Joe and I spent the previous week camping at altitude (8000’+) in the high Sierra in preparation for doing some summits. The first one was Shasta and it was already starting to be late season. California snowpack in May was just 37% of average. Low snowpack means that the crumbling slopes of Shasta start to poke through the snow and loose rocks previously held in place with snow come rolling down the steep slopes. It’s like a game of bowling where the climbing route is the lane, climbers are the pins and you’re praying for a gutter ball every time you hear a rock cracking loose on the slopes above you.
Bunny Flats campsite at the trailhead
The weather the previous week was especially warm (summit temps above freezing) but the weekend brought a cold front with 60mph winds. By Wednesday night the forecast called for chilly temps but low winds so we decided to give it a try. We passed several climbers on the lower slopes who abandoned their summit attempt the night before after their tents had been thrashed by high winds all night. They said things were starting to calm down.
Ascending Olberman’s Causeway
We arrived at Helen Lake around 3pm and occupied one of the last spots on a rocky ledge with sweeping views to the south. The next party had no choice but to dig into the snow. Someone pointed us to a slow dribble of snowmelt on the snowfield so we could save time filtering instead of melting snow. A 500 pound rock dislodged itself from Casaval Ridge and rolled to a stop just a few hundred feet from camp. We made some friends with PNW Peakbaggers and decided to head out together at 1am. I tucked in at 8:30pm and probably got the best pre-alpine start sleep of my life. I woke up to pee in the middle of the night and was amazed at how warm and calm the night was. A three quarter moon lit up the mountain and the subtle flap of tent fly’s was barely audible.
Hitting first snow around 9000’
We left right around 1am and passed 3 climbers heading down with a sick party member (vomiting/indigestion/shivers). They didn’t need help so we continued with regular, short switchbacks with mechanical precision. The snow got steep as we approached the Red Banks and we had no trouble heading up a steep gully in the hard snow. We hit the summit ridge at 13,400 feet and had to walk up long sections of rock on Misery Hill still wearing our crampons. At one point I thought Joe had farted but realized it was Sulphur coming from nearby fumaroles.
Camping on the ridge at Lake Helen
The wind was gusting pretty well at this point and the temps were the lowest of the day (15 degrees windchill) but the sun was starting to come up and the shadow of the summit pyramid was piercing a beautiful rusty-orange haze to the west. The PNW Peakbaggers attempted to launch a frontal scramble assault onto the rocky summit but Joe and I opted to circle around from the north for an easier finish. On the summit we were greeted with sun on our faces and a nice headwall blocking the cold westerly wind. We could’ve stayed up there for hours warming our chilled bodies but we signed the guest book, snapped a few pics and got ready to descend. It was 7:30am.
Looking directly south from Misery Hill
We headed down ahead of the other party and made pretty good time until we hit the Red Banks. The chute was still steep and firm and we assumed an intense focus as we slowly descended by sidestepping in the icy snow. Lower down it was slow going as the snow was too hard to plunge our heels into but instead more like a skating rink perched at a 35 degree decline. Occasionally you could hear rocks shearing off in the slopes above us but I never caught a glimpse of one actually rolling down.
Summit shot looking north
By the time we got back to the tent at 11am Joe wasn’t feeling great. He had already sunburned his calves at camp the night before and now was once again burned and overheating. The only shade was the tent but the intense sunlight made it over 100 degrees inside. I kept filtering water for Joe to drink and pouring water on his head, but eventually the solution was turning the tent so it was perpendicular to the wind and opening the doors let the cold breeze sweep across his body. Finally he managed to fall asleep for a few hours.
Heading towards Misery Hill on the descent
I spent that time trying to huddle under rocks for shade and doing everything in my power to avoid being fried by the midday sun. Around 5pm Joe felt strong enough to start down to the parking lot. The wind was starting to gust and we had to be careful to pin everything down with rocks as we packed up. I think we got back to base around 8pm. Joe headed off to a Motel 6 nearby to get a shower and bed. We were both exhausted. I stayed at the Bunny Flats and shared a campfire with another camper who spoke of the world being controlled by something called the cabal, celebrities using baby blood as an anti-aging serum and how Michelle Obama was dead and had been replaced by a robot many years ago. Then I had the best sleep of the month.