This is the final part of a three part series about summer skiing in the Cascade corridor, from Washington to California. For part one (Mount Adams, Hood, The Middle Sister) click here. For part two (Mount Shasta) click here.
Lassen Peak was but the cherry on top of a very large sundae, and by the time I finished a summit ski of Mount Shasta, I wasn’t much in the mood for dessert. Exhausted and beaten down by 26,000 feet of Cascade skiing the previous seven days, I’d be lying if I said I was excited for another pre-dawn mission. However, though I tried to rationalize laziness, Lassen was virtually impossible to skip. Traveling west on California’s Highway 89, the most direct route towards Idaho, the state’s second tallest volcano bears down over the surrounding foothills with commanding presence. Despite being over 3,000 feet shorter than Shasta, Lassen still stands proud at 10,453 feet, and by my uneducated assumption that meant another headlamp assisted slog on well trashed legs through a dark forest to start the day. Complaints aside, I couldn’t leave the Golden State knowing I had a perfect weather window to bag one more of North America’s finest mountains. As such, I wearily made my way through the unmanned entry gate at Lassen Volcanic National Park, beginning my, unbeknown at the time, spectacular drive to the 8,000 foot crest of the stunning LVNP highway.
The first glance of Lassen I caught was one mostly of volcanic ash, the northeast face. A few spotty patches of snow dotted an otherwise brown canvas, immediately raising red flags about the viability of a ski descent. However, recent positive reports from numerous parties at Shasta secured my faith. Sure enough, as the road curled around to the south, a steep, wide snowfield dropped continuously from the summit ridge, immediately catching my attention. As tired and sour minded as I was, I couldn’t ignore surges of excitement as yet another immaculate Cascade volcano greeted me with open arms. Furthermore, the highway only continued to climb, topping out on a saddle well above 8,000 feet. Perched at the base of the southwest ridge (lookers left in the photo above) was a full service parking area, complete with trash cans and bathrooms. My imagined day of treacherous dawn patrolling quickly morphed into a backcountry skier’s luxury vacation, a metaphorical Palm Springs of sorts. Not only was 75 percent of my climb accounted for by motor vehicle, but a well manicured National Park trail zig-zagged directly up the ridge, right to the summit. Had I done my homework, I never would have considered leaving behind this laissez-faire gem of a summer skiing destination. All of a sudden, I really caught a craving for a cherry topped sundae.
A Sunset Surprise
Just like each of my prior Cascade extravaganzas, I met another enthusiastic local willing to share their wisdom with an eager tourist. John, an experienced skier from Berkley, was just finishing up an apres-ski dinner with his girlfriend when I caught the tail end of a sentence involving climbing, sunset and skiing. Despite my Shasta-stoned legs of lead, I immediately struck up a conversation, casting a line that would ultimately land me on the summit of Lassen Peak for a breathtaking sunset ski descent of the west face.
The crimson spectacle from the top of Lassen was nothing short of incredible. Less than one hour from the parking lot I was back on top of the world for the second time in a single day, this time 90 miles to the east. Shasta shone proud on the skyline, but even more impressive were the mountains west of Redding that formed a near parallel horizon, “East-Coast-style” sunset. Keeping with the positive momentum, the re-frozen “reverse corn” conditions we found on the way down offered top notch turns. The snow was fast and edge-able, perfect for a high speed descent illuminated by a glowing orange hue. True to his impressive resume, John ripped the 1,500 foot line mercilessly while I had the pleasure of following his wake. Returning to the car pumped with equal doses of gratitude and lactic acid, I curled into my trunk alongside John’s Subaru for what promised to be another fruitful day of summer skiing.
I had no idea I’d be setting out for the “Lassen Trifecta” when I shouldered my pack the following morning. After our west face ski, John made mention of a “locals challenge” that involved climbing and skiing the three “summer-skiable” aspects of Lassen in a single day, the north, south and west faces. Honestly, I had little interest, but after a hot-lap on the south face and a return to the summit in less than two hours, I realized I had a full-day ahead with infinite potential. While the snow on the south face was stickier than I would have cared for, the north was an entirely different story. Ringed with cliffs, couloirs and chutes alike, this side of Lassen is a playground of endless variants. Realistically, I could’ve spent the entire day lapping the 2,000 foot cirque. The corn snow I found on the northernmost wall was some of the best I’d ever skied, granting the opportunity for aggressive turns in a short sleeved t-shirt. By the time I reached the bottom I was riding a sky-high adrenaline rush, eager to re-ascend and complete the challenge I never set out to do.
The hitch of this otherwise flawless day was the climb of the north face, which really should have been easier than it was. Opting out of the conventional route for fear of warming snow and wet sluff, I chose to retrace my ski tracks, landing me in higher consequence terrain than preferred without crampons. Following John’s advice, I abandoned all my spiky equipment in the car, but on the firm slopes of the upper headwall I wished for nothing more than an ice axe and foot traction. Luckily, I did have my trusty whippet, which provided just enough protection to eek out a climb of a few exposed pitches, culminating in the prominent north facing summit couloir. Danger aside, the views from the north-easterly ridge were unique, mostly a product of isolation. Because of it’s close proximity to the road, Lassen sees a tremendous amount of tourist traffic, but almost exclusively on the southwest ridge. On the opposite side, I was left to fend for myself and soak in my first “truly alone” experience in the Pacific Northwest.
The only other skier on Lassen’s summit was Amar Andalker, a Cascade local who began dissecting my north face experience the second I popped off my pack. Shortly after realizing just how well he knew the area, he told me about his website www.skimountaineer.com where he has a virtual guidebook called “Skiing the Cascade Volcanoes.” I laughed. His site was my primary source of information with which I planned my entire trip! We shot the breeze for a reasonable half hour before eventually parting, as I was eager to score a well deserved meal at the car. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second I spent on Lassen, but sometimes nourishment and a cold beverage is of immediate relevance.
I chose to ski the west face slow, with ease and grace. As I made care-free turns on a bed of perfect corn, I took time to reflect on the amazing experience I had in the Pacific Northwest. A short skin to the parking lot wrapped up a six thousand foot day of immaculate summer skiing, a perfect note to punctuate my season. John was forearm deep in a bag of chips when I returned, happy to hear I knocked off the trifecta. However, beyond the trifecta was a full week of five peaks, eight descents and 32,000 feet of pure volcanic skiing bliss. Moreover, the friends I met from Washington to California are connections I’ll keep for many years to come. I returned home to a scene of bare mountains, a clear sign that short of desperation, ski season had come to a close. However, this season above any in recent memory, I was ready to pack the sticks away with absolutely no regrets.
A Spiritual Take
Plans create artificial ceilings that can cap potential. I came to Lassen for one descent, and left with four. Had I followed my original plan, the sunset ski and Lassen Trifecta would’ve been left behind in a prevailing wind of haste. To be open to new challenges, let go of expectations, and when safe, deviate from the plan, is to lift your ceiling above a sky of infinite potential. In the realm of skiing, you just may score that perfect powder slope, extra breathtaking summit or hidden, never before seen couloir. In the context of life, well… that’s your gem to uncover.