Saturday, August 18, 2018

Lassen Peak

And now a word about wildfires. To the south of Roseburg, there were several large fires burning in the Siskiyou Mountains. Even further south in California, the massive Carr Fire and even more massive Mendecino Complex Fire were busy immolating their respective 229,651 and 459,102 acres. All that smoke just has to go somewhere and during the six-hour drive to Lassen Volcanic National Park, three horrifying hours (from Grants Pass to Redding) were spent driving through bitter, choking smoke that made the whole vibe seem apocalyptic. Part of the drive passed through the blackened devastation of the now forgotten Klamathon Fire, with charred ruins of homes and vehicles flanking the freeway. It really felt like the end of the world was nigh,

A vampire moon
It was not without a quite a bit of trepidation that I headed to Lassen Park, which was located a relatively close 70 miles from the Carr Fire, I mean who wants to spend 4 days in dense smoke, much less hike in it? But a funny thing happened as I left I-5 and drove east into the mountains: The smoke cleared, supplanted by a much appreciated blue sky. And, while smoke was always around in the distance, the first two days of our Lassen trip were spent hiking and camping under mostly clear skies. But on Night 3, clouds of smoke rolled in, turning the setting sun an unearthly blood-red color that was nowhere near natural. Fortunately the smoke was up high, so we didn't have to breathe in too much of it.

The start of the hike, under a hazy sky
However, as we snored the night away, that too changed and when we arose, we were disappointed that the sky was sort of blue with more than a hint of dirty grayish brown color, while smoke filtered through the forest surrounding our camp. Ever the optimists, we headed up curvy Lassen Highway to Lassen Peak Trailhead, believing that somehow and miraculously, the smoke would clear by the time our hike started. Needless to say, our faith was somewhat misplaced but nonetheless, we laced up our boots and headed up the Lassen Peak Trail.

"Up" was the operative word

"Up" is the key word here. In front of us was a trail that charged straight up the mountain and I do mean straight up. Turned out, that daunting track we were looking at was a short-cut trail carved into the delicate volcanic soil by cretins who think trails are for other people besides themselves. A nearby sign admonished all hikers to stay on trail or else the National Park Service would start limiting the amount of hikers able to use the trail on a daily basis. 

A whitebark pine cone leaks sap
On the plus side, the real trail switchbacked to and fro, climbing up at much gentler (but not gentle) rate before leveling out briefly on a bench populated by mats of low growing lupines and twisted hunchbacked whitebark pines. We could see a few neighboring peaks in the smoky haze but not much more than that.

First look at Lassen Peak's summit
The back-and-forth trail relentlessly climbed uphill and the meager vegetation disappeared altogether, leaving us in a veritable moonscape of orange and tan rock. Up the slope above us, were three rocky pillars that we used to gauge our painfully slow progress as we hiked up the ridge. We also could see Lassen Peak's summit, demoralizingly high above us.

Switchbacks provided plenty of "photo stops"
There were lots of hikers on this trail and we made friends with many as we leapfrogged each other while laboring up the path. One good thing about switchbacks is they provide a place from which to take photographs (or rest, as the non-camera toting crowd likes to call it), and refortify our wavering determination to make it to the top. 

Katchan honors Lassen Peak
At a crude and rocky windbreak, a sign announced there was only a half-mile to go. Yay! Still, it was a long half mile with something like forty-nine more switchbacks on the way up before the trail blessedly leveled out altogether on Lassen Peak's summit ridge. Still the summit loomed overhead but it was near enough to almost touch. I ran into Katchan and John, who were coming down from the summit, and we exchanged pleasantries on the large snowfield blanketing the ridge below the summit.

The last mad scramble to the top
After carefully negotiating the slippery snowfield, it was a hands-on scramble up a rock pile to reach the summit, so denoted with an official benchmark. Penny and I lingered for a bit with a few thousand other summiteers (an exaggeration to be sure, but there were a lot of people) and ate lunch while we rested and otherwise gave succor to tired legs. 

Lassen Peak's tortured crater
On a clear day you can see forever but on a smoky day, not so much. Immediately below us was Lassen's crater, a twisted and gnarled garden of blasted rock. Everywhere else, it was just smoke, I'll have to come back some future fire-free summer, if there ever will be such a thing in this age of global warming, just to see what I missed. 

The trail switchbacked all the way down (and up)
I tend to hike fairly slow because of all the sports I've played in my lifetime, my oft-injured ankles tend to roll fairly easily so I really watch my step when I walk. But going downhill, the trail was mostly soft volcanic soil or well-carved rocky stairs. The well-maintained trail made it easy to hike downhill and I was flying, passing even Katchan and John about halfway down. Several switchbacks later, I heard John yell out to me from above "Is your ass on fire?" I just wish I could hike uphill like that! But while I was last on the summit, I was first back to the trailhead.

Stairway to heaven
So, while being far from a perfect hike, this hike was nonetheless epic and a worthy coda to our long weekend at Lassen Volcanic National Park. For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

1 comment :

  1. Lassen Peak is a great hike! I climbed it three years ago on a sunny, clear fall day. Sorry you didn't get any views, but that just means you have to go back again! :)