Skiing Lassen Peak: Falling and failing

Despite what I said in the last post, I gave in and put together a backcountry skiing setup after all. After skiing them at the resort a couple of days, Lassen Peak seemed like a great trip to get in some experience. The approach is on a gentle road I knew I wouldn’t have problems with, and the SE ridge is short enough that I wouldn’t mind bootpacking down if skiing was a bad idea.

Surprisingly, packing everything you need for winter mountaineering, plus ski equipment, isn’t as hard as I thought.

What's in my pack.
What's in my pack.: Most of the gear for the trip. Everything fit in a 40+10L pack.

Ang and I hurtled out of San Francisco on Saturday morning and were at the Lassen visitor center by 9 to meet the rest of the group. Everyone else was on snowshoes, but I wasn’t going to be smug, I knew I’d be taking plenty of embarassing falls throughout the trip.

Sulphur Works
Sulphur Works: Volcanic activity making itself seen, heard and smelt at the Sulphur Works.

The first couple of miles stick to the road and are uneventful, except for the stinky Sulphur Works. Turn left before Diamond Peak to avoid the avalanche hazard and save some distance. After gaining much of Diamond’s ridge, descend north-east back to the road. Skiing downhill with a pack was hard! I fell several times trying to execute parallel turns, then gave up and stuck to wedge turns and occasional Christies. By the time I got to the road, I had lost the rest of the group, who’d wanted to summit Diamond Peak. Thinking they must have passed me already, I continued on. Near the squiggle there is again a way to avoid some distance by climbing steeper ground to the road. Here the snow narrows and requires some delicate walking on skis. Eventually you’ll hit Emerald Lake, where I stopped for a quick lunch. There were remnants of a minor point release avalanche above the lake. Continuing on, I noticed Ang and Francisco lounging in the snow near Helen Lake. They said they’d been here for 30 minutes already and had seen no sign of the others. I have no idea what happened, but everyone turned up another hour later. We set up camp near the lake and enjoyed the light show on Lassen before tucking in for the night. It seemed like the next day would be perfect weather for climbing.

Campsite at Lake Helen
Campsite at Lake Helen: Campsite at Lake Helen. The route ascends the ridge on the right from the far side.
Sunset on Lassen Peak
Sunset on Lassen Peak: Sunset on Lassen Peak from Lake Helen.

Unforunately conditions started changing for the worse around 10pm. The wind picked up, hitting 15-20mph at 8000ft and never died down. Although temperatures outside stayed above freezing, the incessant howling was uncomfortable for tents and people. Early in the morning we decided we’d give the peak a shot and see how far we could go. After saving two tents from being blown away, we started up at 5:40. Skis made light work of the wind-crusted approach and I was soon past the parking lot. Here the snowshoers went straight up the steep rise, while I ventured were the road dips and had a couple of scary moments ascending a slope that was gentle, but frozen solid.

Lassen’s SE ridge is wide and straightforward. I put on ski crampons for some extra stability on wind blown crust and started up. Unfortunately the wind kept getting worse and by 7am plumes of snow were being blown from Lassen Peak. At 9500 feet the wind was enough to push people off balance. Being new to this whole skiing thing, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk to go higher and plopped on to my pack with the parka keeping me warm. A couple of people tried to go higher but they were forced to hunker down not much further.

This was what I had come here for, my first backcountry skiing experience. Now to see if all that effort was worth it. Skiing down the ridge was great fun since the snow had started to melt, but below 9000 feet it was just survival skiing on ice. I can see how backcountry skiing appeals to people attracted to the mountains.

Mountain climbing is extended periods of intense boredom, interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror. -Anonymous

Once I hit the road it was a quick downhill to the campsite. I ascended the small hill southeast of Lake Helen to get some more skiing in. All the tents had survived but the wind was still incessant and didn’t look like it would improve. We packed up and reversed our approach. On the way back we took a shortcut through the gully NE of Diamond Peak leading straight to the Sulphur Works. The combination of ice and backpack proved too much and I was sent tumbling several times. Having had enough of torquing my knees, I mounted the skis on the pack and booted down until I got back to the road. The A-frame might look cool, but it is heavy as hell!

I didn’t get to climb Lassen but it was a very educational trip. I got better at transitioning between skinning and downhill, internalized various checklists related to the transitions and learned that I need to put in more hours at the resort, skiing with heavier and heavier packs.

Back on the road, a McDonald’s meal for lunch, followed by a meatball marinara sub for dinner were a great way to restore calories for the work week.