The Avalanche Gulch/John Muir route begins at Bunny Flat trailhead following a shaded Shasta Red Fir lined hike that leads to the Sierra Club Hut (Horse Camp) just below tree line at 7,900 feet. Horse Camp offers access to fresh spring water, use of composting toilets, a small stone cabin built in 1922 and camping. There is a Sierra Club caretaker on duty and they ask for a nominal $3 bivy or $5 camp fee. Horse Camp offers beautiful camping for beginner backpackers as well as a sheltered stay for climbers. From here the trail ascends along "Olberman's Causeway," a stone causeway, leading to Spring Hill. Steep switchbacks follow up to what is called 50/50 Flat. From this point, the summer climber’s route continues up and right along 50/50 following moraines that stair step up to the climber's right side of the Helen Lake moraine. Helen Lake is the typical bivouac site for a two-day climb.
The climb to the summit is steep and rigorous requiring crampons, a mountain axe, helmet, and basic snow travel skills (i.e. basic climbing technique and self-arrest skills). Don't consider this route as a cake walk. Though not an overly technical route, it does follow a 7,000 vertical foot ascent that exposes the climber to steep snow and ice, rock fall, and weather extremes. In early season the route is entirely snow and ice. Mid to late season the lower portions lose their snow cover and route conditions vary from good trail to tough loose scree, talus, and sandy surfaces. Later season climbing will expose you to dramatically increased rock fall and is not advised. The best time to climb is usually April through June and sometimes July, rarely August through November. A winter climb of this route or any route on the mountain increases the ante due to avalanche hazard, extreme weather and short days.
The classic route from Helen Lake climbs up and to the right of The Heart, through one of the Red Bank's right side chutes, or around the right end of the Red Banks near the Thumb. The latter option is an early season variation that skirts along the top of the Konwonkiton Glacier. The chutes are more favorable later in the season as to avoid the ever widening Konwakiton begrschrund. From above the Red Banks the route heads up a few hundred yards along what is called "short hill" to the base of Misery Hill. The hike up Misery Hill can be exactly that. It starts at over 13,000 feet and is known as a false summit. The true summit is not yet visible. This is a good spot for a break and a chance to take in the stunning views. From the top of Misery Hill, it is a few hundred yards across the summit plateau to the summit pinnacle. Be careful when descending as many climbers have accidentally descended down the east side of the mountain (Mud Creek Canyon) during limited visibility conditions.
Most folks complete this climb over two days, but those that are focused and fit can make a long day out of it. Some choose a three day climb for a nice, full weekend.
Avalanche Gulch is in full winter conditions with ample snow coverage. Avalanche and weather conditions can change daily. It is up to you to be prepared. Check the web cam on our homepage to view the south and west sides of the mountain, as we speak! A summit pass, wilderness permit and human waste packout bag(s) are required to climb Mt Shasta. Even if you don't plan on going to the summit, a summit pass is required above 10,000 feet. You can get them for self issue at the Bunny Flat trailhead and Mt Shasta Ranger Station. ($25 - 3 days)
We currently have upwards of 10-15 feet of snow on Mt Shasta. Climbing conditions are good, but novice climbers should take caution this time of year. A winter climb of Mt Shasta is a serious endevour. Extreme wind and cold temperatures, avalanche danger, rime ice and very firm and smooth snow surface condtions up the ante considerably. An avalanche beacon, shovel and probe (and a partner) with the knowledge of how to use said equipment is strongly advised. Further, an ice axe, crampons and helmet is also strongly advised. A slip and fall without immediate self arrest will result in a long slide for life. Do not take this lightly.
The route is entirely covered in snow. Check the avalanche advisory and weather before you go. Camping options are many. Water is not available, so bring extra fuel to melt snow.
The standard high camp for the Avalanche Gulch route, Lake Helen, was completely obliterated by a large avalanche in mid December. Case and point: Winter presents serious hazards for climbing the mountain. It can be done safely, but do your homework and once again, be prepared with the knowledge and skills to navigate said hazards.
Glissading can be possible on select days. Overall however, glissading is not advised during winter as often the snow surface is smooth, firm and icy. It is very difficult to control your speed and one can reach out of control speeds very quickly. If you do choose to try and glissade, take off your crampons!!!
CAMPING AT LAKE HELEN: PLEASE keep a clean camp...PACK OUT ALL micro trash, food scraps, coffee grounds, leftover pasta, you name it...please pack it out...Rangers take this VERY SERIOUSLY and so should you! Thousands of climbers camp here annually and it takes each of us to keep it clean. If you love what the mountains give you, then show them respect by packing out EVERYTHING and LEAVE NO TRACE. Keep it looking pristine for those that will visit after you, and for the preservation of WILDERNESS! Secure your tent and belongings well when you leave for the summit. Wind, ravens and the resident pine marten will spread your gear far and wide if it is left out. If your stuff is zipped up and stowed away well within your tent, you shouldn't have a problem. We have not had any issues with critters chewing through tents to get into stored food. SANITATION: Please urinate on the far EAST side of Lake Helen, AWAY from all camps. Use your pack-out bag over in this area as well. DO NOT urinate in the general camping area! Snow must be melted for water and we recommend treating it one of three ways: iodine, boil, or filter. Water is running at the spring at Horse Camp and the toilets are OPEN. Pack-out bags are mandatory for removing all solid human waste on the mountain. Pack-out bags are available at Bunny Flat.