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Backcountry ski and snowboard gear, camping

Mount Shasta via the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge, June 2002

All text and images by Fred Hochstaedter

Click on any thumbnail for a full size image

Summer solstice, full moon, aligned planets, unwillingness to accept the end of the ski season, these four things could only mean one thing: it was time to head for Shasta. Land of deep forests, hippies, rednecks, big volcanoes, and late season snow. Yes, it was time to head for Shasta.  

Gary and I left Prunetucky about 5 pm Thursday night, picked up Zeke in Davis at about 8, and arrived at the Castle Crags campground at about 11. Finally fell asleep to the sound of highways, trains, and noisy campers around midnight. Next morning we were up early for a breakfast at the Black Bear Diner, picking up our permits at the McCloud Ranger Station, and finally arriving at the Brewer Creek Trailhead at midday. We organized our gear and started off under a very light rain and the sound of thunder for a mile’s hike through the trees to timberline. As we broke through the trees, we could start to see views of the mountain. We put on our skins as the snow grew more continuous. We decided to camp about 1000’ above timberline at ~9800’. From the trailhead at 7400’ we had climbed about 2400’ with our packs on.

After setting up camp, Zeke and I decided to skin a little higher for some turns. Wanting to preserve my strength, I climbed about 1000’. Zeke climbed a bit higher. With the sun sinking low, we carved a few turns in the soft snow. It was going to be a good weekend. That evening, with the setting sun turning the haze to the east a misty red, we entrusted our dinner to Gary, who did not disappoint. Grilled red pepper torte on sourdough bread was the starter and then salmon risotto filled our bellies to the brim. After boiling water for drinking the next day, we were finally off to bed at about 10:30, eagerly awaiting at 4:30 wakeup call.

I slept fitfully, waking each hour and looking at my watch. Nope, back to sleep each time. I was psyched for summit day. Finally, the hour arrived. Up we rose to a quick breakfast. We were hiking by 5:45. I had a lot of energy hiking up the big snowfield that separates the Hotlum and Wintun Glaciers. But Gary slipped quickly behind. Soon I couldn’t see him behind me any more. So I slipped off my pack, put on my crampons, and hiked down to see how he was doing. Turns out that his skins were not giving him enough purchase on the hard snow so he had switched to crampons. I hiked back up to my pack and skis with him. Onward we went. Forever climbing the big snowfield.

After a few hours we met up with Zeke up at the lunch rocks. Here we met up with Spencer, a guide with the local guiding service, and a client. Both were on skis and were doing the same route we were. We had a bite to eat and switched to ice axe and crampons. We traversed over to the snowfield that merges with the upper reaches of the Wintun Glacier. This was the crux of the climb. We could see a blue ice bergschrund at the top of the Wintun to the south, on the other side of a big rock. Spectacular but scary. We followed Zeke and a boot track up the steep snow fields, staying close to the rocks comprising the Hotlum-Wintun ridge. Gary had a bit of trouble with the big steps, so soon Zeke began using French technique to zig-zag up the slope. It was easier than the big steps. All this time, clouds had been gathering around the mountain. Coming and going, the cloud cover seemed to change every 5 minutes. Clouds would converge, only to part moments later.

Soon we were on the bench above the Wintun Glacier. We traversed climber’s left beneath the couloir leading to the summit. At this point, the clouds engulfed us and graupel started falling. Visibility dropped to about 50 feet. We could hear the two skiers skiing down from the summit. We could hear their skies schussing through the snow and their voices as they talked, but we could not see them. Zeke and I exchanged worried glances. Gary said, “This is nothing. It will blow over in a few minutes.” Gary and I decided to leave our skis there on the bench and proceed without them. I did not relish the prospect of skiing down steep slopes in a white-out. It was now about 1 pm, getting close to our turn-around time of 2 pm.

After eating a bit and resting, we continued on towards the summit, angling climber’s right of the summit couloir. We found easy slopes and good views of the couloir. As we neared the summit, the clouds parted and it stopped snowing. Gary had been right. We could also see that the summit couloir looked sweet: not as steep as the crux we had climbed earlier, and filled with soft corn snow. I was disappointed that I had left my skis down below. But it was the right decision; it enabled Gary to travel faster and I had not relished the idea of skiing down steep slopes in a whiteout.

Before we knew it, we were climbing the last rocky steps to the summit. Suddenly there were people around: perhaps eight of them on the summit. I climbed to the highest point, had a look around, and had a bite to eat. Behind me I heard the pfsht of carbonated beverage being opened. “You got a beer there?” I asked the folks behind me. Nope. It was only a diet Coke. Some other folks arrived. They pulled out a cell phone and called somebody to tell them they were on the summit. Zeke and Gary looked at the register and noted that about 60 people had summitted that day. It was time to go back down.

So we geared up and headed down. I paused to take a few pictures of Zeke in the summit couloir. Back down to the skis, we put them on and proceeded to ski the steep slopes of the crux of the climb. Luckily, Zeke got a few pictures of me skiing this section in front of the big rock. We had much debate over how steep this section is. I thought it was high thirties to forty, but the other two thought it was not as steep. I took a fall on top of the steep section, but found a rock to hold onto while I got my skis untangled. The snow was nice. As soon as I convinced myself that the snow was good, I skied it without a problem. In fact, the snow was excellent. As soon as the angle eased off a bit, the skiing was a lot of fun. Clouds came and went as we skied down the big mountain. After what seemed like a long time, we got back to the traverse over to the big snowfield. We weren’t even half way down the mountain. Down the big snowfield we went. The slope was easy here. Just easy one easy turn after another. Towards the bottom, some sun cups appeared. We were so tired that dealing with the sun cups was hard. Finally back in camp, Zeke and Gary took naps while I got some water boiling for our next day’s adventures.

Next day we slept in till about 6:30 am. Got up and slowly got going. Finally we got going and made the big push to the lunch rocks. Zeke climbed a little higher to the steep slopes to climbers right of the lunch rocks. I took pictures of him as he appeared to ski down into the clouds. Skied the big snowfield again all the way back down into camp. This time, the sun cups were easier, probably because we weren’t as tired. Packed up the tent and sleeping bags, and down the lower snowfield we went, until we couldn’t find any more snow to ski. Hiked back down through the trees to the cars and celebrated a fitting end to the season.

Fred Hochstaedter, 6/25/02

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