By Alex Dierker
The spring is a very special time of the year for all backcountry skiers. The days are longer, ski fitness levels are high, and there is something about skiing in a t-shirt or skirt that can make everyone smile.
For two years, my friend Dani and I have attempted to get away for a week to explore the Cascades and visit friends. And at the start of this past winter we vowed that this would be the spring, so we set about our training and penny saving. We fretted over gear choices, weather forecasts, dismal snowfall, and last-minute itinerary changes. The biggest goal that never changed was to ski Avalanche Gulch on Mt. Shasta with Dani’s Dad, Dan. The winter flew by, but last week we finally escaped the Front Range thunderstorms and traffic jams for some West Coast spring skiing.
The drive from Boulder to California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park was long but straightforward. We arrived late and immediately set up camp and fell asleep to mellow temperatures and a light breeze in the old growth red fir. Neither of us had been to the park, and we were blown away as we drove up Lassen National Park Highway the next morning.
The short, scenic route up the Southeast Face was our warm up, and it felt good on the legs after sitting in the car for 17 hours the day before. We gained the summit after a mellow 2.5-hour hike and found a beautiful 2,000-foot, 35-degree slope. There was only a pair of ski tracks from the day before, and we skied firm corn back to the parking lot.
After repacking gear and picking up Dan, we headed north to give Mt. Shasta a shot. Despite precipitation and 60 mph winds forecasted, we started the hike up the bare trail from Bunny Flat in running shoes. A couple of miles up the trail we reached the Sierra Club Hut and chatted with a very helpful Shasta Mountain Guide.
Based on the information from the guide and our own observations, we decided to camp right there at tree line rather than continue to Lake Helen and deal with the overnight high winds while sleeping on snow. We pitched the tent and went for a short afternoon soft-snow lap, enjoying the sun and the vastness of Mt. Shasta. To be honest though, we were pretty bummed. Low, dark clouds rolled overhead and sat on the summit, and grauple intermittently pinged off our metal cups as we ate dinner.
The next morning we left camp at 4 a.m. planning to battle the wind up to Lake Helen, then lapping the moraines from there. However, as we hiked above tree line, it was clear the wind was not going to show up—or at least anytime soon. We continued through the moraines, and a few thousand feet later we ditched our skins for crampons and axes, and headed up Avalanche Gulch. After pushing through Misery Hill with light wind and bluebird skis, we reached our goal in slight disbelief around noon, signed the summit log and clicked into skis.
We couldn’t believe our luck. Our experience with mountain weather in the Rockies and Tetons was different than what we were seeing and knew about the Cascades: These relatively solitary peaks can create their own weather. Watching the clouds build and dissipate below us from the summit of Shasta was impressive. The top 1,000 feet of skiing was awful as we slowly worked our way down the chicken heads of ice and sastrugi while trying to keep our teeth in our heads. After dropping through the bright red conglomerate of the Red Banks, the snow softened fantastically, and our quads quaked through another 5,000 vertical feet of spring velvet and slush turns back to the tent.
It felt great to find success in something we had extensively planned and trained for. Dan had wanted to ski Shasta for years, and I had a hard time not smiling as I ate an enormous double bacon cheeseburger at a diner in Mt. Shasta to celebrate.
>>EAT: If you make it to Bend, check out Jackson’s Corner for a mind-blowing breakfast or lunch, and 10 Barrel Brewing for great craft beer and a quality patio.
>>READ: Pick up a copy of Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes for Washington and Oregon. Christopher Van Tilburg writes the Oregon edition, and the Washington edition is written by Martin Volken and a supporting cast of very impressive guides. Also check out Amar Andalkar’s site www.skimountaineer.com.
(Photos by: Danielle Perrot)