Time: 26 hours car-to-car
Distance: 22.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 9,400 ft
Rating: Class 3 mixed climbing, +50 degree slopes
Calories Consumed on Route 800
Hours Without Sleep: 40 hours
I had been ambivalent about trying to climb Mount Shasta this weekend. The weather forecast called for snow and wind Friday through Sunday, heightening the wind-loading danger on the slopes that I suspected needed to be crossed to bypass the gendarmes on Sargents Ridge. My friend Jonathan Bye was completely gung-go, urging me and Guy Bresler to agree to head out ASAP to get on the mountain for Presidents Weekend. He obviously didn’t have the same concerns that I did. Luckily, little snow fell and the winds didn’t load the aspects we needed to cross too badly, so I agreed to my last trip suggestion that we attempt to day climb the route after the weather rolled through. To speed things up, we would take the Green Butte Ridge approach as I expected the route finding at 12,000 feet to be rather slow.
Although the avalanche forecast had said something about a road closure short of Bunny Flats, it didn’t say where, but that a single lane had been plowed to the trailhead and the full road had been plowed to within 0.25 miles of the trailhead. To our dismay, as we drove up the Everitt Memorial Highway we were greeted with a road closure gate at 5,000 feet! Undeterred, I decided to throw out our earlier plan of sleeping a few hours and starting at 1-2am and instead, just starting from the car as soon as we were ready. Jon wasn’t too eager to partake in this sort of suffering, opting instead to stay and sleep at the car and act as our ‘designated driver’ for the return.
Heber, a split-boarder who was staying in his car at the gate, confirmed that the road was plowed to Bunny Flats and that it was better to walk up the road than cut cross-country in the current snow conditions. He also confirmed that the weather had actually been pretty good on Mt Shasta, as he had been making forays up to 12,000 ft on Green Butte Ridge for some boarding descents. Eager to have some company after so many days soloing, he decided to leave early to join us for an uber-alpine start, and we began hiking up the road by 9 PM.
After climbing all night, Guy and I finally began to see the first glow of sunrise as we reached 11,300 ft on Green Butte Ridge. Snowpack on Mount Shasta was now at 130% of the season norm, so instead of scrambling through endless mixed terrain like I did on Sargents, this time we had good snow climbing to speed things up. Still, at nearly every step I sunk to my calf and sometimes deeper and as I was doing all of the trail breaking up to this point. Guy had tweaked something in his leg a few days earlier, and he said that it seemed to be aggravated when he broke trail, so he took it easy and followed behind for most of the ascent. By this time I was beginning to slow, and an urge to sleep also begged me to stop.
As the sun rose above the horizon, I popped a caffeine pill, took a couple of pictures, and Guy took over some of the leading. He had no idea where to go, so I acted as the backseat driver, directing him away from the natural line of the ridge, and instead, to the climbers right. I knew if we went any higher on the ridge we would get cliffed out. If we started an ascending traverse here, we would probably wrap around Sargents just where the suspected traverse lay. Sure enough, after some ascending traverses across three 35-40 degree chutes we reached a ridge crest with a view of the traverse.
Since I wanted to get some good pictures and Guy was feeling eager to break some trail, I hung back while Guy led out. The slopes immediately began at 50 degrees and stayed that way for quite a distance. As I looked further down, I saw that the slopes didn’t ease out for quite a ways, and then only just before the cliffs and chutes lower down - definitely a no-fall traverse. Fortunately, the snow was perfect – soft enough for easy kick-stepping and axe plunging, but hard enough for the steps and axe placements to be solid.
Since I had carefully looked over the photos of this ramp traverse that I had taken on my failed attempt via Sargents Ridge, I had some idea where to go. Several chutes led to notches between the spires. On Google Earth I could see a distinct snow band that clearly cut across the west side of the spires, over the ribs, and merging with one of the notches. I assumed this was our way through the gendarmes, and it appeared to be at a notch that was above the 2nd large buttress, where a prominent ridge broke up the ramp traverse. I had told Guy to traverse until this distinct ridge, and then climb the ridge to a notch in the ridge.
As I followed after Guy, the urge to climb up got the best of him. Seeing the first clear path to a notch in the ridge, he stopped traversing and climbed up to the ridge.
“Guy! Where are you going?!” I shouted. “You need to keep traversing!”
By the time he heard me shouting to him, Guy had already reached the notch (3), and reported that you could possibly cut over to the west side here, but only with some downclimbing. As this seemed like an uncertain and inelegant way to do the route if my route idea worked, I talked Guy down and we continued traversing.
By this point some wind slabs were encountered where snow had blown through the notches. I dug a quick pit, and shovel shear tests showed the only distinct weak layer to be the one we were kicking through, with rough and messy failures on the lower layers. All looked good to keep traversing!
Guy made it to the next ridge and climbed up a mild chute formed between the ridge and the rocks to our left. Sadly, the next notch (4), although possibly doable, also required climbing down, doing a traverse on steeper slopes than the east side, and then climbing back up again. We could force it, but the way ahead still looked better. A short stroll along a sidewalk-like drift of snow beside the gendarme led us to a final slope that topped out on the notch that I was aiming for (5).
This notch had a knife-edge crest that curved around in front of the next set of gendarmes in a way that would make a nice ledge for an exposed tent-site or bivvy, a note I made sure to remember for next time I wanted to have some fun camping. Rime was plastered everywhere here. Now that we were on snow slopes that faced west, the slopes were no longer your typical snow slope. Instead, every wind-scoured protrusion had collected rime, forming a bumpy surface of rime stubs and appendages. The texture was very strange, but it broke easily underfoot with the sound of breaking glass.
The rocks above had GIGANTIC pieces of rime hanging on them. It looked like some of the cantilevered chunks were almost as big as me, which left me a tad nervous. Now that the sun was shining in full force, the rime was dripping furiously, and a continuous stream of rime ice was breaking off the larger chunks and trickling down the slopes. I wondered how often the larger chunks broke off.
I traversed beneath the rime formations to the only feasible snow chute that climbed over the rib extending off the gendarme. As I approached the chute, I immediately didn’t like it. The chute had two headwalls that were easily 60 degrees or more, with a bad runout below. More worrisome was a 3 foot runnel carving right down the center of the narrow chute. Rime ice chunks were pouring down it like a small stream, but the runnel was rough enough that it looked more like it had been carved by one large chunk of ice that fell down. Finally, the chute topped out on an exposed crest on the skyline, and we had no idea if it actually did lead anywhere, as all I could see beyond it was more rock rising up.
Since the ramp continued beyond this notch, I decided that rather than chancing the runnel pitch, we would continue traversing to see if we could wrap around the next gendarme and pop up just short of the Thumb. Since Guy was already at the notch, he got a head start and began leading over towards a section where the ramp split into an upper and a lower section. As he headed toward the upper section, I instructed him to traverse to the lower ramp. According to my topo map, it looked like the ramps possibly cliffed out on the back side, but at the very least, the lower ramp’s slopes looked more mild and therefore more feasible to traverse to the lesser slopes beyond.
Guy started down and then slowed almost to a crawl. His leg was acting up, and the snow had become powdery. He was really unnerved by the collapsing footsteps. Since I’m used to this type of snow climbing from my outings in the Wasatch, I offered to break trail again, but by this time Guy had rounded the corner and was ascending a chute back towards the upper ramp (6).
“Guy! Where are you going?! I said NOT THAT WAY!”
I could see the appeal of the chute as it had some fun mixed sections, but it was likely not the way to go. Guy couldn’t resist going up it, and as he grudgingly turned back down, I traversed beyond and over to where the ramp rounded a corner. Here the snow dropped away at about 60 degrees or so, slightly corniced, with a bergschrund formed by creeping snow below. Out ahead of me the slopes all looked equally steep, and covered in powdery snow. Cliffs abounded and cornices blocked access to the ridge above. Doh! (7)
We turned back on the traverse and headed to the last notch that we had passed through. From there we could see a definite descent possibility where we could bail, or if we felt energetic enough, to traverse over and finish via Avalanche Gulch.
As we passed through the notch, I dropped down a short ways to scope out any other possible chutes to climb besides the one with the active runnel. The terrain was impassable in every direction except down, but as I was taking this last survey of the ridge, I noticed a reasonable line up the chute from this new perspective. I could cross the runnels and traverse the steeper faces. This seemed like it would limit my exposure to falling ice enough that it wouldn’t be too dangerous. Tempted with the prospect of still possibly succeeding, I chose to try it out.
I quickly crossed the runnel, getting pelted by the small stream of falling rime ice. The first headwall was solid to climb, and I found the steepness reasonable if I ascended diagonally, kicking out the steeper snow into an in-cut ledge, and then tunneling through the bulge at the top to get off the face. The next headwall was passed just as easily, and then I was on top. The backside dropped away steeply out of sight, but as I walked over, the terrain rolled away to more white snow and broken cliffs.
We could pick a traversing line on the slopes beyond, and apart from a few more small ribs, it all looked passable. From here the difficulties were passed effortlessly. Every rib had a slope, chute, or ledge on the backside that we could traverse along, and the slopes opened up as we went further. The continuous rime coverage on the rock and snow made for some very strange snow climbing, and we made a fair amount of noise thrashing through all of the rime chunks.
Rime nodes here had grown out as cantilevered ‘appendage’ clusters, and many had merged into rime stumps as large in diameter as a leg or forearm. The nodes merged together such that they had the appearance of hooves, hands, and feet. It was like we were climbing across a graveyard of frozen animals and people as the ice features stuck out into the air. You could grab one as you would someone’s wrist and rip them out of the slope to clear a space for your ice axe.
Climbing was easy, but consistently at 40-45 degrees with ample cliffs immediately below, and beyond that, a 2,000 ft fall. The final climb topped out at just over 50 degrees according to my inclinometer. The exposure was thrilling, but if the snow were hard-packed or icy, I’d say this is terrain to break out the pickets and ice screws!
Finally, we reached the Thumb. Getting from the start of the traverse at 11,800 feet to the base of the Thumb at 12,800 feet had taken us over 4 hours! We hustled up the slopes towards the Red Banks. It was getting pretty late to summit, but as the weather was still sunny and clear, it seemed that we could push it and snag the summit before our long descent.
I topped out over the Red Banks and at last I had a clear view of the final slopes leading up to Misery Hill and the summit. I turned back to tell Guy we were on easy street when I saw that he hadn’t kept up. I headed back over to check on him when he finally climbed up around the second rock bank and then collapsed like a rag doll.
“Oh crap,” I thought to myself. “What is wrong here?!” Guy said he was fine except for his leg, but that the little ‘tweak’ had finally caused his leg to give out without any warning. One minute he was walking fine, and the next he was tripping. He could bear weight and move it around, but he couldn’t raise his left leg higher than an inch or so. We had climbed 8,000 ft so far, and I think the effort had finally broken Guy! I thanked my lucky stars that we had finished traversing through the hard terrain, so at least we weren’t in any danger. Avalanche Gulch should be straightforward to descend, and glissading should help make up for lost time.
I suggested we head down immediately, but Guy was feeling pretty pissed off about his leg. He said he definitely couldn’t make the summit, but he didn’t want to prevent me from summitting. I didn’t like the idea of leaving him and suggested we just start descending, but Guy insisted that he was fine, and that maybe a rest would do his leg some good for the descent, and maybe he could even get a head start down. I ruled out his heading down alone as I was concerned about his leg, and the fact that he didn’t know the route out too well. I conservatively estimated that it would take me 3 hours to make it to the summit and back here, putting us on our descent by 3pm. It would be a late descent, but still not terribly bad (apart from the additional walk out beyond Bunny Flat).
Guy insisted that he could wait for 3 hours just fine, so I caved in to my summit fever and headed off up the slopes as fast as I could. I climbed the next 1,000 ft without stopping in about 40 minutes, but then sleepiness took its toll on me, and I began to slow down and doze. Some patchy gray clouds blew in below - nothing too serious, but definitely a sign to get moving in case they got any larger. I lugged myself the final distance across the summit crater and up the summit, which was so chocked with rime that there was no rock to be seen anywhere, just one giant ball of ice. After a vain search for the summit register, I hurried back down to the top of Avalanche Gulch.
Unfortunately, Guy’s leg hadn’t gotten any better, so the descent was slow. The slopes were so mild that for the softness of the snow, it was almost impossible to keep up enough momentum to glissade, so we walked down Avalanche Gulch, step by step. Guy would take one slow step at a time, and about every 10 or 12 steps he would trip and fall over. Luckily the snow was so soft that he didn’t slide anywhere, so the descent was more of a tiring nuisance for us both rather than any real hazard.
As the sun began to set, I looked at our pace and guesstimated that if things didn’t speed up, it would probably take us until about 5 am to reach the car. That prospect really sucked. As we had been on the go for nearly 20 hours, and awake for about 35 hours, we were really dragging. Both of us had run out of water and were famished. As I counted the calories of the food I had eaten on the climb, I realized that though I had consumed 800 calories for the climb, that was 800 calories since the night before! I was hitting the wall hard and mild hallucinations were beginning to creep in.
I had gotten ahead of Guy and as I waited for him to catch up, I saw a person in yellow following closely behind him. That was strange since I hadn’t seen anyone as I descended. This person followed Guy closely, but sometimes he would get further away or move in different directions. I knew it was a hallucination, probably from the blurred pattern of the color of his jacket seen without my glasses, but I couldn’t shake the image no matter how much I squinted, closed eyes, or looked away. This was the strongest hallucination that I had experienced out of the 3 trips where I had been driven to this level of exhaustion.
I talked with Guy about our pace and our worries about what Jonathan was thinking as we were overdue from our last cell phone message and our phones had long since died from the cold. Although I didn’t like the idea of leaving him, we decided that I should run down ahead and let Jonathan know that we were O.K., and maybe see if we could get the Sherriff to open the gate on the road so that we could pick up Guy to save him from further injury. I donned my snowshoes and took off at a jog.
Bushwacking through the forest at night can be disorienting. Add to that the high contrast of the headlamp, mist from your breath, and impaired vision from not wearing my glasses (they kept fogging over) and the mild hallucinations, and it was quite a trip through the forest. I kept seeing tents, signs on the trees, etc. out of my peripheral vision, but these always turned back into blotches of snow or other patterns when I looked straight at them. Eventually my altimeter said I was past the elevation of the trailhead, and I realized that the assumption that following the fall line would at least take me to the road.
Crap! At least according to my map and compass, if I turned left and headed due east, I would hit the road or the ridge descending from Green Butte to Bunny Flat. I turned sharply left, hoping that Guy would still follow my tracks, and took off in a new direction. Soon I reached a steep ridge. Up and over I charged, and soon I had found our tracks from the approach! Shortly thereafter I saw Jonathan’s headlamp as I neared Bunny Flat. He had gotten worried and had headed up here to find us. He had also brought some food and water. What a savior!
Jonathan and I were just preparing to head down the road when I saw Guy’s headlamp not too far off. He had suddenly been making excellent time! It just so happened that by breaking trail with my snowshoes, I had created steps that he could walk in better in his Quasimodo gait, so he was finally moving at a good clip. Even better, he could walk nearly normal on the pavement, so the three of us walked at a moderate pace back to the car. We made it back by 11pm and slept soundly as Jonathan drove us back to the Bay Area.
The Sargents Ridge/Green Butte crux has got to be my favorite route on Mt Shasta now. Although snow conditions can greatly affect the difficulty of a route, after climbing both of the routes, one with low snow cover, and the other with high snow cover, I’d argue that this route is harder than Casaval Ridge, both in terms of the absolute technical crux, length of exposure, and intricacy of route finding.
As I mentioned earlier about the stated difficulties, these two routes are referred to with very inconsistent ratings (see next section), but one ranks it as being equal to Casaval on the lower end and equal to the Hotlum Glacier on the upper end in difficulty, and I’d agree that this rating is the one that should be applied to the route.
In icier snow conditions the traverse would make an excellent semi-technical traverse in highly complex and exposed terrain. I was also pleasantly surprised with the incredible views from the route, and the added surreal effect of climbing through such a heavily rimed area. This route is definitely one to come back for!
Mt Shasta Climber's GuideLevel Two - Moderate Difficulty: somewhat steeper ground, may require roped travel
Level Three - Moderate Technical Climbing: glacier travel, ropes, required equip & open crevasses
Level Four - Difficult Climbing: rock and ice with with a great commitment
Sargents Ridge - Suggested Level 2 - 4, Conditions may require rope for safety, loose talus, moderate to steep snow, ice, or rocky terrain.
Green Butte Ridge - Suggested Level 1, Moderate, requires ice axe and crampons, may require rope for safety on the upper ridge during the Winter.(How is this Level 1 if the crux of Green Butte and Sargents is after where they merge?? Unless this rating is only to the summit of Green Butte?)
Casaval Ridge - Suggested Level 2- 3, Advanced, requires experience with steep ice, snow, and some rock, and equipment.
Hotlum Glacier - Suggested Level 3, Advanced, requires ice axe, crampons, and rope for safety, experience with steep ice, snow, crevasses, rock, and equipment. (Serac climbing available at Icefalls)
Hotlum Glacier Headwall - Suggested Level 4 with Advanced rock and ice climbing (pitches up to 5.8) equipment required.
Hotlum Headwall Ice Gully - Suggested Level 4 with possible dangerous conditions, requires Advanced rock and ice climbing skills, equipment required.
Hotlum Icefalls - Suggested Level 3 - 4, Advanced with ice climbing, equipment required.
(2) - Moderate scrambling or glacier travel
(3) - Moderate technical climbing or glacier travel
III - Expect to spend at least half a day on technical portions of the route. Moderate commitment and difficulty. May have higher objective hazards. Retreat may be time consuming and difficult.
Cl. 3 - represents exposed scrambling which, while not especially difficult, may warrant the use of a rope for some
Cl. 4 - represents climbs where belays will likely be used on easy but highly exposed rock
Sargents Ridge - (2) III, cl. 3-4 (This seems about right based on rating definitions)
Casaval Ridge - (3) III, cl. 4 (This seems about right based on rating definitions, except I think the (3) should be a (2))
Hotlum Glacier - (2) III, (maybe 5.8, mixed rock and ice, ice)(This seems about right based on rating definitions, except I think the (2) should be a (3))
Sargents Ridge - II, cl.3
Green Butte Ridge - II, cl. 3
Casaval Ridge - cl. 4 (I never encountered anything above cl. 2 on this route, albeit exposed cl. 2)
Hotlum Glacier - cl. 4-5, (possible AI2 or 5.8)