Shasta’s bulbous peak stands stark and alone, 14,162 feet high and 60 miles north of Redding, California. From 50-degree crevasse-riddled faces to classic bowls with minimal risk, there’s a lot of skiing here. While its lower flanks are mellow, the terrain gets more challenging as you climb higher. Opt for the Avalanche Gulch route and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a longer descent in the U.S. that doesn’t involve crevasses and rappels. A decent sustained pitch in most parts of the Rockies and Cascades can amount to as little as 3,500 vertical feet—not so here. “Getting 7,400 vertical feet in a day is rare anywhere in the world, but on Shasta it’s the norm, says Tahoe local and five-time Shasta veteran Rob McCormick.
Plan on leaving from the trailhead at Bunny Flat in the afternoon, sleeping at Helen Lake (10,400 feet), and starting the four-hour climb before dawn to reach the summit by 9 a.m. Or leave the trailhead around 2 a.m. and beat feet to the summit. This eliminates the need for camping gear, but requires a high level of fitness and energy reserves for the descent. South-facing Avalanche Gulch is the least technical route. Best from May through June, it’s crucial to summit before the snow turns to sludge. Skin from the base to about 10,000 feet, then crampon up the steep (40-degree), icy push to the summit for a total ascent of 7,000-plus-feet over seven miles.
After skiing 200 vertical feet off the pinnacle (if there’s snow), traverse about 200 yards on the summit plateau to Misery Hill. The southwesterly aspect can be caked in funky snow, but Chris Carr, owner of Shasta Mountain Guides, let us in on a little secret. “Because of the prevailing winds, skiing the east side of Misery Hill can be excellent. However, you can get lost, he says. “Cut a hard right to the west after about 800 vertical feet to get back to Avalanche Gulch. After that, you’ll hit Upper Red Banks (at about 13,000 feet) and the crux of the descent. If you’re feeling adventurous, more than a dozen 40- to 60-degree billygoat chutes await. Or keep it mellow and head to the west of Red Banks and then down (or around) a headwall that ranges from 35 to 50 degrees. Ski it in June in a big snow year, and once you get beneath Helen Lake a series of rollers and natural wind formations let you arc smooth turns all the way to the car.
With no foothills to cradle it, Shasta creates its own weather. If the peak is capped by lenticular clouds, you could be due for high winds and snow. Be prepared to turn around. Other than that, the Avalanche Gulch route requires your standard-issue snow-climbing gear: crampons, ice ax, GPS, map, compass, spare layers, and a first-aid kit.
Permits—available free of charge at the Mount Shasta and McCloud ranger stations and all the trailheads—are required. You’ll also need summit passes for everyone in your party (call ahead for prices, last year they were $15 each) if you climb above 10,000 feet. No dogs allowed. For weather and route information, try the Mount Shasta ranger station, 530-926-9613, or McCloud ranger station, 530-964-2184. The Mount Shasta Avalanche Center can be reached at 530-926-9613; shastaavalanche.org. For a guided trip, contact Shasta Mountain Guides (SMG) at 530-926-3117; shastaguides.com. Also see the website climbingmtshasta.org.