Climbing Mount Shasta

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post which contains a lot of new information and how my two 2009 trips went.

As 2009 rolled around I decided that this would be a great year to go backpacking up Mount Shasta again. I have attempted the mountain twice in the past and topped out (i.e. reached the summit) once. This year I’m organizing a group trip, which is why I’ve started planning so early and the reason for this post. Here I will outline my experience with the mountain and what to expect.

Not all the pictures I’ve included are mine. Here are the pictures from my Shasta trips in 2001 and 2002.

Mountain Stats

Northern California (near the Oregon border)
Elevation at the top
14,179 ft
6,920 ft
Elevation Gain
7,259 ft
Trail Distance
~ 6 miles (averages to about 1,000 feet elevation gain per mile)
Nights on trail
Best time of year to climb
May to Mid July

Overview of a standard trip

Typically the climb and decent will take two days, although, some people do it in one.

Day 1 starts with a 4 – 6 hour hike from the parking lot up to Helen Lake (which is really just a glacier) where you setup base camp. The rest of the day is spent admiring the view, making food (yay, dehydrated meals!) and preparing your day pack for the next morning.

The summit ascent begins somewhere between 12 AM – 3 AM the next morning. You’ll want to start as early as possible, while the snow is still firm and solid, and get to red banks before the sun starts making it soft and slushy.

When you reach the summit stop to enjoy the view, regain your energy and prepare for the best part of the journey — glissading down the mountain! This literally means you will sit on your butt in the groove created by the people before you and slide down the entire mountain; stopping briefly at base camp to collect the rest of your gear. Not to worry, you will have your ice axe with you as a safety device that will help you regulate your speed down the mountain. Think of it as your hand brake.

So that’s it, 2 days to get to the top and and 3 – 4 hours down.

My First Attempt

Now that you know the basics, here are my experiences.

As long as I can remember my father has been telling me the story of when he was young and climbed Shasta with his friends from school. It always sounded like an exciting adventure and in 2001 I invited him to climb it with me. He spent months preparing. Hired a personal trainer, lost a lot of weight and really got prepared for the trip. I was 20 years old and thought I was in perfect shape and wouldn’t need to train or do anything to prepare. I mean, I’ve done hikes before, I went biking regularly, how hard could it be? That was my first mistake.

Our second mistake was to attempt the mountain sometime in August or September. At that time of year much of the snow has melted at the base of the mountain and you have to traverse up loose volcanic scree all the way to base camp. It was miserable, and I was seriously lagging behind my Dad.

The next morning we decided not to attempt the summit since the snow was melting and could cause falling rocks. And I was still exhausted from the day before.

My Second Attempt — Success!

The following year we decided to attempt it again with a better understanding of how to approach it. I was 21 years old now, so a lot wiser and as a bonus was legal to drink! (although that has nothing to do with the story)

This time I started training about 2 months prior to the climb by going to the local high school 2 or 3 nights a week and running the bleachers. That made all the difference in the world.

We also decided to go in June, so the snow on the mountain was almost at the trail head. This helps considerably by giving you enough traction to hike straight up the mountain without a lot of traversing.

We got to Helen Lake and the next morning started the ascent around 12 AM, while it was still dark. With our headlamps turned on and crampons on our boots we began the steep hike to the summit. The closer we got the thinner the air became. With the summit in view I would take about 5 to 10 steps and need to stop for a short break.

Reaching the top was extremely rewarding and provided a view that was worth every minute of the climb. It’s beyond description and pictures can’t come close to capturing it; you’re at the top of the world. From there you can look down at the giant shadow the mountain casts on the rest of the valley. In fact the entire hike provides scenic views you wont experience anywhere else.

Last leg of the hike to the summit
My dad and I at the summit


Most of the equipment you need can be rented. I would recommend buying a pair of comfortable boots that can easily be hiked in and support crampons. You’ll need an ice axe for safety, although there isn’t any vertical climbing along the route. Here’s a list of a few of the things you’ll need:

  • 2 Backpacks: One to carry the supplies for base camp and a small day pack to carry to the summit.
  • Warm clothes: Wearing layers is a good idea.
  • Hiking boots that can support crampons.
  • Ice axe. (rent)
  • Helment: Optional, but a good idea. (rent)
  • Tent: Light and made for snow and wind.
  • Sleeping bag: Mummy bag made for backpacking and rated for very cold weather (-30° F).
  • 2 Telemark poles: These are fancy hiking sticks.
  • Camp stove and cooking supplies.
  • Water filtering device. (You’ll be filtering melted snow for water at base camp)

If you go to a good mountaineering shop they can help you pick out the right equipment and definitely try to rent what you can.

Boot and crampons


Depending on your current fitness level, you’ll want to start training at least 2 months before the hike. I found that running up and down bleachers at a local high school football field worked really well to prepare for the hike. The key is to work on your core muscles for the pack and your legs for the hike.

The best core exercise you can do is the “plank” and “side planks“. Do these 3 – 5 times a week.

For legs, I’ve found that doing stairs and stepper machines is a great way to train. For a little more of a challenge, stand in front of a bench with weights in your hands and step up on it and then step down. Alternate legs each time and don’t let your knees move beyond your toes during the movement.

Learn More

The Siskiyous EDU site has a great virtual tour of the climb, including an description of each leg of the journey with an elevation profile diagram.

The book we used to prepare for Mount Shasta trip was Climbing Mt. Shasta: Route 1 by Steve J. Lewis. This book has everything you need in a simple, easy to follow format. Many websites will try to scare you with how dangerous the hike is. While it’s true that any backpacking trip can be dangerous, if you have some common sense and prepare appropriately Shasta is a pretty safe trip.

For fun you can view the Shasta Cam to get a live view of the mountain.

Looking out at the valley from the top

UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post which contains a lot of new information and how my two 2009 trips went.


  1. Thanks so much for a great overview…this is my first time and I am really excited! One of our group members said EXACTLY what you did about the scree issue in later months so we changes it to June. Phew!

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  3. My husband is on Shasta right now as I type this, and probably getting ready to go for the summit in about 1/2 hour. He did not train, nor did one of the 2 other guys with him. I wish I had found your blog a couple months ago to 1) convince him to wait until next May or June, and 2) to actually train for the climb.
    I’m anxiously awaiting a phone call Monday letting me know they are safely down the mountain and on their way home.

  4. Ive been climbing the mountain for about five years now and just now found your site. will be going again in april 2010 at spring break, looking for climbing patners at that time, to do a route other than avalanche gulch. also curious how amys husband did. Tony

  5. Great post, now this is something I need to put on THE TO DO LIST.
    I’m sure you remember growing up and your Dad telling you to listen to him, well you should have realised something up when your Dad started to prepare for the trip, of course I knew what you were thinking….Dad just trying to get in shape to keep up…..right.
    Instead it was you. Dad still know Best.

  6. I’m climbing on July 5th and this will be my first climb ever. I’m pretty excited and a bit scared. I’m sure it’s challenging but also extremely rewarding.

  7. I just wanted to thank you for sharing those amazing pictures. i really enjoyed looking at them 🙂