Setting Up Camp
After proceeding slowly through the park and taking in the sights, we arrived at Summit Lake around midday. We cruised the loop and settled on a killer spot in the 'tents only' loop. We could have reserved a space, but it was clear from the maps that the best sites were First-Come/First-Served. Later we were distraught to see a motor home parked in the next site, but the rangers promptly got rid of him the next day. Hard to imagine how you'd miss the big "TENTS ONLY" sign.
Bumpass HellAfter getting our food put away and our tents set up, we all headed together to check out Bumpass Hell. It's an easy trail and was quite busy. At the end of its easy/moderate 1.5 miles, is a awe-inspiring hydrothermal area thought to be fed by the relic lava dome of the ancient, destroyed Mt. Tehama. The whole place is a nook in the mountains with several acres of boiling mud-pots, hissing fumaroles, and steam vents.
Now where had I smelled this odor before? Oh right! In the car the whole way up. Looks like someone is getting a new nickname! In all seriousness, the area is quite active. I didn't really smell anything as acrid as sulphuric acid, but the place must be venting hydrogen sulfide by the ton. It was overwhelming at times. Also, a significant portion of the boardwalk was destroyed in recent years when the 'big boiler' erupted and burned much of it away. Makes me wonder how the level of activity has changed.
Crags Crater / Crags LakeAfter a long, lazy morning, four of us headed up to check out the northern slopes of the park, Chaos Crags, and Manzanita Lake. Amber and I had hoped to find a decent patch of snow, so we could get a little climbing practice in and also try out our new crampons. I thought I saw some as we were coming into view of Chaos Crags, but this would later turn out to be a bust. I was a bit surprised as there was a lot of snow still in other parts of the park.
The Crags Crater / Crags Lake trail was quite nice. I don't really know what to call it since I'm pretty sure it had a different name on the map than at the trailhead. It doesn't really matter anyways it goes to the same place. I'd all but given up hope of getting a better map later, since the Manzanita Lake store was a bit of a joke. Amber and I were really excited about the hike because the two that joined up aren't huge hikers, and we enjoy sharing the experiences and trying to help the outdoor bug bite. The other two had stuck out earlier in hopes of hiking to the Painted Dunes, but would later return short of their goal.
The trail winds past a creek and then up through the trees for a good ways. This was the first time I'd really gotten to use my altimeter and it really helped motivating the whole party, especially near the top. About a half-mile from the trail's end, you suddenly break into a succession meadow. It wasn't a true meadow I don't think, but a mix of a small manzanita-like plant that was growing like ground cover, and very sparse trees. My first instinct was possibly a former fire scar, as I've seen the manzanita fill in like that before, but there was no evidence and the manzanita was small and odd.
Edge of the funny meadow
Hanging out at the trail's terminus at the base of the crags
Huge, imposing scree slope of doom and CHAOS!!
At the top of the meadow you are spit out onto bare rock at the foot of Chaos Crags. The lake was empty, but the views were stunning and our friends were breathless, not from the hike but the beauty! Originally Lauren and K.C. were going to hike back down while we headed for a snow climb, but the snow climb would have to be postponed. I tried climb up on a ridge to get a better view and consider heading for a far patch of snow or attempting to scale the Crags, but fate gave me a boot full of rocks after a few steps. I had forgot my gaiters at camp and thus our ambitions for the day were lowered.
Snow Climb ReconAfter another soul-crushing stop at the Manzanita Lake store, I convinced everyone to tag along for a stop at the Loomis Museum / Ranger Station. I was a little pissed to see the ranger station was closed, especially on a busy weekend. However, I found they had helpful rangers at the Museum and believe it or not TOPO MAPS!!!! As we poked around the museum I chatted up a ranger about snow climbing, and found we could go pretty much wherever we pleased! She said just stay on the snow as much as possible and don't go off-trail on Lassen itself.
Amber and I dropped the other hikers off and headed up and down the park road to pick the perfect spot. Although there was plenty of snow we didn't want to attract any attention snow-climbing just across from the main road. Instead we spotted several filled gullies and wide snow slopes on Reading Peak. Reading is a nice-sized (~8690 ft) dome just ESE of Lassen Peak. The snow was clinging best in the bowls of the NW face and there was two approaches, a 3 mile gentle climb or a short (3/4-1 mi) steep descent. I can imagine that if you came just after the park road was plowed, this would be a fun peak for an easier off-trail ski experience. Later while climbing Lassen this would be confirmed by conspicuous ski tracks.
We decided we'd get up well before sunrise, eat breakfast, and head off to catch the snow in prime condition. Everyone else thought we were crazy... "But you're on vacation!!" All the better reason to savor the day if you ask me.
Dawn PatrolI set my altimeter's alarm for 4:30 am. As soon as it went off we started putting all the right clothes on. Luckily we packed our daybags the night before, and we're heading back before lunch. It's amazing how much light there is an hour before sunrise, the whole meadow near camp was in a magical state. Early morning in the mountains I think you become aware of little mysterious things like how the trees wake up. After cranking out water for tea and then boiling oatmeal, we were on our way up to the trailhead. I think only Candida was awoken by our early morning clamor, but she claimed it was because of the loud morning birds.
We didn't quite nab the sunrise we expected, but it was still a pretty stunning morning. I pulled off at one of the turnouts I thought would give us a good view of the sunrise. We could tell it was coming up in some areas, because we could see first light casting a morning alpenglow on Lassen, but sunrise hadn't reached us yet. We took the time to soak in a little more dawn (which is highly intoxicating for some reason) and put on our boots and gaiters and strap the ice gear to our packs. When it became obvious that the sun might have risen behind the nearby ridge, we finished the drive up to the Terrace Lake trailhead.
What a miss! The trailhead would have had a spectacular view of the actual moment of sunrise. For some reason I didn't think you could see out from there. Oh well, I guess there's always a next time. We arrived just after sunrise and it was still spectacular. It takes the forest quite a while to warm up in the morning, and everything was magical as we made our trek. Everything was quiet and still and the light gives everything a blueish tint that does not wear off for hours. As everything slowly warms up you can literally feel the life-force of the forest coming on-line.
Reading Peak Snow ClimbWe had decided to do a partial ascent of Readings NW bowls. The plan was just to hike and then climb for a few hours and then head back. We wanted to hike Lassen later in the day, and wanted a few hours to rest in-between. Setting out from the trailhead we descended quickly and easily to the Terrace Lake fork, but started losing the trail soon after. We expected cross-country travel at some point, so we just broke out the wands and started heading 'in the right direction'.
The right direction took us to a huge cliff overlooking the lakes. I could see the trail below! We had blown right past it and ended up cross-country to the north of the trail rather than the south like we wanted. Since there was no easy way to descend, we decided to backtrack and find the REAL trail to the lakes. Later we'd find that the REAL trail had been covered in snow still right at the turn we missed and people had beat a use trail off in the wrong direction.
After finding our way back on the trail we descended down to Terrace Lake the smaller of the two prominent lakes under Reading Peak. The lake were crystal clear and the sun was at just the right angle to glimmer intensely, in contrast with the still subdued color of the shady, morning forests. You couldn't see into much of the lake because the reflections were so intense. We skirted the side of the lake, and continued the descent down to Shadow lake. Suddenly I'm feeling like I didn't factor all of the descending into my choice of the 'short' approach path, (oh well). If we hadn't spent so much time looking for the trail it still would have been a virtually-nil approach.
The cliffs over Terrace Lake were stunning, but Shadow Lake was even more so. There were little spots where you could see the sun taking tiny wisps of vapor rise off the lake, and the water was crystal-clear. It also helped that we were all alone out there and didn't see any other day-trippers till we were well on our way back. After gaining the edge of Shadow lake we immediately headed off-track in the most obvious gully heading towards the NW bowls.
At the top of the gully, things flattened out and we hightailed it towards the first snow slope, leaving a single wand behind to mark the way back to the lake. This was it: crampon time! We'd climbed on snow a couple times in boots and axes, but this was the first time with crampons. We have some cheap, strap-on, 10-pointers; they're steel so we'll see how they hold up. We strapped on and started heading up. The snow was excellent, and the crampons were very grippy, but after 100 feet up or so (longer than that in the horizontal world), there was a huge boulder field to cross to the next snowfield.
At some point it got steep enough to switch from poles to axes, and after a quick boulder-hop, crampons in hand, we strapped on again and started up the next section. Steeper and more energy-consuming we kept trucking up, trying different steps, working to get all 10 points in the snow, trying the occasional front-point, duckwalking, keeping the axe planted firmly. After another 100 feet or so (up) the snowslope forked around a small prominence. Amber waited while I did some recon on the east side of the prominence. All I found was rotten snow that let me poke through to the rocks. We'd already went across a few rocks, crampons on. The screech of steel crampons on hard rock travels up your bones just as well as your nerves. With steel its ok to do it a little bit, but geez, it's really grating and unnerving. I don't know how those mixed apline guys handle all that metal on rock contact without going loopy.
We headed to the right instead, up a slope of much more solid snow. We climbed up about another 100 feet to a small round ridge. This would be good enough for today. Even though it was still early, it was July and the snow was starting to get loose and wet. We got a beautiful view of the rest of reading peak (which we could have done had we not had other plans for the rest of the day), as well as Lassen Peak and a whole swath of the park, out and past the desolated area. Even though it was a fairly short climb of only around 300' on the snow, it was moderate angle so much longer than it was tall usually and plenty to fill an early morning for the first time in crampons. Please note: snow climbing can be extremely dangerous and you really should practice using your ice-axe in a controlled environment and read "Freedom of the Hills" before you venture out into any terrain that would require an axe or crampons.
Heading back down in crampons was an even bigger blessing than heading out. Heading up you still have the distinct feeling that you could slip over your feet wrong, or slide backwards in a patch of rotten snow, but going down those 2nd row teeth grab hold hard and really shine. We experienced very little slipping and sliding even though the snow was in a much more shoddy state at this time. I'm totally sold on the utility of crampons now! These worked really well with heavy hiking boots and didn't constrict at all either. The only drawback was that you couldn't do much front pointing without really making your foot tired. A good pair of mountain boots would fix that and any serious front-pointing should be done in 12 pointers anyways.
Coming back we gathered the wands and my dropped sunglasses (oops!) and headed back down to the lake. We now had all that unexpected trail climbing to do. I guess it's a bit of a warm-up for the 2000' we'd be doing in the afternoon. We passed some of the first day-trippers at Terrace Lake. I think they were a little surprised to see someone coming up trail towards them at 9-something with heavy boots on carrying crampons and ice axes. They had shorts and tees and tanks on. That's July for you in the California mountains! They really missed morning magic at the lakes. It was still pretty but just not the same.
The hike out took a little longer than I expected. Didn't realize it but we pretty-much doubled our gain and descent by going down-up-down-up. We coasted back down to camp so we could prep for the afternoon and get as much rest as possible.
Lassen PeakAfter waiting to see if the other party would make the go-ahead time, and waiting for our transportation to return, we threw some lunch in our bags and headed for the Lassen Peak trail. Personally, I wanted to go earlier in the day (and earlier in the trip) but sometimes group dynamics mean you change your plans.
The parking lot at the Lassen Peak trailhead was nearly full. I squeezed into a little space and then promptly squeezed into the restroom. I knew there would be scant chance for privacy on the popular, exposed route, especially on a holiday weekend.
Since we got such a late start (around 1:45 pm I think) there were not too many others coming up with us. There were a few, however, and a lot of folks coming down. This was the first time the whole trip that it really felt like we were in a national park on a holiday weekend. It's amazing the opportunities to enjoy serenity in LVNP that present themselves even when near capacity. Here on the Lassen Peak trail we came across people from all over the country and world. It's probably good for this park to get some traffic since it's often in the shadow of it's big brothers in the Sierra.
But not all of the traffic is positive. As we huffed up the switchbacks, running largely on energy snacks as we kept postponing lunch, we came across several examples of the downside of park traffic. One of the first things you see via the interpretive signs is an old 'use trail' scar that has been slowly healing for years but is still quite evident. Lassen is made of volcanic rock so loose and crumbly that it rarely qualifies as soil. As a result, the bare slopes are highly susceptible to erosion, and what few plants there are have a tenuous grasp at best. There are numerous signs and placards on the trail warning you of the consequences of cutting switchbacks or making your own trail, however we saw a handful of people ignoring the warnings and making shortcuts.
The Lassen peak trail is the only approved route to the summit in the summer, due to the erosional issues. In the winter the park is 'open' but not plowed. Lassen Volcanic National Park gets some of the heaviest snowfall in California. You can summit via any route when the peak is snowbound, you just have to be willing to brave the cold! For this reason Lassen is popular with the ski touring crowd, as well as mountaineers and other travelers who are seeking a winter challenge. Since the mountain has several permanent snowfields, you'll occasionally see someone braving the remaining snow and ice into summer. We saw one such brave soul ski down one of the larger snowfield on 'firn skis,' which he claimed to have acquired in Switzerland. Another goofball did a crouching glissade, I'm not sure if he was just showboating or a little crazy because he barely stopped himself before the snow ran out.
As we trekked our way further up the trail, the worn, sandy trail gave way to palm-sized chunks of scree. Someone had dropped pistachio husks on the ground and a cute little ground squirrel was investigating. If you've read our earlier post, Amber and I have strong feelings about humans, animals and food, so we were glad to see there was nothing really for this overly friendly chipmunk. After a couple switchbacks we look down to find out exactly why this chipmunk was so friendly. A foreign couple had discovered him and crouched over taking pictures and FEEDING HIM. OH HOW CUTE HE MUST HAVE BEEN! I wanted to scream, but we were a good ways above them and I'm not sure it would have done any good. I should have done something, but we just chalked it up to being a holiday weekend and tried to keep moving. We looked back again a few minutes later to watch an even more horrific scene; a college-age girl hiking alone came up the trail behind them and immediately proceeded to follow suit! Now 3 people were feeding the damned chipmunk! Next time I will definitely say something, even if I have to be an ass and rain on their parade.
The Lassen Peak trail is deceptively short. It's a 2.5 mile trail, but there is 2000' of elevation gain. In addition you're starting at around 8500 ft. above sea level, so if you dwell in the lowlands it can seem a bit brisk up there. This was one of the first trips I've taken on an altimeter on and it served as a much better indication of our progress than the trail distances. As we got closer tot he top we got more and more excited. All of the surrounding mountains begin to melt away as your vista spreads out across a wider and wider area. As the summit block began to come into clearer view, we picked up the pace and pushed hard to make it to the top. We ended up skipping our last snack break because we were 'so close', that may or may not have been a good idea.
Distances are always deceptive on top of a mountain. After the trail crests there's still 100' or so of class 2 (or three if you're feeling saucy) if you want to drag yourself up on the true summit block (and you do!). Maybe we should have had a snack instead of waiting to have lunch on top as we were really starting to drag ass right at the base of the summit block (and Amber was starting to feel not-so-well). Somehow we fought our way up it, completely oblivious to the true class 2 path. Everyone else on the slope with us had the same problem "where's the path", "which way do I go?", "is that the top?" Actually, one guy had *bigger* problems. He asked, "where is the volcano?" to which we replied "DUDE, THE WHOLE THING IS THE VOLCANO." That just shows the importance of having good beta, and doing what it takes to try and keep a clear head. Had we not let ourselves get drained the last bit would have been a lot less strenuous.
At the top it was not too busy, I think we had come up behind the biggest crowds of the day. Despite the persistent haze, we could make out several of the parks large shield volcanoes to the northeast. I quickly inhaled my sandwich but Amber was battling a bout of nausea. It may have been mainly the altitude, but I'm sure skipping a snack and being drained didn't help (we had only had snacks since before the snow-climb that morning). I gave Amber some electrolyte drink and some carrots and she was able to start replenishing. We took a few pictures and absorbed the view, and then suddenly I could make out a monster mountain on the far horizon. On clear days you can see Shasta like a gem, but we knew there was slim chance with all the smoke and haze. As I was eating though, I noticed the profile of a stout volcano on the hazy far horizon. Just as we were getting ready we got an even more spectacular glimpse as little bits of the upper slopes emerged from the clouds. For us it was a special treat we didn't expect, but unfortunately you can't see more than 2 pixels of it in my sad, old camera.
We quickly headed down the summit block and back to the main trail. After about 500' descending, Amber started to feel a lot better, I think she even ate some of her sandwich finally. One bad thing about the Lassen Peak trail is there isn't any good places to sneak off and relieve your bladder. The trail is totally exposed most of the time and you're usually in clear view of people above and below! In addition, you aren't supposed to go off trail at all... It's short a short trail, but still time consuming and so I was soon brimming full of urine. I knew I would have to swallow my pride and do the deed. Luckily I made it all the way down to the first (last) bush before I couldn't take it anymore. All in all the descent was immensely more rapid than the climb up. We passed a few unprepared-looking people still making their way up (mostly loners too). That late in the day it made us cringe a bit but I guess they all made it back safe!
As we finally approached the parking lot, I noticed a guy bushwhacking his way out of one of the nearby canyons, heading towards the parking lot with a bouldering pad on his back! I saw some big boulders in that gully, and I had to get the scoop from him. All of the park guides say that you should not rock climb anywhere in the park due to the low quality of the volcanic rock. Despite that it says "if you do plan on rock climbing, please talk to a ranger first," hmm... This guy obviously knew what was going on so I rushed down the trail to catch him. I practically ran the last 150 yards of the trail to catch up. He gave me some beta on a top-secret area near one of the parks many other mountains. Apparently the rock is more basaltic and the quality is totally bomber, but there's a good hike and the climbing is hard, mostly sport-routes. All and all I was glad the guy was nice and chatted us up for a while, and it was totally cool that he shared his info. Now we can finally head back to camp!
Fires still burning outside the park
LinksFor those of you who like reading about trivialities like what we ate for breakfast, this trip report appears unabridged on our blog:
- Lassen Volcanic National Park - Official Site
- Geology of the Lassen Area - Wikipedia
- Lassen Volcanic National Park - summitpost.org
- Lassen Peak - summitpost.org