If at First You Don't Succeed . . . (Part 1)

Sargents Ridge and Green Butte Ridge

Where I went on my two trips up Sargents/Green Butte Ridge

The route seemed simple enough. As Tom Bennett and I were both plenty fit and broken in for the season, chomping at the bit as we were, we decided to have a quick little jaunt up Sargents Ridge on Mount Shasta to ring in the New Year. The plan was to drive up Friday, climb the ridge and make camp on a narrow section of the ridge at 10,000 ft (for the practice and fun of camping on steeper terrain) and then summit and descend on Saturday for a short weekend climb.

I had summitted Shasta for my second time the previous year via Casaval Ridge, and apart from the Catwalk being fairly airy I found the route finding straightforward and the climbing not too hard. Scenic, yes, but it was mostly a lot of traversing and slogging on 40 degree slopes with a few 50 degree cruxes. Most route references I saw rated Sargents/Green Butte Ridge easier or no harder than Casaval Ridge, so we expected the route to be a straightforward 1.5 day climb for us, even in the middle of winter.

We were in for a surprise.

Sargents Ridge Attempt

January 9th

Time: 1.5 days

Distance: 10 miles

Elevation Gain: 5,000 ft

Rating: Class 3 mixed climbing, 50 degree slopes

January 9th – A Slow Start

The lower section of Sargents Ridge

We arrived late to Bunny Flat trailhead after a late start from Berkeley and a full dinner and beer at the Billy Goat’s Tavern. Although I had brought snowshoes and poles, Tom had taken the climb more casual and had left his at home, assuming that an ice axe and plans to kick step were sufficient. Thinking back to previous winter climbs where I was much faster than a climbing partner, I decided that suffering by post holing alongside Tom and keeping warm was preferable to laughing at his predicament while getting cold standing around. So we set off, sans snowshoes for our attempt on the ridge.

In winter, the approach to Sargents is mostly walking along the unplowed segment of the Everitt Memorial Highway for about 2 miles up to panther Meadows at 7,500 ft. From there the road switchbacks, and we cut cross-country up the slopes to avoid the switchbacks. Without snowshoes we experienced the joy of knee to waist-deep post holing for the next 500 vertical feet until we came across snowmobile tracks. Apparently the Old Ski Bowl allows snowmobiling and these snowmobile tracks made excellent hard surfaces to walk on over the fresh snow.

Soon we were at Sargents Ridge, which started off with a steep headwall and then heavy tree cover. Despite trees getting in the way near the ridge crest, it was easiest to follow the crest or just west of the crest through the trees where the slope was milder and the snow more wind-scoured. At this time Mount Shasta only had 60% of the normal snowpack for the season, so there was a lot more vegetation sticking through, giving us a pseudo-bushwacking experience as we made our way up the lower ridge.

At 9,500 feet the trees gave way to shallow snow and ample talus and boulders sticking through the snow. The slope steepened. From here I turned on my I-Pod and enjoyed some tunes while I raced up the slope, enjoying the fairly regular move stepping on class 2-3 rock with my crampons to stay off of the shallow scree-covered snow. I didn’t stop and wait for Tom until I crested the ridge junction at 10,300 feet.

Camp on Sargents Ridge

Here the winds had picked up, the snow softened, and it was getting late. Rather than pushing on to my desired camping spot on a knife-edge section of the ridge at 10,600 feet, we called it a night and found a nice patch of snow deep enough to dig a good platform and cooking cave near a bluff at 10,400 ft. A carb-loading dinner ensued as we stuffed ourselves with couscous, a loaf of sourdough bread, and whiskey before turning in for the night.

January 10th - Rough Terrain Under Low Snow conditions

Tom climbing in mixed conditions on Sargents Ridge

After having a late night, we got a late start, but no matter. The sun was shining and the weather looked to be excellent. And we had less than half the distance and only 4,000 ft to go. We headed up the ridge above our camp towards a large rock protrusion that we dubbed “The Molar”. It turns out it was farther away than it looked, and what seemed to be benign snow slopes was actually boulder after boulder of class 2 scrambling with snow mixed in, and the occasional section of snow-covered talus and scree. By the time we reached the Molar, clouds had moved in and the sun shone through in such a way that it cast an eerie glow over the landscape.

The Molar

As we neared the Molar it became obvious that we couldn’t climb it without the difficulty getting above mixed 5th class, so we angled off to towards the west over lots of exposed boulders. The slope steepened and we began making class 3 moves on rime-covered rock. Time to break out the tools and do some scraping!

Tom climbing in mixed conditions on Sargents Ridge
Tom climbing in mixed conditions on Sargents Ridge

As we rounded the Molar we were met with a long traverse of some continuously steep slopes. Tom down climbed a class 3 step to get on the traverse, which turned out to be a 50 degree wind-slab that wasn’t too far above the cliffs below. The slab was too soft to crampon on, but hard enough to require some awkward and delicate kicking. It also seemed too soft and steep to self-arrest on before hitting the rocks below, so we proceeded with caution.

The lower traverse on Sargents Ridge
Tom beginning the lower traverse on Sargents Ridge

Tom didn’t like the fall potential of the traverse or how long it was taking us, so he tried to exit directly onto the ridge via a snow chute to our right. This led to a steep mixed chimney system that was obviously too difficult for the route, but promised to provide some fun technical mixed climbing if we ever come back with a rope! I suggested dropping lower as often a milder slope becomes steeper as the snow gets piled against the cliffs at the crest, and in this case that proved to be true. The slopes lessened and the wind-slab ended, and we finally began making good time again as we ascended the final slopes to Shastarama Point.

The lower half of the route we took coming up and descending the "Molar Traverse". The red line below the cliffs isn't optimal since it involved mixed class 3 down climbing to enter, and the first half had slopes exceeding 50 degrees. The lower route is a chill 35-40 degree traverse with a mild merging with Sargents Ridge.

Tom looking for an exit from the traverse
Tom on easier ground on the traverse
Tom on easier ground on the traverse
Shastarama Point

At Shastarama Point we were treated to sweeping Panoramas of the Mud Creek Glacier and the western slopes of Mount Shasta. Finally we could see the crux of the ridge, composed of a series of gendarmes leading up to the Thumb, which is the most prominent of the rocky spires. There was a steep looking snow slope on the east side of the ridge that cut across below the rocks, but we dismissed traversing this as it was on aspects marked as dangerous for the day’s avalanche forecast. Instead, we chose to wrap around the ridge to the west again, with the assumption that those slopes could be traversed.

Tom in mixed terrain above Shastarama Point
Me in mixed rimey terrain above Shastarama
In Tom's words: "Great times and dope rimes". Above Shastarama the rock had a lot of rime coverage, which made for some surreal and fun mixed climbing. There's something satisfying about wacking away at the rime with your ice tool like a machete. Slopes here were about 55-60 degrees and we were usually punching down to buried rock and talus.

Sadly, getting over to the cliffs took much longer than expected for the same reasons that we were so slow climbing to the Molar: Boulder after boulder requiring class 2-3 scrambling and some fun snow climbing as we followed the undulating crests as they wrapped over and around the rocks.As we climbed above the Mud Creek Glacier the slopes steeped to around 35-45 degrees and longer pitches of class 3 scrambling were encountered. At this higher elevation there was a lot more rime on the rock, which made for a fun climbing challenge. At times the rime blocked off snow chutes and I hacked my way through the cantilevered fingers with my ice tools – I felt like an explorer hacking his way through an icy jungle with his machete.

Dead Ends #1 & 2

Trouble Ahead on Sargents Ridge

At about 11,800 feet, we rounded the corner where Sargents Ridge merges with Green Butte Ridge. There we saw that each of the spires on the ridgeline was actually the highpoint of a rocky rib that cut down the west sides of the ridge towards avalanche gulch. Each rib formed a considerable cliff barrier that looked 5th class to surmount. And to drop below and around the ridges would require down climbing over 600 feet to the west, essentially leaving the ridge and merely traversing high above Avalanche Gulch.

The first rib that we topped out on proved impassable, with a 20 ft vertical drop onto the steep slopes below with no visible way down that was not 5th class (1). I climbed up the rib, hoping that some way through could be found. Instead, I topped out on one of the spires - another dead end (2).

Me hacking machete-style through rime as I climb towards the next dead end
Dead End
Game Over! Tom descending the rib above Green Butte Ridge

By this time it was getting pretty late in the day to be making such slow progress on the route, so we decided to call it a day and try again another time. The descent proved to be nearly as slow as the ascent and was much more tiring as most of the snow-covered talus that was easy to climb up was much harder to walk down. It seemed like with nearly every other step I would catch a heel spike of my crampon on a rock. The walk back on the road was also slow and tedious. For anyone doing Sargents Ridge, this section is so long and mild that I would strongly recommend you skin up on skies or a split-board and then cache it at the base of the ridge for the descent. Even if you aren’t a good skier, the road is a quick, easy glide downhill instead of a long walk out.

Rime Formations on Sargents Ridge



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