A Wind-storm in the Mountains: Five Summits in Lassen National Park, Day Two
Updated: Jul 18, 2020
Begrudgingly, I extricated myself from the tent so as to better face the morning.
I wasn't particularly surprised to find that I felt like I'd been soundly beaten while I'd slept. In fact, considering everything that had happened during the night, and that I'd topped it all off with well under four hours of sleep on badly uneven, rocky ground, I was actually less sore than I'd expected to be.
As I stood up outside the tent and looked around in the slanting rays of just-post-sunrise, I couldn't help but laugh at my choice of site, revealed for the first time in the light:
On one hand, it wasn't much to look at. On the other hand, there was no wind.
Typically, when I'm out backpacking and I wake up feeling run-down, I compensate with an extra-large breakfast. In this case, though, I was in such a hurry to move on from my improvised camp site that I stuffed a CLIF bar into my face and called it breakfast, packed all of my camping gear back up -- only slightly more slowly than I had at 2am the previous night -- and then struck out toward the car, about twenty minutes after I'd woken up.
In the light of day, it was clear that descending the remaining portion of the ridge to Highway 89 and then following the road around to the car was actually going to be much more work than climbing back up over the top of the mountain and then hiking back the way I'd come the previous afternoon. So, ridiculously, I started my second morning in Lassen National Park by summiting Ski Heil for the third time in about twelve hours. On the upside, I got to take in some gorgeous sunrise light on the surrounding terrain as I climbed back down to the saddle between Ski Heil and Eagle Peaks and then back down into the shadow of Lassen Peak.
Here's a sunrise view of Brokeoff Mountain, which was ostensibly one of my goals for this second day:
And here I'm once again crossing the Ski Heil snowfield that leads down to the saddle:
If making my way down the boulder field and across the rocky meadow between the parking lot and Eagle Peak had been difficult the first time, it was much worse crossing it from the other direction, hungry, tired, and with the snow refrozen after the night underfoot. At one point, I found a fifteen-degree-or-so incline in the meadow so icy that I was unable to "scale" it without slipping and falling over and over again. I had to descend fifty feet or so and scramble up some rocks to find a way around it as it was literally impassible without crampons.
I chose to bypass the boulder field entirely, which added some distance and more on-ice travel to my trip. But, finally, I stood on top of the rise west of the trailhead, looking down at a parking lot that was significantly emptier than it had been when I'd left it late the previous afternoon.
But my car was there, which was all that mattered.
Once I crossed the parking lot, the terrain underfoot strange after an hour spent navigating uneven boulders and ice, I flopped down unceremoniously on the asphalt behind the car's back bumper. I just sat there for a moment, catching my breath, and then proceeded to prepare an actual breakfast.
My big target for the day was Brokeoff Mountain, the very same mountain I'd originally planned to climb during my aborted 2012 trip. It only tops out at 9,235 feet, but the approach, at three and a half miles, set me up for another seven miles of hiking and nearly five thousand more feet of elevation exchange. I was excited to do the hike mentally, but was a little worried about what my physical endurance was going to be like after the previous night's shenanigans.
That wasn't going to stop me, of course -- at least not yet -- but I was sure as hell going to eat a big chunk of my food reserves before taking it on.
So I did. For almost an hour I sat in the parking lot, alternating between reading a novel and scanning maps, slowly eating my way through a huge breakfast as the asphalt heated up in the light of the rising sun. At some point, the tourists started filing into the lot for the day, and I realized that I felt much less comfortable among them than I had the previous day. Maybe it was just my imagination, but passersby seemed less than thrilled with me sitting in the middle of the parking lot dirty, probably-smelly, and red-eyed, cooking a pot full of oatmeal directly on the asphalt, a buffet of fruit and breakfast bars laid out across my car's back bumper. The charitable part of me smiled and waved. The less-than-charitable part of me wanted to shout "You try spending all night getting blown off of a mountain you climbed without the aid of a trail and see how you look and smell!"
I didn't, though. Obviously.
Instead, I took the influx of visitors to mean that it was time to end my luxurious breakfast break and find a road less traveled. I stuffed most of my gear into the back of the car haphazardly, planning to sort through things once I reached the Brokeoff Mountain trailhead. First, though, it was time to briefly reenter the world of cars and highways.
I drove a few miles south and west along the winding park highway, cognizant of every dip in altitude the road presented: every foot lost on the road meant another foot I'd have to climb to the top of Brokeoff. Academically, of course, I already knew the trailhead elevation, but it was hard on morale to watch as the Lassen Peak trailhead rose behind me and my car dropped lower and lower below Brokeoff's summit: Brokeoff's trailhead was almost two thousand feet lower than Lassen's, and I would be gaining all that elevation back with my own two legs.
As it turned out, the trailhead was also rather unceremonious: it was more of a short asphalt strip extending from the shoulder of the highway than it was a developed location like Lassen's had been. I was thankful that I'd thought to use the pit toilets at the previous trailhead one last time before I'd driven away.
Shifting my gear around for what I assumed would be the final time, I prepped my daypack for a medium-length hike. Even loaded with water, an extra jacket, and some slightly unnecessary but fun accessories, the pack was noticeably lighter than my overnight pack had been. I might have been dragging energy-wise from the night before, but the relatively light load certainly helped.
I hit the trail.
The first thing that struck me about the Brokeoff Mountain trail was how much greener it was for being only a few miles away from the bone-dry lunar slopes of Lassen and the scrub-and-rock flanks of Eagle Peak. This was the view that greeted me almost as soon as I'd crossed the road from the car and joined up with the trail proper:
It would continue to be a trail chock full of trees, grasses, and high-altitude wildflowers for nearly its entire length. In retrospect, I'm sure this had something to do with the trail's paralleling the Forest Lake drainage. At the time, I just enjoyed the verdant scenery and kept my mind off of how leaden my legs felt.
At times, the wildflowers became so thick that the air was suffused with the smell of them:
It was an amazing and unexpected part of the hike, and I definitely remember it as fondly as the summit itself, if not more so.
Eventually, my surroundings dried out a bit as I hiked above Forest Lake, and the summit of Brokeoff came into view for the first time:
As I ascended, it became harder and harder to not think about how tired I was. Being able to see my goal seemingly right out in front of me made it frustrating and difficult to put up with the trail as it switched back and forth and then eventually passed to the side of the summit, leading to a portion of the ridgeline that could be surmounted only by yet more switchbacks.
I get the point of switchbacking trails, I really do, but when you're in the state of mind I was in at that point in the day, they can make you want to tear your hair out.
That said, eventually, inevitably, my boots ate up enough stone and dirt to bring me high enough on the mountain's northwest ridge to see the false summit. It wasn't very far from there.
At just under 9,000 feet, I was feeling the altitude much more than usual (I blamed the previous night's "sleep" for this), and so things got a little wobbly and a little headache-y as I neared the crest of the ridge. But I kept going, and was rewarded with a fantastic view of the area I'd come to know so intimately during the previous day's adventures.
In the distance, I could see the massive shoulder of Lassen Peak, complete with Vulcan's Eye staring me down. The ridgeline that spooled out in front of my eyes clearly led over the hump of Diamond Peak and back to Ski Heil and Eagle Peaks, now looking like tiny bumps of rock to my eyes.
I took in the summit for a few minutes, stopping for a brief snack and water break, but a large party of talkative hikers had taken up residency on the summit block before I'd arrived, and showed no signs of leaving any time soon. I didn't want to risk getting stuck behind them during my descent, though, so once I felt like I'd paid the top of Brokeoff Mountain its due, I commenced to speed back down the ridge.
There is a secondary highpoint along the mountain's ridge, and on a normal day I would have scrambled up the extra hundred-ish feet to get a better view back across the expanse to the main summit, but standing there at the base of the rise, I couldn't talk myself into it. I continued down.
For awhile, I descended in a bit of a haze, my tiredness really catching up with me as I retraced my recent path down the side of the ridge. Eventually, though, I caught a second wind after enjoying another long rest break with a gorgeous view back down the mountain to the surrounding forest:
The rest of the descent passed in a bit of a blur, and then I was back at the car.
I'd been awake since 6am and had just finished my first mountain of the day at 2pm. The Brokeoff hike had taken me much longer than I'd thought it would, and I certainly hadn't gained any energy along the way. I'd originally planned to try to hit a second peak before heading home, but with everything that had happened so far, my resolve was waning. Plus, I was lower on water reserves than I'd expected to be, and there wasn't a way to refill my water bottles that didn't involve a lot of driving through the park or melting snow: both time-consuming activities that would put me further behind schedule.
On the other hand, I'd been fawning over pictures of the park's Cinder Cone summit for two years...aaaand you see where this is going.
I got back in the car and pointed it at the Cinder Cone trailhead, even though my right leg didn't even really want to push the pedal down anymore.
In addition to all the aforementioned problems with this plan, the other problem was that accessing Cinder Cone's trail was going to take me a lot of driving, and thus a lot of time. I would have to drive back through the park the way I'd come in the day before, then head east on highway 44 away from the road I'd have to take back to K-Falls later that night, then drive a rough, undeveloped road for a few miles south to the Butte Lake campground.
I made it as far as the intersection between highways 89 and 44 (after an overly melodramatic good-bye to the park back at Manzanita Lake) before my doubts caught up to me.
I was far more worn out than I was used to already, and the summit of Cinder Cone was another four mile round-trip hike and a two thousand foot elevation exchange away. To top it off, the only trail to the summit was "made" of a loose bed of cinders, which meant that all the climbing would be of the "two steps forward, one step back" variety. I'd be lucky to get to the trailhead by 3:30pm, which meant that, conservatively, I'd be leaving the park between 6pm and 6:30pm, and be getting home by 10pm or so. I was a bit concerned with my ability to drive safely that late at night based on how tired I already was.
But, of course, there was also a mountain to climb. So.
I sat in the car, pulled off on the shoulder of highway 89, having already made the turn toward home but unwilling to commit to following through yet, for nearly a half-hour. The irony of wasting thirty minutes making a time-sensitive decision was not lost on me.
After a lot of head scratching, soul-searching, and yawning, what finally made up my mind was the thought of having to wait another year to come back to Lassen. I wanted to squeeze as much experience out of the park as I could, now, before it closed again early in the fall and remained inaccessible for most of the ensuing year.
I groaned, hauled the car through a u-turn, and headed back toward the park.
The drive took even longer than I'd thought it would, but packing for the hike at the trailhead was easy: this was the end, and all I had left was a CLIF bar and one water bottle anyway. I threw them into my small pack and hit the trail, feeling a little bit like Sam realizing that he and Frodo didn't actually need food for the return trip from Mordor. It was almost 4pm.
At first, the Cinder Cone trail paralleled an enormous old lava flow that reminded me of the area around South Sister in Oregon:
The trail surface was a mixture of sand and cinders, but though it was loose under my feet, it was also relatively flat and would have been easy going but for the things I'd already done to my legs over the past twenty-four or so hours. As the route led out of the well-populated Butte Creek campground, it was packed with weekend-warrior campers who were easily and lazily ambling along the terrain at a speed that seemed double mine. Each time the sun came out from behind the clouds to beat down on me, I felt like a punch-drunk boxer trying to find the way back to the center of the ring after being knocked down.
Then I came around a corner and got my first real glimpse of Cinder Cone, and I sped up involuntarily.
It was just so weird looking, it was irresistible. It was quite literally a cone of cinders. I knew this, of course, from reading about the park. But seeing a picture and seeing it in real life are two different things.
Like an eager mummy I lurched across the open area and got onto the summit trail, and then began to climb.
It was so bad.
As you can probably guess from the above picture, the terrain is incredibly loose. I've hiked the Lost Coast Trail, so I'm no stranger to hiking on sandy terrain, but at no point on that trail do you have to freaking climb nine hundred feet up on sand. The footsteps, hammered into the trail by the thousands of walkers who'd made their pilgrimages to Cinder Cone before me, actually made it worse. I was postholing in sand and cinders. Before long, I was climbing using rest steps as if I was at 13,000 feet or something. There were times when I'd only climb fifty feet before having to stop for yet another extended break. I may have set the record for the slowest ascent of Cinder Cone ever.
But, eventually, I made it to the top. And it was definitely worth it.
The rim of the caldera is uneven, so after topping out I still had to climb up another fifty feet or so to get to the highest point of the mountain, but then I had a great view across Cinder Cone's phenomenally weird summit.
Following the trail around the summit's rim, I was able to look back down over the edge and see others approaching via the Butte Creek trail:
An offshoot of the main trail clearly led down into the caldera to the cone's heart. I had some serious doubts at that point about my ability to find the energy to climb back out of the caldera, but I definitely wanted to climb into it. So I did.
At the bottom, past hikers had arranged a rock garden of cairns made of grey, brown, and orange (?!) volcanic rocks:
Climbing back out of the caldera (after a brief break to appreciate Vulcan's work) wasn't as bad as I'd feared. It was probably a one hundred foot gain, at most, and just involved a bit more rest-stepping and heavy breathing. I'd left my pack at the top of the rim, so I snagged it back as I topped out again.
As I circled around to the other side of the rim, I finally got a good look at what is possibly the most impressive part of this surreal landscape: The Painted Dunes.
I'd originally planned to descent the Cone the same way I'd ascended, but there appeared to be a "back door" route that ran right past The Dunes, and I couldn't bring myself to pass it up. It would add just a little more distance to the hike back to the car, but at this point I was beyond caring: I'd done so much in the last thirty hours that it was hard to imagine that this would be the thing that undid me.
So I descended the opposite side of the Cone, and had my first experience glissading on volcanic cinders. It probably would have seemed like more of a bigger deal had I not been dozing off and on by the time I reached the mountain's base.
The trail too-slowly circled around the bulk of Cinder Cone, and as it did, I was able to get a view of the face of the mountain, unbroken on this side by foot trails and adorned by one off-center tree that somehow managed to find a foothold just below the summit. I'd love to know that tree's story.
On this side of the Cone, a whole trail network opened up into the Dunes and the Lava Beds, and I made a mental note to come back and check them out some day. For now, though, I was done pushing my schedule, and my luck. I turned toward the Butte Creek campground and the car.
I was, unfortunately, not done pushing my body. It was an almost-flat hike for the two miles back from the base of Cinder Cone, but I absolutely felt every single small rise in the trail throughout my legs. It was one of the very few hikes I've done in my adult life where I had to take rest breaks on flat terrain because my legs had simply stopped working.
By the time I ambled back to where the trail came alongside the lava flows, the sunlight was slanting low out of the sky and I was absolutely beat. I staggered back into the Butte Lake campground, hoping I didn't look as bad as I felt.
Back at the car, I took a brief rest break, eating the last of my CLIF bars and enjoying a moment of stillness before beginning my long drive home. In the next parking spot over, some REI employees had set up an impromptu promotional kiosk in the time between I'd left for Cinder Cone and now. Snaking out behind it was a long line of recreational-looking types taking turns signing something and then getting little goody bags in return.
I'm an REI member, and so it crossed my mind to see what was going on, but after a moment's deliberation, I realized I'd feel more than a bit out of place in the line full of clean, energetic-looking, well-attired catalog models passing in front of me in my dirt-and-sweat-plastered two-day-old outfit. I walked awkwardly around the display on my way to the pit toilet, and then again on the way back. Then I got in the car and pointed it toward home.
I don't remember much of that drive all that well: I made it home safe, but I spent a lot of the next three hours in a bit of a daze, relying a mountain of caffeine purchased at a gas station off of highway 89 to keep myself awake. I spent a lot of the time thinking about what I'd just been through, and how my first trip to Lassen National Park had turned out to be even more of an adventure than I'd imagined, or hoped for.
All told, I'd climbed five mountains, each one beautiful and challenging in its own way. I'd ascended around 7,000 feet, and hiked something like twenty miles. And all over the course of thirty hours, with a little sleep crammed in there in the middle. I'd planned on this being a difficult and exhausting trip, but I hadn't expected it to test me as much as it had. On the backside of it now, though, as I drove north away from the park and toward home, that didn't seem like such a bad thing: I'd made it through safe and sound, and even the frustrating parts seemed much smaller now that they were (literally) in my rear-view mirror. My struggles with the wind, and the routefinding, and plain old exhaustion didn't seem nearly as important as the excitement of blasting up the side of Lassen, or the smell of Brokeoff Mountain's wildflowers, or the awe I'd felt at my first view of the Cinder Cone.
A little less than an hour after leaving the park, shortly before I'd lose sight of it completely, I got one last, solid look at Lassen Peak, the masthead of the park, rising up out of the valley behind me, the patches of snow on its flanks glowing in the dusky rays of the setting sun. I returned its erstwhile salute, already looking forward to a time next July or August when I'd be able to visit the park again, and discover new sights and new heights.
As the mountain disappeared below the horizon for the last time, I shifted my legs to ease the aching pain that was settling into them, and smiled as the first stars came out.
"Invincible gladness," indeed.