- Date: May 29, 2017
- Start: Bunny Flat Trailhead
- Duration: 17 hours 5 minutes (breaks included)
- Type: Out-and-back
- References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Mount Shasta Avalanche Center
After months of anticipation, Mack and I stood atop our fifth Cascade volcano this past Memorial Day! Although our adventure wasn’t without mishaps (I mean, what adventure is?) and moments (more like hours) of absolute misery, we managed to push through and ended up having one of the most memorable Memorial Day weekends ever.
As it goes, the mishaps started early on. We planned to leave early Saturday morning (like 1 or 2 am type early), but after a busy week, neither of us were packed by Friday night. Mack became stressed, then I stressed out about his stress, we argued, we calmed down, and by the time everything was resolved, it was almost 11 pm. I suggested we get some sleep, drive down Saturday afternoon, and push for a one-day climb as opposed to our original two-day itinerary (so we could still fit in a potential trail run on Monday in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument before heading home). We packed later in the morning and headed out around 2 pm, stopping only for gas and a short dinner in Ashland.
We arrived at Bunny Flat just as the last light of day was fading into the oncoming darkness. As planned, we gathered our gear, straightened out our packs, purchased the necessary summit passes and wilderness permits, then hit the trail around 10. Of course, since we’d arrived with practically no light left, I hadn’t gotten a chance to see where the clearest boot path was. We followed some tracks in the general direction of the mountain, hoping to reach Avalanche Gulch in the next couple of miles.
We continued on a seemingly dependable boot path up through the forest for what seemed like forever. Shouldn’t we have entered a clearing by now if our route was to ascend through a gulch? We snaked our way around trees and tree wells until we popped out onto an open ridge. Yeah, something definitely didn’t feel right now. We turned off our headlamps to better see the silhouette of the landscape around us. Sure enough, there was the gulch (and headlamps from other climbers) down on our left. The idea of down climbing the ridge we were on, in the dark, with only one ice axe a piece, didn’t seem very smart. On top of that, Mack was having trouble adjusting to the altitude. The situation was looking dismal and we were coming to the realization that our summit attempt was not going to happen. Not tonight at least. We made the difficult decision to turn around.
On our way down the ridge, we ran into another group of climbers heading up to where we’d just been. I asked them what route we’d been on. Apparently, it was the Green Butte Ridge route. We scurried back down through the forest, plunging through the deep snow until we came upon two climbers who were apparently headed to Avalanche Gulch. They said they’d just started a mere 10 minutes earlier, so we were basically back at the beginning again. We hiked with them for a short while to make sure we were in fact on the right track, then, reluctantly (at least on my end) turned around and headed back to the car. At 2 am, exhausted and defeated, we rolled out our sleeping bags in the front seats of the car and fell fast asleep.
I awoke at 8 am to the sound of bustling activity in the parking lot. The Memorial Day weekend crowds were starting to arrive. Wanting to get a better look at our route in broad daylight, I threw on some shoes and walked out to the kiosk/bathroom hut. The very defined, packed down boot path literally started right behind it. Ugh. I felt stupid that we hadn’t even thought about looking for the path there to begin with! At least we knew where it was now. Still, I looked toward Shasta and envied the climbers that were probably close to summiting (or already summited) by this point.
The hours passed painfully slow. We’d brought nothing to entertain ourselves with! After sleeping in a little while longer, we laced up our boots and hit the climbing trail to do some further recon before the sunset. We only hiked in for about 10 or 15 minutes. The narrow path quickly turned into a wide ski trail, which clearly continued toward the base of the gulch.
Back at the car, we suffered through the heat of the day with doors open and/or windows rolled down. Eating, staying hydrated, reading the route description, and short cat naps (mostly out of sheer boredom) comprised much of the afternoon. The crowds began to diminish in the early evening though, leaving only the climbers. After some Netflix streaming and dinner, we attempted to pass out for another couple of hours until our 10 pm wake-up.
Getting ready for our second attempt felt like déjà vu from the night before. At least this time our packs were more organized since we’d had all afternoon to situate everything. We headed out an hour later (at 11 pm) than we had the night before, but we were still the only climbers leaving the parking lot. At least we knew the way this time.
The beginning section of the route is actually pretty easy. It stays relatively flat (for maybe a mile), then starts to climb as you near Horse Camp (which we didn’t actually see with our own eyes because it was buried under several feet of snow). The route becomes much steeper once you enter Avalanche Gulch though. In the dark it was difficult to distinguish any sign of plateaus that would potentially break up this long stretch of uphill. As far as I remember, we didn’t hit a single one. Once we’d made it through the various curves of most of the gulch though, the climb felt less steep and we could make out our surroundings (Casaval Ridge, Red Banks, Thumb Rock, and Sargents Ridge). Headlamps dotted the landscape before us as climbers began the final march from their base camps to the summit.
Although it seemed like we were close, we still had some elevation to gain before reaching Helen Lake at 10,443 feet. Mack had been doing pretty well with the altitude change so far (especially since he was able to acclimate a little the night before on our first attempt), but it definitely started to take it’s toll in that final stretch to Helen Lake. We still had 2-2.5 miles and nearly 4,000 feet of climbing to do to reach the summit! The most daunting section (Helen Lake to just above Red Banks, which hovers around 13,200 feet) lay before us now, too.
I wish I could remember the time we started from Helen Lake and the time we reached the top of Red Banks because it felt like forever. At first, the climb didn’t seem so bad. We practiced our flat-foot crampon technique to avoid tiring out our calves and straining our Achilles tendons. For awhile, I thought we were making good headway until the light of day revealed the reality to us. We weren’t even close to the top. Not by a long shot.
We continued the long slog up, taking fewer steps each time so Mack could catch his breath and try to adjust to the ever increasing altitude. Unfortunately, each break meant sacrificing heat that I was trying to conserve by staying in motion. I continued to push on and tried to wait for Mack as long as possible whenever there seemed to be too much distance between us. Even though we were moving closer to the top with every step, Red Banks continued to feel so far away until the very end.
Mack and I literally collapsed once we finally topped out above Red Banks. Hard to believe we still had Misery Hill and the climb up the summit block to contend with. We rested for a short while, slathered on some sunscreen, donned our glacier glasses, and began the final trudge. Since we didn’t ascend through one of the chimneys on Red Banks, we had to traverse the bergschrund first. Looking down into a crevasse as you quickly scurry across a snow bridge is always a little nerve-racking. Thankfully, the gap we crossed was short and we continued above Red Banks to Misery Hill. The hill, though not nearly as long or as steep as the climb between Helen Lake and Red Banks, was still a tiring challenge on legs that had been climbing for several hours now. It felt so good to reach the top and finally get our first glimpse of the summit block just across the plateau.
The winds had picked up on this exposed plateau, blasting our faces and numbing our cheeks. There’s much to look out on and photograph along this stretch, but I, for one, basically had tunnel vision at this point, focused solely on reaching the summit block and making the final ascent. I’m practically running in the first picture below! A clearly etched boot path marked the final stretch up to the summit. It was nothing strenuous, but it was exposed. I kept my eyes on Mack through this part, checking in consistently to make sure he was aware of his surroundings and thinking clearly. He was looking pretty dazed, as if he was sleep walking and not fully conscious. The winds became even fiercer as we walked the rocky knife edge to the summit. Although I was ecstatic to finally be at the top, my mind and body were thrashed. At 9:45 am, we shared the summit with a few other people (a group being led by professional guides I think) and waited patiently to get a picture together.
I really wish I’d been in a better mindset to fully take in what we’d just accomplished and savor it. In all honesty, all I really wanted to do in that moment was get the hell off the mountain. The worst part of the climb is almost always the descent. After getting our obligatory summit picture, we booked it off the summit block and back onto the plateau. The wind was whipping even harder now and I had to catch myself a few times to avoid being completely knocked over. Mack and I had completely switched places at this point. Now I was the one struggling to stay upright and keep up with him as we descended Misery Hill. Once we’d crossed the bergschrund and were next to Thumb Rock again, I dropped my pack, curled up onto the snow (using my pack as a pillow), and closed my eyes. Lack of sleep had finally caught up to me.
After 15 or 20 minutes of shut eye (on my part), we finally started the dreaded descent to Helen Lake. Less than a quarter of the way down, Mack decided he wanted to try glissading because it would mean finishing sooner rather than later. I was hesitant but said I would follow and meet him at the bottom of the hill. I watched as Mack slid down with ease, leaving me far behind on this god forsaken snow slope. I packed away my crampons, slid into my hardshell pants, then settled into a packed down glissade path.
As I started to pick up speed, I found it difficult to brake with my axe because of how icy my path was. After a couple more attempts and getting thoroughly freaked when I had to self arrest each time, I decided it wasn’t for me. I wasted even more time getting my crampons back on so I could finish the descent on foot. As I got up, I realized I was literally the only person left on the slope, and when I looked below me, Mack was nowhere in sight. How far had he gone??? I stumbled down as fast as I could, feeling more panicky and anxious every time I looked up and still couldn’t see Mack.
In retrospect, if I’d been in a better state of mind, I probably wouldn’t have reacted so emotionally, but I was a dehydrated, sleep deprived mess and my mind had warped the situation into something worse than it actually was. After what felt like an agonizing amount of time, Mack finally came into view around the curve of the snow slope. No wonder I hadn’t been able to see him. He was walking uphill towards me. When I reached him, I collapsed in a heap on the snow and just started blubbering like a toddler. Not my proudest moment, but that’s just where I was mentally at that point. Mack had also started to worry when I hadn’t shown up for nearly a half hour after he’d finished glissading, which is why he’d started back uphill. Naturally, we kept each other in eyesight for the remainder of the descent.
After I’d calmed down and stopped crying, Mack was able to convince me to continue glissading down the remainder of the gulch. I felt safer and more comfortable trying it knowing he’d be waiting for me at the end of each path. I ended up having a blast once I got the hang of it, too! Mack even carved out a path for me through the rest of the gulch so I could keep practicing. Once we returned to flatter terrain and the snow was too deep and soft to glissade on, we reluctantly post-holed the rest of the way back to the car. We didn’t reach Bunny Flat until 4:05 pm, and our car was one of the only ones remaining. Needless to say, the drive back to Portland following our 17-hour car-to-car was brutal. Was it all worth it though? Without a doubt.