Climbing Mt. Shasta

(updated Jun 2017)

I have been to Mt. Shasta some 20 times and summited it 10 times (plus I’ve stopped right below the summit a few times for safety reasons). My first climb was in Sep 1994 and the most recent was in June 2016. I’ve led several groups with no climbing experience safely to the summit.

Shasta is home to most of my mountaineering experience, but I have hiked up Mt. Whitney (the highest point in the continental US) twice, Half Dome in Yosemite a dozen times, Mt. Lassen in California, Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo, Trails on the Swiss Alps near Interlaken and other smaller hills around the world.

All information in this article is correct to my knowledge, but it is for you to use it at your own risk. If you are planning to go there and have questions, feel free to contact me by leaving a comment below.

Aug 2004 Climb – My first as an expedition leader

Mt. Shasta is a beautiful volcano in Northern California that rises to about 14,179 feet (4,322 m) and its summit is within a couple of hundred feet from Whitney, the highest in the continental US. It stands alone and more than 10,000 ft above the surrounding terrain, it is an amazing view.

Climbing Shasta doesn’t require any more than being fit and some basic equipment, but it is not a casual project. One should not try to do it without a knowledgeable guide. Train by climbing a local hill with a 30 lb backpack for a few hours. If you wake up next day and feel nothing, you are ready.

A typical first climb will take place during summer (best time ranges from late May to early August, depending on snowfall during the previous winter) and take 2-3 days. The easiest route is on the South slope of the mountain (Avalanche Gulch).

Day 1: Drive to Mt. Shasta City, get a motel room and get a good night of sleep (alternative: drive to Bunny Flat, hike for about 1 hour and spend the night at Horse Camp).

Day 2:  Drive to Bunny Flat (about 8,000 ft). Get a self-issued permit, collect a few human waste kits, gear up and start climbing before mid-morning and set camp at Helen Lake (10,000 ft) by mid-afternoon. Study the route, melt snow, cook, and sleep early.

Day 3: Start early (preferably by 4AM) while snow is still firm, make it to Red Banks before sunrise, and summit by mid-day. Turn back and glissade below Red Banks. You can either break camp and descend all the way or spend an extra night at Helen Lake.

Camping at Helen Lake – Jun 2005
Summit of Shasta on a beautiful day -Jun 2005

To climb Shasta, you need a guide who knows the mountain (or someone with a lot of mountaineering experience). Check weather forecast and climb only if there are no chances of storms. You must be fit and well prepared to climb. People die on the mountain, so do not be foolish.

You will carry 4 liters of water (bottles can usually be filled at Horse Camp after Jun or so – 1 hour above Bunny Flats) and will need to collect, melt and purify snow at Lake Helen. There are several water purification methods, do some research. For North America, I carry a basic filter and then use chlorine tablets.

There is about a 50-50 chance you will get Acute Mountain Sickness, usually starting around 12,000ft (Red Banks-Misery Hill). Never leave someone with AMS alone. If symptoms are any more than mild headache, turn back and descend safely. Stay hydrated.

July 2008 – Summit Approach

Here is a time-tested equipment list for a summer South Face Avalanche Gulch climb, think twice before leaving anything behind or bringing any additional item. Your pack will weight 40-45 lbs. Gear will include mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axe, helmet, water purification and camping gear.

Personal Gear:

  • 1 long thermal bottom (no cotton)
  • 2 thermal tops (no cotton, short/long)
  • 1 mid-weight fleece jacket
  • 1 waterproof shell with hood (Goretex or equivalent)
  • 1 pair of waterproof pants (Goretex or equivalent)
  • 2 pairs of trekking socks (liners optional)
  • 1 pair of waterproof gloves (liners optional)
  • 1 pair of shorts (just so we don’t have to look at you in underwear)
  • 2 sets of underwear (preferably synthetic material)
  • 1 pair of crampon-compatible boots (part of mountaineering package)
  • 1 Ice axe with leash (part of mountaineering package)
  • 1 pair of crampons (part of mountaineering package)
  • 1 hat (for sun protection)
  • 1 mountaineering helmet (bike helmet works)
  • 1 pair of gaiters (optional in late summer)
  • 1 internal frame backpack (real 4000+ cu in – rated 75 liters or more is ideal)
  • 1 Summit pack (2000 cu in, any good pack will do it)
  • 4 straps (to secure sleeping pads, other accessories)
  • 1 sleeping bag (15F or better)
  • 1 foam sleeping pad (2 if you tend to feel cold)
  • 1 Sunglasses and/or goggles
  • 1 Headlamp with extra batteries
  • 4 Lexan 1-liter water bottles (at least one wide mouth)
  • 1 Plastic whistle for signaling and emergency
  • 1 Lexan spoon
  • Sunblock
  • Toilet paper in a handy ziploc bag
  • Medications that you need
  • 2 packs of day-time food (bars, nuts, jerky, cheese, etc)
  • 2 packs of freeze dried food (cook in bag for less mess)
  • 1 Plastic wristwatch with alarm
  • Toiletries, wipes, foot care (band-aid, moleskin, duct tape, body glide)
  • Nylon stuffing bags (to organize gear)
  • Ziploc, plastic bags (useful for food, garbage, clothing, protection)

Group Stuff:

  • 4-season tent (3-season can survive in late summer)
  • Metal stakes and rope to secure tent
  • Stove/White Gas/Safety Matches
  • Cookware to collect and boil water
  • First-aid Kit
  • Shovel (can be left behind in late summer)
  • Knife, Multi-tool
  • Water Purification (filter, iodine, chlorine)
  • Communication device (cell phone/radio)
  • Map/Compass/Altimeter/Binoculars
June 2016 – Probably my last time leading an expedition – we were the only group on the mountain that evening and had the sunset at Lake Helen all for ourselves (the tent you see in the background is the ranger’s tent, but they weren’t there that night). Our tent (a North Face Himalayan Hotel), has been to Shasta circa 1994 and it is still going.

8 thoughts on “Climbing Mt. Shasta

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  2. Yes, a day hike is my favorite, it makes you really feel that you climbed that mountain 🙂

    I climbed Holly Cross and Long’s Peak, so I hope Shasta will be similar. I was asking about water, because I never climbed in cold conditions, so I though perhaps water consumption is little bit smaller.

    I also plan to make some kind of fold-able peace of strong material to put under butt for glissading 😀

    Thanks for the prompt answer 😉

    1. I don’t know Longs Peak first hand, but I think Shasta is more technical. Even during summer, you will most likely be walking on snow. Above Lake Helen, you will need crampons and it is not safe to climb late in the day (because the ice softens and there are avalanches). So, for a day hike, you would need to leave very early and climb some 3,000ft (past Red Banks) before sunrise.

    2. Yes, definitely, crampons and ice axe will be part of my inventory. At least now I assume I will have to leave Bunny Flat about 12AM – 1AM with the head lamp ON 🙂

      Good that we got extensive training on self arrest before heading to Long’s Peak.

      Also one little suggestion for the packing list: altitude sickness medicine: Acetazolamide (Diamox) – the most tried and tested drug for altitude sickness prevention and treatment. Most of the time had to be taken before the climb. Dexamethasone – powerful steroid type drug for accute cases in people with HAPO & HAC.

      I never used any of those, but I always have them in my pack – may save someones life – like the guy who died in 2010… You need prescription to get those, but I never had problem getting one from my doctor.

      1. Yes, Diamox works… I have not taken it, but have seen people in my group use it.

        It has been mentioned in a previous version of this list, but I am not a big proponent of its use. What I find is that rather than having for an emergency, people start using it to compensate for lack of training/planning/time. I believe AMS is an integral part of mountaineering, so I prefer to deal with it without drugs (even if that means aborting a summit bid).

  3. Are you planning to try to summit in one day? It is a tough and long day, you want to start higher than parking lot, probably Horse Camp. Shasta summit is really meant as a 2-day climb. It is a nice day-hike from parking lot to Lake Helen.

    For a day hike, I would not plan to melt snow (takes long time) and I would not count on finding running water to be filtered. So bringing your water seems to be the option.

    I usually carry 3-4L (about a gallon). For a day hike, I would bring it in a Camelback with one additional emergency bottle.

  4. Thanks for the good tips! I plan to go this year (end of June) and do it as a day hike. Could you tell approximately how much of water would I need? Is it better to take everything with me, or try to melt some snow (or refill if possible) on the way up?

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