Our first Denali training trip as a team! We climbed the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge on the north side of Mt. Shasta in northern California. The real goal of this trip was to spend time in our tent (a North Face VE-25 mountaineering tent) in the snow. The summit was an optional (but desired) goal.
Getting to the trailhead
We drove up on Friday June 30th, having the whole of the 4th of July weekend available for climbing/training.
Maura and I carpooled to the mountain from Tahoe so we decided to come in from the Nevada side (east) on dirt “roads” that Google Maps suggested.
The roads were so rutted out from the HUGE 2016/2017 winter that we got my Forester on three wheels several times. We had to use our avalanche shovels to dig out the ruts to make the road passable. That, combined with sketchy directions made the approach one of the hardest parts of the weekend. We eventually met Patrick and Brent (they took Brent’s Tundra 4×4) at the Northgate trailhead that night.
As I mentioned, the real purpose of this trip was to get some “winter” (it was July…) camping experience. This meant putting our tent in the snow and staying in the snow for the entire weekend. We built camp twice, once on Saturday July 1st and again on Sunday the 2nd after a day of training.
Setting up the tent for “Denali Conditions” was exhausting. We had two tents for the four of us – the VE-25 which we planned to take on the mountain and Patrick’s backpacking tent. We started by building two flat platforms for the tents. Our first mistake was not starting on the flattest ground we could find. We spent tons of time chopping into the hard summer snow to make flat spots large enough for the tents and the walls that would go around them.
Once the platforms were built we set up the tents and started building the walls. On Denali, storms with 80-100mph winds are not uncommon. Tents without full-height fortress walls around them will be shredded or blown off the mountain – a very serious situation if you’re up high. This was our first time building walls and we had a LOT of learning to do. After hours (I think 4?) we had some modest walls built and we were all totally exhausted and more than a little demoralized – “we have to do this for EVERY CAMP on the mountain for 3 WEEKS?!!”. This was the hardest thing we did all weekend.
After getting camp set up on Saturday after the hike in (which included a lot of gratuitous planking by Brent on anything solid – see the photo carousel below) we spent Sunday training.
Training included traveling together on a rope, as we would nearly the entire time on Denali (due to the high risk of falling into massive Alaskan crevasses). We also practiced a technique known as a “running belay” where to you place pickets in the snow to clip your rope to to keep the entire team from being pulled off of steep slopes. We also practiced ice axe self arrest, and crevasse rescue systems using pulleys to haul your teammates back from the brink of the abyss.
At the end of the day Sunday we decided to build a new camp 100 feet uphill from the one we’d built the day before. It was still utterly exhausting and demoralizing work. More than one of us was unsure about the future of this expedition after the experience of setting up camp.
After all the work on Saturday and Sunday we voted to treat ourselves to a summit attempt on Monday July 3rd. None of us had summited from the Hotlum-Bolam Ridge – a ridge between the Hotlum and Bolam glaciers – in fact, if I recall correctly Brent was the only one of us who had been to the top of Shasta many (many) years prior. Patrick and I had been on this route a few years ago as part of a Meetup hosted by a guy name Marek where we learned the ins and outs of glacier travel.
We opted for an “alpine start”, leaving camp a little after 4am to make sure we had good snow conditions up high and plenty of time to summit and get back to camp.
The firm snow in the morning was easy enough to walk up and climbing before sunrise usually goes by fairly quickly. The sun came up just after 5:30 which always brings with it motivation thanks to the warmth and light.
We continued for another hour and a half to a rock band where we took a short rest with snacks and water. From here, we headed up a long ramp of snow that lead to a rocky area where we had to do a bit of route finding. Around here there were some rocky areas where we ran into a couple of European skiers coming down through some narrow chutes – someday I hope to be doing the same.
At a feature called the “bunny ears” we weren’t quite sure where to go. We started questing up a rocky talus field that quickly became quite technical 5th class climbing/scrambling. Patrick quested ahead to see if we could get through but the rest of us said no way. After a lot of wandering we realized the route actually went around a corner on the right and dropped steeply into a scree-filled gully with a trail through it, we were stoked to be back on route.
From there it was a pretty straightforward hike to the summit after traversing one fairly steep snow slope. We arrived at the top at just about noon to find it pretty uncrowded for such a beautiful day on a holiday weekend. We spent nearly an hour on top before heading down.
As we started approaching the top Patrick got a pretty bad case of altitude sickness so we started keeping a really close eye on him. On the decent, we did a lot of glissading which got us down much faster than we went up. About halfway back to camp Patrick was feeling a lot better.
We decided to hike all the way out on Monday. We packed up camp and did the hike back to the Northgate trailhead, getting to the cars late in the afternoon. Arrive to parking lot we received an unwelcome surprise; Brent’s truck had a completely flat rear right tire. Luckily he had a spare which we got on pretty quickly. We drove out that night and got into the town of Mount Shasta in time to have a 9:00PM (well earned) dinner.
We got a cheap room at a motel in town that night. The next morning, after a big breakfast, we checked out the Fourth of July parade then hit up the local gear shop to find a rock climbing guidebook to see if there were any good local crags. We decided to just use MountainProject.com to find some routes to climb in Redding at an area known as The Shredding. We spent most of the day doing some good, short, sport climbing routes then finished the long drive back home.