On the PCT last year in Northern California we walked with views of Mt Shasta for days. We walked north, west and south, usually staring at this magnificent mountain. Initially we looked at it with awe, but as the days wore on and our feet got more sore – these pleasant feelings turned sour. We wanted to be making progress and that meant walking past mountains, not around them. By the end, we were muttering things like “damn Shasta, we can’t get away from you.”
We had pondered taking a side trip to climb Shasta while in the best shape of our lives but ultimately decided against it because the conditions were not favorable.
This past weekend, they were!
So we hatched a plan to climb it. But not just Mt Shasta.
We had also walked by Lassen Peak while on the PCT. This looming beauty is not as tall but similarly stood as a prominent figure on the horizon that can be seen for miles and days. In fact, along the Hat Creek Rim one can see both of these mountains.
And so we left the Bay Area on Friday in search of a grand adventure.
Two mountains, one weekend.
Our adventure began around 11 am when we finished packing our car. Ice axes, crampons, helmets, tent, sleeping bags, food and bicycles. All the important ingredients for a fun weekend.
Shasta would be a lot of effort but was logistically straightforward. The route to Lassen however took more creativity. Due to the large amounts of snow, the road out through the park from the southwest entrance was closed to cars. So we planned to bike up partway and then hike the rest.
We drove through the heat of the day and arrived in the town of Mt Shasta around 4 pm. We got our self-issued wilderness and summit permits at the ranger station in town and headed up the mountain to escape the 100 degree temperatures.
We left the car at Bunny Flat trailhead and hiked up through the slushy snow toward Horse Camp.
After a short 1.5 mile hike we made camp on the snow. We ate dinner on the benches of the Sierra Club Cabin while staring up at Mt Shasta and chatting with Sharon – the “guardian on duty,” and fellow hikers. Actually Laurie chatted while Andy studied the route.
Sleep did not come easily that night as it was still light out at 9 pm but we knew morning would come quickly. We set our alarms for 1:15 am with a goal to be hiking at 2am.
The “beep, beep, beep” of the alarm was a familiar sound. We rubbed sleep out of our eyes as we peeled them open. The world was silent.
Andy was the first out of the tent and stopped in awe. The stars were incredible. The milky way was clearly displayed in the starry sky.
The air was pleasant as we started our 6,000 ft ascent to the top. We crunched on, step by step walking up toward the summit of the mountain that loomed in our distance for many days one year ago.
We walked in silence other than the crunch of our crampons in the snow. It hadn’t frozen the night before so the snow was soft. As we got higher the snow became more firm but never too icy.
We passed a few tents and isolated headlights around 50/50 camp and reached Helen Lake at 4 am. We could see a few headlights behind us and a sea of them ahead of us. It was like a glowing worm making its way up the mountain side.
We climbed steadily, falling into rhythm with our breath. Left foot, ice axe, right foot, pole and repeat. Both of us were surprised at how good we felt. Our bodies like to move and once given the opportunity we easily fell into our groove.
Around 5am the sky turned pinkish orange. Mt Shasta cast a huge triangle-like shadow on the valley below.
“Rock. ROCK. ROCK” people echoed as rocks came tumbling down the mountain. Falling rocks are a real danger on this mountain. Thankfully we avoided them all.
We reached Heart Rock and the Red Banks around 6 am. From here the pitch steepened even more. Every 5 steps we stopped to catch our breath. From Horse Camp, it looks like the incline lessens after the Red Banks. Unfortunately this is an illusion.
“It should be called Red Bluffs!” Andy proclaimed, leaning over his ice axe.
The hill continued on and on.
Eventually the mountain leveled out, but the wind had picked up. It was cold! We chose to take a rest break anyway as there were exposed rocks on which to sit.
Laurie’s tummy wasn’t doing well all morning but the break helped. With our teeth chattering we shouldered our packs and hit the trail once more.
The incline steepened again as we started the final push up Misery Hill. This is a very appropriately named hill. As we crested Misery Hill the summit finally came into view.
The snow on the summit twinkled in the bright blue sky. It’s so jagged and rocky! We eagerly walked across the plateau and up the final 200 ft to the summit. As we made our way around the backside of Shasta, the aroma of sulphur hit our noses quite intensely. We looked to our left and noticed steam rising above the snow.
Once at the summit, we joined about 20 other people enjoying a snack and a rest at 14,161 ft. It was 8:15 and we had climbed another 14er!! That feeling of accomplishment never gets old.
We took pictures, signed the register and ate lots of food. After 20 minutes or so, we were ready to head down.
And now the fun began – or so we thought. Laurie had climbed Mt Shasta once before and what she remembered most were the glissades. But since it was only 9 am, we had to wait a few hours for the snow to soften before we could descend safely.
We weren’t about to wait so we gingerly made our way down, continuing to walk with our crampons. On Misery Hill we stopped to take off our crampons and attempt to glissade. Andy put on his rain pants and went first. He went quite fast and a bit out of control.
This terrified Laurie who still has a little PTSD from her uncontrolled glissade on Glen Pass. She took off her rain pants, put her crampons back on and continued to slowly march downhill.
Around 10 am we came to the Red Banks. Avalanche Gulch lay ahead. The incline was steep and parts were still icy. We walked slowly, with Andy very nervous and taking more time to walk down than up.
Laurie waited patiently below watching other people glissade, trying to determine if the conditions were right to have another go.
Our legs were tired from side stepping and the snow was soft so we unclasped our crampons and went for it…again.
The glissade was the longest either of us had ever done. We descended at least 1000 ft!
However, there were still chunks of ice so we used our ice axes to slow us down. We found ruts in the snow from other hikers and as we got lower and the snow softer, glissading became more enjoyable rather than just bearable. It felt like we were on a water slide of snow.
It was hot when we reached Helen lake. Lots of hikers were back at their tents and others were cresting the hill about the set up their tents for an attempt at the summit the following day.
We glissaded down to Horse Camp both on our feet and our now frozen bottoms.
Once at Horse Camp we disassembled our tent and packed up in less than 20 minutes. We said goodbye to the lovely Sierra Club host, Sharon, and headed down to our hot car at Bunny Flat.
It had been a very long day but Laurie was already fixated on the next adventure – Lassen!
We stopped for a grass-fed burger in Dunsmuir – more cheese than beef but tasty nonetheless – and continued on towards Lassen National Park.
We had originally planned to get a backcountry permit and camp near the base of Lassen Peak but as Andy frequently reminded Laurie, things take longer than we think.
So we found a Forest Service road very near the park entrance and set up our tent in the woods. It was still 80 degrees when we crawled into our tent around 8 pm. The forest was alive with bugs, birds and rays of sunshine. It felt great to be lying horizontal and we both immediately fell asleep.
At 5:45am we woke up naturally. The sweet forest air filled our noses and warmed our hearts with familiarity.
We weren’t sure how sore we would be this morning, but surprisingly both of us felt pretty good, except for the ice burn on Laurie’s left hip and a small abrasion on Andy’s right elbow.
We packed the car and drove to Sulphur Works in Lassen National Park. The road was closed past the parking lot. Laurie loaded her bike with panniers filled with water, bike locks and crampons while Andy rode with his backpack on, and strapped to it our trekking poles and ice axes.
We rode up the car-less road, enjoying the cool morning air and admiring the views. At one point, we shared the road with a couple of deer.
Water gushed down the hillsides and along the road. Snow lined both sides of the road for most of the ride, in some places as high as 10 feet.
Close to Lake Helen, and still a mile from the Lassen Peak trailhead, we came upon lots of heavy machinery and a snowy road. We had reached the end of the exposed pavement. We locked our bikes to one another, strapped on our crampons and set out.
The only other people there (on a Sunday) were a couple on AT skis. We felt like we had the park to ourselves. It was fabulous.
We looked at the map of the summer trail on the Gaia app, compared it to what we were looking at in real time, set a plan and got to it. Unlike Shasta, we wouldn’t have to gain ~6,000 vertical feet to reach Lassen Peak, but that didn’t mean the climb would be easy. The slopes were steep and the snow a combination of ice and slush.
After crossing a few steep snowfields Laurie veered left toward the exposed rocks on the ridge and found the summer trail! This was a relief to both of us because the last 1/3rd of the climb looked particularly steep.
We took off our crampons, Andy gave Laurie the backpack to carry and we continued up the trail. “It’s so nice having a trail” Laurie mentioned over and over again with a smile.
We made really good time hiking up the mostly snow free trail. Before we knew it, we were at the summit. We walked onto the snowy plateau and looked through the haze to find Mt Shasta. And there it was, a snowy, prominent triangle 100 miles to the north. It’s hard to describe the feeling but Andy felt accomplished and very nostalgic.
It is nice to know that while at the moment we can’t step away for 6 months to hike a long trail, we can still have epic adventures on the weekend.
We returned to work and responsibilities with a little more lightness. Spending time in nature helps us reconnect to one another and our souls. It is a wonderful reminder that Nature is always there when things get tough.
Tonight we are grateful for our strong bodies, good weather and beautiful mountains.