Lassen Peak P5K WSC

May 11, 2001
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed May 24, 2002

It had been over ten years since I had last visited Lassen NP, a few years longer still since I had climbed its summit. I made plans to climb nearby Mt. Shasta, and planned to use Mt. Lassen as a warmup for acclimatization purposes. At 10,400+ ft, Lassen Peak is the second highest peak in Northern California (if you don't count Shasta's sister cone, Shastina), and seemed well-suited for the purpose. The road through Lassen had just opened on Thursday, so my timing seemed perfect for a Friday visit. I was unable to find anyone to join me on short notice, so I went alone. I didn't expect solo climbing on Shasta to be an issue since there is little crevasse danger, and none on my intended route.

I was up at 4a in my home in San Jose. The family had flown down to San Diego to visit the in-laws for Mother's Day, so I had the place to myself. 4:30a I was out the door, and after a stop for gas, on my way. It was unusually warm for nighttime in May, so I drove with the top down (heater on for the first few hours). The sun rose shortly after 6a while I was outside Vacaville, just before turning north onto Interstate 505. The scattered high clouds pushed north from a tropical weather system off Baja lit up in crimson colors to welcome the new day. I sped north along I5, drinking beverages and eating snacks from the large cooler sitting in the passenger seat. While not as conversant as an actual passenger, the cooler did make a fine companion for the long weekend, and I never went hungry or thirsty.

I arrived at the park entrance at 9a, about an hour better than I had expected. I didn't check the mileage ahead of time, trusting vaguely to my memory that it's "way the heck up there". In reality, it's only a little farther than a drive to Tahoe, about the same as driving to Reno or Tuolumne Meadows. There were no rangers to greet me at the entrance, only a self-pay request at the closed entrance booth. I wrote down my NP Park Pass # on the envelope as requested, and went on my way. I had been thinking on the drive up about how the officials decide when the right time is to open any one of the half-dozen or so passes that cross the higher elevations in California. Is it simply when the snow has melted to make it possible for the plows to get through? Certainly on Tioga Pass there are dangers of avalanche on the east side that must be contended with, but what other factors determine whether the road can open this month or the next? I found one piece of the answer in the middle of the road as I drove to the higher elevations. With the snowmelt comes earth movement, sometimes in the shape of large rocks that roll down. This one that I saw on the other side of the road was of the size that could do more than knock your alignment out and give you a flat tire. Hiding in the shadows, the really big rock here could be a serious road hazard for the unaware. I expect that officials must estimate rockfall dangers uniquely to each area as part of the overall equation, to avoid exposing motorists to these potentially lethal dangers.

I drove past a few fumeroles showing evidence of continuing geothermal activity, including the one at Bumpass Hell. Just saying that name cracks me up. At the large parking lot just before road tops out, I found only a single car. It was only the second car I had seen on my drive into the park. It was pretty nice have the place almost to one's self. The weather was simply delightful. Sunny, a few wispy clouds, warm temperatures already in the 60s. I decided to take only my fanny packs (instead my pack), a single water bottle, some warmer spare clothes, and my snowshoes. It didn't seem long enough to bother bringing any food. As I was ready to leave at 9:30a, I spotted a hiker making his way to the top of the ridge, about a third of the way up. I had thought about trying to catch him on the way up, but he was moving too fast, and the weather was just too nice to race up.

The sun-exposed snow was just starting to soften and was ideal for climbing. The claws on the snowshoes held firm on the steeper slopes, providing excellent traction. I knew the standard trail climbs quickly to the main southeast ridge and follows it to the summit, but I suspected that much of the snow would be melted off there by now. I wanted to keep to the snow as much as possible (easier than loose talus), so I stuck to the south face and headed for a large outcropping of rocks that looked to provide some interesting rock climbing. Initially I thought I'd climb the narrow couloir between rock outcroppings further to the left. But the necessary traversing proved more troublesome than it was worth (bit of a strain on the ankles when bent at funny angles for prolonged periods). So I headed for what I thought might give me some fun rock to climb. When I reached the base of the rock, I was happy to find the rock was even better looking up close than it had appeared from a distance. It rises for about 200 feet at an angle of about 50-60 degrees, solid for the most part, with excellent holds. After a short rest for photos of myself and the view below, I stuffed my snowshoes and poles under the strap of my fanny pack, and headed up. I went pretty slowly through this class 3 section, picking each hold very carefully. Ordinarily one could just zoom up, but I was extra cautious since I was alone and also because the exposure was signicant. This turned out to be the most fun of the entire climb, an unexpected bit of fine rock amongst the snow and sky. "Scary-fun," as I like to describe it.

After I topped out I scrambled over some loose rock where I found the regular trail. I follwed this where I could, most of the way to the top. Here, a sign warned of sensitive plants. Whatever it was must have been well hidden beneath the snow pack still, as all that I found on top were rock and snow. At the crater rim I switched back to snowshoes for the short hike over to the summit at the northeast side of the rim. There is a god-awful solar-powered thingamajig (likely a weather station or dormant nuclear warhead, from the looks of it) near the summit that does no justice to the landscape. Sadly, the silly little antenna wire on the top just barely reaches higher than the topmost rocks at the summit. Perhaps next trip I will bring a pair of wire cutters to give the contraption a trim.

It was a little breezy, but still quite pleasant at the summit when I reached it at 11a. Temperatures in the high 60s, probably in the 70s by now in the parking lot. It had taken only an hour and a half to reach the top even with the little rock scrambling diversion. The views were unobstructed by mountains in any direction, although hazy skies limited visibility somewhat. I could see Mt. Shasta far to the northwest, although the haze obsurred a clear view. The other hiker was nowhere in sight, but looking down the north slope, I saw someone hiking up the main north snowfield with a pair of skis strapped to his back. He was still almost a thousand feet below and would be a little time reaching the top. I decided to hike around the crater rim, enjoying the views down the sides. I kept to the high points along the ridge as much as possible, more out of the challenge than any necessity. The crater center was filled with snow to a depth of perhaps tens of feet. It wasn't as deep as I had remembered it when I climbed up here during the summer. Possibly the snow was very deep in the middle, and possibly my memory is simply lacking. On the far west side of the rim there was a mildly challenging 10-foot vertical section with a 3-inch crack at the spine of an open book. I tried to wedge my hands and feet in the crack in fine style, but my left foot got stuck and I made a mess of it. I ended up hauling myself up in a jerky, flailing fashion, and was glad there was no one to around to laugh at me. At least I had a nice view of the summit back to the east.

I completed the circuit and found the other hiker having climbed up and already headed toward the south end of the rim. There he met two ladies (from Aspen I found out) who had just reached the summit, and was chatting about all those things that people normally talk about on the summits of mountains. I joined the little party in action. The other guy turned out to be the same guy I had seen climbing up when I had started. He had climbed up, skied 1500 feet down the north face, then climbed back up. He planned next to ski the west face for another 1500 feet, followed by a traverse a quarter of the way around the peak back to the parking lot. I followed him after we left the ladies with the summit to themselves, where he showed me the west route. The snow was in excellent corn condition and he was enjoying himself a great deal (he was from not-so-nearby Susanville, but enjoyed coming up here regularly). For a short time I was wishing I had brought my snowboard with me. I decided not to join him, but to head down the couloir I had passed up on the way up. We bid each other goodbye.

I took off the snowshoes and headed down the wet, loose dirt/rubble above the small chute. From above it appeared much shorter than I had imagined from below, only about 20 yards long at the narrow part. An interesting thing about the chute was that it was vertically striated, snow on one side, dirt on the other. Closer examination revealed that the dirt was actually a slide from the wet section above that had slid down over time on one side of the chute. Under the dirt was still snow, but the dirt had built up maybe a foot thick. I decided to step down through the dirt-covered side of the chute since it was much easier than the snow. I sank in three to four inches with each step, which all slid down in a slow, mushy slide as I went down. When the dirt ran out, it was back to snow, but I decided not to put the snowshoes on. I hung the snowshoes on the end of my poles and slung the poles over my shoulder. Holding the poles with one hand, using the other for balance, I plunged-stepped down the moderate face. This turned into more-or-less an unchecked run, covering five feet with each stride. My feet would sink about four inches into the softer early afternoon snow, and I felt like I was almost flying down the mountain. I looked back every once in a while to make sure the snowshoes were still on the end of the poles. I reached the basin at the bottom only 20 minutes after I left the crater rim, and it took another 5 minutes to climb up out of the shallow basin to the parking lot.

The parking lot held half a dozen cars now, a few with tourists just stopping by for a quick look. One family that watched me come down questioned me about where I went and seemed surprised that I'd been to the summit. I encouraged them to climb up a short ways, but they had no other footwear than the tennis shoes they had on. Another skier had come down a minute or so behind me. He had climbed about halfway up to ski down the main section of the south face. Like me, he was travelling solo, on his way to Mt. Shasta. He had a large SUV filled with gear, bike and whatnot. A carpenter from Mammoth Lakes, he was on a 1-2 week vacation to Mt. Shasta and places in-between. His schedule was flexible enough that he could give his boss this somewhat arbitrary schedule for his vacation without worry. I wanted this guy's job. We chatted for a good while while we both changed clothes and resorted gear, had refreshments and such. I then left him and the parking lot around 1:30p.

It was a great drive through the park. I was thoroughly relaxed after my fun on Lassen Peak, and was revelling in the apre-climb glow. It had been a really fun climb, one of the best outings in recent memory. Other than that silly station on the top of the mountain, everything had been close to perfect. I stopped a few times before leaving the park to take snapshots of the peak from various angles. One of the best (and probably most photographed) is the one from Manzanita Lake on the northwest side of the mountain. I then headed out on highway 89 towards Shasta.

A little short of halfway between Lassen and Shasta is a wonderful place called Burney Falls State Park. For a $2 entrance fee you get to feast your eyes upon what I think is the best waterfall in all of California, and better than any I've seen anywhere. At around 200 feet in height it doesn't come close to the height of the falls in Yosemite and elsewhere, but it makes up for this in the uniqueness of it's flow. While most of the water falls from two narrow channels at the top, about a third or so of the full volume actually flows right out of the cliffs below the main channels. As the plaques along the trail to the base of the falls explain, the cliffs here cut through an aquifier that carries a good deal of water underground. I spent about three hours walking around above and below the falls on various trails provided, and enjoyed the experience tremendously. I have to recommend this place to anyone travelling nearby, it's definitely worth a visit, even if you can only stay for ten minutes (you can literally park your car and walk 50 feet for a full view of the falls). If you have half an hour, be sure to walk the trail down to the base of the falls for a delightful treat for the eyes. If you have longer, linger.

It was 4p when I left Burney Falls. Next stop: Shasta!


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