In the late afternoon we crested the ridge above Green Butte and looked up and across Avalanche Gulch. Somewhere above us was our first-day destination, a flat snow-field laughingly called Helen Lake, even though it’s really just a mostly level place for people to camp before pushing on to Mount Shasta’s summit the next day.
We decided against crampons when we reached snow line just below Helen Lake, opting to slop through snow soft from a long day of sun. Thankful to have won 2,600 feet of elevation, we shed our packs and set about making camp amidst 25 or 30 other climbers.
As we settled among our neighbors to a dinner of cheese, bread, and dried fruit, we talked the talk of adventurers well-met, a conversation consisting of phrases spoken in similar situations for millennia: “Hi, my name’s John.” “Where ya from?” “Ever climb the mountain before?”
As evening turned to dusk we watched as the setting sun gild the mountains to the south, then turned the few interlaced strands of cirrostratus an achingly brief shade of pink before releasing our part of the world to the cloak of night.
The three of us soon realized our two-person tent was, in fact, a two-person tent. Quickly assessed the power hierarchy, I “volunteered” to sleep on a tarp beside the tent.
As the temperature reached the unpopular side of the freezing mark, I huddled in my clothes inside my 20-degree bag, cursing the manufacturers who could legally get away with such a bold-faced lie of a rating. I eventually rolled over on my back, deciding that if the cold was going to keep me awake, I’d at least have the universe for company.
And what a universe. At 10,400 feet—with nary a moon sliver or even the smallest veil of haze between me and the infinite—the Milky Way stretched in thick clots dotted with innumerable pinpricks of light from Cassiopeia through Cygnus and the Summer Triangle down to Sagittarius, home of the center of the galaxy and the densest regions of stars.
Peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower
It took less than a minute for the first shooting star to streak across the heavens, briefly rivaling the star Vega as the brightest object in the sky. And then the meteors came even more frequently, varying in brightness, speed, and direction. Some died before reaching the far southern horizon; others abruptly disappeared behind Shasta’s immense bulk. The natural fireworks of the peak of the Perseid meteor shower cascaded through the Earth’s atmosphere, an ephemeral display of light that made an exquisite counterpoint to the steadiness of the far stars.
It was a rare experience, one that would make any life worth living. I did eventually doze off for brief, chilled periods, but would soon wake and again enter the larger universe.
Day 2: Climbing Up Avalanche Gulch to Mount Shasta’s Summit
Around 2:00 a.m. a waning half moon washed the sky with pale, silky light, and at 4:00 a.m. we were up well before the sun. We munched granola as we loaded up the day packs and struggled with rapidly freezing fingers to attach crampons to boots, a process that would have been quicker if we’d bothered to practice the day before, or any time during our lives.
After congratulating ourselves for barely missing the ignominious distinction of being the last group out of camp, we began the long climb in the spreading dawn. I was now thankful for the cold; it meant my crampons had perfect traction in the frozen snow.
I soon settled into a rhythm as I climbed up the steep slope: Take 100 steady and slow steps, using the ice ax for bite and balance, then stop for a short breather to look at the scenery and perhaps have a swallow of water. I wanted a balance between not taxing myself too much and thus running out of gas, and getting to the top before the snow turned soft, or, my biggest fear, being felled by altitude sickness.
I made steady progress. A small boulder from a bare ridge high above cannonballed by thirty feet to the left, and I suddenly realized why they called it Avalanche Gulch. I increased the pace as my desire to be above Avalanche Gulch and atop the summit pulled me up.
From Red Banks to Misery Hill to the Summit of Mount Shasta
I eventually negotiated one of the narrow chimneys of the Red Banks, the steepest part of the entire climb and the place where I was most grateful for my ice ax. [Note: it’s safer to avoid Red Banks and instead go the right of the Heart and then to the right of Red Banks.]
From Red Banks I made my way up the much gentler slope of Misery Hill, so named because some climbers think they’ll be at the summit at the top of Red Banks, then are devastated to find they still have another 1,200 feet of elevation gain. I was ecstatic: The goal was in sight, and I still had some stamina and no signs of altitude sickness, even though the air was painfully thin. I continued the ascent, soon passing stinky Sulphur Springs, where John Muir once spent a cold, uncomfortable and noxious night.
Best Day Hiking Trails in Upper California
- Mount Shasta and nearby
- Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Trinity Alps and Marble Mountains
- Redding area
- Whiskeytown and Shasta Lakes
Includes trailhead directions and detailed maps and trail descriptions
On the Summit of Mount Shasta!
And then a short scramble brought me to the summit of Mount Shasta. For the second time in twelve hours I felt complete, connected with the greater world around me. In the night it had been the universe; now, in the full and piercing sun, it was the Earth itself.
Shasta’s summit is often enshrouded by cloud and flayed by fierce winds. But this day was calm and clear, with the clarity extending to distant horizons determined only by the curvature of the Earth.
Far to the west, beyond the vastness of the Klamath Mountains, the sun shone on the fog that enveloped the meeting of Pacific Ocean and North America. Cascade volcanoes marched north through Oregon to Mount McLoughlin and beyond, and south to Lassen Peak, where they disappeared under the soft blue of the Sierra Nevada. To the east, the rugged volcanic landscape of the Modoc Plateau eventually gave way to the desert ranges of the Great Basin.
Soon Patty and Jan joined me. We hugged, signed the logbook, ate lunch, and talked a little about the climb. But mostly we sat in silence, small before the vast panorama.
Heading Back to the Car: Again Above Green Butte into the Old Ski Bowl
The way down went much faster. After carefully negotiating the Red Banks, we slid on our bottoms all the way down to Helen Lake, digging our ice axes into the snow to control our speed.
Camp for Free in California National Forests
California’s national forests and BLM lands have thousands of miles of dirt roads with lots of spots for dispersed camping (boondocking). My book provides all the info you need to get started (but is not a guide to specific sites):
- Researching the best locations
- Finding the best camping spots
- Backcountry safety and ethics
- What to take
Stiff with the exertion of the last 24 hours and numbly aware of our frozen derrieres, we packed up our backpacks and staggered above Green Butte and down through the Old Ski Bowl to the car. Our bodies were tired, but we had a high-altitude glow and memories of wintry snow and sharp air to sustain us through the rest of the hot summer.