Shasta: Hotlum Glacier Headwall

25 May 1997 - by Steve Shields

Last minute sharpening of our ice axes and crampons and sifting through our climbing hardware to assemble a minimal rack of rock/ice protection completed our final preparations for the Hotlum Headwall. With the last of our gear thrown in the back of the truck, we bravely headed onto the highway. After seven hours and a few close calls in the Memorial Weekend highway rodeo, we finally settled into our sleeping bags at 1:30am on a windy 4WD road with the rushing waters of Mud Creek soothing us to sleep on Shasta's southeast flank.

Early the next morning we finished navigating the network of 4WD roads through the national forest to just 1.5 miles short of the Brewer Creek Trailhead (a 4WD vehicle wasn't necessary however). Another couple weeks of warm weather should melt the remaining patches of snow and provide access to the trailhead. (4WD vehicles may soon pass).

Shouldering our all-to-often overloaded packs, we headed up the road to the trailhead at 7,400'. Reading Carlos Castaneda's famous quote from the interpretive sign at the trailhead: "All paths lead nowhere, follow the path with heart," I wondered where our path would take us this weekend.

Soon we were out of the trees and onto the gentle slopes of the lower mountain on a consistent base of firm snow that started at around 7,500'. No skies or snow shoes were necessary. Local clouds were forming up the southeast side of the mountain and light snowfall was carried by the strong upper winds providing for an unusual display of snow showers against a backdrop of clear blue skies. High above us stretched the Hotlum Glacier channeled between cliffs on its south flank and a small rocky moraine ridge on its north flank. Three sections of twisted icefall lead up to a formidable headwall of volcanic rock, our goal, at just over 13,000' that guarded the final summit slopes and pinnacle.

We slowly pounded our way up increasingly steep slopes until we arrived at the lower reaches of the Hotlum Glacier at around 10,100' where the slope briefly tapered off. We roped up for insurance against any crevasses we might step into as the glacier was still somewhat featureless besides the three bands of gnarled icefall on its southern or left flank. Two nights of less than four hours of sleep was taking its toll as we finished grinding our way up to 11,500'. Crampons would have been useful had we taken the time to strap them on the last several hundred feet as strong winds left the surface hard packed.

At 11,500', in the late afternoon, we met a trio of climbers camped on the exposed rocky ridge on the northern flank of the glacier. They had spent the afternoon digging a secure platform in the solid ridge and now greeted us through their cozy tent walls as the wind raged over the mountain. We dropped our packs in exhaustion and quickly talked ourselves out of grunting up another 200 feet where the ridge leveled out but remained fiercely unprotected from the wind.

We were spent and chose instead to flatten out a snow platform beside the ridge and call it a day. I was glad we had brought along the N.F. expedition tent instead of our bivys! Climbing into the tent and out of the bitter cold winds was a welcome reward. We fell asleep to the pounding wind against the thin tent walls as I marveled at how quickly spring lost its presence on Shasta!

After shaking out the spin drift that consolidated in chunks between the tent walls, I found my sunblock had frozen into an ice cube rendering it useless. Regardless, we awoke to a beautifully bright morning and were soon roped up and headed towards the headwall.

We traversed a few snow bridges and stepped over a couple thin, but deep crevasses as we rambled up the middle of the Hotlum Glacier. For the most part, our path was unimpeded and we were able to make a "bee line" straight for the headwall. The glacier was mostly exposed firn with a few patches of shallow spin drift. We felt lucky to have such extremely stable conditions!

At around 12,800', we passed over a gapping bergschrund hugging the band of exposed rocks to the left and continued to kick our way up the steep snow slopes. Doug measured the angle at a continuous 45 degrees. At times the angle increased as I balanced with one hand against the slope in front of me while thrusting my axe shaft down in the snow and kicking another two steps in rhythm. The snow was perfect with just enough purchase. We continued climbing synchronized together.

Another hundred feet and I stopped for a rest. Something caught my eye. I glanced left and a horrific white plume of snow racing down the couloir immediately to my left filled my view! Oh Shit! An AVALANCHE!!!

As it swept by almost silently, an ominous cloud of powder rose and lingered in its path. Only a small band of rocks separated my position from it! I looked down instinctively at Doug tied in below me. He was even closer than I and had no rocks separating him from the couloir just 30 feet away. Fortunately it didn't seem to overtake the bulge between him and the couloir. We both looked up and wondered silently if another wave of snow was going to cut loose and overtake the ridge above us! We were helplessly exposed. The spirits must have smiled on us, as that appeared to be it. A bit more relaxed, we watched in disbelief as the snow and rock knocked loose in avalanche fanned out across the glacier several hundred feet below us.

We exchanged glances and couldn't believe what had just happened. We had experienced much larger ones together on Rainier, but this was totally unexpected and much too close for comfort! Only a weathered strand of thread separated us from its grips. Not twenty minutes earlier, we were directly in its runout below and had we aborted our attempt of the headwall, something that wasn't unreasonable, we would have been in the dead center of the couloir with no warning.

All signs pointed to virtually zero chance for an avalanche: firm snow, almost zero new accumulation, significant freeze/melt cycles, extremely stable conditions and cold weather. And yet, BOOM, it hit without warning! It was a unequaled reminder of the inherent risks that we accept when venturing into the realm of the mountain gods.

Our plans for climbing the headwall were now firmly established, and we moved quickly up the exposed slopes toward the base of the rock wall. As we further pondered the avalanche scenario, our hypothesis was confirmed when we noticed climbers descending onto the glacier below. It now fell into place, someone had carelessly triggered it from above. I wanted to scream, but knew it would be in vain. I wondered if they even had a clue what happened. Ironically, even most of the "objective dangers" are indirectly caused by human intervention.

At around 13,400', I finally reached the base of the headwall at the apex of the glacier. Precariously, I traversed along the edge of the wall where 50+ degree unconsolidated snow swept away from the base. Small openings also revealed a deep moat somewhere under an unknown thickness of snow under my feet. Without the rock gear, which Doug had in his pack below, I resorted to hooking my axe pick into a crack in the rock and equalizing it with webbing to a picket slammed as far as possible into the snow at my side. This was our first protection on the route so far. I stamped out a small platform, weighted my anchor, and belayed Doug up. Bomber!

We chose a line of weakness in the rock headwall angling up to the left. It appeared that the crack system would take us to the top. Doug removed his crampons and strapped his ice axe back on his pack for the lead. I belayed as Doug worked his way slowly up through the loose volcanic rock, carefully avoiding cutting anything loose that might come torpedoing down on me. After going completely numb in the shadows of the northeasterly facing headwall, the rope finally went tight. I opted to attempt dry tooling and kept my crampons on and one ice axe at hand. Halfway up, I shouldered my axe as the climbing necessitated side pulling instead of hooking icy cracks. My crampons worked fairly well on the small edges until a foothold exploded under my weight at the crux "bulge" which was actually just under vertical.

Full alpine gear, pack, and gloves kept the 5.6 climbing interesting! Doug found enough solid placements to ensure a safe, but runout pitch of climbing. With a fully stretched 50m rope, we completed the headwall in one pitch. The line actually topped out lower on the headwall than expected, but I was happy to be back in the sun. My fingers were numb and my body was still shivering from the cold belay. Looking down on what we just came up made the effort worth it!

Above us, we could now see the fracture line in the snow field that cut loose into the dreaded avalanche. The slope must have been wind loaded the night before as about a foot of powder was resting on top of the hard pack, high-angled snow field waiting for a party to cut it loose, as they did! There were no signs below.

We continued up the last few hundred feet on moderate ground, following the sulfur fumes to the summit pinnacle and register. With a hearty congratulations from a climber who watched us on the headwall, we took our summit poses at 14,162' and headed back down to camp via the Hotlum Bolam ridge. Views of the Whitney Glacier, Shastina, and the surrounding countryside made for a spectacular descent in the late afternoon sunshine.

A system moved in that night, as we awoke the next morning to strong winds and sleety snow. A very determined, if not partially crazy, party of three climbers headed into almost whiteout conditions up the Hotlum Glacier on their summit attempt. We traversed across the glacier to the middle icefall to climb some ice. The slightly bluish glacier ice sucked up the axes and accepted ice screws exceptionally well. We spent the morning ice bouldering, leading a few short pitches and going nuts on an overhanging top rope problem along with practicing our crevasse rescue systems. I was satisfied to confirm that I could easily haul Doug out of a crevasse with a 3:1 system.

By mid afternoon we were back to the truck and headed to the Black Bear Cafe after glissading and ungracefully sliding halfway down the mountain.

To get there:

Exit highway 5 at 89 (to McCloud), go through McCloud and take 13 North (will turn into a dirt road), turn left on Nat. Forest Road 19 (north) and follow to just past 31 where you take a left at the sign ("to Brewers Creek Trailhead"). Follow signs to trailhead or as far as you can get.

North Gate will also provide access to the Hotlum Glacier via the Hotlum Bolam Ridge and might be a more direct line to the upper glacier

Nat. Forest Road 31 going past the Shasta Ski Park appears to be a more direct line, but is much (windier) and less maintained. Not recommended.

Mountain Info: 5th Season Hotline (Mountain Conditions): 916/926-5555

Food: Black Bear Cafe (Central Shasta exit) Country Cookin' to satisfy a lumberjack's appetite on a climber's budget!!!

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