Avalanche Gulch Route Overview, Mt. Shasta
Time of Year to Climb: Year-round, but be prepared for cold conditions in winter.
Route: Bunny Flat/Avalanche Gulch
Trail distance (estimate): 11.5 miles roundtrip
Elevation change (estimate): 7300 ft
Avalanche Gulch Route, Mt. Shasta
The jumping off point for this route is the Bunny Flat Trailhead, which is located eleven miles up the Everett Memorial Highway. The Everett Memorial Highway leaves from the town of Mt. Shasta, California, and there are plenty of signs in town to direct you to this road. In terms of red tape, this is the best – and easiest spot to register for the hike.
There is a kiosk with self-register permits; and as of 2012, the summit pass was $20.00 per person. During the summer, there is usually a climbing ranger present at Lake Helen, so avoid a ticket/fine, and pay the registration fee! The kiosk also is always well stocked with wag bags, so be sure to pick up a few of those for your group during the climb.
Once you have your permit, the trail leaves directly from the parking area at 6,800 feet and heads up to Horse Camp at 7,800 feet over 1.6 miles. This is the easiest portion of the climb; and the trail passes through some early meadows, before heading into the trees.
Once you pass through these forested sections of trail, you will head up a few steps, and be in an open clearing with a cabin. This is Horse Camp; and you will be looking at the Sierra Club Cabin, a freestanding stone structure next to a spring. There are sites to camp in the area; and the spring provides fresh water. From Horse Camp, the trail continues up the mountain on a rock causeway, before angling steeply up what is popularly known as 50/50 Hill.
If you are attempting this route in winter to early summer, this portion of the trail will still be covered with snow. Later on in the season, the trail will likely be completely bare, and have a mixture of rock, volcanic ash, and other talus type volcanic products.
Once you reach the top of 50/50 Hill, you will be on the 50/50 Plateau, and will have great views of the entirety of Avalanche Gulch. Stay on the trail; follow the trail flags, and continue up the second portion of the climb to Lake Helen at 10,443 feet.
For most people, this is the natural spot to stop and break up the climb into a two-day ascent/descent. There are plenty of sites to camp at; and as Lake Helen is always frozen/covered in snow, this is a great spot to resupply, meaning melting snow for water for the final push. Immediately above Lake Helen lies the “heart” of the mountain, and above that, the Red Banks.
Do note that the summit is not immediately above the Red Banks. Many novice climbers look at this spot, and assume that since the Red Banks are the highest point they can see, the summit is right there. It is not – it is tucked away on the mountain behind Misery Hill, which is also above the Red Banks.
Up to the Red Banks
From Lake Helen, the ascent becomes steep, and technical through the heart. You will want to complete this part of the climb early on in the day – approximately 2 am through 4 am, because of the risk of snow/ice/rock fall. This area is not colloquially called “the bowling alley” just for kicks. Keep an eye and an ear out for falls; and wear a helmet at all times during the ascent and descent through this area. The route heads up the snowfield to the right side of the heart.
This portion of the climb is grueling; steep, and punishing. In my opinion, this is the hardest portion of the climb. Once you pass the “heart” of the mountain, you will be at the base of the Red Banks. Depending on snow and ice conditions during the season; climbers will have picked one of the chutes as the safest and most traversable, and you will be able to ascertain that by either other climbers ascending that route; or by the tracks in the snow.
The Red Banks are the most technical portion of the climb: they are usually full of snow/ice; and are very steep. I would not recommend traversing this area without an ice axe, and it goes without saying that you also need crampons. These areas are narrow; and a slip; or fall will likely lead to you falling thousands of feet. Once you reach the top of the Red Banks, you will be at 13,200 feet.
Misery Hill & the summit
You only get a short respite before you head up Misery Hill; but in my opinion, this part of the climb, while grueling, is not that bad – you’ve covered most of the distance and the elevation. Once you have ascended Misery Hill, it is more or less a straight shot across the ridges, across a glacier and to the summit cone of the mountain. From there, be sure to enjoy the view before descending the way you came for that aforementioned 11 mile roundtrip distance.
Trip reports from this route
Avalanche Gulch (Mount Shasta) Podcast
Date of Podcast: June 12, 2013
Main Subject(s): Mount Shasta (CA)
Listen to this podcast now (to the right) →
Or listen at the IIAWT podcast archives
For more information about this mountain, see the Mount Shasta page, which includes directions, trip reports, and more.