20th Annual Mt Shasta Climb/Ski
(Avalanche Gulch)

25 May 1996 - by Bob Gross

Over the Memorial Weekend, eleven climbers met for a climb of Northern California's premier volcano via the Standard Route up Avalanche Gulch. As we started up the mountain on Saturday, we passed many unsuccessful climbers departing who reported extremely high winds on the ridges. After making camp at Lake Helen, however, we were blessed by mild weather. One climber continued from camp to the summit that day! Two developed symptoms of Mountain Sickness, so they opted to stay in camp, but the rest went for the summit early on Sunday morning. Again, mild weather held up and all climbers who started up to the summit were successful. Lisa Dersh of Palo Alto was the sole woman standing on the summit, and she was there two minutes ahead of the leader! Not bad for a complete beginner to climbing.

Returning toward camp through Avalanche Gulch, a nasty accident was observed. One ignorant kid was attempting to glissade down the very icy slope with his crampons still on. Further, his ice axe was not in the ready position. He caught a point, which flipped him up into a tumble and headfirst slide. His axe was ten feet ahead of him down the hill. Two innocent walkers were surprised by the kid and were knocked off their feet. One man slid 600 feet before stopping. One woman tumbled for more than 1000 feet before coming to rest. Blood was splattered over the icy snow as a lady ranger picked up the pieces right away and administered first aid. I was the first one to come upon the kid lying in the snow. I first asked if he was OK. When he responded, I asked if he had been glissading or did he just fall? He responded that he had been glissading. So I briefly lectured that you never intentionally glissade down a busy slope with crampons on. Then I walked away without offering any further assistance.

After everybody was accounted for at the high camp, we left for the trailhead. The corn snow had very good consistency all the way down, which was a pleasure to this skier. I later heard from Carlos Feldman (who made it), that when the rest of them came off the mountain an hour or two after I skied off, they got hit with a dose of snow and wind storm. But I was already sitting down at Bunny Flat.

Shasta: Response To Article

Bill Isherwood ; May 25-27, 1996

I'd like to comment on the article ... regarding the '20th Annual Mt. Shasta Climb/Ski'. There was reference to 'a nasty accident' wherein 'two innocent walkers' were knocked off their feet. As one of those 'innocent walkers', I can comment further. Dana and I had taken two relatively inexperienced climbers with us for the Shasta climb. They both had had some ice-ax practice, but by the time we reached the top of Red Banks, it was clear that at least one (Kathy, a physician) was not up to the climb. As Dana went on with Nancy to the summit, I descended with Kathy. The slope was icy, but Kathy had managed to get down the steepest part and appeared to be doing fairly well.

At that point, a man slid past out of control, missing us by only a few feet. Only a few minutes later we saw another man (the son of the first) also sliding out of control, right at us. As we tried to get out of his way, Kathy tripped and I had my legs whipped out from under me. Despite a chest sling, Kathy lost her ax before being able to effect an arrest. I managed to stop within about 25- 30 feet.

I proceeded down the slope, picking up gear from all three sliders. (I could see that Kathy was being attended to.) All three had lost their ice axes, along with miscellaneous other gear. Kathy had slid the farthest, probably about 1000 feet, and had come to rest close to a woman Forest Ranger. Kathy had scrapped considerable skin off one arm (hence the blood referred to in the article) and suffered considerable bruising, including possible fractures of one elbow and ankle.

After some bandaging by the Ranger and some on-site recovery, I assisted Kathy to Helen Lake in small increments. At Helen Lake, Kathy rested until Dana and Nancy had returned - about the time weather was beginning to turn nasty. Because of the injuries, we decided to descend as soon as possible. The woman Ranger volunteered to assist in dragging Kathy's pack as far as the Sierra Club hut. It was still a slow (wet) descent, reaching the cars just before dark.

We were met by Kathy's husband (also a doctor), who drove Katy back to the Bay area that night, for immediate x-raying and evaluation in the morning. On our return to the Bay area the next day, Kathy had been evaluated and it was determined that no bones were broken, and it was unlikely she would need a skin graft (one of our early concerns). She was back to work in a week and is now anxious to get back to the mountains (with a little more preparation).

The main lesson to be learned is that Shasta (or any steep snow mountain) can be dangerous to anyone without excellent skills with an ice ax. An arrest on steep, fast ice, takes almost instinctive reactions, which come only from lots of practice. Be sure of the skill level of people you agree to take on a climb. We tend to underestimate Shasta, because it has such a long run-out, but a long tumbling fall can still be potentially serious.

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