Sunday, April 19, 2009

Snowboarding Lassen Peak, Northeast Face

Driving east on highway 44 towards Lassen Volcanic National Park, I closely watch the thermometer in my car as the temperature drops: 48, 47, 46, ... For decent snow stability, I wish it reaches something close to 30 and it does, before I pull into the parking lot for the devastated area around 4 am. Reason for the devastation is that less than a hundred years ago, Mt. Lassen decided to explode, creating a particularly impressive mess here.

There are two other cars, one with fogged up windows and another one with sleeping bags in front of the hood. I get my gear ready and register as a lonely snow traveler with the little book next to the closed road sign. I don't have a GPS, just a map and a compass, so I start traveling south on the closed road, and shortly after a sharp left turn I see the markings for a pedestrian crossing on the pavement. The snow depth is around 60 inches here, so the sign for the trailhead sticks out.

I look around for tracks or markings. Someone strolling to the nearby lake and back, but nothing on the trail to Paradise Meadows, which is well buried and therefore invisible. I consult map, compass, lake, creek, terrain, and set off in the general direction of the buried trail. After a while I start noticing tracks, and follow them for a bit. Someone must have walked around erratically and then crossed the creek. Hmmm, that's an interesting crossing, they must have gotten wet (imagine a rushing creek that's a little too wide to jump with 2 ft of icy snow piled up on either side). I look closer and realize that these tracks belong to a bear and compare their size with my snowboard boots.

Relieved that no other human is around, I carry on.

The rising sun illuminates a beautiful winter landscape.


My intent is to follow the Paradise Meadows trail, and then the road from there to the summer trail, which traverses up the south west ridge. However, with the trail completely hidden and various creek forks this is not trivial, so following the path of least resistance I travel closer to the mountain. Near the south east rocks of Lassen, the trees thin out.

Having studied the terrain in Google Earth before, I know that I am north of a cliff that faces the mountain, and assume that the easiest way to cross it or avoid it is to stay close to the mountain from here on. So, I navigate mostly by sight, drifting west as I skin up the slopes near the south east corner of the mountain. I'm a bit concerned about rock fall here, so I keep my eyes on the slopes above me, stick to the wide open areas (the snow is softening but still very stable), and try to take my brief breaks with big rocks or trees shielding me from what's above.

As the terrain steepens I add the ski crampons and then eventually switch to crampons on my snowboard boots, with the splitty strapped to my pack. Good thing the crampons arrived in the mail on Friday. I notice the extra weight and the higher center of gravity. A little ways into that, I can see the big cliff band to the south, and then other mountains, including one with a sweet looking huge open bowl. Perhaps Reading Peak.

Looking at the slopes around me, I am grateful I made it here. There are no tracks except mine, and plenty of fun stuff to ride. I could sail from here, over the mellow part of the cornice below into that big bowl, for example. Man is the slope steep - and why does it keep steepening? It's a volcano - remember - they tend to steepen towards the top, so steepness is a sign of progress. Are you sure it doesn't just end with a 20 ft cliff?? - the map tells you what's steep, but never mind what's rock and what's snow ... well - if there was a cliff above the steepening slope you should see it by now - but there's just snow and sky. I have all sorts of thoughts as I drag myself, the splitty, some water, two bars of 91% dark chocolate, and a bunch of less important items further up the slope. The snow is still firm enough so there is no safety excuse for turning around here.

Ah. The devastated area with shiny white Mt. Shasta on the horizon.

Whoohoo! I've gained the southeast ridge. The summit is now in clear line of sight, as is the northeast face below it. And there are humans, two of them, very slowly moving up the slope.

What follows sends my heart rate up a bit. First, it's an easy walk on the ridge line toward the summit. But there are at least two ways from here to the top - either up the northeast face where the skiers are, or around the rocks and up the slope on the south side. I decide to follow the skiers, because (1) their perfectly straight lines up this slope indicate that they might know what they're doing (2) I see them kicking their boots into the slope - it's reasonably firm snow as opposed to the corn on the south side (3) I can reuse the steps they kick in and I'm wearing crampons. The pitch is 50 degrees and my pack is heavy, so even with all these benefits considered I get a little nervous and after a stretch of the northeast face, I scramble over the rocks to the south side. As expected, the warm rocks around the narrow little south chute have made the snow slushy here - but by holding onto the rocks the scramble up to the summit is pretty easy. So, given the choice again and reasonably stable snow, I'd go with the little chute. After taking a good rest and sharing chocolate with the skiers, I have my summit picture taken.

360 degrees from the top. Next to the little communications tower, two skiers are getting ready to descend. My snowboard is the only one at the summit (leaning on the tower). In the center of the picture is the devastated area.

I reconsider my plans for the descent. The 50 degree north east slope looks awesome - it's wide open, the snow is great, and it mellows out to 40 degrees or so after the first few turns. As the skiers take their turns I observe no significant sluffs, just snow getting sprayed around. No scratching noise. Besides, I poked around in this snow on the way up just a little while ago. And the south side is pretty slushy by now - not dangerously slushy yet, but slow for sure. I'm sold on the north east face.

This slope demands focus - remember that you just came up here and haven't been riding or skiing for a week, and just for its steepness this one gets a diamond or two. So, whatever it is you're tightening before the ride you want to dial it in perfectly. Off we go. I mess up my second turn a bit due to a mild cramping of my leg, which results in me sliding for a bit, but nothing dangerous - no way I'd want to loose my edge on this one. The cramping isn't really surprising after the ascent but still not the best moment to have it happen, perhaps I should have done some gymnastic moves or massaging at the top to loosen things up. For now, I just take it easy and cruise over to the north facing slope to my right, below the ridge I hiked earlier (the little cornice you saw in that earlier picture). The snow is even better here than at the steep section because it had even less sunshine. OK, let's serenade for a bit: Since it probably never melted and refroze - I think this qualifies as settled powder - somewhat firm but not hopeless. And it also has the characteristic little patterns from the wind. And it's not like I have to dig out this last bit of pow from underneath a tree in Kirkwood or from a chute that nobody bothers to ride in Killebrew canyon - it's an open, untouched snowfield with a perfect pitch that goes on for 1000-2000 ft, easily. No regrets here.

I follow the ski tracks the two friendly skiers left me through the devastated area, then push with the poles for roughly 5 minutes, and eventually split my board for another 10 minutes. I arrive at the car at 2pm.

After this run, I look back up the mountain, which is miles away, and I can spot some of the turns I made on the big open snowfield to the left of the main drain with the naked eye.

A longer lens from the same parking lot shows every turn. Not elegant or macho or fast, but super fun for sure, and it feels good.

The track from my Android phone. The line from the top is messed up, probably because the initial drop is fairly quick so the phone got excited. The rest seems accurate.

View Lassen Peak in a larger map

Seasonal flowers along highway 44 on the way back.

In the central valley, the temperature sensor in my car reports 90 degrees.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your blow by blow and pictures of your adventure!! Gotta love living in a place where you can snowboard and be in summer-like heat less than an hour later.

  2. Great detailed account - thanks for sharing. And for the map, too. Thinking about a mid-June descent of the NE face if there's still enough snow up there. Cheers!

  3. Rachael and Stuart, thanks for the nice comments. Searching for this on Flickr tells me that the coverage on the NE face was still pretty good last weekend (obviously you'll need to examine the safety of the snow yourself etc.). After your descent you'd probably walk ~2 miles through the devastated area to the parking lot. With the park road open and a car on either side this could be well worth the trip. :-) Have fun!

  4. Noticed your report while doing research for a December SW snowshoe ascent. Some great pictures, here. Looks like you had a lot of fun!