I don’t imagine I’ll be setting any speed ascent records or making notable first ascents in the alpine world in this life time but after a few years of regular mountain adventures, I’ve become pretty comfortable with a solid day out climbing. So, when the idea of a winter trip to Lassen Peak came up, I figured it would be no big deal. That’s not to say we took it lightly — there was plenty of research, prep, all the usual steps but with under 4,000′ of climbing, I figured we would just crush it. If only things were so simple…
Welcome to Lassen Peak, Winter Style
In summer, Lassen Peak (in Lassen National Park of course) is a great and very much moderate objective. With the trailhead located around 8,500′, the climb to the 10,457′ summit is only about 2,000 vertical-feet over around 2.5 miles each way on a phenomenally built up trail of switchbacks. It’s a fun outing and a great way to hike a cascade volcano… in half a day (Lassen Peak in summer.)
Winter is another world all together. For about half of the year, the park is covered in an incredible amount of snow and all but the very entrance areas are closed to vehicles. This makes Lassen perfect for an adventure but also means that getting just about anywhere is a walk — a very long walk. Just to to reach the “trailhead” we’re talking about a 6 miles trek along the road (there are some shortcuts which I’ll get into a bit) and that’s each way. Once there, the fun summer trail to the top is likely buried many feet below the snowy surface requiring a non-technical but definitely alpine style climb pretty much directly up the mountainside.
As such it should really be no surprise that the winter climb of Lassen Peak is usually done over a couple days to allow for a reasonable approach, time to climb the mountain its self and return back to the car. Of course, we figured we should go for it all in a day.
Reaching Lassen Peak in the Snow
This year has had a fairly pitiful amount of snow which is less than ideal for climbing but we hoped it would mean a little dirt on the road to let is pick up the pace. Still, with winter hours, we hit the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center (elevation 6,707′) just after sunrise and after a quick stop at the restrooms (I’m talking real bathrooms with running water, heat and they’re open all night!), we hit the road to start the slog up.
In hindsight, our departure was likely not early enough. With a mix of snow and dirt on the ground at first we were able to make good time along the early part of the route but that would not last forever sadly. It’s only about a mile from the visitor center to the Sulphur Works Hydrothermal Area which is also about where the snow starts in earnest this season. Thanks to the cold temps from the night before, we were able to save putting on the snowshoes until nearly halfway up the road though from that point on, they only came off for upper mountain crampon use and glissading on the return.
Walking the road is an ardeous process even if the view is stunning. Every extra turn or loop to navigate the mountain terrain feels like wasted effort and thankfully there are a few shortcuts to kill some of those nasty loops. However, the big cut we were hoping to make around Diamond Peak (you’ll likely see this on many tracks) did not seem all that feasible in the low snow conditions — obviously we had no interest in impacting the fragile landscape and especially the hydrothermal terrain (much less stepping into some boiling stream.)
The plus side of the road is of course that it’s about as straight forward to follow and mellow graded as it gets. Step after step, in two hours we found ourselves standing near Helen Lake and not long after that, looking down on the couple feet of the trailhead bathrooms that are not yet covered in by the snow (pro tip: while there are some good cuts around loops on the road, trying to route find a way to cut larger parts off without climbing up and down hills needlessly is not productive — the road works.)
The climb to the top (well, most of it)
Reaching the base of Lassen Peak is all of 1,800′ into the total climb (~4,000′ with a few ups and downs) and yet with plenty of miles already under our feet, it felt like we had already done a lot more than that. Whatever, it was time for the fun stuff!
The hardest part of the winter route up may be the first slope actually. In summer, the trailhead gradually across the terrain with a very long single switchback but in winter that’s many, many feet under the snow. We elected to directly ascend this and while the snow was soft enough to avoid having to gear up, the incline was certainly at the edge of what I’d want to have snowshoes on for (kudos to MSR for making such a badass product in the Lightening Ascent.) From the trek down, I can now tell you that there’s a much more reasonable start to be found just a little further up the road where the hill is tamer.
After topping out on that first hill (and catching our breath), the low snow level left a few signs of where the summer route usually would be but with too much powder to warrant following. Like the few people to climb before us, we continued directly on up while the summer switchbacks marked the generally route making for a fast but tiring pace. There is nothing too crazy along the climb but the higher you go, the more exposed the route becomes with increasing dropoffs around. Eventually that meant ditching the snowshoes (a bummer as things were pretty soft) and dawning crampons to climb some of the more narrow featured. It was nothing crazy with the soft snow to kick into but with an ice layer, things would be a lot more sporty.
1,500′ into the climb, there are some great rock formations which serve as a nice rest stop in summer and became a much needed wind break for us. From our prep, we knew a storm was due to hit late evening but as we moved higher up on the mountain in the now late morning hours, the winds for it really started to roll in with gusts strong enough to start pushing us around.
Finally, after a few solid gusts, clouds starting to form around the peak, and the snow continuing to soften up under our feet, we decided to call the climb perhaps 400′ under the summit ridge. I’m sure we could have continued and been fine but we just couldn’t see the value in pushing that luck factor — we already had a great view, more than our fill of snow, and it’s a peak I’ve seen the top of before. Tempting as it can be to just keep going, the mountain certainly makes it own rules (and it’s own storms.)
The evil slog out (don’t underestimate the mountain)
A quick down climb and a few glissade runs, we were back to the summer trailhead in no time at all and ready to walk out. That’s when reality kicked in and it became clear just how smart bailing had actually been.
Pushing hard for a day is something I like. However, we had slogged up with “training packs” in advance of the spring season so while we didn’t plan an overnighter to rest at, we had the gear as if we had (I mean if things had got bad, better to have a full camp setup, right?) With many miles ahead of us, those packs suddenly felt a whole lot heavier. The boots a lot less nice on the feet. The snow which had been ok in the morning was increasingly soft. With every step becoming works 6 miles suddenly seemed like a lot.
On the Mount St. Helens winter route, there’s about 2 miles of hiking through the treeline where you’re not doing much. After a long day of climbing, it always drives me a little nuts and this was 3 times as long. By mile 3, everything was just about getting back to the car and getting the pack off. Of course the view was still great, things working fine and we beat the storm but it was a rough walk and a great reminder that while a day can seem well within reach, that doesn’t mean its easy! Next time, skis for the way down — which means learning how to ski properly I suppose.
Quick facts about the winter trail:
- Route: Out and Back
- Official Rating: Difficult
- Start point: Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center
- Distance: 15+ miles roundtrip
- Duration: 2-3 days
- Climb: ~4,000′
- Facilities: Restrooms only
- Water: None on the trail!
- Crowds: Light
- Cost: $20 to enter the park or an NPS annual pass
- Permits: Self issued permits required for overnight stays (free)