AVALANCHE GULCH, Mt. Shasta, Caifornia
Avalanche Gulch - Overview

Avalanche Gulch is the standard route on Mt. Shasta, one of the most often-climbed big alpine routes in California and has been the initial alpine experience for thousands for novice climbers or those wanting to move up to "something bigger". Although actually just a steep, grueling slog up crevasse-free slopes, the Gulch is a serious undertaking. Storms, major avalanches, rapidly-changing weather and rockfall are some of the objective hazards encountered by climbers on this non-technical route.

The route didn't get it's name for nothing. Avalanches frequently occur after big storms or a succession of storms, often naturally-triggered by rocks breaking loose or being released by warm weather from high on the Red Banks or the Heart. Some avalanches have plowed for miles down the Gulch, as often evidenced by huge debris piles in the drainage near Horse Camp and the shattered stumps of large trees protruding from the snow on the trail.

But the best time to climb this route is when there is plenty of snow on it, (beginning around November and continuing as late as June or July) as it is much easier to kick steps up snow than try to negotiate the steep, endless scree and the pebbly, hard-packed and slippery terrain high above Lake Helen and below the Red Banks, when one step up is often followed by sliding two steps back down.
                              Mt. Shasta's Avalanche Gulch Route lies in the center of the photo
Approach to Avalanche Gulch

To reach the trailhead, leave Mt. Shasta City, (located just east of Interstate 5) take the Everitt Memorial Highway, and follow it ten miles or so to where the road ends at the large parking lot at the Bunny Flat trailhead around 6,800 ft.. In good weather the peak will be clearly visible from this location. To climb abovee 10,000 feet you must sign a form for a permit (self-registration) at the trailhead shelter and pay a $15 fee. Begin hiking north across a long, wide meadow.

You'll see a long, low forested ridge to your left and slightly in front of you. After several hundred yards, head left and cross over this ridge. You will then see a wide drainage west of the ridge. This is the place where Avalanche Gulch peters out; following this drainage will take you to the start of the route. Stay to the left side of the drainage, because climbing the right side of it will take you up the Sargeant's/ Green Butte route.

Within an hour or so of hiking from Bunny Flat the drainage widens considerably and the route up Avalanche Gulch is obvious. At this point you will have covered roughly a mile, with about 1000 feet of height gain. Many veer off to the left and stop at the Sierra Club stone cabin at Horse Camp for fresh water from the spring located there, to camp for the night in preparation for the following morning's "alpine start", or to use the last latrine they'll see for twenty-four hours. Keep in mind that Horse Camp is just a little out of the way for those climbing the Avalanche Gulch route, and that many climbers simply head straight up from Bunny Flat to a popular camping and bivy location at Lake Helen.

From this point at the bottom of the route the terrain steepens noticeably for the next mile or so, where the real mountain (and hard work) begins. Elevation gain is rapid, although the Gulch is so long and wide it often seems that progress is almost nil.
Route Description

Hike a mile up the the trail from the Horse Camp area to the left side of Avalanche Gulch. You'll see Casaval Ridge to your left and Sargeant's / Green Butte Ridge to your right. In the summer you can use "Olberman's Causeway", a path painstakingly constructed of wide, flat rocks, which leads up the lower Gulch. Continue up over endless hills and bumps in the Gulch to Lake Helen, a small flat camping and staging area at around 10,000 ft. In summer the trail to this point over bare scree is obvious, and there will often be no snow on the ground until this point. In winter most climbers avoid this route due to objective hazards, and you will likely be breaking your own trail. Keep in mind that hiking up knee-or-waist-deep snow in snowshoes on steep slopes can be a difficult and frustrating experience, and the higher you go in the Gulch the steeper it gets, to around forty-five degrees between Lake Helen and the Red Banks. The avalanche danger and loaded slopes high above will often be easily visible from the lower slopes below Lake Helen.

From Lake Helen continue up the steepening slopes, generally staying just a little right-of-center in the Gulch. You will reach a slightly protruding formation of low rock and uneven ground called the Heart, with slight gullies on either side. Most parties head to the right of the Heart and continue up to the Red Banks at around 12,800 ft . The route to the left of the Heart is more central, slightly steeper and possibly more exposed to rockfall than the way to the right side.

Upon reaching the Red Banks, a vertical system of friable lava cliffs, find an appropriate snow chute to kick steps up through the lower Red Banks. In late summer when the snow is gone this can be a routefinding puzzle as the rock of the chutes must be climbed. Head further to the right to an area called Thumb Rock where the chutes are shorter and easier to negotiate. Be very carefull as the scree in this area is very hard packed, with a slippery, pebbly surface that lends itself easily to slips, which could result in a long and brutal slide over very rough ground to where the scree softens below.
                                           Mt. Shasta from Bunny Flat Trailhead in early summer
Once through the chutes to the top of the Red Banks, Misery Hill will be apparent in front of you, beginning at around 13,200 ft.. While aptly named due to the energy required to climb at this altitude, and the general feeling of exhaustion, lassitude or the pounding, altitude-induced headache you may be experiencing, you may find that the ground between Lake Helen and the Red Banks is the steepest and most difficult terrain to climb on the entire mountain, and that the more stable ground on Misery Hill is a slight relief compared to the area you have just passed to get there. Climbers from the Casaval Ridge route will connect to the trail in this area. Continue up Misery Hill, and you will see Shastina, Mt. Shasta's volcano, to your left near the top around the summit plateau.

The summit plateau at the top of Misery Hill is a huge, wide area, from which the actual summit will be visible for the first time, as well as several smaller summits in the same general area. In late summer this area will be all ice and very slippery, so take care. Continue towards the final short trail up to Mt. Shasta's rocky summit, where there is a summit register.

To descend, trace your route back through the Red Banks. When there is plenty of snow, several glissading chutes may be apparent, left by other climbers who took the fast and effortless way down. Be carefull as it's easy to accelerate too quickly, lose control and become injured in a thousand-foot slide down the upper reaches of Avalanche Gulch. Many climbers have injured themselves in this manner.
Essential Gear For Climbing Mt. Shasta

An ice ax and crampons are a must. A helmet should be worn to protect the climber from rockfall, which can come down by the dump-truck full in summer, or in case of accidental slips or slides. In late summer the route can be climbed fast in hiking runners, but avoid this option and use heavier, solid hiking or mountaineering boots. The reason for this is that when using heavy footwear, you will be able to quickly and easily plunge step and slide down the mountain while descending; but if wearing light runners, this will be next to impossible due to the brutal pounding your feet will take, and the descent will be painstakingly slower as you will find yourself carefully picking your way down the rocky, scree-filled Gulch.

Storms can be deadly on this mountain, and appropriate clothing should be worn. A goretex shell is a must, a down jacket is wise insurance and storm goggles can help to negate the effects of high winds, which can reach 100 mph. Be prepared for winter at all times, even on a summer climb of this peak. A map and compass are good to have along, (assuming you know how to use them) as routefinding between the summit and the Red Banks would be extremely difficult in a foggy, storm-induced whiteout, which can settle in with alarming speed.

Dark sunglasses and sunscreen are a must, as a climb up these snowy slopes, especially in summer, can leave you feeling like you're in a microwave oven. Reflected UV rays can burn the inside of your nose and mouth from facing the slopes and looking down for long periods. A dry pair of socks is a good thing to have along as well as extra gloves, which can rapidly become soaked in wetter weather on the mountain.
Disclaimer - Hazard Warning

Although non-technical, Avalanche Gulch is plagued with many objective hazards such as avalanche, rockfall, sudden storms, whiteouts and rapidly-changing weather, wind, hot and cold temperatures, and often the possibility of altitude sickness for climbers who are not properly acclimatized to the altitude, especially those living at sea level or the lower valley areas of California. Much rockfall and some avalanches are human-triggered, and the numbers of climbers attempting the mountain at times is a hazard in itself.

Climbing Mt. Shasta is dangerous. Climb at your own risk

Storms are to be taken seriously on this mountain, and climbers just generally vacate the area when a storm is approaching. If you don't, and find yourself climbing in one of the mountain's frequent storms, especially in winter, you are in for a very wet and miserable experience, compounded by the fact that if you do descend safely, you are almost guaranteed to find yourself stranded at the Bunny Flat trailhead, with your vehicle buried in a 24-hour buildup of snow which can exceed three feet. Having to pitch the tent again at the trailhead when soaked, and waiting for a snowplow to come along for a day or two can be a real character builder which most of us would rather not experience. Keep in mind that the Everitt Memorial Highway is the last road to be plowed in the county, and that often the Park Rangers will just close the road during bad storms, leaving weary climbers unable to drive down even if the road is passable with a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
            Left:  Misery Hill;  Center:Summit of Mt. Shasta;  Right:  Shastina, a volcano on Mt. Shasta
Camping and Bivouacs

Camping is permitted at Bunny Flat trailhead, or anywhere else on the mountain. If camping at the Cabin, as it is called, do not camp in the cabin. It is for recreational or emergency use only. Keep tents pitched at least 100 yards away from the building.

Climbers commonly camp at Lake Helen, which is not really a lake, but just a wide, flat area about halfway up the Gulch. On summer weekends and holidays this place can seem like Grand Central Station, with up to a hundred tents pitched haphazardly wherever the owners can find a space. There are no latrine facilities at Lake Helen, and a pack-out system for waste is ineffect, with bags available at the trailhead building at Bunny Flat.
Mt. Shasta Miscellaneous Information

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Acknowledgements and Photo Credits

The information contained on the Avalanche Gulch route page has been compiled by Henry Timmer, a Canadian citizen, mountaineer and adventurer currently residing in Sacramento, California, USA. To make comments, corrections, additions or inquiries, contact me at climbwild@hotmail.com

All photos shown are the property of Henry Timmer unless specified otherwise.