Climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch: Advice for 14er Success
Mount Shasta rises dramatically over Northern California, dwarfing the smaller summits and peaks below its slopes. As a large stratovolcano, Mount Shasta rises taller than any other peak for hundreds of miles. The large amount of snowfall it receives sustains numerous glaciers around its summit, and most climbing routes involve travel over snow and ice. This makes it a great beginners peak for new mountaineers, especially if climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch. Be sure you take time to learn to use your ice axe and crampons before your climb if you’re new to snow climbing.
The most common route climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch is best climbed in June. If you go too soon and you’ll face too much snow. If you go too late you’ll deal with increased rockfall risk. Because of the strenuous climbing and significant elevation gain, most people climb it over 2-3 days, with stops at Horse Camp and Helen Lake along the way. There is no application like Mount Whitney, though you do need a self-service Summit Pass that you can fill out at the trailhead Once you decide on a date for your adventure, plan a climb with my Mt Shasta route guide.
Climbing Mount Shasta Via Avalanche Gulch | Trip Fast Facts
Climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch
Climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch is the best route for beginners, and the route I share here. My route guide begins at the Bunny Flat trailhead, near the city of Mt Shasta, California. I recommend taking 3 days to climb Mt Shasta to give yourself flexibility to respond to the weather and acclimate as much as possible. It also provides a night at Horse Camp, which is an amazing historic experience.
At the trailhead, take time to fill out a summit pass at the self-service kiosk, and get several “Wag Bags” to pack out your waste from above tree line. There is also a campground at the trailhead if you want to sleep there the night before you start for additional acclimation.
From the trailhead, start out on the trail from Bunny Flat through a wonderful Rred Fir forest, passing through various meadows as you go. This initial hike is short in length, bringing you to the Sierra Club-owned Horse Camp just below tree line around 7,900 feet.
Horse Camp includes a 100-year old shelter that hosts a small but vibrant library. I really loved pitching my tend, finding a good mountaineering book, and enjoying it under the shade of an evergreen tree with the peak above me. You can spend the night at Horse Camp for $3, or continue on towards Helen Lake. When I was climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch, I really enjoyed taking an extra night to acclimate at Horse Camp. Conversations with the Caretaker, and a good book enjoyed in the forest is a good way to spend time adjusting to the elevation.
From Horse Camp, continue along the trail section known as Olberman’s Causeway, a stone path created by past Horse Camp Caretakers to help protect the fragile alpine terrain. Depending on how early you climb, the trail will eventually run into snow cover. From here you will need to be able to navigate on your own.
Follow the Gulch up a first large moraine to reach 50/50 Flat. This is another camping area some climbers choose to use instead of Helen Lake. You avoid carrying extra weight beyond it, but it makes for a much longer summit day climb. Continue past the flat, stopping to take out your crampons, helmet and ice axe as soon as you’re on continuous snow or ice, often around 50/50 Flat.
From this area, continue heading up Avalanche Gulch, aiming to take the least steep section of snow. This is a particularly grueling part of climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch. This will bring you up to the left of Lake Helen, hidden behind a large snow moraine. You won’t see this high camp until you’re literally walking into it.
The lake will likely still be buried in snow, and the area covered in tents of all shapes and size. Find a good spot to setup your camp, and build a snow wall if high winds are expected to help protect yourself. This is where most climbers spend the night before their summit day attempt. Set your alarm for early morning, and get as much sleep as you can.
On your summit day, get a bit of coffee and breakfast if you can, and hit the trail early, around 4am, to give you plenty of time to make it to the summit and descend safely.
The route from Helen Lake has two options. Earlier in the season head straight up the gulch, to the right of the Heart (a large rocky area in the center of the gulch), and aim for a large rock outcrop known as the Thumb. Later in the season, when additional snow has melted, aim to the left to ascend one of several chutes in the Red Banks. Either way, you’ll need to ascend steep snowy and icy slopes. Take your time, and be ready to self-arrest should you fall.
From the Red Banks, your next objective is climbing Misery Hill, a 600 foot slope just below the summit crux. It is well-named, and the last tough section while climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch. This section of the route is often wind scoured, so you may need to stop to remove your crampons. It’s a slow slog up to the top, but the summit is just a little bit further!
Once up Misery Hill, cross the summit pleateau below the summit block. You may smell sulphur in the air from several steam vents in the area, a reminder that the volcano you’re climbing remains active today. Climb the last hundred feet up a rocky crag to reach the true summit of Mt Shasta, and enjoy your accomplishment!
From the top of the mountain, enjoy the stunning views in all directions. You may also smell sulphur or see steam near the summit – a reminder that this volcano is dormant – but not extinct. Be wary of the weather and conditions as you descend, and take your time, as most accidents on Mt Shasta occur during the return trip.
Glissading in particular can be dangerous if improperly done. Be careful to ensure the snow is soft enough to slow your slide, and that there are no rocks in the runout zone below you. Take off your crampons before sliding to avoid catching them, and only glissade with an ice axe – a trekking pole won’t cut it.
I hope you found my Mt Shasta Route Guide helpful and informative. Good luck climbing Mount Shasta via Avalanche Gulch!