Trail details last updated 10/5/2015.
Around the start of October my climbing partner shot me a text with the impossible: we both had four days off and the weather was playing nice! After an adventurous year for both of us (our first full alpine season), we were left in a quandary as most of the good climbs were done and dirt or something we’d already been to and then Shasta came up.
As a native Northern Californian you’d think I would know all about one of the state’s tallest (14,179′) and most prominent mountains (over 10,000′ from the base to the top) but thinking back, I don’t remember ever stopping by as a kid or even as an adult until I passed by for a few photos during a road trip just last month. Turns out Mount Shasta should have been on my list long ago as the largest mountain in the Cascades (by volume) and home to the largest Glacier in California as well. With over 15,000 summit attempts a year it’s a popular place to be climbing and home to routes for all levels and interests.
Of course most of those attempts (only around a third summit apparently) come in early spring and summer when snow levels are good and weather is fairly stable too. In late season, rockfall hazards put the popular Avalanche Gulch on the “no thanks” list and broken up glaciers turn technical routes something gnarly. With little time to plan and few reports to go from on recent ascents we settled on the east face and the common Clear Creek Route (Class I) for our attempt.
Day one: The trip to Shasta.
Heading down from Portland it’s nearly 6 hours to the town of Mount Shasta just at the base of the mountain. While we left late in the afternoon and had only a few hours of day light to view the road I can tell you there’s little excitement in the drive south or north though both are what I’ll call friendly stretches of I5 with light traffic, small roads and many local options to stop at.
It’s a long way to a city from Shasta but the town is home to a few outdoor shops for those last minute supplies. However, our plans didn’t call for much city time during store hours, so we swung into an REI location in the town of Keizer (ya, I’d never heard of it either) to replace my failing helmet before pushing on down towards California. Aside from gas stops, rest stops and fast food stops, there’s little to tell of the drive down but it is worth mentioning the accommodations so to speak.
The mountain is located in the Shasta-Trinity forest, the largest national forest in California, and this home to a whole lot of camping options. Blog information suggested that the Bunny Flat parking lot at the trailhead for Avalanche Gulch would be free to crash at for a night but wasn’t a sure thing so we swung into the McBride Springs campground on the road up, pony-ed up the $10 for the first empty site and settled in for a few hours of rest. Returning towards the town of Mount Shasta (about 15 minutes away) in the morning, cars could be spotted at nearly every turnout presumably making a free stay while the town has several motels for those preferring that route as well.
Day two: Red tape & the approach.
Our plan was to split the climb up into two days leading in with at least 4,000′ of heavy pack, dirt hiking which would put us at over 11,000′ on the mountain and make for a more manageable summit day (hah!). Still, we figured it would only take 5 or 6 hours at most to get to camp and with little chance of company to chat with there no reason to start early so we grabbed breakfast at a funky, but tasty, little cafe called Wassayaks and waited for the Ranger Station to open rather than self registering.
There are actually two ranger stations around the mountain, the namesake Mount Shasta station in downtown where we first went and a smaller station just past the town of McCloud and on the road towards the Clear Creek trailhead. At the downtown station we confirmed weather reports, shared our route plans and picked up the $25 / person permits required for climbing above 10,000′. There’s no quota system on the mountain and rules are straight forward but it was still good to know our plan was in line with what others had done recently especially since the sign up sheet was entirely blank before us.
Heading out for the Clear Creek Trailhead took us right through McCloud where we stopped to pick up a deck of cards, final caffeine for the short drive and to fill up on water at the Ranger Station. Neither of us set foot inside the building so I can’t tell you anything about the location except that there’s currently no restroom and that the staff is plenty friendly with few visitors this time of year.
The road from McCloud to the trailhead degrades the higher you go as it switches from pavement to maintained dirt to just well used dirt. While there’s no vehicle restrictions and I did spot a couple smaller 4x2s at the parking lot on our return, deep sand deposits make it an interesting drive in points and a sharp, rocky one at others… being completely solo on the way up, the Jeep was sure nice to have. As for the trailhead its self, there’s little more to it than the end of the road, a few half way cut out parking spots, a single chem toilet (no water!) and a self registration permit station. Just enough to load up the packs and go.
Hitting the trail & making camp.
Clear Creek trail starts off as a day hiking and camping trail, well marked and easy to follow passing through continual forest for several miles and about a thousand vertical feet I believe. As the trail rises up, the trees start to fade away bit by bit and the mountain comes into view, though we had little to see as the morning’s forecast storm had decided to linger on. Moving up and up, the storm turned on us dropping light rain and then moderate. After a few pauses under the shelter of trees to try and wait out the weather, we finally gave in, pulled out shells and covered up. As it would turn out, those would stay on for almost the remainder of the trip.
Returning down the next day, I can tell you that the view up is every bit as impressive as the books say with trees framing up stunning views of the mountain not to mention cliff faces, the creek and presumably the falls though I didn’t see them myself. Surrounded by grey skies, but now free of all but the occasional drop of rain, we had just the trail to look at, in it’s barren & dirt form.
Approaching Wintun Ridge at just over 8,000′, the trail begins to split as it will do many times from here to the summit. Other routes lead away though it’s difficult to tell what goes up, what goes to camp and what’s the main path on without a track to follow (I used AllTrails). For example, our chosen route hid any view of the creek until our return, an important reality considering that in late season it was the only waterflow I saw on the mountain leaving just snow to melt higher up.
While camping around this point or just a bit higher up in the trees is apparently common, stopping here would have left nearly 5,000′ of vertical gain for the next day, way more than we wanted to endure and so we pressed on. Passing above 9,000′, rock walls for shelters came up here and there as the trail brutally wound its way up and over the ridge but without snow or water sources, we continued on and spotted the last solid shelter at just around 9,800′.
By the time we passed the 10k threshold, the trail was pretty much just pushing us up the ridge in an unrelenting, calf burning way while the winds had picked up from constant cold breezes to serious gusts. Temps were down drastically from when we setout on the the trail just a few hours earlier and my legs were completely ready for a real rest; we started looking for just about any gully with enough snow for water and a semi-flat point to make camp. Finally at a little over 11,200′ we found a built up dip, worked it out further and set in to pitch our tent & make up some water. It wasn’t level but it was up and as it turned out just in time.
After passing by dozens of signs warning of quick changing storms on mountains in my climbs this year, it’s funny to write about weather as a problem but reality is we all look at forecasts and we all expect them to be about right, even if we know nothing is for sure.
When we set out for our climb, the weather gurus called for a little drizzle down low and a little snow up high, mostly set to be gone before we were even going to hit the trail and certainly over by the time we got near it. Driving along it was clear that timeline had shifted or grown but with enough signal to re-check, all still looked light. Even as we hiked up in the light rain early on, it seemed to fit in with what we were expecting for the day and as it died down, it felt like we were going to have a great evening at camp. The clouds even started to part and give us a few mountain views though not up to the summit.
While it had been cold and windy since we climbed above the treeline, it was predicable and for the first hour at camp, manageable, and then, out of no where, it wasn’t. Big gusts rolled in and motivated us to turn over our packs, stash our boots and check for any lose gear just as an unexpected wave of snow started falling. In hindsight it wasn’t much — half an inch or maybe half that, but the cold it brought with it was something else. Now I’m all for climbing a mountain yourself and we’re overpreparers if anything anyways, but let me tell you, being completely alone, up high and in a storm when you don’t know how long it will last was downright freaky. Call it the rookie reaction if you will, after all, we had ditched the idea of a bivvy and were in a 4 season tent designed to endure far worse, had 20 degree or better sleeping bags, down jackets, spare food, freshly boiled water and even cell signal to check on things but it still tripped me out and kept us tent bound for hours.
Finally, just as sunset started to wrap, the skies began to clear and though the night was the coldest I think I’ve ever experienced on a mountain, it seemed manageable again and we set in to get as much sleep as the mountain would allow.
Day three: To the summit.
With the cold, the storm and now fresh snow covering any use trail, we had ditched any plans for an alpine start and instead to wait for the sun to start shining before even getting up. Mike rightly figured that we would have plenty of time to summit and that, with it being below freezing and all, melt wasn’t anything to worry about as so often is for alpine climbs. After the painfully slow process of melting up more water and chowing down a little breakfast, we set out for the top of the mountain, now less than 3,000′ above us.
Despite the new snow and remarks about the lack of a defined trail on some of the sites I had studied, it was easy going at the start, at least in route finding. In elevation however, the trail up was simply rough from the onset — my legs had not fully recovered from the day before to start with and the trails we found took no pity as they wound up directly. I suppose I should credit the trail for fast going as even a slow pace meant 100′ of gain every couple minutes.
After an hour in and at around 12,000 we could see the wind whipping snow and ice around above us and set in for our first break, surprisingly neither of us had much of any signs of altitude issues and took it all as a good sign for the day to come. A grueling 800′ further up, we hunkered down under Mushroom / UFO rock (aptly named for its appearance but really it’s just the big rock pile on an otherwise empty ridge) and debated what was to come now. Cold and tied, I knew I was not having an A day but our progress supported both of us moving on for the time being so long as we kept moving — stopping too much was just too cold.
For anyone planning this route, the path up from Mushroom rock is located just above and behind it. We didn’t see that option however and instead set out on some other trail or perhaps it was just a contour line in the mountain but soon we were scrambling up and over making steep even steeper. With a map and tracks to follow on my phone, it wasn’t long before we routed correctly and could see the trail again but the damage of the extra effort was done for my already excuse filled morning. Then, as we met up with the proper route, we began the crux of the day: a steep, well exposed slope leading to the rocks just below the summit ridge. Mike threw on his crampons and ascended straight up while I hugged a rocky wall on the side of the face, kicking in until I too had ascended the slightly gentler route. Slow going for sure but progress and we were well into the 13s as we joined back up.
A few more minutes of moving from the top of the slope to the rocks at the summit ridge and there it was. At last, the summit… except that, now free from storm clouds and slopes of the mountain, we could see that the summit was no where near the ridge we had ascended and instead lay across the face of the mountain. We had left camp at 8:20, it was now just after noon, my legs were wrecked, it was cold and while we were approaching 14,000′, I decided the right call was for me to take a ridge ascent as a victory and let Mike move on quickly for the true top.
Off he went and after a bit of a break to recharge, I decided to follow along to see the base of those final feet for the true summit (and stay in visual proximity). What most guides & blogs describing the Clear Creek Route don’t explain is that the ridge really is 30 minutes to the top, maybe more. Sure you’re almost there in elevation but you have a rise to climb over, a flat to go across, another rise to go around and only where you finally meet up Avalanche Gulch and the other west facing routes at the base of the summit scramble. Following at my slower pace, I made it to the base in time to watch Mike heading on up to the top — 96% of the climb & 98% of the mountain for me, 100% for him and much as I’d have liked that last bit, I’m just fine with making the call.
Heading home & finding better routes.
Shortly after 1pm, we met back up below the summit Mount Shasta, sharing congratulations on our respective accomplishments and planning the all important return. The way up from camp had been steep but also firm and with the trail now identifiable from above, the only real difficulty seemed to be the 500 or 600′ slope we had ascended to the summit ridge.
Heading back across the flats and to that point, we decided to cut towards the rock wall and away from the icy snow Mike had encountered on his was up side stepping our way down quickly but carefully. Free from any falls, we made out way off the section and onto the trail (where we both took little slips on rock scree, now without any risk of real run off) before hightailing it down. The trip to Mushroom rock took all of 40 minutes versus the hours we had spent ascending and the winds had died enough to ditch our puffys now as we picked up the pace to move down.
Descending out of the dense snow it became clear that several other, more gentle trails also made there way up to intersect with the route we had taken and we switched over to what I believe was the Wintun Ridge path as it switched back and forth — more steps but much easier ones down. There are use trails all over the place which downhill revealed far better than up and staying right, right and right again, we were able to follow them back over to the original route we had taken up and to our camp which we packed up and left by 3.
Descending down from there was long, tiring and increasingly hot as the stormy weather had become clear, sunny skies in the afternoon (though the forecast called for far worse summit temps the next day). Under 9,000′ we discovered we no longer had the mountain to ourselves as we started to run into weekend crowds setting up low camps for the night. Some seemed intrigued at higher starts and less day two work, others were just having a fun and remote night stay, but we didn’t chat long as we started to race the clock to get on home.
It’s a long way down, far longer than it seemed up and we didn’t hit the car until almost 6:30. After a little clean up and a drive into Mount Shasta for diner at the always predictable Black Bear Diner, it was off for 6 hours of driving and one heck of a night’s sleep back in Portland.
Directions, tips & other trail details:
- Official Rating: Very Strenuous
- My Rating: Buying the tshirt
- Start point: Clear Creek Trailhead (directions)
- Distance: 16 miles R/T
- Duration: 2 days
- Climb: ~7,600′ (6,520 to summit)
- Facilities: Restrooms @ TH. No potable water on route.
- Crowds: Light in late season
- Key gear: Ice axe, crampons, cold weather
- Permits: $25 climb permit required