High on the Hotlum Wintun route on Mount Shasta. An awesome place to be with skis! Photo: Zeb Blais.
Trip Dates: May 29-30, 2022
Mountain: Mount Shasta 14,179’
Route: Hotlum Wintun aka Hot-Toon/Hot Tuna
Trailhead: Brewer Creek, 7300’
Vertical from Trailhead to Summit: 6,900’
Snow Surfaces: Firnspiegel, corn, wind buff, breakable crust (supportable with skis, punchy walking with boots/crampons)
The Hotlum Wintun extends thousands of feet straight from Mount Shasta's summit before cutting north towards the Hotlum Glacier. Photo: Zeb Blais.
It's been a wild season on Mount Shasta. Every week has been different, and conditions have been changing quickly. Late season storms prevented an absolute shut down of the skiing and climbing season and made for an impressive revival of ski mountaineering on California’s highest volcano. But the unsettled weather has persisted since the snows have stopped. It has been common to see forecast winds nearing triple digits and temperatures have been downright polar during a time of year that is usually marked by predictably warm days, cold nights and clear skies.
Memorial Day weekend continued the trend of wacky weather with frigid temperatures around 10 degrees at 12,000’. Even with the strong California sun doing its magic on the snow, it was hard to imagine the surface softening significantly. It seemed that the weekend might be a bust, but we shrugged off the potential for disappointment and made an attempt on one of the Mount Shasta's best ski descents: the Hotlum Wintun.
The Hotlum Wintun in all it's glory: the line is front and center and begins within feet of the true summit. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The Hotlum Wintun is sandwiched between the Hotlum Glacier and the Wintun Glacier and boasts continuous steep skiing from 10 feet below the true summit to the flanks of the mountain. It’s an aesthetic route that begs to be skied and we were in luck with some freshly deposited wind-buffed snow. The spring melt-freeze cycle had certainly turned most of the snow into a frozen berg of ice, but a few thousand feet of wind deposited snow gave us hope for decent conditions.
While people were struggling to find parking at Bunny Flat, we were tucked into camp on the northeast side of the mountain with the drainage to ourselves. We camped low to avoid the winds that were forecast to be over 50mph and to limit skiing with heavy packs, but only encountered 5 other people in two days.
Camp low on the Hotlum Wintun on Mount Shasta. Photo: Zeb Blais.
We pushed back our start time to allow the sun to warm the snow - and us. Often, during this time of year, we would choose to start significantly before dawn, but given the temperatures and the fact that we were descending on skis and would be able to exit more quickly than on foot, we began late - just before 8am! Our timing worked well: we didn’t get too cold and the snow didn’t get too soft. In fact, the snow didn’t soften much at all on the upper elevations of the mountain.
As we started skinning up, the snow was rock hard but mostly grippy. Most of the snow that had appeared to be blue ice from a distance was actually firnspiegel. Firnspiegel is an ice lens that forms when the sun melts the snow, but due to cold ambient temps and wind, the surface is frozen into a delicate lens. This lens shelters the snow beneath it from cold and wind, while the solar radiation continues to penetrate the snow. The result is soft corn snow with a fragile ice lattice above that breaks easily as one skis through it. It’s a really neat process to see and can often make for fun skiing!
Taking a break near the Wintun Glacier after dealing with draining breakable crust on the climb. Photo: Zeb Blais.
The snow became smoother and the skinning became more difficult as we gained elevation. We managed to skin to around 11,500’ where we crossed a rock ridge south to the ramp extending to Mount Shasta’s summit (the upper reaches of the Hotlum Wintun Route). From there, we donned boot crampons and made our way up the steep snow.
Climbing conditions were good to start, but deteriorated around 12,500’. At this point, the snow became less supportable to boot crampons and climbing became a chore. At the front of the boot pack, each step broke through the crust and slid on a layer of faceted snow below the crust. The layering of the snowpack wasn’t an avalanche concern, but it did make the climbing difficult for everyone on the team.
Finishing the climb to the summit of Mount Shasta by the Wintun Glacier route. This variation is just south of the Hotlum Wintun "couloir." Photo: Zeb Blais
When we got to the top of the Wintun Glacier we opted to finish the climb that way instead of up the Hotlum Wintun “Couloir.” This was an aesthetic option and made for easier climbing with firmer snow. We wrapped around the summit pyramid to the top and celebrated our ascent!
The day was nearly perfect, but clouds were closing in on our line quickly. The Hotlum Wintun is a steep line, and good visibility is definitely helpful with adverse snow conditions. As we strapped in to ski, the clouds rolled in. With flat light, low visibility and firm snow, we waited for the light to change. And we waited some more. We were feeling some time pressure to get back to the camp and trailhead and we took the first opportunity the clouds gave us: a brief window of moderate visibility.
We skied carefully on the firm, steep snow, moving when the light was good and stopping when the visibility deteriorated. The light improved as we descended and soon we were below the cloud. At this point, the clouds were above us and to the south and we were right on top of the best snow of the route!
The excellent-quality, wind-buffed that snow turned the trip into Type 1 Fun! Photo: Zeb Blais.
Sliding into the softer, wind deposited snow was relief and excitement for the skiing ahead. Below us was around 2,000 continuous feet of consistent, wind-buffed snow! One by one we cranked turns on a massive, 100% natural groomer. It was an awesome reward for the difficult climb and we were laughing as we sprayed huge plumes of chalky snow on each turn.
Cold temperatures kept the cold-snow cold and we linked patches of wind buff all the way down to about 10,000’. Below this point, warmer temps allowed the sun to work its magic and the snow became soft and almost slushy. The firnspeigel was really mushy under the ice lens and with the ice lens suspended many inches above the soft snow, it was a surreal surface to ski through.
We skied to the terminus of the snow at around 8,400’ and walked a few minutes back to camp. Tired but stoked, we traded our ski boots for dry socks and running shoes and scrambled to pack up camp before our final push back to the cars.
With our unexpected find of great snow, the Hotlum Wintun was an incredible way to ski Mount Shasta!