A Wind-storm in the Mountains: Five Summits in Lassen National Park, Day One
Updated: Jul 18, 2020
The wind howled.
The wall of my tiny, one-person tent curled and snapped against my back as I sat bent to the contour of its southwest corner. The poles hadn't buckled yet, but I suspected they would the moment I stopped supporting the tent with my spine.
This was bad.
I grew up in the midwest, and growing up in the midwest you develop a particular sense when it comes to the wind. A noncommittal, there-and-gone breath against your exposed skin, a breeze, even a gust: these are all just movements of air. What you learn to listen for, though, what you learn to feel is that moment when the wind stops being just a movement of air and becomes a Thing: the snarling, snapping, hissing Thing that, out on the plains at least, usually signals the transition from thunderstorm to tornado.
Where I'm from, it's flat, and you can usually see this Thing coming, or at least feel it coming. Up in the mountains, though, it can sneak up on you, pouncing down from atop an overhanging ridgeline or roaring up a valley when you least expect it, turning the very air around you into a biting, clawing enemy.
As I sat bracing my tent against the attack of this howling sky-animal, waiting for the respite that I chose to imagine was coming, I thought of John Muir's "A Wind-storm in the Forests," a short piece that describes his transcendent experience of riding out a Sierra windstorm in the boughs of a Douglas spruce. During the storm, Muir meditates on the paradoxical peacefulness he observes mid-storm, writing "We hear much nowadays concerning the universal struggle for existence, but no struggle in the common meaning of the word was manifest here; no recognition of danger by any tree; no deprecation; but rather an invincible gladness as remote from exultation as from fear."
Hunched over in my tent in the middle of the night, I was definitely not experiencing "invincible gladness." Instead, over the course of the next ninety minutes, I cycled through terror, frustration, resignation, and then, ultimately, a defeated exhaustion as a wind-storm in the mountains tried to blow me and my tent off of the summit of Ski Heil Peak.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The day started pleasantly enough, with a longish but languorous drive from Klamath Falls south and east to Lassen Volcanic National Park.
It was the middle of a particularly bad fire season, but as "particularly bad" has become the norm in recent years, I'd decided to try to keep that from dampening my spirits. I'd been checking the air quality regularly in the Lassen area in the days leading up to my planned trip, and while it certainly wasn't optimal, it was actually better than I'd been experiencing while working in my backyard in Klamath Falls.
This was Lindsey and I's fifth summer in town, and for the first time, the absurdity of the fact that I'd climbed nearly every non-technical mountain in the area but had yet to visit Lassen National Park really hit me when I idly googled it while eating breakfast one morning and this was one of the first pictures that showed up:
Over the course of the ensuing yardwork-laden week, Lassen went from being a random item on my pages-long mountain-climbing to-do list to the motivation for plunging into full-on trip-planning mode. When I wasn't working, I was poring over trip reports, printing and annotating maps, and compiling a gear list.
Sometimes, the rush of enthusiasm for a new adventure feels like an angel (or devil?) on my shoulder, waiting for an excuse to spring into action. In this case, my realizing concretely that Lassen was a four hour drive away was all the excuse she needed to start flapping her wings in my ear.
Though I'd never been to Lassen before, she and I had a bit of a history. Way back in the summer of 2012, when I'd been a graduate student with much less disposable income and much worse gear but way more time on my hands, I'd planned a similar trip to the park, with a similar amount of enthusiasm. I was one year on from my momentous summit of Mount Adams back then, and, electrified by the prospect of climbing more big mountains, I'd settled on a trip to Lassen after scoring hail-mary Phish tickets for their three-night San Francisco run. It was an ambitious plan for a trip, as I'd be coming down from Pullman, in northeastern Washington. I'd drive the seven hundred miles to Lassen, spend a day there climbing Brokeoff Mountain and a morning climbing Eagle Peak, then it would be another two hundred and fifty miles to Bill Graham Civic Auditorium for three days in the Bay Area before the nine hundred mile drive home.
Unfortunately, this plan turned out to be too daunting for my aging car and my bank account, and despite taking most of a year to save up the money for it, I had to cancel at the last minute, selling my tickets, canceling my hotel reservations, and leaving Brokeoff Mountain for another day. It wasn't the worst thing that's ever happened to anyone, but at the time, it felt like it.
So, as I cruised down I-5 through Mount Shasta city and Redding five years later, watching the snowy dome of Lassen Peak rise in the distant east like an earthbound moon, having only driven for three hours and made no plans beyond where I might climb and where I might sleep for free on the ground inside the park, I felt in equal parts the thrill of a new adventure and the relief of the exorcism of old ghosts.
There had been bands of heavy smoke striping the air throughout the drive, and a particularly dark one settled in over the road as I turned off of I-5 and onto Highway 89. The worsening air quality was a disappointment for sure, as it obscured my view of the mountains that were emerging ahead and meant I'd likely be breathing particulate for two days while I labored up steep talus slopes, but it wasn't really unexpected. After hiking in the southern Oregon/northern California area for five years, I start nearly every August trip hoping that morning will be the morning that the winds blow the smoke away from my own little patch of wilderness. I get my wish maybe one in ten times.
By the time I reached the park's west entrance, though, all my concerns about the smoke drifted away like...well, like smoke. Having not traveled to any other National Parks but Crater Lake for the previous five years, I found the entrance to Lassen National Park simultaneously comfortingly like Crater Lake's south entrance and intriguingly different. I felt the kind of excitement-for-endless-possibilities that's usually reserved for the moments when I'm up high on a mountain and looking out across a few hundred square miles of horizon. This place was immediately beautiful (albeit in that rocky, volcanic way that is admittedly a bit of an acquired taste) and it was going to be my playground for the next two days.
On the heels of that thought, though, my enthusiasm dropped away precipitously, and I was suddenly deeply sad to be at this playground alone. By necessity, I undertake many of my outdoor adventures alone or with a few friends but without my wife, and though I always want the two of us to share these adventures, I've long since accepted — for the most part — that I'll have to spend a fair amount of the summer on the road without her. Sitting in my car just inside the gates of Lassen National Park, though, in a place that I was certain, at first glance, that she would absolutely love, this seemed deeply unfair in a way that made my throat hurt. It suddenly felt selfish and a bit callous of me to take my first trip into the park without her, to discover what was there just for myself, and for a moment I legitimately considered just driving home and coming back some other time. Ultimately, though, my sense of financial pragmatism won out — I'd already paid the entrance fee and had chewed through half a tank of gas, after all — but as I drove forward through the park, I did so with an unusually heavy heart.
The remainder of the drive slowly restored my enthusiasm, though, while ramping my excitement to critical levels. Early on, it reminded me of nothing more than driving Crater Lake's west rim, as the road undulated over some old volcanic flows before dropping slightly down into a pine forest as it slowly looped north, then southeast around the bulk of the Lassen Peak massif.
I may have entered the park without a fully-fledged plan for my next forty-eight hours, but I knew I was headed to Lassen Peak first. At 10,463 feet, it had been a bit above my aspirations back in 2012 when I'd planned my first, failed trip to the park. Now, something like one hundred and twenty-five summits later, I hoped to bag it in around three hours and be off to climb a second mountain after lunch.
That said, I wasn't tossing Lassen Peak off. Not only is it one of the most visible and most aesthetically pleasing mountains in the area, throughout five years of adventures in northern California, it had always loomed on my horizon, beckoning to me even while I stood looking out from the summit of Shasta, almost a mile higher up. I was itching to cross it off my list, but I wasn't going to kid myself into thinking it would be an easy jaunt.
For what felt like a bit too long, I followed Highway 89 as it twisted and turned through the park, tantalizing me with occasional glimpses of snowy summits and plunging canyons before hiding them from view again. By design or no, the road from the park's Manzanita Lake entrance to Lassen Peak leaves you in suspense until the last possible moment. Combine that with the low in-park speed limit and by the time I reached the final rise of the road, at an elevation of 8,500 feet, it felt like my feet were literally itching with the need to start hiking.
Which was fine, because Lassen Peak was right there.
Really, the Lassen Peak trailhead is sort of hilarious in the way that it buts right up against the mountain. The trail starts right from the parking lot and ascends for two thousand feet over the course of two and a half miles.
After parking near the back of the lot, I spent a few minutes shuffling gear between my summit pack and my backpack, a few minutes drinking water, and a few minutes waiting in line for the bathroom (really), and then I was off, up the obvious trail as it headed straight toward the summit to the north before jagging sharply to the east, ascending maybe fifteen minutes after getting out of the car.
The immediately surprising thing about ascending Lassen Peak wasn't necessarily that there were so many people on the trail — it was a beautiful day in the middle of summer, and the trail was right on the side of the main highway through a National Park — but that so few of them seemed like the mountaineering type.
Now, to clarify, I don't believe that you need to be a certain kind of person to enjoy climbing a mountain, or even to be able to climb a mountain. Via the established trail, the climb to Lassen's summit is about as easy a walk-up as you can get from a technical standpoint, and it doesn't take any particular type or level of expertise to follow an obvious trail for two and a half miles. For my money, anybody who wants to be out there should be able to be out there. That's the point of National Parks, after all, right? Plus, in my experience, there's little better for keeping my own ego in check than the experience of being partway up a mountain, swathed in my fancy gear, and then being passed by someone powering up the hill in a ragged pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and work boots. Something like this happened to me when I was climbing Whitney, and I've never forgotten it. This is one of my all-time favorite mountaineering stories for the same reason.
That said, it was a hot morning, and would only get hotter as the day went on. The sky was clear, the sun was beating down, and Lassen Peak is over ten thousand feet high. This is not a summit to take on lightly, well-established trail or no. So I was not particularly surprised and a little relieved when, about a third of the way up the mountain, much of the sweating, wheezing, occasionally staggering crowd begun to turn around in clumps, heading back down to the flatter, more oxygenated ground below. Knowing your limits is an important part of climbing any mountain, and meeting them and being smart enough to turn around is a rarer thing than it should be. I like to imagine that some of those would-be mountaineers will come back to the park someday, and make it to the top.
Myself, I continued pounding the trail, passing the crowds on the left when possible. This side of Lassen is something that I'd love to try to climb in the snow, someday. During the dry season, the landscape is an exceptionally bare volcanic slope. It is not a slope that you would want to climb without a trail to follow through the scree.
In a nice contrast, though, the higher you climb on this tan mound of broken rock, the more the rest of the park unfolds below you. Sure, it was a hazy day, but the view of the gorgeous and seemingly out-of-place Lake Helen and the line of Eagle Peak, Ski Heil Peak, Mount Diller and Brokeoff Mountain marching southwestward made for a striking backdrop to the climb.
Even so late in the summer, the bone-dry terrain was occasionally broken up by an errant snowfield. Even more occasionally, one of these snowfields would cross the trail, but they had been crossed by so many before me that the danger was slipping on slush compacted by hundreds of feet rather than suddenly postholing through a band of snow a few feet deep.
Once the trail wound around through a slow left turn and then pointed itself north again, I started feeling the altitude a bit, as a very slight aching pulse in the back of my head, but, wrapped up in the excitement of finally — finally — getting to climb Lassen Peak, I took a quick standing water break to deal with it and then kept moving.
I suppose it speaks to my enthusiasm that I topped out on Lassen's summit ridge after just over an hour of hiking. Typically, I can climb about one thousand feet of elevation per hour, so covering two and a half miles and nearly two thousand feet was sort of ridiculous by my standards. But, there I was, with the summit proper just a snowfield away.
The snowfield itself was easy enough to cross, but the summit pinnacle was surprisingly chossy, considering Lassen Peak's intended audience. Indeed, as I took another quick standing break at the base of the spire and later on as I watched from the summit itself, I noticed that the majority of climbers who reached the snowfield simply passed on this final scramble, content with their accomplishment of making it to the base of the summit block. There were a few who tried to ascend, but simply found the rock too loose and the trail (such as it was) too treacherous. I, of course, was going all the way to the top, but it was interesting to see the peak throw one momentary instance of wildness at all the climbers who had used the highway of the official trail to get this far. Again, I say this as an observation and not a judgment, as a guy who will never, ever climb the last eighty feet of Mount Thielsen.
All things considered, Lassen's summit block scramble was comparable to most of the countless rock scrambles I've done in the past. Taken slowly and carefully, it was straightforward and relatively safe, though I had more luck climbing up on the big boulders lining the edges of the use trail rather than walking directly on the river of completely loose pebbles that comprised the established track.
Then I was there, looking out over the length and breadth of my new playground as a light wind whistled between the volcanic spires that comprised the top of Lassen Peak's summit spire. To the north I could see the bowl-shaped no-man's-land that was the result of the mountain's 1915 eruption. To the west was a huge volcanic crater, with a smoke-shrouded Mount Shasta floating in the background. To the south and east the mountain dropped away to reveal the lower-elevation parts of the park, with Bumpass Mountain stretched out in its midst like a sleeping giant.
I spent a few minutes on the summit enjoying the view and taking pictures, and by then there was a line of sorts forming below me. As inexperienced (and, I suppose, experienced) climbers will do, they were scaling the rocks in dangerous ways to avoid having to wait for their chance to summit. So, rather than contribute further to the traffic jam, I took one last, deep breath of the air at 10,463 feet and then started back down. Coming back down the spire was, of course, harder than going up had been, and I had to pick my way through a patch of large, sharp, but ultimately stable rocks to avoid using the trail, which seemed like an invitation to smash a hip, elbow, or head in a fall.
Once I'd safely made it back down to the base of the spire, I spent a fair amount of time on the summit plateau: it was a beautiful day, save for the smoke, and my headache had relented as soon as I'd had some more water and stopped stomping my way uphill. There were at least fifty people on the plateau with me, but it was such a large area that I hardly noticed them.
I descended the mountain in one go. It was certainly easier than going up had been, but I took my time a bit more, hiking with my camera around my neck and scanning the terrain below me for features I recognized from the park's map.
As the trail led me back around the base of the north-south ridge it was designed to bypass, Vulcan's Eye came back into view, and from there it was just a short jaunt back to the parking lot and lunch.
I hadn't necessarily been trying for speed, but I'd managed to go car-to-car in two and a half hours. Not a bad start to the day.
As odd as it felt to treat a ten thousand foot peak as my "warm up," once I'd rested my legs for a half hour or so and gotten some significant calories into my belly, I was indeed ready for another adventure. It was hard not to be with the entire park laid out around me like a Disney World for lunatic mountaineers. The question was: where to next?
I hadn't realized it consciously until after lunch, but I think I'd unconsciously decided during my ascent of Lassen that I wanted to explore the Eagle Peak/Ski Heil Peak area next. Hiking into and over that rugged line of mountains would provide me with a dead-on, off-road view of Lassen Peak and maybe even reveal a great camping spot from which I'd be able to watch the sun set.
After another round of gear shuffling between my various packs — this time moving essential gear from the summit pack into the backpack, as I assumed I wouldn't be back to the car until the next morning — I sat down with the park map and a topo map to figure out the best bushwhacking route to Eagle Peak.
There seemed to be two good approach options:
To pass counterclockwise around the small hill to the west of the trailhead parking lot, and then south and west around the bulk of Eagle Peak to approach it from the south.
To pass clockwise around the small hill and proceed directly west to the southern approach.
I'd seen the valley between Eagle and Lassen Peaks during my descent, and it wasn't particularly hairy-looking terrain, but was covered in a mixture of ice, snow, and talus. I hadn't gotten a glimpse at the route for Option Two yet, but guessed it would be a bit longer, but possibly a bit drier, being more of an undulating rockfield than a deep valley. I decided to take my chances with Option Two.
I hadn't yet felt much tiredness from the morning's ascent, but that changed as soon as I put on my heavy backpacking pack and started heading west and up. As I climbed, I consoled myself with the thought that I only had to carry all of that weight for a little over a mile, and then I'd be able to put it down again. Eagle Peak and nearby Ski Heil Peak were both small enough rises that I'd be able to climb them without a pack at all, if I chose.
It turned out to not be much of a consolation.
The "route," such as it was, rose for about two hundred feet to near the top of the hill, then circled clockwise around until I was facing due north before dropping those two hundred feet again, to the west and down a slope made entirely of large boulders held precariously in place by melting snow. This was very slow going, and hard on the knees, but eventually I bottomed out in an undulating, rock-filled meadow of sorts and stayed there briefly before having to climb another three hundred feet back up on mixed, sometimes icy terrain to find the saddle between Sky Heil and Eagle Peaks.
By the time I finally reached the saddle, it had taken me nearly two hours to cover just over a mile of distance, and I was feeling every foot of my morning ascent of Lassen Peak in my quads. It was getting late in the afternoon, and the wind screaming across the saddle from the north had a noticeable chill to it, so I huddled behind some trees, making a wind screen with my pack, and laid in the grass for a bit, catching my breath.
From there, it was a quick scramble up the north-facing ridgeline of the not-that-imposing Ski Heil Peak. I wasn't sure where I was going to sleep yet, so I climbed the four hundred or so feet to its summit without any gear aside from a trekking pole and a wind jacket. I would regret this later. But I would regret a lot of things later, so whatever.
From the top of Ski Heil, I had a great view in one direction of Lake Helen and Highway 89 circling around it. In the other direction, Lassen Peak dominated the sky, with the smaller, tangled summit of Eagle Peak in front of it.
I noted the nice, flat summit of Ski Heil, the comparably rough-looking slopes and summit of Eagle Peak, and the small dot of my bag full of gear back laying back down at the bottom of the hill, and I groaned inwardly. I'd almost certainly be making another, harder trip up Ski Heil before sundown. But first, Eagle Peak awaited.
I descended back to the saddle, and based on what I'd seen from Ski Heil's summit, didn't even attempt to lug my bag up to the top of Eagle Peak. Initially, I'd hoped that my bushwhack west from the Lassen Peak trailhead might offer up a way to camp on the top of this 9,200 foot perch, but my energy was flagging already, and I couldn't imagine trying to lug all of my gear up what were obviously very loose and chossy slopes. So I kept going, straight across the saddle, past my pack, through the blasting column of wind, and back up the other side, toward the top of Eagle Peak, nothing but my trusty water bottle in my hand.
The terrain was even worse than I'd expected. I fought my way to the top, though, because it was only four hundred feet, and I'd be damned if I was going to not summit the freaking thing after going through all of that horrible bushwhacking to get to the saddle.
At a few points along the way, I was able to find small runs of dirt, or a spine of stable rock that was scrambleable, but, for the most part, I was climbing uphill on badly loose boulders. At the top, though, I was rewarded with a surprisingly wide, flat summit and even better views of looming Lassen.
By this time, the sun was accelerating toward the horizon and the wind was turning downright cold. I took a few pictures, ate a CLIF bar, caught my breath, and then began the careful, laborious descent back to the saddle (yet again). My plan was to grab my gear, schlepp it back up to the top of Ski Heil, and camp shielded from the wind against an outcropping I'd seen my first time up there.
At this point, my legs had reached that zombified state of tiredness where they Just Kept Going No Matter What, so it was easier than it should have been to pound back up the second (and fourth) mountain I'd climbed that day. At the top, I quickly deployed my tent behind a natural windbreak and built a tiny fortress for my stove to rest in while it cooked my dinner. Then I set about congratulating myself on how clever I'd been. Well, after the bushwhacking and double-summit mistakes, at least.
Despite what happened next, I will say that I picked a pretty damn good tent spot.
I ate dinner, then got to sit back and watch a particularly beautiful wildfire-assisted sunset.
As full dark began to set in, I crawled into my tent and wiggled down into my sleeping bag. The wind still blew, but its beating helplessly against the other side of the windbreak was actually relaxing rather than concerning. With a full stomach and content with having climbed three mountains since late morning, I fell asleep quickly.
Only to wake up, heart already racing even though I didn't know yet why, two hours later.
The wind howled.
Of course the wind had changed directions after sunset; it usually does. And now my windbreak was useless. The gale was slamming into the side of my tent as I sat glumly, serving as a bony, anthropomorphized tent pole and berating my own stupidity.
Every few minutes the wind would calm briefly, and I'd try getting back into my sleeping bag. I even managed to fall back to sleep once or twice during these brief respites. But then the Thing would come roaring back, hissing and cracking, and I'd be back at my post, arms and legs splayed out, supporting the thin nylon walls that were keeping the outside out.
What a great idea, camping on the summit of a mountain! "Invincible gladness" my ass!
After well over an hour of fighting the wind, it became clear to me that I had a few choices. One was to just stay awake all night holding up the tent. I ruled that one out immediately, because it sucked. Two was to try to hike back down Ski Heil Peak the way I'd come up in the middle of the night, in the wind, and try to find a more windproof camp spot along the route back to the car. The more I thought about this option, though, the more I was unconvinced of the idea that the saddle or anywhere between where I currently was and the icy, boulder-filled meadow I'd bushwhacked across after summiting Lassen would be less wracked by the wind. Earlier in the day at least, the saddle and the valley below it actually seemed to focus the wind rather than deflecting it. And there was no way I was going to try to climb those boulder fields back up to the car in the dark: it was just too dangerous.
Option Three, then, was to strike off in the opposite direction, along Ski Heil's southwest ridge, a direction I hadn't yet traveled in, in the hopes of finding shelter from the wind. I had no idea what lay that way, other than that the ridge eventually turned into a relatively gentle slope that descended all the way to Highway 89. I didn't know what it would be like trying to downclimb in the dark, but the wind was blowing in from the northeast, and I hoped that just descending a few hundred feet would be enough to get me behind some kind of cover. If not, I could be in for a long night's hike down to the highway and then along it, back to my car.
Still, it would be better than this. Option Three it was, then.
I packed my entire camp up quickly and haphazardly, the wan light of my headlamp inspiring me to focus on efficiency rather than neatness. The tent went into my pack just sort-of folded and with my sleeping bag and pad still inside. I put on most of the clothes that were strewn around the tent floor rather than repacking them. I strapped my tent poles to the outside of my bag. Any remaining accessories were crammed into side pockets in a jumble. And, ten or so minutes after deciding on Option Three, I was shuffling down Ski Heil's southwest ridge, the wind punching me in the face over and over, making my eyes water as I tried to focus on finding something, anything, that I could hide behind for the rest of the night.
At this point, I was all too aware that if this had happened earlier or later in the year, I would have been in seriously dire straits. I was in an uncomfortable and frustrating situation, sure, but even with the massive wind chill, I'd estimate that the temperature was close to forty or forty-five degrees. I was able to leave my tent in the windstorm, take the tent down, and search for a new tent site at my (relative) leisure, without fear of frostbite or other serious temperature-based threats to my health. So, I tried to at least take solace in that fact as I plodded downhill through shifting volcanic sand in near-pitch-darkness, looking through a tear-blurred headlamp beam and stopping to poke my head behind every tree and rock in hopes of finding some relief from the sky-animal.
Eventually, about two hundred vertical feet and probably a half-mile away from my original tent site, I found a tangled grove of trees that were tall enough and thick enough to break the wind for the length of my body. I set the tent back up quickly, threw the rest of my equipment under a tree far enough away that I wouldn't have to worry about myself and my gear getting eaten by the same animal, and then dove back into my sleeping bag. By now, it was 2:30am. My six o'clock alarm seemed much, much closer than it had the first time I'd fallen asleep, just before 10pm.
The last thing that I noticed before I collapsed back into sleep was a sudden, remarkably deep silence as the wind seemed to stop completely. Maybe I'd just chosen a particularly good windbreak, but I like to imagine that, having had its fun with me for the first few hours of the night, the wind around Ski Heil Peak had just stopped for the night once I'd made my escape.
When my alarm woke me up a few hours later, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the air was completely still. It was, somehow, time for another day of climbing mountains in Lassen Volcanic National Park.