Tackling Big Vert in Spring Snow - A Drift adventure on Mount Shasta
Shasta landed on my bucket list as soon as I heard about it but sadly eluded me for three seasons. Between COVID shutdowns, poor snow conditions or conflicting schedules, I spent almost four years looking at Shasta without stepping a foot on her.
That all changed in the spring of 2023, when an epic West coast snow season led to quality conditions on Shasta all the way into June. Schedules worked out for Drift CEO Dave to come out from Utah for (as far as we know) the first Drift board ascent of Shasta, and our the biggest single vertical climb on Drift boards yet.
Our chosen route was Avalanche Gulch, a go-to for first-timers. Since we would be tackling 7k of vertical in one day, with more than half of that coming above 10k in elevation, we prepared with some training tours. A lot of factors go into being fit enough to climb a mountain like this, but in my experience nothing replaces time going uphill aat elevation. I spent a lot of days lapping Mt. Ashland and Brown Mountain, and did a couple big tours on Mt. McLoughlin, a lesser known Oregon gem topping out at 10k. Dave spent a bunch of time in tops of the Wasatch Mountains near Drift HQ in Salt Lake City.
The night before our climb we camped in the Bunny Flats trailhead parking lot (at 7k) in preparation for a very early start. the sky was crystal clear, the temperature was mild, and a tall wall of glorious snow still circled the parking lot. Conditions were prime. We set off at about 3:30 a.m. on our Cascade Drift boards, the narrower version designed specifically for better edge hold in firm snow. The trick with spring corn is to ascend while the snow is firm from freezing overnight, and then make your descent just as the sun softens up the surface, but before it gets too soft and wet. We planned to skin as far as we could, transition to our ski crampons, and then transition over to boot crampons for the steepest terrain.
With volcanoes, the approach is long and the terrain becomes gradually steeper. Shasta is no exception. We covered about two miles in the dark before the terrain started to ever really climb. We left tree-line and passed Horse camp at about 8k. After another mile, the terrain begins to steepen. As you make your way up Avalanche Gulch, the scale of Shasta becomes hard to discern. You can't see the summit while climbing, but your eyes are constantly drawn to a very steep half mile climb known as "the Heart" that ends between a band of cliffs called Red Banks and a large rock outcropping called the Thumb. To our eyes, it looked like three or four rolling foothills between us and the Heart. But really, each of those hills is a little 500-foot beast that has to be conquered.
Just before the Heart, we passed a large cluster of tents in a flat area called Helen Lake that sits at almost 10,500 ft. Helen Lake is used as a basecamp by many climbers who make the climb in two days. We imagined how nice it would be to go in a tent and take a nap; after all by Helen Lake we had already been on our feet for hours and covered a respectable amount of vertical, but we were no where near finished and continued our way up the hill.
At the Base of the Heart we had a snack and changed our Drift boards for boot crampons. The heart is steep the path is a kicked-in stair case straight up the face. It feels like that staircase will never end, but one tough step at a time, the saddle eventually comes. The air is thin and the sun in full force. The top of the Heart, between the Red Banks Cliffs and Thumb Rock, is 12,800 feet. You tell yourself that you only have about 2400 feet to go, but because of the elevation and the hours you've already worked, those 2400 feet are tough. We slogged up "Misery Ridge" to the false summit, across the collapsed cone of the volcano, and up the final few hundred feet to the summit over the next couple of hours. Before the final summit push, we pass a volcanic vent spewing sulfur fumes. No one warned me about that little treat: right when you are moving slowest and breathing hardest, you get to walk through a giant Shasta fart. Lovely.
The summit was truly magical. It's near overwhelming to stand there in the warm sun, catching your breath, knowing you can't go any higher. Mission accomplished! The views from the summit are profound. Ominous cliffs and vast white snowfields stretch downward in all direction. Puffy clouds swirl around the mountain above and below us. Shasta is so prominent, there are no other mountains around so it really feels similar to looking out the window of an airplane. We took some pictures, signed the register, soaked it in one last time, and headed for our snowboards. Even on snowboards it was still a long, demanding journey back down on some very tired legs.
The top 1k was spotty enough that we chose not to snowboard it. A bit of a bummer, but we still had 6000 feet to descend, some of which was quite technical and we weren't interested in doing anything too sketchy knowing that we had a long way to go and the snowboarding was going to be challenging on worn out legs.
The steepest and most technical section of snowboarding on this route comes early on when passing through the Red Banks cliffs and descending the following 1000 feet. We began with some very careful route choice through a number of exposed boulders and some pretty aggressive jump turns. This was a "no fall zone," not that you'd for sure die if you fell, but you would at least be in for a very long tumble and some serious injury. After that, it was all up to our legs, a good five thousand feet of pure open snowfields basking in the spring sunshine. You can go as fast and as far as your worn out legs let you!
I won't pretend like it was epic turns all the way down. One of the things we learned about a spring tour on a mountain this big, is that it's hard if not impossible to have the whole mountain in the right condition at the same time. Because of large temperature difference from top to bottom, the snow near the top was a bit firm, the middle section was amazing, and the bottom was still fun but a little bit grabby and too wet. All in all, hard to complain and of course that perfect mid-section involved all the requisite hooting and hollering.
Shasta is an epic adventure that is sure to offer challenges to even the very experienced, without demanding an extreme amount of risk or technical ability. It's not something to be done casually (for most) but very much a bucket list experience worth pursuing! Would I pick it over the perfect pow day? Probably not. But I will say this: proper spring corn is probably second only to perfect powder. When the timing is right, it's really, really fun to carve. And it's hard to complain about snowboarding under blue skies and mild temps.
Shasta is pure type 2.0 fun. If you're willing to pay the price physically, it's an adventure that will at times give you massive dopamine dumps and at other times have you questioning all your life choices. In any case, an adventure you'll never forget.