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 condition with varying amounts of snow coverage. Conditions will change with more frequent winter storms and more snow. In short,winter climbing conditions are here! Check the web cam on our homepage to view the south and west sides of the mountain, as we speak! The two main hazards for this route currently are 1)
The summer trail/route up to Helen Lake is currently snow covered, and will be for entire winter season. It is the time of year when backcountry skiers/boarder, snow shoers, and cross country skiers get to enjoy the mountain. That being said, it is also time to check all of your backcountry snow gear (i.e. avalnche transciever, shovel, probe), and brush up on your avalanche knowledge. Evaluate the terrain and snow pack carefully, and pay attention to current and recent weather/snow fall.
Lake Helen still currently entirely snow covered, so expect full winter camping. No water is running at Lake Helen so plan on melting snow. You can no longer fill up water at the Horse Camp spring, so bring extra fuel to melt snow. The pee area is off to the east side of the moraine and down slope away from the camping area. Please use this area for all your bodily functions. It is REQUIRED to packout your human waste on Mt Shasta. Free human waste wag bags are available at all trailheads.
The Redbanks chutes are melted out. The Thumb route via "the notch" is the best option through the Redbanks currently, if you still choose to climb. You can descend the same way. DO NOT glissade through the chutes. It's steep and easy to get out of control. Be careful of the Konwakiton Glacier bergschrund as it is opening up. While not a bottomless pit, one could certainly fall in at the right spot. Best to just stay off.
Misery Hill is melted out. Ascend Misery via the user trail. Cross the Summit Plateau and ascend the Summit Pinnacle. Be careful on top! You'll be out of breath, tired and may still have your crampons on. It is possible to fall off the top. It happened earlier this year to a climber. Be safe.
In mid to late Summer, thunder cells can build up in the afternoon. Do not climb into white out conditions, or building thunder cells. It is quite common for climbers to become disoriented, and wander off of the wrong side of the mountain when above the Red Banks at 12,600 feet. No matter what mountain of the world, climbing into a whiteout is not good practice.
For skiers, if you really have to, pick another route like the Hotlum/Wintun. The south side routes are, if we may say, horrible for skiing right now. While the avalanche danger is overall LOW, loose-wet avalanche danger may increase on east and southeast aspects during the warmest parts of the day. While pretty rare this time of year, it has happened before on hot days. This type of snow instability may be triggered by skier/riders, glissading climbers, or rock fall. While not particularly dangerous, enough snow may be entrained to knock one off of their feet and push them into undesirable terrain such as over a cliff, into rocks, or into a terrain trap where enough snow may collect to fully bury a person. An avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe are still currently advised. Just having the right gear doesn't make you safer on the mountain. The knowledge of how to use it properly, and knowing how to recognize avalanche terrain and associated avalanche problems is essential. Check the spring statement on our avalanche advisory page.
MANDATORY: Crampons, ice axe and a helmet and know how to use them!! You will also need stout winter worthy gear and equipment, and some experience with winter camping skill and survival. You will be on snow for about half of your climb. There is no running water at Lake Helen so bring extra fuel to melt snow. DO NOT glissade through Red Banks, and take off your crampons when you do decide to glissade. Control your speed!! PLEASE, wear a helmet and limit your exposure to rock and ice fall by moving laterally out of the fall line as you climb. Always keep an eye above for rock or ice fall, and yell "ROCK!" if you see one to warn other climbers below you.
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.