Topped by snow and glaciers, Mount Shasta rises up above everything else when you approach it from the north.

As soon as I saw it, I wanted to be up there. We were coming south from Oregon, after driving across the country from Michigan. A detour to northern California before heading home seemed like a good idea to both of us.

“I wonder if we could climb it?” I asked. John just nodded his head quietly, agreeing not to the climb, but to the fact that he was wondering the same thing. I checked the map. Mount Shasta is 14,162 feet above sea level. I liked the idea of climbing that high.

“Have you ever climbed a mountain?,” John asked me. I thought about it for a while. “Not really. A lot of hills though.”

Mount Shasta City

“Oh yes,” the old woman at the visitor’s center told us, “people climb Mount Shasta all the time.” John pointed out the glaciers on the map she had given us. “Oh, well, did you bring crampons and ice axes?” John looked at me, and I could only say, “I’ve heard of these things.”

We did have some gear: backpacks, sleeping bags, and a tent. John had good hiking boots, but mine were more like high-top shoes. Neither of us had ever used crampons or an ice axe, so we went the few blocks across town to see what the guy at the climbing store had to say.

“Have you done any climbing before?” he asked us.

“A little,” I answered, remembering the buildings we used to climb on as teenagers, and the rocks we had recently scrambled up in Oregon. I figured we were ready for Mount Shasta.

“Well, you can’t put crampons on those boots,” he said to John, “and you sure can’t put them on those,” he told me, shaking his head at my shoes. Crampons apparently need rigid boots – our mountaineering lesson of the day. We could rent them, but only if we rented real mountaineering boots also. “And you’ll need ice axes, of course.” I felt a pain in my wallet.

Backpacking On Mount Shasta (Too Poor For Climbing)

A speeding ticket in North Dakota had strained the budget, and Mount Shasta was another detour from the route and the budget. We could, we decided, hike up the mountain and do a little backpacking. Still, I had to ask, “Do people climb Shasta without gear?” The store owner realized that the sale was lost.

“It’s been done,” he answered impatiently.

“It’s been done,” I reminded John as we drove up the road to Mount Shasta. He didn’t answer, which was a good sign. I watched the Pine trees go by, and absentmindedly poked a finger through a hole in my shoe.

“Old Ski Bowl Trailhead,” John said. I looked over at the sign. “7,900 feet.” We were at the trailhead, along with forty other cars, and it was early enough to hit the trail.

Mount Shasta Poop Bags

We looked at the registration forms, and had a decision to make. There was a $10 fee to hike or climb above “Horse Camp,” at 8,400 feet. John pointed to a pile of paper bags, each with a handful of cat litter in it, and a plastic bag to put it in. These were for carrying our excrement off the mountain, a requirement above 10,000 feet. That clinched it. We put $10 each in the envelope and dropped it in the slot. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to poop in a bag in the mountains. I took two for myself, in case of good luck.

An easy trail took us to the hut and spring at Horse Camp. We filled our water bottles. The dayhikers looked up at the mountain through cameras, while the climbers cooked noodles and discussed weather reports. They looked at my shoes and smiled at each other when I mentioned we might climb Mount Shasta.

After Horse Camp the trail gets steeper and rockier. The trees end at about 8,500 feet, leaving only grasses, flowers, and other tundra plants. Then the trail gets lost in the rocks just before the steep climb up to Helen Lake.

Wind And Rain At Helen Lake

There is no lake. Helen lake is a more-or-less level area of snow and ice. At the edge, overlooking Horse Camp far below, there are dusty clearings in the rocks where the climbers camp. We found an empty spot and we set up camp. The wind was howling. We were at 10,440 feet.

About the time the rain started, I realized it might have been a bad idea to talk John into bringing only a tarp, instead of the tent. The edges pulled loose in the wind again and again, until we pinned down one side with heavy rocks, and wrapped the other side around us. Dust blew in, despite the tight wrap and rain. I was enjoying the adventure more than John, who was very quiet. So I talked until he fell asleep.

Climbing Mount Shasta

“Apparently they start very early,” John grumbled. It was dark, but there were lights and noise from the tents around us. I stood up, and I saw lights on the mountain a thousand up. It was 5:30 a.m. Hmm… climbers start early. With that new insight, we packed our daypacks, hid our big backpacks in the rocks, and stepped onto the ice.

Helen Lake was a mile of ups and downs, through sun-dished ice. Then we reached the loose rock at the base of a steep slope, in Avalanche Gully. We started climbing Mount Shasta. an hour later, we quit.

“I can’t do it,” John gasped. “Can’t get enough air.” We were at about 11,000 feet, and we knew there was less oxygen, but this was the first time John had actually been this high on foot. I once drove higher in Colorado, but apparently driving wasn’t a strenuous enough for me to notice the thinner air. I noticed it here. We both did. We sat down and rested for a minute.

“Are you sure,” I asked. He was – I wasn’t. It was light now, and John didn’t see any problem hiking down the four hours to the car alone. I would go on to the summit, and then come back down by evening. I had to continue. Mount Shasta was my first mountain, and I hadn’t even used the poop bag yet.

Altitude Sickness

The “Red Bank” is a line of broken cliffs above Avalanche Gully. I scrambled, climbed, slipped on ice, and eventually found a way up and over. Then there were long steep slopes covered in loose rocks, with a few bamboo sticks marking the way. My route converged with that of the other climbers, who had come up the snow-slope route with crampons and ice axes.

After much climbing, I finally made it to the summit, which is called Misery hill, because it isn’t actually the summit. It just seems like it should be. There was still a mile of snow to cross, and then more rocky terrain. One snow field had three-foot-high peaks covering it, like a huge merange pie.

I rested a moment, and realized I’d been hearing a new sound. Bang! Bang! Bang! It was the inside of my head, which had never been so loud before. Hmm…interesting. I got used to the noise and pain after an hour or so.

I got used to the smell of sulphur too. Mount Shasta, it turns out, is a volcano. When John Muir climbed it more than a hundred years earlier, he had to huddle next to the hot sulphur gas vents to survive a night near the peak. He was alternately freezing and burning.

At The Top Of Mount Shasta

“So this is the top?” I mumbled lamely to the guy who had just told me the John Muir story. Clouds, and smoke from forest fires, obscured the view in every direction, but it felt good to be so high, and down to the east, I saw my first glacier, a few hundred feet below.

“You can write your name in the register there,” the guy told me, pointing to something in the rocks. Guestbooks on top of mountains? Another lesson for the day. I signed in, wrote some comment, and started down the mountain.

Sun cups, or whatever they call those depresions in the snow, fill with water in the warm afternoon sun – another discovery. I’d climb out of one ten-foot-wide bowl and slide into the pond at the bottom of the next. This was the pattern until I thankfully reached the ankle-twisting mile of rocks piled up below Helen Lake. Climbing down, I realized, is more difficult than climbing up, or at least more dangerous.

I found the trail, my headache disappeared, I reached the road, where John was waiting. By evening we were driving towards Michigan, Mount Shasta hidden in the clouds and smoke behind us. Oh, and yes, I did get to use the poop bag. Somewhere around 11,500 feet, I think, which I remembered when I was looking through my pack. “Pull over at the nearest garbage can,” I told John.

About The Author

Steve Gillman is a long-time backpacker, and advocate ultralight backpacking. His advice and stories can be found at

Written by: Steve Gillman