Despite a couple lean snow years, Shasta’s glaciers bucking global warming trends – so far

Story and photo by Renee Casterline

With its summit soaring 14,162 feet, Mount Shasta stands imposingly over the surrounding landscape, alone in its claim as the dominant peak of northern California. Unlike the highest peaks in the Sierra, Shasta has no peers on its flanks. It’s an absolute brooding, uncontested loner – a mountain “as lonely as God, and white as a winter moon,” as the poet Joaquin Miller memorably put it.

It is this solitude, this unrivaled claim on your attention, that brings into sharp relief just how barren the usually white-cloaked mountain has looked this spring and summer.

In mid-May, considered one of the prime climbing and skiing months, guides and rangers were bemoaning the summer-like conditions as the snow pack rapidly receded under the blowtorch of a week of 90-plus degree days. Looking up from the town of Mt. Shasta, narrow bands of snow were all that remained amid

thousands of feet of scree.

The scene was especially disheartening for climbers and skiers. It was easy to think global warming might be to be blame for the sorry conditions.

But you can’t draw conclusions from one season, of course, or even two; remember, last season’s snowpack was even worse. Indeed, things may not be as bad as they seem on California’s most prominent volcanic peak, where each year thousands of folks are introduced to the world of alpine mountaineering or come to earn their last turns of the season – sometimes six to seven grand of them in one epic run – on what many consider the best ski mountain in North America.

Glacial Enhancement?

According to a recent study by Ian Howat, a doctoral student in earth sciences at UC Santa Cruz, the Whitney Glacier on Shasta’s north slope, California’s largest, is, in fact, growing – not shrinking like most of the rest of the world’s glaciers.

By comparing photos and reviewing historical data, Howat and a team of four others arrived at the conclusion that the Whitney Glacier, the largest of seven on Shasta, has seen a 30 percent increase in size in the last 50 years.

But, as noted, you certainly wouldn’t guess that from looking at the mountain this year or last. And direct on-the-mountain observations indicate that, in last couple of years, annual glacial melt may be headed for the red.

As lead climbing ranger for the U.S. Forest Service in Mt. Shasta, Eric White spends more days on the mountain than not. He says last season the rangers saw creeks running later than normal despite the well below average snowpack, indicating increased glacial runoff. Perhaps just an anomally amid the overall growth of Shasta’s glaciers? Or perhaps a turning point followed by more lean years, rising temperatures and accelerated glacial receding? Impossible to say for sure.

But Howat’s team theorizes that the mountain’s glacial growth is likely a short-term phenomenon, the result of increased precipitation in the past half-century overcoming an increase in temperatures. With global warming, higher temps will eventually outpace precipitation, decreasing snowfall. This could result in near complete loss of Shasta’s glaciers by the end of the century, the researchers conclude.

Another Dry Year

Regardless of the bigger picture, a dry mountain makes climbing more hazardous, not too mention unpleasant. “This is the kind of mountain that you want to climb on the snow, because it’s all loose rock underneath,” says White, who’s also an avalanche specialist for the Forest Service.

This year’s snow stats have been far from encouraging: In May, after the driest spring on record, the snowpack at treeline was a paltry 51 percent of normal. And the upper slopes of the mountain were in even more dismal shape, according to Leif Voeltz, owner of The Fifth Season outdoor store in Mt. Shasta, which maintains a daily-updated mountain report (530-926-5555) for climbers and skiers, covering most routes and trailheads.

The big storms that hit early last winter were unusually cold, he noted. While they dropped lots of dry snow, the low-moisture content and high winds combined to leave the top portion of the mountain scoured. That has meant strikingly less snow on steep upper slopes for climber’s crampons to bite into and for holding loose rock in place.

Altered Routes

The fast waning conditions, estimated at least a month ahead of usual, were forcing guide outfits to alter their typical spring and summer climbing routes, veering away from some altogether.

Shasta’s most popular route by far is Avalanche Gulch. Sitting at the top of the Everitt Memorial Highway, the only paved road to treeline, Avy Gulch is easily accessible and technically easy.

“There is a reason that Avy Gulch is the number one route,” says Styles Larson, owner of Shasta BaseCamp and former guide for Shasta Mountain Guides (SMG). “It’s a gulch – you go in the gut and you come out the gut. It’s pretty hard to get lost.” Shasta’s total number of climbers has fallen back from the boom of the late 1990s when 10,000-12,000 attempted the mountain annually. The number of summit permits issued now averages 7,000-8,000. But the bulk of the

climbers, upwards of 80 percent, still head up the Gulch. If conditions like this year’s and last year’s persist, that may have to change to some degree. In mid June, the Gulch was in poor shape. Most climbers were taking an alternate route up through the Red Banks cliff band and even earlier than usual summit-and-descent times were recommended. By July, Voeltz said it would likely be completely cooked and off the list of wise options, leaving fewer routes for beginning climbers. (For more experienced climbers and those with a guide, Voeltz predicted the north side routes would be “fabulous with good, hard snow” through summer.)

Increased Rockfall Danger

Despite being less technical, Avy Gulch is highly prone to rockfall, as a group of 35 climbers with the Breast Cancer Fund’s Climb Against the Odds found out last July when they had to dodge a VW-sized boulder careening down, sending climbers scrambling and diving out of the way. Luckily, a smashed ice ax was the only casualty.

This year, Shasta Mountain Guides chose to stop taking trips up the Gulch by the end of May. “The Gulch is the most direct route, not the easiest, but it sees 90 percent of the traffic,” says Chris Carr, co-owner of SMG. “It’s a huge irony: it’s the most popular route on the mountain, but also one of the most hazardous.”

Shifting the Mess

In choosing to move their trips to other, less accessible routes on the mountain, the guide companies initiate a pattern of use that draws private climbers to those other routes like the West Face, Clear Creek on the east side, and glacier routes like Hotlum-Bolam. The climbing shops in town start telling independent climbers about those routes, shifting that traffic away from Avy Gulch. The Forest Service climbing rangers follow the climbers to routes on the east, west and north sides of the mountain.

David Cressman, a guide for Sierra Wilderness Seminars, worries about the stresses this dispersal of climbers to other routes puts on the mountain. “We’re going to see more impact as climbers spread out to those other trailheads,” he says. Maybe so. But as Mount Shasta’s veteran ranger, White says that cleanup on the mountain has greatly improved. With the instigation of the human waste pack out system in 1994 and efforts to educate climbers about Leave No Trace ethics, climbers are doing a much better job of leaving only footprints.

Some 2.5 tons of human waste are now hauled out to trailhead collection disposals annually. “Back in the mid ‘80s you could literally smell Lake Helen (a popular base camp in Avy Gulch) long before you got there,” recalls Voeltz of The Fifth Season, a former guide. There’s Always Next Year Crap is one thing we can control. Crappy snow is another we can not. And as any veteran mountain climber knows, weather and snow conditions are a bit of … well, a crapshoot.

SMG’s Carr isn’t convinced that the past two years of low snow indicate a new trend. He’s seen heavy snow years followed by dry seasons, followed by heavy snow years again. “If you look at Mount Shasta historically, we go through micro cycles of drought and then glacial growth,” he notes.

White also isn’t ready to start reformulating his approach to Shasta’s season yet. Under the increasing glare of global warming, Mount Shasta is fairing better than the Sierra, he believes, because the peak’s higher elevations and more northerly latitude offer cooler temperatures. But for how long? He speaks with the optimism of the avid backcountry skier that he is – an optimism no doubt shared by many other skiers and climbers. “I don’t think anyone has a great idea what’s going to happen next year. So I have no reason to believe that we won’t have a great season.”