Climbing Mount Shasta Overview
Mount Shasta is the 5th tallest mountain in California, coming in at 14,179 feet tall. The tallest Mountain in California and the lower 48 states is Mount Whitney, which I hiked a number of years ago on the High Sierra Trail.
Mount Shasta may be a little bit smaller than Mt Whitney, but it takes a little bit more skill in alpine mountaineering than Mt Whitney would require on a normal day. After Mt Whitney I have always had the bug in the back of my mind, wanting to learn and develop alpine skills. It's one thing to read Freedom Of the Hills (Amazon Affiliate) a few times, but that can never replace getting out there on the mountain and actually learning from a certified guide in the snow and ice.
As luck would have it, an opportunity came up and my wife and I were able to join an amazing Cairn Leadership adventure up Mount Shasta for some guide training. Also, shout out to my amazing wife who thought it would be fun to play in the snow on her 30th birthday!
Unfortunately the weather got a little too gnarly for my camera and my shutter literally froze twice, so I didn't get to do as much photography as I would have liked on the mountain.
Mt Shasta Avalanche Gulch Map
The map above can be viewed and downloaded on Caltopo here.
The route we planned to take to summit Mt Shasta was the Avalanche Gulch route. This route starts at Bunny Flats Trailhead, and climbs up through Lake Helen, all the way up to the Mt Shasta summit and then back down the same route.
This route is roughly 5.21 miles up to the summit with over 7k feet in elevation gain. That's a whole lot of elevation gain in only 5.21 miles!
Our general plan was to hike from the Bunny Flats Trailhead and take that up to Helena Lake on day one. Bunny Flats to Helena lake is roughly 3.36 miles and 3,480 feet of elevation gain.
We then planned to make our summit attempt from Lake Helen which is roughly 3.72 miles and 3,722 feet in elevation gain. Total round trip up and down Mount Shasta is roughly about 10.5 miles.
Day 1: Bunny Flats Trailhead to Helen Lake
My wife and I drove all the way from San Diego up to Redding California the night before our start. We stayed in a hotel in Redding and then woke up early to drive an hour to Mount Shasta the town to meet our friends, get caffeine and pack our bags.
I was glad we ended up stopping at Redding California the night before because the final drive up to Mt Shasta was absolutely beautiful and I was very glad to see it all in the morning sun. We would have missed it all if we pushed the final hour the night before.
Our group met at Seven Suns Coffee & Cafe, which if you need caffeine and or breakfast I highly recommend you stop there. Their breakfast burritos are amazing, and I had a chocolate chai latte which was mind blowingly fantastic as well! If you do get a breakfast burrito be careful, they come out piping hot!
After fueling up, we distributed and packed up some of the community gear between all of us on their outdoor patio.
ℹ️ Gear Recommendations
Check out the Ten Digit Grid Gear Locker for expert gear recommendations for your next adventure, including detailed descriptions of why each item belongs in your pack.
From Seven Suns Coffee & Cafe it's about a 20 minute drive up the mountain to the Bunny Flats Trailhead. After parking, we filled out our permits and threw our packs on and started the hike!
Permits can be filled out at the Vault Toilets labeled on the google map below:
When you are ready to step off and start hiking there is a beautiful rock staircase with a large Bunny Flats trailhead sign. We did not go up these rock stairs, there is another path to the left of it between it and the vault toilets and that was the most direct path up towards Horse Camp. When we started off on the trail, we could not see the mountain at all, it was covered in one large cloud.
Coming up here all the way from San Diego, I absolutely loved the start of this hike through a beautiful forest! We don't have a lot of big trees down in San Diego, and having grown up on the east coast I do miss the forest.
Leading up to this trip I was nervous about the snow situation. I was a little nervous about the elevation and trying to make it to the summit, but I was really concerned about the snow. It was a pretty dry year overall, and I was honestly more excited to learn and practice some Alpine Mountaineering skills then reaching the summit, and if there was not much snow that would be difficult. But don't get me wrong, I really wanted to get to the summit too!
Every day leading up to the climb I was checking my favorite weather app Flowx checking all the weather models. Additionally I was tracking the snow line on the mountain weekly using Caltopo's Sentinel Weekly satellite imagery. With the weekly satellite imagery I was tracing the snow line and tracking it as it melted away... There was a little of a dusting of snow that helped out maybe a week before which got me all excited!
When the clouds started to break up while we headed towards Horse Camp, I was very happy to see a snowy mountain. At least starting around Helen Lake.
The trail thus far has been really well taken care of, and very well defined. We did not need any navigation tools as we followed it up towards Horse Camp. There are a number of trail interactions so definitely pay attention if you are not familiar with the area.
Horse Camp was where we took our first extended break, took off our packs and refilled some water. Horse camp is about 1.6 miles from the Bunny Flats trailhead with about just under 1k feet of elevation gain. When you get to Horse Camp, you can't miss it, there is a large stone hut marking its place.
After a short break at Horse Camp it was time to put our packs back on and continue up towards Helen Lane Campsite. Departing Horse Camp you embark on the causeway which was a path built by giant stones, which signs politely ask you to stay on as you continue up the mountain. The causeway reminded me of something out of Lord Of the Rings, and I felt every bit of adventure in my blood as we slowly hiked up Mount Shasta.
At this point we still had not run into any snow, but I could see it getting closer in the distance as the beautiful green forest quickly faded away.
The trail up to Helen Lake just keeps going up, and doesn't give much of a break elevation wise after you leave Horse Camp. I am still undecided if I enjoyed the rock causeway section of large stone stairs. Eventually the causeway section ended and the large stone rock path dissipated into loose dirt and fine rocks.
As the trail continued up it zigs and zags in lots of mini switchbacks as we continued to quickly gain elevation.
Suddenly the rock color drastically changed from a light gray to a dirty brown color. Knight Campbell the founder of Cairn Leadership pointed out that it was Pumice. He then picked up a medium sized piece and motioned to me to catch it. He threw it in my direction and I was expecting to catch a heavy rock but was shocked at how lite it was when it landed in my hands.
Pumice is a porous rock that forms when a volcano erupts. This was a nice reminder that Mt Shasta is actually a Volcano! According to the Smithsonian Institute Mt Shasta's last eruption was in the year 1250 AD. There was an alleged eruption in 1786 but that was discredited by carbon dating.
As you can see in the picture above we were hiking straight up into a cloud. At this point we were getting pretty close to Helen Lake. In the top left of the picture above, Helen Lake is roughly by the big rock looking mound at the bottom of the cloud. From here we are hiking up the snow chutes to the left of those rock mounds.
At this point we began to hit the snow, and it was a good effort up the last little climb. We were racking up the last bit of the 3,480 feet of elevation for the day and my legs were beginning to feel a little tired. I am sure the driving all day yesterday and the early wake up were not helping much. Rachel took one slip and I kind of tackled her into the mountain so she would slide down below us.
Despite the fatigue starting to set in a little, it was just amazing in every direction I looked, I was exactly where I wanted to be!
As we finished climbing up the snow chute up to Helen Lake we decided to continue up the large pile of moraine, and set up camp there. The large pile of moraine is just on the downhill side of Helen Lake and was the large pile of rocks that I pointed out earlier touching the bottom of the cloud. The last little climb up the moraine was pretty snow, but once we got to the top it was pretty bare and you could see all the exposed rocks. There were a bunch of good tent locations with rock wind walls already built.
We accomplished day one hiking up Mt Shasta and our legs were tired but there wasn't time to rest just yet. There was snow in the forecast so we all went right to work pitching our tents. My tent isn't exactly an alpine tent to say the least and it had a pretty big footprint, and just barely fit into the nicely protected area we found. The ground was hard and dense so there was no way to really stake the tent down either. We took our time and tied everything out to different rocks, and in the end we were content we had a safe shelter for the next couple of days.
The weather looked a little ominous but was changing back and forth rapidly. One minute it would look perfect out and the next minute it would start to snow. In addition to our tents we set up a little kitchen area to cook and talk under when the weather would take a turn for the worse.
Once all our shelters were situated we took a break, had some snacks and settled in for some fantastic discussion on the side of the mountain. This was a Cairn leadership Adventure, so we first dove into a fantastic Leave No Trace discussion led by Cairn Leadership Guide Eric Shaw. I have been through a number of Leave No Trace trainings before, and his explanation and fun way to remember the 7 Principles was absolutely fantastic! After Leave No Trace discussion Knight Campbell led a fantastic discussion on experiential learning which we would be putting into practice this entire trip as we later dove deeper into Risk Management and High performing teams.
When it comes to backpacking, hiking, climbing, or kayaking adventures my wife and I are pretty lazy when it comes down to dinner. We generally buy the freeze dried dinners that you pour boiling water into and call it a night. I tend to just look at food as calories while out on an epic adventure. When I am out on a trip with Knight and Cairn leadership, it's a whole other ball game and dinner is more than just calories, it's delicious! I think Knight secretly has his WhisperLite (Amazon Affiliate) Master Chefs License....
All while cooking and eating dinner, it constantly and randomly started dumping snow on us. As we all huddled under the tarp, it would often look like we were at a baseball game doing "the wave". Everyone sporadically would just throw their hands up into the air and slap the tarp to knock the snow off it.
After dinner, there was a special surprise of brownie mix! This cold windy snowy night was my wife's 30th birthday! I am not sure how many people in the history of WhisperLite stoves have ever attempted to make brownies on the side of a mountain...but Knight Campbell can say he not only tried but succeeded. We ended up dubbing them "Brownie Scramble" and they tasted absolutely delicious!
And right after that picture my camera shutter froze shut.... After a long day of hiking up to Lake Helen, we discussed the plans for tomorrow. The weather forecast had snow most of the day tomorrow, so we decided not to wake up at 2am for an Alpine start.
Since most of us came from sea level in San Diego, and due to the forecasted weather we decided day two would be a rest day and then day three which was forecasted to be perfect, would be our summit attempt day.
As I left our makeshift kitchen, I huddled my camera under all my layers hoping I could get the shutter working again before tomorrow. I am not sure if it helped or if it was just me poking around at things, but it un-froze and I was able to fall asleep knowing my camera was at least probably going to work in the morning.
Day 2: MT Shasta Helen Lake (Rest Day)
It was a very interesting night of sleep. The snow came down pretty much all night long, and I kept waking up to slap the top of our fearless tent to knock all the snow off and then go back to bed. I repeated this process countless times throughout the night.
When the sun finally came up and I opened up the tent door and ventured outside, it was almost like we were transported to another place in the middle of the night. It was a winter wonderland and looked completely different!
As we all started waking up and heading towards the makeshift kitchen, the rock under our feet was super slick and we really had to watch our steps.
Like any typical morning any place on earth, everyone was drawn directly to the coffee! Eric and Abigail (Business Development Director at Cairn Leadership) already were melting snow and boiling water for the group!
After a delicious pancake breakfast it was time for snow school. Cairn Leadership Guide Eric spent a couple hours on the side of the mountain providing expert instruction on how to walk up and down in crampons, how to use the ice ax to self arrest and how to walk roped into each other.
It was a lot of fun actually having formal training on all these techniques and it was a fantastic place to practice with immediate feedback from certified alpine guide.
During the training the weather quickly and often changed. One minute the clouds were breaking and the sun was coming out in full force and we were all stripping layers. Then the next minute a cloud would swoop in and we would bundle up while it snowed on us. Eventually it calmed down and turned into a beautiful day.
After snow school, it was time to head back to the "kitchen" and continue the never ending process of melting snow and refueling our bodies.
The weather was beginning to clear more and I was getting even more pumped for day three summit attempt day! While we ate we talked about and discussed risk management and teams. We would be putting both these discussions to good use in the next 16-18 hours on the mountain.
Afterwards we went our separate ways to relax and rest up. Most of us ended up taking long naps whether we were planning to or not.
Despite it snowing less frequently on us as the day went on there was a constant river of clouds below us, ontop of us or just all around us. There is something magical about being up above the clouds, that just simplifies things.
I was really hoping for one clear night, so I could do some astrophotography but it looked like that was not going to happen on this trip. I happily settled for enjoying the picturesque clouds all around us.
The rest day was fantastic, and I was beginning to feel stronger as we adapted to the altitude which was way above my normal sea level life in San Diego. We had an early dinner then headed off to bed planning for a 2am wake up for our Alpine Start!
Day 3: Mt Shasta Avalanche Gulch Summit Attempt
Remember when I mentioned Sunday (day 3) had a perfect mountain forecast. Well that changed real quick after the sun went down on day 2. Mountain-Forcast.com was predicting 10-15 mph winds.... we were awoken by 80 mph gusts all night long.
I felt like we were sleeping in a high speed washing machine. Our tent was dancing with moves that I never knew that it had to the beat of music I could not hear. Sitting in my tent, I was a bit frightened and saddened because I thought there was no way we would head up the mountain in these conditions.
When the gusts blew, it would at times just about flatten the tent with us inside. To my surprise the tent was still holding together fairly well.
At around 2 am I left the tent to see what the game plan would be. After talking it over we all decided to wait a couple hours longer and reassess at 4am.
I woke up around 4 am not expecting to go make a summit attempt, and right as I got out of my tent I saw Knight grinning as he said we are going to start climbing. It was a blast of adrenaline and I was pumped. I was so excited that the photographer in me completely missed the beautiful sunrise that was happening down the mountain!
We quickly got out of our warmish tent and got a little bit of hot water, and jumped into our climbing gear. The wind was still having 70+ mph gusts and it looked a bit cloudy at the higher elevations. We decided to make an attempt, hoping that we would get lucky and the weather would clear up as the day went on.
Since this was our last day on the mountain we had to account for timelines, to make sure driving back south would be safe after a long final day on the mountain. We had to make our attempt now, if we wanted to be able to hit the summit and get back at a reasonable time.
With crampons strapped on and an ice ax in hand, I felt safe as we methodically moved up the mountain. As we climbed higher and higher I was shocked at how strong I was feeling and how strong our team looked. The rest day looked like it was paying off!
As the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, the wind gusts never stopped. Everytime I thought "maybe that was the last one" another one would come barreling down the mountain at us. During one quick stop, while we braced for the gust, Eric pointed back down the mountain at the Mt Shasta Shadow. One of the coolest things to see while on Mt Shasta is when the sun rises, the mountain casts an amazing shadow on the earth below you! I was so excited to see this phenomenon in person!
Continuing up the mountain we were making great time, but the weather conditions were not looking great up ahead of us at higher altitudes.
At around 12,293 feet we took another break and this became our decision point to call off the summit attempt. We all wanted to make it to the summit, but visibility was approaching zero with each step we took up the mountain. We had a quick chat, and we all agreed it was time to turn around.
It's always a disappointment when you have to turn around due to weather conditions but the mountain won't be going anywhere any time soon and we plan to be back. Despite the turn around, it was a fantastic climb and it was fun applying everything we learned in our snow school the previous day. I feel much more prepared to attempt a mountain like this again!
When we got it back to Helen Lake, I assumed wrongly that it would be a leisurely pack up and head home. The wind Gust had wreaked havoc on everything and our tent was barely still attached to the mountain. We got back just in time to secure by laying my entire body over it.
It took intense coordination between my wife and I to select and pull items out of the tent, and pack them up without them blowing away. Packing up with 70+ mph wind gusts was a very interesting and new challenge to us. We did lose our tents rain fly.... but we were able to retrieve it later on while hiking down off Mt Shasta.
A week later when I was looking over my tent for damage in preparation for another trip I noticed that a corner where the guyline would attach was cleanly ripped off the tent. My pride was slightly restored to know that the tent failed at a seam and it wasn't necessarily how we steaked it down....
We stopped once more at Horse Camp and took one group photo before the final miles quickly ticked away and we were back at our cars. We stopped again at Seven Suns Coffee & Cafe for a burrito and caffeine before starting our drives south.
Our Mt Shasta Adventure was officially over and my wife and I were on our way to Napa Valley to continue celebrating her 30th birthday in a more traditional fashion! I am sure we looked and smelled fantastic as we checked into our hotel ready to drink some fine wines 😆