Lassen Peak (turning 40)

The bottom of the trail

So many great views.

My fortieth birthday (no idea how this happened). The original plan was to go to Yellowstone. I had seen photos of geysers and bison and things and decided pretty much on my 39th bday that Yellowstone would be the destination for my 40th. However, I foolishly waited until about 4 months before the big day to book the trip, and there was literally nothing available anywhere. I should know better after years of booking camp sites and things that all of the amazing nature attractions are booked up about a year in advance.

After finding out that Yellowstone was out and going through a couple hours of thinking that the entire decade of my 40’s was clearly shot b/c of this bad omen; I started digging through Sunset and National Parks magazines and books. I was just a few pages into the first magazine, and found a photo of Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park. I read the article and it sounded perfect. There would still be geothermal activity to see (and smell), as well as a hike from 8,000-10,000 feet to a peak of Mt. Lassen, a volcano (that’s been dormant for about 100 years- BUT is the most recent of the Cascade Range to erupt)

I read that people take kids on this hike, so if I was worried about anything, it was that it would be a casual stroll that would be disappointingly easy- and totally not the epic adventure that I was hoping to do at the start of a new decade.

We drove up on a Wednesday (the day before my birthday), and hit rain about 1/2 way there that lasted the entire rest of the drive. It was downpouring near the camp site (where we had thankfully reserved a cabin). The next morning was clear and sunny as predicted (was set to have a high of 70), but when we went to get water at the camp store, they told us that the road to the peak was closed due to snow from the previous day's rain. We checked at the museum (the info center when the ranger station is closed) and they confirmed it. They said they hoped it would be open by noon. I was prepared for a little snow on the peak, but never thought we’d be snowed out. I was a bit deflated as we waited two hours to try to get through to the hike.

On the road to the peak, we hit snow around 7000 feet or so, and the windy road had beautiful vistas of snowy pines and what are probably meadows that were completely blanketed in snow. It was looking less and less likely that we’d be able to hike. We kept thinking that we would be stopped at any point by a ranger telling us that the road was closed, but it turned out to be open all the way to the lot at the peak. It looked freshly plowed and there was only one other car there.

From the parking lot, it looks like the ‘trail’ up (a trail was barely visible) went straight up the side of the mountain. It was all 100% covered in snow. Mike said it was probably not the day to try and that we should do it the next day instead, though, we were set to move on to a hotel in South Tahoe the next day. I felt incredibly silly for having only allowed one day to do this. Just for giggles, we decided to walk to the first marker. We could take some pics in the snow and then go hike one of the smaller trails like Bumpass Hell. We did started off, and even that small slow incline was really hard. The sun was blazing hot, the snow was at least ankle deep (more in drifts), and the elevation made it all far harder than I’m used to. I literally said ‘no way, we aren’t doing this’ on the way to the sign. I just didn’t see any way of scaling another 2,000 feet after the first 100 felt SO hard. We stopped at the sign, took off jackets (the ranger warned us it would be 20 degrees up there, it was at least 70- clearly he was trying to sell the gift shop jackets), we took some pics, and were ready to turn back. However, Mike being Mike- he wanted to 'see just what was around the next bend.'

There were tall pines with huge clumps of snow melting fast and falling in huge slush bombs on the way up. As I dodged them, winded from the incline and the elevation, I couldn't help but feel like this was a stupid idea. Yet, we went on. The whole time, we thought that we would just go a bit further, and we went up and up and up. The elevation and snow completely allayed any fears of this being too easy of a hike. We had to stop frequently at switch backs to rest. The snow nearly covered the entire trail; it was usually about ankle deep but there were drifts where we’d step down and sink to our knees or thighs. It got arduous after a while.

We were about 1/2 way up when another hiker came up behind us and passed us up, until then, we were the first ones “breaking trail” (a term I learned that day) up the peak. He was a young guy in trainers and shorts, but he was really hiking at a fast clip. He passed us, which was nice, we literally had footsteps to walk in. Also, at certain points in the hike, the path of the trail was completely not obvious. At about 2/3 of the way up, a guy shouted up to us that he had my camera’s lens cap that I had apparently dropped; I asked him to leave it on the sign post, but he yelled, “No, I’m coming up there too, I’ll bring it". Lens Cap became his nickname until he caught up with us later and told us his name was Jim. Shortly after that, trainer dude was coming back in our direction- we knew that we couldn’t be that close to the top that he reached it and was already on his way back. He told us that it was just too hard. He made it a few switchbacks up, but the snow was too intense, the trail seemed to stop and he had to get to his next camp. We had about 20 minutes left of walking in his footsteps until we were again forging the path through undriven snow again.

Not long after Trainers bailed, Lenscap caught up to us. There were many moments on the way up that I thought we were lunatics and really shouldn’t be doing this. We both had on jeans, we had hiking boots that in theory were waterproof, but so much snow had gone into the top of my boot that there were small sloshy puddles at the bottom of my feet inside the boots. I thought that perhaps there was a reason that no one else was doing this. We are by no means mountaineers, and here we were forging the path up a snowy volcano. I worried that maybe we’d be the helicopter rescue of the day or that we’d be eating each other’s arms off at some point in the near future. However, Lenscap put these fears to rest. He was probably in his 50’s or so, and was decked out with gear; waterproof pants, gators (bunchy cuffs of fabric that go around the top of your boots so snow doesn’t flood them like it had mine), hiking poles, a GPS, and a little device that sent messages or distress signals in case he got into trouble while hiking alone. If this guy (who worked at REI) thought it was a good idea to summit that day, then f*cking hell, I did too.

Another motivation for continuing is the absolute awe-inspiring beauty on the way up. Every switch back opened up to a new, more amazing vista. I took a few hundred photos on the way up. It was so zen walking up, focusing only on where to step next and looking up to see mountains, trees and lakes sprawled out in every direction.

Our new companion was a nice fella, though snarky (sorry, Jim- but you know it’s true). Also, if I were to manifest anything that day, I was super stoked it was a friendly, gear-laden companion for us who had gummy energy chews to share. He also talked Mike and I into continuing more than once. Near the top, there were a few perilous moments. Once there was a switch back where the snow drifted up over our heads. Trainers had made it that far, so there were footprints on it- without which, I NEVER would have believed that that was the way to go. It was literally a wall of snow in front of us (on the side of a mountain). But, we just went slowly, made sure to get footing before shifting weight and made it up. There was another part that had two options, snow on the ridge of the mountain, which may or may not have something solid underneath it, or a hill of small rocks that may or may not tumble under our weight as we stepped on them. We took the rocks, and with a few nerve racking tumbles under our feet, made it safely up that part too. That was a section of the trail where I was convinced we were not going to be able to move forward; I could not imagine going down that part and not getting momentum and falling off the side of the hill. But, at that point, we were invested. We had come up this far, and it had been hard and exhausting- we had sunk into snow and toppled over- so there was no way in hell that would be for nothing. We were getting to the top.

The last half mile was probably the worst, the elevation made everything feel so hard and we had to stop multiple times to catch our breath on the way up. At that point, there were a few more hikers gaining on us- which, again made me feel reassured about embarking on the hike. Though I was leading the way most of the time, on the last stretch before the top, Mike and Jim were in front and I was the caboose. We turned a corner and they talked about it being the top and that was enough (since we all had it with ascending at that point). There’s a second peak viewable from the actual summit, and I thought that was where we were still headed to. I literally fell to my knees, in jest and in absolute true relief when I realized that we were standing on the top and that other peak wasn’t part of our hike. We made it!

The top wasn’t even the best view along the way. When we first got up there, we were above the clouds and couldn’t see much at all. Luckily, they had other places to be and the view opened up. The others said we could see Shasta peak- I wasn’t sure about no stinking famous mountains, I was just reveling in the fact that I had climbed to the top of one and made it, after being convinced at the trail head that I wouldn’t go more than 100 yards or so.

While at the top, I pulled out the paddle that I made the week before. It just read, “40” (and had glitter, natch). Mike took my photo with it, and by then the other hikers caught up to us. There was a couple and another solo fella. All of them pulled out cameras to take my pic with the paddle (I may have introduced myself as, “I'm Nancy, it’s my 40th birthday today”). We sat down and made sandwiches, ate a picnic lunch at 10,463 feet, relaxed enough to realize how truly freezing cold it was up there and then turned to head down.

All in all the 5 mile hike took us 3.5 hours to get to the top and about 1.5 hours to get back to the bottom. At home, I run 5 miles in 30 minutes. By the time we were headed down, it was predominantly slush and mud in most spots. My feet were literally making slosh noises with every step by the bottom. When were only had about 100 yards to go, I dropped into the snow to do a snow angel. It was cold and wet and the snow nearly too hard to carve the shape into since it had iced over on the top, but it was fantastic.

We got to the bottom, parted ways with our new friends and left. It was the best possible way to spend a birthday/start a new decade that I could imagine- and not at all wussy.

That is literally the trail- that edge of snow that goes off to seemingly nothing... that's the path!

Another point where I was sure the trail led only to sky.

High elevation = way more breaks on the ascent

We are mountaineers

Our new friends hiking up literally in our footsteps.

The solution to a scary birthday? A scarier hike.

One of the many amazing vistas.

Our new friend Jim (aka 'lens cap') traversing the spooky path we just came down.

After this photo, I ate his nose- so I guess we did end up eating each other's body parts.

At the bottom (I was waiting to do this the whole time)