Sun, May 29, 2011
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When we turned off SR36 for the short drive up SR89 to the park's south entrance, there was only a foot of snow on the ground with lots of bare places. This changed very quickly in a few miles as we gained altitude, eventually finding 5-10 feet of snow on the ground when we entered the park. The Southwest CG was "open", but it was really just a field of snow and trees adjacent to the plowed main parking lot of the Visitor Center. All the picnic benches and other camp ammenties were buried far below the snow, but we got charged the same $14/night per campsite regardless. We were "assigned" two campsites which really meant we got to pay for two sites and sleep anywhere we wanted - there were no other campers here on a holiday weekend.
After setting up tents we headed off to the Visitor Center where we watched the park video, checked out the information displays and warmed ourselves up. The latter ability would make the Visitor Center the most popular activity for the weekend. Though locked up from 5p-9a, the Park Service leaves the heated, outer vestibule open 24hrs with access to the very clean restrooms. If a group of Scouts went missing any time during the weekend, invariably this is where they could be found.
Though warned of winter conditions, most of us were under the impression that it was a spring outing with cooperative weather expected. It did not take more than a few hours after our arrival to note the gear deficiencies of our individual members. Shortly before we were to start off on a modest snowshoe trek, it was noticed that one Scout was wearing ordinary street shoes because "they were more comfortable" than hiking boots. A change of footwear was immediately initiated. Throughout the weekend there would be similar incidences. Extra gloves, hats, boots, and underclothing were requisitioned from other members to help out those found lacking. All of this despite having spent an hour and half the previous Tuesday on a pack inspection to prepare for the trip. Such is the nature of Scouting where learning is offered in a variety of venues. You can learn from others' experiences, or you can learn from your own, the latter variety being the norm. In addition to two pair of boots I had brought for my own use, I had brought along several smaller pairs of snow boots that my kids had outgrown - both of these would be used before the weekend was over.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Marty, our Scoutmaster for the outing. The back of his large Dodge pickup was loaded with half the group's gear for the weekend including a huge cache of his own gear that appeared capable of compensating for any deficiencies we might collectively experience. He had several stoves, gallons of extra fuel, shovels, tools, tarps, tents, ropes, and more. His energies seemed limitless, moving and doing something constantly. If he wasn't cooking a meal or cleaning up after one, he was engineering a better way to stake a tent, rig a tarp to keep out the snow, or fishing out a plastic fork that had accidently been dropped through the grated storm drain. As he commented to me when we first arrived, he was in his element.
Camping was certainly not my element, though snowshoeing, hiking and climbing were. While the others considered the snowshoe excursions as one of many activities on these outings, it was the focus for me - the reason to put up with the camping portion of things. We had spent so much time on other things that it was after 4:30p before we started off on the afternoon snowshoe hike. Our options had dwindled with the passing of time until we really only had enough time to visit nearby Sulpher Creek before it would be time to get back to prepare dinner - maybe a mile total. Two other visitors that we had encountered shortly before starting off told of an impassable wall of snow that awaited at the bridge over Sulpher Creek. Ah, a challenge, I thought to myself.
The snow was ideally suited for safe snowshoeing - not frozen, nor dangerously layered for avalanches. The slope was moderate heading down to the creek, but there was no danger of anyone slipping down uncontrolled. It took barely 15 minutes to drop the few hundred feet to the edge of the creek, following other tracks that led to the bridge. A quick survey of the creek showed no natural snow bridges, leaving the manmade wooden bridge as the only useable crossing. The west side access to the bridge was steep but no big deal. We positioned an adult at the end of the bridge to catch a slip by any of the Scouts on the descent, but most managed with no trouble. The east side was another story as expected. A wall of snow six feet high made exiting in that direction tough. I kicked steps into the wall, used the ends of my poles as spikes for traction, and made a ladder going up the snow. We then shuttled the group one at a time from one end of the bridge to the other and up the east bank. I held the back of their snowshoes for support as they climbed the ladder, giving encouragement and praying they didn't knock my teeth out with a sudden back kick of their snowshoe. Safely reconvened twenty minutes later, we had only enough time to climb a few hundred feet up the slope to a lookout point where we could view miles down the canyon to the south as well as a view west across Sulpher Creek to the higher peaks of Brokeoff and Diller. Unfortunately, Mt. Lassen was well out of view. It seemed a good turnaround point, so after a few minutes to catch our breath we headed back the same way. It was 6:30p by the time we got back to camp, giving us about two hours to make dinner before darkness began to set in.
Rather than attempt to make dinner in the snow near our tents, we opted to use the hard surface of the parking lot to advantage and the tailgate of Marty's truck as a kitchen surface. Dinner was accompanied by a side of snow to help keep things exciting. More than three inches of the fluffy white stuff fell in two hours, collecting on everything that wasn't covered and making the parking lot a slushy mess. We rigged a tarp between two vehicles to help make things easier, occasionally ridding it of snow to keep from having it collapsing on us. Most of the Scouts found this exciting, if not actually enjoyable, but none took it in stride as easily as Marty who was busy frying up some wild boar sausages made from the animals he'd wrestled to the death only weeks before (actually he had shot them, but I wouldn't have been surprised to hear they'd been overpowered in an ambush and killed with his bare hands).
By 8:30p, as darkness was just starting, the adults found themselves alone around the wash tubs as the last dishes were being rinsed. The Scouts had had enough of the weather - the wind had started up and most of them were chilled to the bone with cold toes and fingers. We found the lot of them at the Visitor Center warming in the unlighted vestibule as the last daylight was fading. Several were asleep (or nearly so) on the floor, all were cozily warm and happy to postpone the inevitable as long as possible. There was much protesting as our Scoutmaster announced it was time for the evening hike before bed, but all were roused, led out into the cold, and off on a 45 minute hike along the road. The snow had stopped, a few stars were out and it was surprisingly bright for a moonless and almost starless night. We were all in bed shortly after 10p.
The winds picked up at night to something approaching 30mph in the higher gusts. The newfallen snow was blown around in all directions, taking the rainfly off one tent and blowing fine snowy powder into any openings or vents left uncovered. Ensconced in my bivy cocoon, I slept surprising well, waking up no more than I would on any other night. The troop had planned to arise at 7:30a which seemed somewhat late, but not unreasonable at all considering the weather. The winds were still blowing strong when I got up before 7a. It was difficult to get out of the bivy without letting the blowing snow get inside and around the sleeping bag. I tried to brush it out, but almost as much would blow right back in before I could close it up. Eventually I gave up, zipping the bivy and then piling snow on it to keep it from blowing away. The sun was trying to make an appearance, but it would not last long. More cold and wind were on tap for the day.
It was 26F with the wind blowing strongly as we prepared breakfast. In order to save the Scouts from some additional suffering, Marty took up the task of making pancakes for everyone, cleaning up afterwards, and then going back to reset his tent that had been blown over in the wind. Somehow he could manage to work with his hands ungloved for hours at a time while I had wool mittens on inside a pair of down mittens, with chemical warmers inside. I could only remove my hands to work for a few minutes before they would freeze up and I would have to rewarm them. Marty seemed to have no such problem, or at least no problem working with cold hands - he never complained about it. The cold took its toll on everyone and made simple tasks take much longer. It wasn't until after 10:30a that we were done with the morning routines. We decided to prepare our lunches in the Vistor Center cafeteria to give everyone a chance to warm up again. Some took it as an opportunity to nap. Time continued to drag on.
Finally, not long before noon we were ready to head out. The plan that was devised was a one mile hike up the road to the Sulpher Works that everyone would participate in. We'd carry our snowshoes so that the more ambitious among the group could then do a snowshoe trek to either Ridge Lake or Diamond Peak. It took us about half an hour to reach Sulpher Works. We checked out the fumeroles and bubbling, muddy spring there, ate lunch and spent some time tossing snowballs into a distant fumerole. After lunch we started off for Diamond Peak - finally - a chance to climb something, even if it was on the easy side. It would be challenge enough for the younger boys who were out on snowshoes for the first time.
Diamond Peak lies a few miles south of Mt. Lassen, a short distance from the main road through the park. The road encircles three quarters of the peak as it climbs higher to the pass southeast of Mt. Lassen. The side facing Sulpher Works is quite steep and according to the Park Service, avalanche prone. The snow today was almost perfect conditions, not icy, not sloughing off, excellent footing. But the steepness would be a bit much for our crew so we took the recommended winter route which is up the ridgeline from the south, curving around to become the West Ridge of Diamond Peak. We had another half mile or so to walk up the road, plowed but closed to vehicles, before reaching the start of the ridgeline. Five of our crew turned back about halfway up the road when it was clear that the lunch break had not done enough to improve their energy levels. It was a group of five scouts and three adults that started up the ridgeline around 2:20p.
We hiked in a single file for the most part, trading off the lead through the new snow, sinking anywhere from 2-8", depending on the amount of wind pack we encountered. We stopped every five minutes or so to rest and hydrate. I gave a short demonstration on the rest step and the importance of overbreathing at higher altitudes. Some of the boys struggled, some made it look easy, but in an hour's time we had all gotten to the snow-covered summit despite the significant doubts initially. The last part was a tricky affair up a last bit of steep to reach the rounded point between two rocky pinnacles. One of the adults chose not to do the last 40ft to the summit, content to call it a day at the base of the northernmost pinnacle. All five of the Scouts made it to the top. The winds were blowing strongly over the summit from the north so we stayed only long enough to get a few pictures after everyone had gathered.
After we had gotten all the Scouts off the summit and started back down, only Marty and I remained at the base of the north pinnacle. Having eyeballed it from the snowy summit, I knew this pinnacle was the true highpoint, a class 3 affair that looked a little tricky. I had not planned to attempt the highpoint until Marty asked me if I was going up there. As Scoutmaster I had assumed he would be more dissuasive, but since he didn't actually forbid me from doing so, I scampered up. It turned out to be easier than it had looked. The first move onto the conglomerated rock was the hardest, then a ledge led around to the easier southwest side. The rock was quite solid in direct opposition to its appearance. Marty took a few quick photos from below while I took a few from above, after which I climbed back down and we soon rejoined the others.
Back down on the pavement, we decided on a shortcut return to camp via the same bridge we had used to cross Sulpher Creek the previous day. We had a sloppy, moderately steep slope to descend immediately below the road, after which we easily found our previous tracks and followed them back to the bridge. We got down to the bridge and up the other side one at a time, much as we'd done before, and sometime around 5:30p we were back in camp.
The wind was starting to die down and some blue sky was making its appearance in the late afternoon. Cooking dinner was a much easier affair and we were treated to some pink and orange clouds in the sky as the sun set not long after 8p. We had birthday brownies for Carter in the Visitor Center (where we characteristically warmed up and some of us napped), and had a second short night hike with a sky full of stars under mostly calm conditions. What a difference a day makes. No one had any trouble sleeping that second night. Cory reported in the morning that he didn't wake for eight hours and hadn't changed his position the entire time.
Monday morning saw Marty up before me. He already had water boiling and coffee brewing, smiling as he asked why I slept in so late (it was 6a). While the Scouts sufficed with oatmeal for the morning, for the adults Marty fried up some bacon, scrambled eggs and made breakfast burritos. Mmmm... Of course the Scouts were envious. Perhaps this would motivate them next time to be more creative in their menu planning. I spent some time trying convince the Scouts that another snowshoe outing would be just the thing before heading back to San Jose, but I had no takers, not even among the adults. And so we left Lassen around 10a after a last perusal of the Visitor Center for souveniers. A few of the Scouts had been eyeing certain items at the gift shop and I think these last-minute purchases were able to help putting up with the cold and wind at least partially worthwhile...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Diamond Peak
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