Shasta, Avalanche Gulch Route

12 Jul 2004 - by Richard Hughes

This was a very spontaneous trip.

Patsy and I bought a 1987 Syncro (4WD, actually AWD + rear diff. locker) Vanagon on the Internet. The ultimate camping machine :-) The van was in Boise and Patsy suggested we climb Mt. Shasta on the return trip to San Diego.

We swung by the ranger station in Shasta City on Sunday afternoon and ponied up $15 each for the summit permits, which you are required to purchase if you intend to climb above 10,000', in addition to a Wilderness permit. We drove up to Bunny Flat at 6,900' to scope the place out, intending to climb the easiest, Avalanche Gulch, route. There are two trailheads, neither of which was signed as to destination as far as we could see. The correct trailhead is the lower one, the one close to the rest rooms. Somewhat surprisingly, the Forest Service doesn't frown upon camping at Bunny Flat. Of course it's not really all that flat.

We drove the Vanagon down to the lowest section of dirt road. It was really cool. Other drivers would see our "new" van parked down there and start driving down, only to quickly change their mind and end up camping higher. As a result we were on our own down there and, sleeping in the Queen-size bed in the back of the van, we were insulated from the noise of people arriving late at night. We ate dinner, went to bed at 8.30, but awoke around 11.30 feeling really thirsty. I'd drunk a couple of beers before going to sleep too. We drank some water and lay there for a while then Patsy said, "Why don't we get up and start early?" So we did.

We set off at 1 am, still not sure for 100% sure that we were on the correct trail. I'd preprogrammed the route into the GPS, which indicated we weren't exactly heading in the right direction, but it turned out that the trail wandered around a bit and we were on the right track. At the Sierra Club lodge at Horse Meadow we filled up with water and set off on the Devil's causeway. It wasn't actually called the Devil's causeway, but that's what I thought of it as. When we climbed Scafell Pike, the high point of England, we also climbed stone steps, laid to reduce erosion. The steps up Scafell Pike were a work of art. The steps that headed up Mt. Shasta were good practice for walking on talus. Anyway ...

We put on our crampons about a thousand feet below Lake Helen and pressed on, still in the dark. There was no moon and we only had the vaguest notion of where we were heading. We reached the lip of Lake Helen and stopped for a break. I was feeling a little hypoglycemic, but still didn't feel like eating much. We could see flashlights well ahead of us on the snow chute to the right of "The Heart". Dawn broke while we were resting and then we set off again. It was a strenuous ascent. Towards the top of this snow field I chose the left-most snow chute that led through the Red Banks. We had to cross a snow bridge at the bottom of the chute. Fortunately, the snow was still really firm. At the top of the chute we were able to dispense with the crampons and continue on rock. We arrived on the summit at 10.30 am. The wind chill made it cold, but the weather was perfect with not a cloud in the sky. We didn't tarry too long, but stopped on the way down to check out the sulphur springs that saved John Muir's life.

Patsy wasn't too keen on going down the chute that we had ascended and so she pressed for a descent of the notch to the right of (as you're looking up) the Red Banks. This was a big mistake as the rock was loose, reminiscent of the worst desert rock. We made it down safely, but Patsy was beginning to feel nauseus. Altitude-induced nausea, presumably. Nevertheless, we still made it down in good time to drive to Dunsmuir and eat at Sengthong's Thai/Vietnamese restaurant, which was recommended to us by several people. Check it out if you're ever up that way; it was good.

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