Here is a special report from SMG Senior Guide Dane Brinkley. This is a new, exciting trip for us and it’s no understatement to say the planets aligned and the team experienced the most amazing weather and ski conditions for four days in Hidden Valley. Check it out and prepare to be impressed (and maybe a little jealous!) 13,000′ of prime spring skiing, wow! Thanks Dane and hearty congratulations to the team!
Day 1: Gear Check, Tour from Bunny Flat to Hidden Valley
With great weather in the forecast and excitement in the air our crew of 6 met in the morning at the Fifth Season in Mt Shasta, CA. We were a team of 4 guests, myself and SMG Guide Jacob Swartz. We all got together on the morning of April 17 to make introductions and get our gear sorted. After a short while of being with this crew it became obvious that we were in for a great time! The most successful expeditions require a group of people that work together and help each other out and that was exactly what we had. The team departed Bunny Flat (6,950 feet), the snow was soft enough to make for easy travel on skins. Heavy packs made for slow but steady movement. Most of our group had just come from sea level so we took our time as we skinned to our basecamp in Hidden Valley (9,300 feet). A slow ascent is critical for proper acclimatization. The final traverse into Hidden Valley is steep and exposed to rock fall and avalanches on the warmest afternoons. We wanted the snow on the traverse to be soft enough to skin across but not so soft that we’d be exposed to these hazards. This was the case until about half way across at which point the snow became just firm enough to make skinning stressful for even the most experienced. We transitioned to boot travel and made the decision to do so relatively early. In my experience it’s best to anticipate transitions and to make them a little earlier than necessary. This way one can avoid putting oneself into an uncomfortable situation on a steep and exposed slope. The traverse now behind us, we made it into camp by about 4 PM and were pleased to find excellent snow coverage in Hidden Valley. We’d be able to skin right out of camp the next day and then ski all the way back to our tents. After hydrating and enjoying a big pot of organic chili made with couscous, lentils, and vegetables the crew was ready to rest up for the next day.
Day 2, Acclimatization & Ski Mountaineering Skills
We woke to a clear sky and warming temps. Breakfast would be bagels, cream cheese, Canadian bacon, coffee, and tea. Properly fueled and caffeinated we prepared ourselves for a full day of ski touring and mountaineering skills instruction. Our plan for the weekend was an ambitious one. With climbs and ski descents of both Shastina (12,330) and Mt. Shasta (14,179) proper acclimatization would be essential. With this in mind we used this day to actively prepare our bodies for massive elevation gain. This is a critical skill in mountaineering that doesn’t come as easily as one might think. Our experience at Shasta Mountain Guides has taught us that the old adage of “climb high, sleep low” rings true and is the best way to maximize one’s red blood cell production, which allows for oxygen transport in the blood stream. Our pace, to everyone’s surprise was slow and easy however efficient enough to still climb about 1000 feet an hour. We skinned slowly allowing our bodies to adjust, we used “pressure breathing” for efficient lung function, and we practiced the basic movement skills that we’d use in the next 2 days of mountaineering. We also thoroughly practiced self-arrests just in case any of us slipped on the way up or down. The skiing was as good as I’ve experienced in my 10 years on the mountain so we climbed and skied 2 laps each up to about 11,000 feet. The team returned to camp about 4 PM feeling stoked on the skiing, confident with skill, and hungry for dinner, which would be SMG’s famous “Mountain High Burritos”.
Day 3, Shastina via Cascade Gulch
We woke up once again to clear skies and mild temperatures. After breakfast we shouldered our packs and steadily began to skin toward Cascade Gulch, our chosen ascent route. The skinning was smooth and pleasant as we approached our first transition to crampons. We climbed a short steep chute with crampons before continuing on our skis and skins. The skinning felt quite easy and we all enjoyed the rhythmic sliding of feet and swinging of arms gradually and casually ascending Cascade Gulch. At a certain point we knew that we’d have to transition once again to crampons so we opted to do this just a little sooner than needed to ensure that we wouldn’t find ourselves fumbling with gear while clinging to an impossibly steep slope. We strapped our skis to our packs and used crampons to climb out of Cascade Gulch and onto Shastina’s crater rim. After a short time we found ourselves off of the rim and climbing the final few hundred feet of the Shastina’s summit cone. Another few minutes and we were on the summit of the third highest volcano in the Cascade Range! It could’ve been so much harder than it had been if we hadn’t taken time to acclimatize the previous 24 hours or if we tried to rush the pace. Our casual approach actually was helping us achieve big goals while maximizing the fun factor. We were happy to run into a group of 3 locals on the summit and enjoyed a few laughs on top before skiing 3000 feet of perfect corn all the way back to our camp. Back at camp morale was high and everyone was wearing a smile. To give ourselves the best possible chance at Shasta’s summit we would need all our strength the following morning. “Active Recovery” is the only way to stay fit on any demanding expedition. This includes hydration, nutrition, sleep, and some light stretching. With this in mind we dined early on organic soup and pasta with meatballs, and vegetables, in a cream sauce, then washed it down with herbal tea. The team all checked gear and packed backpacks for the next day’s adventure, climbing the West Face of Mount Shasta. Then, feeling strong and well fed we all retired early to get some sleep.
Day 4, Mount Shasta via The West Face
An early start was important to give ourselves the best chance at climbing then skiing optimal conditions. When my alarm sounded at 2:45 AM I got dressed, put my feet into my still damp boot liners, unzipped the door of my tent, then persuaded the foam of the liners into the cold plastic of ski boots. I straightened, looked up, and was taken aback by the sky above. Cloudless and so clear it felt as if our camp floated among the stars themselves and although the early morning air bit cold on my face and hands I was suddenly filled the warmth of confidence that today would be a safe and successful day. Our training and mindful preparation would pay off. I always try to give gratitude for these experiences at this quiet and still hour of the day before waking up my teammates. After a hot breakfast we left camp a few minutes after 4 AM and traveled out of camp under the light of headlamp with skis on our pack and crampons on our feet. In a short while we found ourselves standing beneath The West Face. We roped up in 2 teams. The mood was positive and we moved together supporting and encouraging one another. Ice axes in hand, one step at the time, together.
It’s important that we stick to our plan. It was a good plan having worked all weekend. Keep the pace steady and the mood casual. Remember to relax and breathe. Eat and drink every hour. Talk to and look out for each other. The climbing was wonderful, perfect cramponing on smooth frozen snow that would soften by early afternoon and make for incredible ski conditions. The top of the West Face gets a bit steep and the last 500 feet always seem to be the most challenging. With determination and patience we overcame the hardships of ski mountaineering and embraced the relief of sunshine and rest at 13,000 after finally reaching the very top of the West Face. Still having almost 1,200 feet of climbing to attain the summit we pressed upward, steadily still. “Misery Hill” was the next challenge. In stride, we climbed it. The positive vibe of the crew made the task almost easy and we overcame “Misery” together as a team. The next step of our climb was to cross the summit plateau, which is basically walking the flat distance of a soccer field (if soccer was played at 14,000 feet). This part felt like an active rest compared to the rigors of our climb so far. With the plateau behind us, we climbed the last 200 feet and before long were all standing on the summit! So far our mindful approach and careful training had paid off but the crew was feeling the elevation so we didn’t waste too much time. I always consider the summit our halfway point. It’s a long way back down to camp and I reminded myself that although the skiing was sure to be fantastic we still had a few hazards to manage. Afternoon rock fall is always a concern on Shasta and we must be careful with our decent, skiing well and avoiding any injuries on the mountain. We stepped into our skis and began out decent. Off of the summit, back across the plateau, carefully linking turns down misery hill, then traversing back to the top of the West Face.
Looking down we could tell that the sun had by then worked its magic and transformed a frozen surface from the early morning into something soft and smooth. 3,700 feet of perfect conditions waited below. Elated, we dropped in and enjoyed one of the most incredible ski runs in the country. Within an hour we were back at camp. All that remained was to pack up and descend to Bunny Flat. To our surprise the snow on the lower mountain hadn’t over-softened in the afternoon heat and again we were gifted 2,300 feet of perfect snow, which helped us manage the burden of skiing with 45lb backpacks. At 4:30 PM we arrived at the Bunny Flat parking lot tired and euphoric after 4 days and 13,000 feet of ski mountaineering on 2 of the most majestic volcanic peaks anywhere in the world.