Location: Northern border of California
Duration: 5-10 hours
Elevation Change: 6860′ – 14,179′
Recomended Map: Mt. Shasta – Tom Harrison
“She’s a big dog”, Jamie Schectman told us all as he rallied my friends and I onto our first climb of Mt. Shasta in the mid 90’s. I don’t remember if we checked the weather. It was raining and snowing and we camped in the mud at 10,500 only to survival-ski down the next morning with huge packs. That was super fun, but only one of 2 times I have slept on the mountain. It was the last time I drove all the way up there without 90% weather report of a sunny day and estimated winds under 20mph. You want to get to the top of this thing, because the lower half on all sides is low angle, bumpy snow, or lots of dirt. So go when your chances are high of making it to the top! Now my advice and pictures here are all aimed at backcountry skiing. If your just climbing the mountain, your weather can be a bit worse and it’s going to take you twice as long. Anyway, Jamie showed me there are bigger mountains than Tahoe, and California has and an incredible corn skiing quality that is unreal in May and June.
These are the routes I will describe below with my observations from about 50 trips to Mt. Shasta. I have skied from the summit at least 30 times, split between these 3 main routes. I have also enjoyed skiing a few other routes up there like the Konwakiton Glacier below The Thumb, and Mt. Shastina. Mt. Shasta is a 5 hour drive from our shop in Truckee, and it’s the same driving time regardless of whether you go 395 from Reno, 89 from Truckee, or 5 from Sacramento. Watch out for deer and police radar up there. And don’t fall asleep driving! Your sleep deprived and tired obviously coming back.
We rent lightweight CAMP crampons and ice axes at our shop The BackCountry in Truckee, and you will likely need them on the south side, and most definitely on the east and north sides. You will want a lightweight helmet and overall lightweight everything. Make it easy on yourself and start WAY earlier than you think. Only venture onto a climb of this magnitude with partners who are equal in endurance and skill. Make sure to get a summit pass to climb above 10,000′ and bring a wag bag (provided free at trailheads). The summit permit is $25/person. No dogs are allowed on the mountain. If the trailhead is going to be under snow, then try to get a permit at the plowed south side entrance or a ranger station. They should put a second self-serve permit station on the highway since so many people go to the east and north trailheads before the snow melts out.
SOUTH SIDE – The first route most people ski is the South Side from the Bunny Flat Parking Lot at 6880′, just above the town of Mt. Shasta City. This parking lot is plowed year round and you can see most of the route from the car. I see many people show up and just start walking or skinning, rather than sleeping. Why bother sleeping for a few hours on the pavement or in your car I guess! Spend less time on the mountain by doing it in a day, so you enjoy the ski descent back with your small pack. You’ll move a lot faster than with an overnight gear pack, and expose yourself to less hours at high elevation. It’s hard to say if this fast and light trick will save you some agony with the effects of low oxygen up there. Your going to feel really bad and crawl above 11k most likely no matter who you are, and how you do it. To reach the summit, you have to WANT IT. If you don’t reach the summit, you will most likely enjoy the experience and a few thousand feet of great snow in the middle of the mountain. And the mountain isn’t going anywhere, just go see what you can do and go back again and again like I do!
Like most people, I go for corn snow in the spring on Mt. Shasta. I rarely hear of skiers getting near the summit with cold winter conditions and powder snow. It’s hard to forecast avalanche danger as well in wide open bowls with high winds. People do enjoy the low to mid mountain regularly in winter however. April and May are good for the South Side. In late May the snow starts to get pretty sun cupped. I have skied very smooth snow on the south side in June however. If you want smoother snow and less people, traverse left as you leave Bunny Flat Parking and skis the Hidden Valley which has a little more SW aspect. You can also ski the cool center chute below Mt. Shastina from this parking lot. The real tick list ski descent of the south side on Mt. Shasta is the Trinity Chutes, which drop 3000′ to Helen Lake, and hold a 40 degree angle the whole way. Watch out for rocks flying down at you from the Red Banks Area right above your entire climb. This is likely on a windy day. Like the other routes, you will likely skin to mid mountain and then shoulder your skis on your pack for the steep upper half. The south side ski descent really starts above the Trinity Chutes or the neighboring bowl. You can bring your skis to the summit, but it’s going to be wind sculpted bumpy snow and slower moving. I usually leave the skis and cry my way up the last hour walk to the summit. Or I just bail and go skiing from 13,500′.
EAST SIDE – This is the best ski descent, where you literally start making turns from the very summit at 14,179′, and glide all the way to your car if you find the right gully in the woods. You’ll need to wait until the Brewer Creek Trailhead is reported to be accessible by at least 5 miles out. This is usually in late April but sometimes not until late May. If you wait until the trailhead is officially reachable by car, the lower half of the mountain will likely be pretty sun cupped. So I go as soon as they say 5 miles out. This ads an extra hour, and a good feel for where the car is down lower in the forest. Just look behind you as you climb and aim for the same spot on the peak behind you. If clouds are threatening to obscure your view on Mt. Shasta, you better have a navigation plan I might ad. Anyway the 5 miles of inaccessible dirt road are really half that, as you b-line through the woods towards the mountain. I’ve heard this East Side ski descent is the longest in North America at around 8000′. The route up and down safely splits both the Hotlum and Wintun Glaciers, with plenty of room to relax and ski crevasse free. Go check out those glaciers if you like, as you can ski right up to their edge and look. There is also a fun chute right below the summit.
NORTH SIDE – I like to ski the Hotlum Bolum Route every year, which melts out lasts and kicks your butt the most. I go in mid June to early July, and usually see just one other party on the mountain that day. You’ll want an old and high clearance vehicle to get up to the North Gate Trailhead, and leave extra drive time to get all the way around the mountain near the Oregon Border. The mosquitos will carry you away. The route up the mountain starts on a trail and winds in a long, annoyingly perfect contour for 4 miles, usually on dirt for most of it. This is the lowest trailhead at 6200′ and you can’t drive up there early enough to skin from the car. Before they built the trail we saved a bunch of time just walking straight through the woods, but it probably wasn’t quicker. Prepare yourself mentally to be lost at times along this route. I look around and take pictures to remember just where I’ve been…but still oddly refuse to bring a GPS like I should. It’s pretty easy to find the actual route by looking up the mountain. Going back to your car gets confusing at the end of the day, but you’ll find it. This side of the mountain is not for beginners. The terrain above 13k is very steep, icy, and hard to ski due to wind sculpted and half covered rocks. Down climbing to skis left at 13k will take too long and be just as dangerous as skiing, so I bring the sticks to 14k and walk across the last plateau to the summit. This route actually crosses over crevasses but they are well buried into mid July. To ensure you don’t ski over a crack, you would have to hug the vague Hotlum Bolum Ridge pretty tight, and avoid the excellent skiing right down the middle on return. I have also climbed straight up through the rocks above 13k in a B-line to the summit, rather than traverse right into steep, icy hell. I remember that working out pretty well but it was so long ago I would have to do it again to recommend it. I’ve also skied down above the Holtum Headwall, and hiked back up a bit to traverse out. That was awesome. I have enjoyed skiing the terrain skiers left on the Bolum Glacier as well, and found it easy to traverse back towards the car. From my experience, the north side simply cannot get too soft. The cooling of the massive glacier and steeper terrain must just be why. I have gone up there with zero wind and warm temps over and over, and the corn snow was perfect 2″ penetration even at the bottom. And in reality, your lucky if the top 2000′ of Mt. Shasta gets even kinda soft on any of the routes.
Start early and go in a small experienced group to ski Mt. Shasta. Slap a few pics here on our forum with the reply function please!
My recommend gear list: Good, light, tech AT bindings and boots that you KNOW fit you great. Tele? ummmm, not so much. Snowboard? that works fine, you don’t traverse anywhere. Definitely bring ski crampons, aluminum boot crampons and ice axes. Sun hat, prefer with ear and neck coverage. sun screen, paste wax and skin wax. sunscreen that you know actually works. goggles if it’s going to be windy at all. Light puffy down to be happy. Light hooded shell jacket, don’t bring your heavy parka. Merino Wool T shirt rather than cotton or fleece. breathable gloves and pants with warm gloves for up high or an over glove. first aid kit. cell phone works in a lot of places, including the summit. Summit pass, wag bag, food you will eat for sure. I eat clean dense spring snow and put it in my water bottles and carry 2 Nalgene bottles. That’s going a bit light on water, but more is just so heavy.