Mt. Shasta: from city to summit ... on foot

Contributed by Jack Moore
Mount Shasta Herald

In the late 1800s, local tavern owner and outdoor guide Justin Sisson built a trail from town to timberline on Mt. Shasta for climbers aspiring to reach the summit.

Known as the Sisson Southern Trail, it was used by nearly all climbers – including John Muir – until the early 1950s when Everitt Memorial Highway was completed to the timberline on the mountain.

The route usually required several days and horse support to make the round trip and was considered a notable undertaking.

Nowadays, thousands of climbers drive up the highway to start their ascent, notably reducing the time and distance required, but still consider it the trip of a lifetime.

Last week, three intrepid ski mountaineers from Bend, Ore. stepped back in time to retrace Sisson’s historic route to reach the summit and return, all on foot.

Alli Miles, Matt Palilla and Thomas Morgan starting at 4:30 a.m. near the Mount Shasta National Guard Armory (elevation approx. 3,500 feet). They donned packs to walk past the high school on Everitt Memorial Highway to the Gateway Trailhead, where they turned on to the Sisson Southern route. Following this, they hiked up Cascade Gulch via McBride Springs and Sand Flat to Horse Camp (elevation 8,000 feet), where snow lay on the ground

Here they strapped on skis with climbing skins and ascended to Lake Helen (elevation 10, 400 feet). Steep slopes of frozen snow required switching skis for crampons to safely ascend from there to the summit at 14,179 feet, which they successfully reached nine hours after setting off from town.

At the summit, they enjoyed a well-earned rest and scenic views from the summit for 45 minutes before making a memorable 6,000’ ski descent to Horse Camp. There, donning running shoes, they completed their hike back to town.

All in all, they logged 23 miles and climbed more than 10,500 vertical feet (two vertical miles) in 13 hours, a considerable accomplishment by any climber’s standards.

The idea of replicating this historic city-to-summit route on foot caught the fancy of Miles, who participated in a ski ascension race at the Mt. Shasta Ski Park last January. She is a backcountry skier and runner who serves as board member and snow observer for the Central Oregon Avalanche Center, as well as teaching avalanche courses for Oregon Ski Guides. Miles did some online research and discovered the Sisson Southern route offered the most direct line from town to the summit.

Keeping tabs on Mt. Shasta weather and snow conditions, she determined that this was the ideal time to make the climb. Miles quickly contacted two fellow ski mountaineers and runners, Matt Palilla and Thomas Morgan, giving them merely 24-hours notice, but knowing that it was an opportunity they’d find just too good to pass up.

Miles was right – the three drove to Mount Shasta just a day later to tackle the mountain.

This challenging route represents one of the greatest vertical gains (roughly 10,500 feet) over the shortest distance (11.5 miles each way) anywhere in the continental United States, exceeded only by a route on Mt. Rainier in Washington State.

Miles, Palilla and Morgan averaged nearly 1,000 feet of vertical gain every mile, the equivalent of a 19% grade –something even an off-road vehicle would find taxing over time – although the gradient was significantly steeper on the upper slopes.

They also climbed nearly 1,200 feet per hour, about double the pace of most Mt. Shasta climbers who start their ascent 4,000 feet higher and more than seven miles closer to the summit.

Awesome and incredible are two words often overused these days, but this accomplishment deserves such accolades for the tally of blistering miles, huge elevation gain and blazing time they posted in this remarkable city-to-summit achievement.