Trip Report: Summiting Mount Shasta and Skiing with Blackbird Mountain Guides

Zeb falling in the fog. Credit: Clay Malott

Report of May 29 and 30, 2022

Over the long weekend, I had the pleasure of climbing and skiing Mount Shasta with Blackbird Mountain Guides, based in Truckee, CA. Blackbird has a great track record of safe and successful summits so I was very excited to go on a guided summit tour.

After spending the night in Redding on Saturday, I drove to McCloud, a small town of just 900 people, dwarfed by the enormous Mount Shasta above. Its stature in person certainly lives up to its status as the largest Cascade volcano by volume.

At McCloud, I met our guide, Zeb Blais, who is also the owner and founder of Blackbird Mountain Guides. Zeb’s mountaineering resume is absolutely mad, ranging from ski descents of many of the Seven Summits, numerous 8,000+ meter peaks and over 100 Mount Rainier peaks. We did a quick gear check at McCloud, then drove to the Brewer Creek trailhead, just over an hour from McCloud.

Shasta on the drive. Credit: Clay Malott

The ride was no easy feat, with massive rocks, ditches, and fallen trees between the car and the trailhead. Eventually we arrived at the Brewer Creek trailhead, where we unloaded our gear, packed our bags and hit the trail.

Skinnable snow is now about 8300 feet, about 1000 feet above the trailhead. So we started the trip in hiking boots walking on dirt. Through the trees, Shasta towered overhead, leaving us all dreaming of the 6,000 foot descent that awaited us on our ascent.

Climbing… Credit: Clay Malott

After reaching skinable snow after about an hour of hiking, we picked a nice, flat, protected piece of snow and set up camp. The winds were expected to be quite strong overnight so we camped low at about 8400ft behind some trees for shelter. As the sun began to set, we set up our stoves and began melting snow into the water. We filled our water bottles and prepared hot water to prepare dinner. for me, freeze-dried Chana Masala.

As we dined enjoying the last rays of sunshine of the day, I was able to learn a bit more about the history of Zeb and the Blackbird Mountain Guides. Blackbird prioritizes safety above all else and is incredibly accommodating to customer goals, which I certainly felt was the case on my trip. Throughout the trip Zeb was always checking that we were comfortable and getting the experience we wanted. From what I’ve heard, it seems to be the case on all Blackbird trips, whether reaching a technical peak in the Alps or entering the backcountry for the first time on their unique AIARE 1 course. With such an experienced staff, Blackbird are able to create the perfect experience for any purpose; my trip to Mount Shasta was no exception.

Dramatic clouds over the summit near sunset. Credit: Clay Malott

At 8 p.m. we climbed into our tents for the long, cold night ahead. Temperatures must have been in the low 20s, so I made sure to wear extra layers in bed.

The next morning we came out of our tents around 6:45 am and prepared water and breakfast. We started a little later than planned as we thought giving the snow a little more time to warm up would be beneficial. We hiked to the snowfield and started heading up the gargantuan peak around 7:45.

Zeb leading the charge to the top. Credit: Clay Malott

The bottom was fairly easy stripping but quickly turned into a very slippery climb, where a melt-freeze cycle made the snow very slippery and difficult to climb. We slowly climbed the huge snowfield until the slope became too steep to cover effectively, where we got our crampons and ice axes out and started to drive off.

Skinning the vast, unfathomable snowfields. Credit: Clay Malott
Pinpointing our goal while pausing the start. Credit: Clay Malott

One thing that I really liked about Zeb’s leadership style during the ascension was that he explained all of his decisions to us in real time. We were not blindly guided to Shasta, we were part of the decision-making process and were included in all of its security mitigation processes during the climb. It’s quite refreshing to have such a knowledgeable, inclusive and educationally oriented guide.

Zeb and Ted drive off. What a view! Credit: Clay Malott

We climbed the Hotoon, a permanent snowfield between the Hotlum and Wintun glaciers. For the most part, starting conditions were pretty good on the way up. The views during the climb were absolutely amazing.

Inching up. Credit: Clay Malott
Ants on a massive blank canvas. Credit: Clay Malott
Climb with some nice orographic clouds as a backdrop. Credit: Clay Malott

Zeb took us on a short rope through some of the steepest and most consistent sections of the climb. He did a great job carving out some of the crust near the top of the climb and setting a sustainable pace that we were able to climb all the way.

Crawling to the last pitch. Credit: Clay Malott

We headed to Misery Hill, an aptly named little knob near the summit caldera. By this point, Ted (the other guest on the trip) and I were tired and breathing hard; It turns out that going from sea level to 14,000 feet and climbing nearly 7,000 feet in a day takes a toll on the body! Zeb was very patient and encouraging on the way up, just what I want from a guide on the way up.

Zeb, all smiles on top. Even after all those peaks, he still loves being there! The enthusiasm is unparalleled. Credit: Clay Malott
Looking towards the camp. What a view! Credit: Clay Malott

We finally reached 14,180′ Mt. Shasta around 3 p.m. We took some great photos at the top before we transitioned and started our descent.

Zeb falling in the fog. Credit: Clay Malott

The descent was very difficult at first. The first 1000 or so feet was extremely firm and chattering, making the descent particularly strenuous for already exhausted legs. Once we got out of the upper chute down from the summit boulder, the descent opened up to an absolutely massive snowfield that had great packed powder that was an absolute dream to ski. We skied a thousand straight vertical feet of this snow, which was absolutely amazing. At 13,000 feet, ski on incredible snow with views that rival some of the best views I’ve ever skied. I can’t ask for much more than that.

Zeb milking the rounds down the packed powder. Credit: Clay Malott
Small doodles, big mountain. Credit: Clay Malott

We returned to our original snowfield and continued downhill. The snow alternated between firm snow like we had at the top and nice packed powder. Good trick, bad trick, good trick, bad trick. Eventually the snow started to soften a bit around 10,000 feet. For a few laps we got some pretty great corn. However, the snow quickly turned to slushy wet snow which we fought back to camp.

We tidied up camp and headed back to the trailhead. We went to the ranger station, ate cookies and parted ways.

Overall the climb and skiing was excellent. We had to deal with exceptional snow and weather conditions, but that didn’t stop us from having an absolutely amazing trip. I was truly impressed with Zeb’s planning and leadership on the ground and would absolutely recommend anyone to take a trip with Blackbird in the future.

Ants. Credit: Clay Malott