Avalanche, California, Mount Shasta

Publication Year: 1984.


California, Mount Shasta

On April 2, 1983, Wes Wagnon (31), Don Zimmerlin (30) and Julian Harrison (28) attempted a climb of the south side of Mount Shasta via the Green Butte Ridge. About 1400, noting that the weather was becoming unstable, they decided to build a snow cave and bivouac for the night. Harrison, the most experienced, went to find an appropriate location. He returned shortly and indicated that he had found a spot around 2800 meters on the east side of Green Butte Ridge. Harrison also indicated the need to be careful, as the area was very steep. Alternately digging, clearing rubble, and resting, the three dug about three meters horizontally into the slope. At the moment of the avalanche, Zimmerlin was cutting blocks deep in the cave, Harrison was about halfway inside, and Wagnon was standing outside. Zimmerlin stated that he heard a large rumbling sound and the roof collapsed, sending Wagnon and Harrison down the slope, trapped in tons of snow. Zimmerlin stood up. There was nothing but space in front of him. He immediately climbed down the slope to look for Harrison and Wagnon. Wagnon had only been partially buried and was able to extricate himself. Zimmerlin shouted and made contact between Wagnon and himself. Both began to probe with skis for Harrison, who was completely buried. After 30 minutes and no success, Zimmerlin skied down the mountain for help while Wagnon continued probing with a ski pole. Wagnon was also unsuccessful, and, at 1700, also descended the mountain. He was met at the terminus of the avalanche by rescuers. After being notified of the accident, personnel of The Fifth Season, a mountaineering store in Mount Shasta City, and the U. S. Forest Service immediately headed for the site and began to search for Harrison. Darkness halted the search.

On April 3, at 0700, the searchers began again to probe the area. A California Highway Patrol helicopter was also called to inspect the higher slopes for potential hazards. At 1510, Harrison’s body was found underneath about one meter of snow, about 120 meters down the ridge from the cave’s location. (Source: Punto Alto Mountaineering and Siskuiyou County Sheriff)


Locating the cave on the lee side meant that digging would cut through wind-slab layers. The snow blows northwest, into Green Butte, during storms, but prevails southeast after storms; a typical pattern in most areas. Knowledge of the history of the snowpack and having the ability to analyze layers by probing and digging snow pits are valuable tools for climbers, ski mountaineers, and winter back-country users. (Source; J. Williamson)