Road Trip!: Skiing Shasta, Lassen, and McLoughlin

Just the facts:

NE Face (1,700', ~40°) on Mt. McLoughlin, 9,495', Oregon Cascades

NE Face (2,200’, 40-45°), Lassen Peak, 10,457' California Cascades

Hotlum-Wintum Ridge (3,250', 40-45°) on Mt. Shasta, 14,162, California Cascades

A spring volcano road trip is somewhat of a rite of passage for anyone serious about backcountry skiing in the PNW. Highway 97 runs just east and parallel to the Cascades for their entire extent in Oregon and then partway into California, making it the perfect corridor to tick off a few new peaks on a weekend of high-pressure weather. None of the crew—Axell, Camden, Zach and I—had explored the bounty of 97 much further south than Crater Lake, but we had heard whispers of a mountian more massive than Rainier and with much, much better weather to boot. It took little convincing to get the guys to load up in Axell’s Explorer and put Mt. Jefferson in our rearview. 

Strictly essentials.

Day 1: 4,280' of elevation gain, 11.4 mi

I walked out of my bedroom and greeted the curly-haired vagrant, Camden, who had snuck into my house the night before. Not long after, Zaxell arrived and we all piled into the car after playing a little bit of gear-Tetris. This day was forecast to be the coldest, and so we chose our lowest elevation target, Mt. McLoughlin. McLoughlin is fairly typical amongst the Oregon Cascades, a broad stratovolcano punctuated by igneous spires and cliffs. Typical is not a bad thing in this case, because those broad flanks and spires make for some incredible ski descents! 

We found ourselves stuck in a maze of logging roads on the southwest side of the mountain, which promised to have the shortest distance to the summit as-the-crow-flies. However, it was immediately apparent that the short distance would involve some horrific bushwacking, and so we decided to drive back down to the Summit Sno-Park area. Along the way, a brilliant «shortcut» left us face-to-face with a downed tree that refused to budge, even after attacking the weak parts with a BCA snow saw. Which is to say, we ended up hitting the trail way later than planned. That’s how you know it was an adventure. 

C'mon guys, keep it professional.

The car was stopped by snow in between Summit Sno-Park and Mt. McLoughlin Trailhead. We headed cross-country to pick up the PCT and then the East Ridge trail. It quickly became evident that some vicious storms had deposited so much downed timber that there was no point in following a so-called trail. The snow became consistent enough to start skinning at about 6,200'.

Just off the PCT we spotted an ancient soul, a massive old-growth Douglas Fir. It stood on its own amongst much shorter trees. I have no idea how it survived the loggers that must have come through the area, but it was a wonderful reminder of the incredible ecosystem that used to exist there. Hopefully after another 100 years of being left alone, this forest will hold many more like it. 

As we slowly worked our way out into the open near treeline, the open glades of the east face to our left certainly looked enticing for a more mellow descent, but our eyes were on the more dramatic NE and E faces. After a false summit or two the ridge sharpened above the NE face and the excitement kicked in. The sun was too weak to do much to soften the icy, textured surfaces as we finally cleared the trees.

Camden and I did a crampon-less bootpack up to the summit after hearing from Zaxell that the skinning up high was un poco caliente. We received word from a skier who had gotten up there before us that the N face was quite icy high up in the steep section. This was a bummer because I had been really jonesing to ski one of the lines between the large cliffs on that face, but between that news and the much longer exit to the car when skiing the north face we decided to ski the NE face instead. It was still a pretty damn good consolation prize. 

The variety of cliffs and rocks created a menagerie of chutes across the entire bowl, which made for perfect choose your own adventure skiing. I choose a line a bit left of the other guys and ended up getting to ski a tight little chute in between the large open turns, which was a blast. The snow was tough and textured up top but eased into cream when we got below the rocks, allowing us to open it up on the party skiing down low. 

We traversed right to the east ridge and then skied it until the dirt to snow ratio became too unfavorable. From there, we threw our skis on our packs and charged downhill in a beeline for the car, route finding be damned. 

It was already getting to be late afternoon and we still had to drive 3 hours to Shasta and set up camp. We hit the road, meandering through farm roads back to 97 and then heading south once again. Seeing Mt. Shasta rise above the arid farmland and rolling mountains of NorCal is quite the sight. The lack of serious glaciers gives it less of an intimidation factor than Rainier, but other than that it is no less impressive. 

Photo: Zach Smith

Another one of Zach’s “shortcuts” ended up being a blessing in disguise, as the winding forest service road ended up taking us on a traverse of a mountain across the valley from Shasta, giving us killer views of the mountain as the light turned golden. We winded our way up towards the Northgate trailhead and found a campsite near where the road turned to snow. Some poor child had left his little Tonka truck there. I was feeling pretty desiccated after not brining enough water on McLoughlin, and so I went pretty light on the partying that night. 

The light wasn't the only thing that was golden. Photo: Zach Smith.

While our plan had been to ski Shasta the next day, it looked like clouds and heavy winds might be moving in and so we made a late-night decision to ski Lassen the next day instead. Shout out to Nick Brennan for the forecast delivered via inReach. 

Day 2. 3,970' of elevation gain, 7.9 mi

The further south we drove, the more out of place I felt. I never expected to see palm trees growing wild not far from where I planned on skiing. Not to mention all of us running around a park in our snow pants looking for a water spigot, while families enjoyed a sunny day at the public pool one hundred feet away. No matter though, there was still 12 feet of snow at the high point of the highway that gets closest to Lassen Peak. We had to settle for the Devastated Area Trailhead a little further back, but at 3.5 miles from the summit there is basically no approach by Oregon standards. 

The “California Effect” is real, and the parking lot was almost full despite this being nowhere near peak season. Call something a National Park and they will come. 

As we started off, a solo skier coming out took a look at us and said “better late than never.” I wonder why he has no friends to ski with. Once again, we started off boot packing through snow patches and dirt until it looked like the snow wasn’t going to betray us and turn to dirt again. Our plan had been to work our way right to the broad north ridge and climb that to the summit, but the ridge was bare and there was a deep boot pack up the center of the NE bowl, so we said screw it and grabbed a spot in the line. 

There were a decent number of people ahead of us on the path, but not so many that you were sniffing each others butts like on the south side of Mt. Hood. I kept skinning longer than most, which put me in a nice spot to take some photos of the crew.

Eventually I switched to crampons once I had had enough of sliding in the slush. The foot placements had been kicked so deep that Camden didn’t even bother with crampons on the 40 degree slope. 

I was a bit behind the guys near the top, and when I crested the summit crater I found them hanging out behind some large chunks of rock. The crater is pretty neat, just a few hundred feet across but decently deep and littered with large rock formations.

If these two can't get it lit, no one can.

Zach and I continued up another 200’ or so to tag the true summit. Standing on the tippy top looked a little spicy in ski boots, so I settled for giving the stone pedestal a big hug.

We walked off the rocky top and onto the uppermost snow of the NE bowl. I opted to start a few feet below Zach, below some rocks guard rocks that would require some airtime to make it over. The slope was a very pleasant 40 degrees with some soft snow, but it had been chewed up by successive skiers and so didn’t quite deliver the corn feeling I was looking for. No complaints though.

We each choose a path down the bowl, regrouping above the canyon at the bottom of the face. The canyon had been scoured out of the Earth by the lahar from the 1915 eruption, and made a groovy natural quarter pipe. We skied the canyon until all that was left was the stream, then popped out onto the snow and took that a bit further. From there it was a short time on foot out to the car. 

Back up to home sweet home on Mt Shasta. 

Day 3:

The final day, which meant we couldn't put off climbing Mt. Shasta any longer. For the route, we had chosen the Hotlum-Bolum ridge. For one, this route is on the opposite side of the mountain from the trade route, Avalanche Gulch, and I'll always opt to avoid crowds when I can. For another, said this line “may be the finest descent in the entire Cascade range, and even in North America.” Who could say no to that?

The ideal trailhead for this route would be Brewer Creek, which essentially sits at the bottom of the fall line down the ridge. Unfortunately, road access was blocked by several miles of snow, so it ended up being a good bit shorter to start at Northgate TH. We found out later that some groups shuttle cars so that they can climb Avalanche Gulch and then ski this route, skipping the long approach. After our morning coffee and oatmeal, we shouldered our packs and walked the half mile down the road to trailhead. We were moving by 6AM, a good bit later than we'd planned on.

After checking in at the trailhead, we set of on the trail and once again quickly abandoned it to the snow. The main downside of starting at Northgate was the constant traversing, which made progress feel pretty slow, but we were locked in on getting above treeline.

We skirted the steep toe of a ridge coming off the mountain and finally popped out above treeline. Views of the upper mountain, especially the Hotlum Glacier, were primo.

As we began traversing across the many moraines towards the Hotlum-Wintum ridge, things started to get sweaty. Like, really sweaty. Like, "I've never dripped this much water off my face in my life" sweaty. Never in my life have I had to wish for more wind on a volcano, but the air was completely still and the UV rays were absolutely pounding us.

By the time we stopped near the base of the Hotlum-Wintum ridge proper, with about 3,300' of climbing still ahead of us, we had all demolished quite a bit of water. Zach and I filled our empty bottles with snow and left them sitting on a warm rock. We took our first long break of the day here. I'm not sure what the other guys were thinking, but I was ruminating on how I was seriously feeling the past few days of skiing and how the next couple hours were going to be a major suckfest.

We skinned out onto the wide face of the ridge. The snow slopes looked to go on forever in a narrowing sweep. Yeah, this was going to suck. We cut huge switchbacks across the slope for about 1,000 feet, and then stopped for a break on a snow-free strip of rock. There we met the only other person we had seen all day, Andrew. He said he was there to check out conditions ahead of his peak guiding season, and pretty soon he was out of sight. He traversed climber's left off the ridge proper and onto the Wintum Glacier headwall, which from what I've read after seems to be the more popular way up this route. Being accidental purists, we continued straight up, switching to bootpacking once things got too steep. 

At about 12,000, Camden decided that he would go no higher. Super understandable, considering he is still a fairly new skier. The ridge ahead looked like it would offer up lots of skiing of the "no fall" variety, and with our legs as beat as they were the rest of us would need a whole lifetime of muscle memory to get us down safely. I can't say I wasn't jealous of his cozy perch amongst the lava rocks as the rest of us toiled on. 

I brought a telephoto lens so it wouldn't be as obvious how far behind I was. 

The route started to more interesting. The rocky sides of the ridge began to close in and we found ourselves following a narrower strip of snow. The snow became almost ice-hard and the cramponing became quite a bit more engaging as a result. While I had greatly enjoyed drafting off Zaxell's bootpack down below, up here there was nothing to follow but small divots from their front points. My quads were protesting loudly. I had to summon images of all the shirtless men on Instagram delivering motivational speeches at a sweaty yell just to keep going. At some point I remembered the Gu in my hip belt pocket and sucked it down greedily.  A few minutes later, it felt like God had turned down the gravity knob by 40%. I started moving at a pace that felt like hauling ass and eventually caught Zaxell about 300' below the summit. Axell's green Red Bull wasn't being as kind to him as my Gu, but he kept trucking. 

Almost at the summit now, lots of humans were visible all over the top. Forgoing the trade route had never seemed like such a good call. Zach and I arrived at the short summit ridge and Axell followed not long after. We all stood on the true summit together. After a customary selfie we downclimbed to our skis, ignoring the green-colored snow near Axell's gear.

Photo: Axell Beskar

There were plenty of tracks on the Wintum Glacier headwall, with another group working their way down as we watched. Other than our path up, the Hotlum-Wintum ridge proper was trackless. I'm not sure why the line just right would be so much more popular, but my guess is that its because the headwall has much lower consequences in an uncontrolled fall than the ridge, which could spit you off some cliffs and onto the crevassed Hotlum Glacier. Also, the snow on the headwall looked somewhat softer, which could be due to the wind effect on the ridge. 

Axell took off quickly in order to get back to lower elevation, leaving Zach and I skiing together. The hard snow provided surprisingly fun, predictable turns. It fractured back to fine powder as we carved; I even got a few faceshots. Never expected that in May!  

The bliss of the upper ridge turned to agony just before we rejoined Camden as the snowpack became highly textured. The skiing was teeth-chattering and leg-burning, but the position on the mountain was still amazing. This only got worse as we descended, but whenever I began thinking negatively about it, I reminded myself that we were headed in the direction of cold beer! And cold water. The sun had melted the snow we left in our water bottles down low, providing small relief to my dry mouth. I don't think there's any way to bring enough water on a sunny spring mission like this without adding 10 lbs to your pack; you either need to have a way to melt water or tough it out.

The mountain wasn't done throwing challenges at us. Zach and I took a wrong turn that led us through a minefield of dirty, 1-2' deep sun cups that caused two wipeouts on my end. After a brief hike up a bare hillside to regain the toe of the ridge from earlier, then began descending our skintrack until we couldn't.

Dynafit boots, 11 years old and still going strong. 

By the time we put our skis back on our packs we had skied 7,000' even, although a lot of it was traversing and not the turns one hopes for. Still, there was plenty of amazing terrain on this iconic mountain.

Day 4: 0' of elevation gain, 0.0 mi. (finally!)

After a leisurely morning, we re-played our game of gear Tetris in the back of the car and then hit the road. We hung a right on Highway 97 after the Forest Service roads and didn't get off until Taqueria Lupitas in La Pine, then right back on it until Bend.

-Will Gattiker


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