The first time I laid eyes on Mt. Shasta I almost swerved right off interstate I-5 and crashed. I had heard about the mountain, but had no idea of its history, mythical status, or that it was really that big. In the moment, my instincts quickly brought me back to the reality that I was driving on a major highway. I took a breath, safely moved over to the right lane slowing down a bit, and then tried to balance my focus between driving and this surreal looking peak. New to the Cascade Range, I was unfamiliar with the vertical relief of volcanoes and the experience was blowing my young-adult mind. With all the snow I saw up there, even though I had zero beta or past information about alpine pursuits on the peak, I was certain people must ski up there.
Although I will use the name Mt. Shasta in this piece as that is the name a majority of people know the mountain by, it is crucial to note this is not actually the true name of the mountain. Like a majority of mountains, mountain ranges, and natural features with ascribed prominence in the U.S. there is a settler-colonial narrative that yields a bestowed upon name of that given peak, pass, or place. In this case, the name Shasta is said to have been derived by a U.S. exploration expedition in the mid 1800’s, which also coincides with the California gold rush and an extremely volatile period of first contact between colonizers and local Indigenous tribes. Wakanunee-Tuki-wuki is the original name of the mountain shared amongst a mixture of local Native tribes. In addition, some bioregional neighboring tribes have their own name as well including the Ajumawi who know it as Ako-Yet, the Karuk who call it Uytaahkoo, and the Wintu who know it as Bohem Puyuik. In the spirit of being the alpine stewards we in the Ascent community wish to be, it is crucial to respect and acknowledge the original stewards of this land and all lands we work, play, and live on. For more information please visit: http://landacknowledgements.org.
That first eyes-on moment of seeing Mt. Shasta from the road one summer is burned into my conscience indefinitely, but I didn’t make it up onto the mountain until the following spring. By then I had been immersing myself in my greater Sierra Nevada backyard and had the chance to connect with several people who had spent time on this massive neighbor to our north. This was the early 2000’s and by most every account that was shared with me, skiing this behemoth was no easy objective. In fact, many parties who are unequipped to engage in such an adventure on their own work with a local guiding outfit for support to reach the summit. This is more often than not done over 2-3 days. But since the folks I had gotten my beta from were more from the alpinist/fast-and-light crowd, it seemed massive, but doable as a long day mission.
The first time I went for the Shasta daytrip I treated it like it was the biggest day of my life. At that point I had not really done 7k+ foot days and didn’t know how I would handle climbing that many vertical feet in a day, starting in the dark, and topping out at 14,179ft. It turns out if you are reasonably fit, can handle an early start, and deal with amassing that much vertical gain in a day, this is in my opinion one of the highest quality, most enjoyable big-mountain ski adventures anywhere. That’s not to take away from people who want to camp on the mountain and bring that sublime experience into their undertaking whether it is for two, three, or more days. However, it is to say if you can handle the one-day push, this is pretty much as good as accessible big mountain riding gets.
Winter snow and powder conditions are certainly a thing, but more often than not, it is the unparalleled five-star corn snow conditions that is the dream of many who ski off or close to the summit of Shasta back down to whatever trailhead they started from. Mt. Shasta is pretty much skiable from every side, angle, and aspect. Each unique panel on the mountain rides differently, whether you’re on a glaciated route like the Whitney Glacier, or the most popular route via Avalanche Gulch. Having skied off the top of other Cascade volcanoes from Mt. Rainer to Mt. Hood and many others in between, Mt. Shasta is the one that continuously seems most aligned with the pursuits of ski dreams. It’s as if every route was crafted to ride making this one peak arguably the most classic in the range from the perspective of a snow-slider.
While the skiing is what will likely attract you towards visiting the great Mt. Shasta, depending on how much time you spend in the area, the Shasta community will likely pull you in even more. After that first encounter seeing the mountain, and then finally skiing from just off the top several months later, I was hooked. Little by little I started spending more time in the area across the calendar linking turns on permanent snow fields in the summer/fall months, and beyond the unmatched prime corn season from April-June, seeking out powder conditions and even off-seasonal corn windows in lesser visited months like November. The more time I spent in the area the more I experienced this seemingly unique co-existence between a Christian, conservative, rancher-type population and that of people who largely identify as New-Agers.
The former group of people I got to know by going to school at Humboldt State University, which even though it was four hours away had many Shasta locals in attendance. Through classmates, which interestingly to me thought I was nuts for being obsessed with spending so much time climbing and skiing on the mountain, I learned beyond local Indigenous groups area residents largely held beliefs that were shared by a large majority of other non-coastal, rural, Northern Californians. While I was interested in that avenue of locality in getting to know the area better, I was truthfully a bit more enamored by the other side, the folks who believe the mountain is a vortex, a power center of sorts. In sum, these are the people who believe Mt. Shasta is one of the most spiritually significant places in the world. Adding to the lore of the area-as if it needs more, is the story of the Lemurians. This is a group of ancient, advanced beings that apparently live in and around the mountain.
The last sentence was not written in jest. It deserves more expansion, but like mountain itself, to get the most out of the story you’re going to have to experience it for yourself. The rolling greens and golds of the agricultural activity going on in and around the local foothills, the pristine water coming out of the underground spring in the town park, the multiple (yes multiple) crystal shops in downtown, and the mountain people that come from all over the West and beyond to visit-it is all here in this center of Nor-Cal culture that no matter what one’s views are happen to hold a deep, deep respect for the mountain. It’s the place where I chose to propose to my partner, have shared turns with some of my favorite people in the world, and somewhere I look forward to spending time as much as possible each and every year. After reading this I hope you can start to appreciate how special this mountain is to so many. And when you do get a chance to make a visit, don’t be afraid to jump through a Shasta portal. You’ll know it when it happens, and you’ll know that while transformational experiences that happen in the mountains do happen to us individually, it’s up for us to acknowledge those occurrences, bring the beauty back into our own communities, and share that energy. After all, Mt. Shasta wouldn’t be what it is today if all who were inspired by it kept the brilliance for themselves. If all else fails, just track down a local Lemurian and you’ll be set.
If you want to visit this epic mountain and need gear, safety, or any logistical support contact: https://thefifthseason.com and/or https://shastaguides.com/ depending on your needs. If you’re out for a mission on your own do not forget to get the proper permits you need for an ascent/descent, a human waste bag, and check in with https://www.shastaavalanche.org/#/all for any and all things related to planning your trip. Skiing Mt. Shasta is a serious alpine undertaking and should be respected as such. That said, there’s nothing wrong with embracing the fun side of things too- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FM2-j3BGUOg.
Great piece Brennan, any suggestions on good approaches for Aug-Oct turns?
Thanks Alex, and apologies for catching this so late. Hope you got the Aug-Oct turns in! I’ve actually hit Shasta in the past over those months, but sadly not this year due to such low snow. The Cascades (Hood and Rainer) are usually holding both snow and good access during those months. Cheers to winter!