Lassen Peak offers some of Northern California’s finest backcountry skiing. Located at the southern extremity of the spectacular Cascade Range, Lassen Peak is notorious for heavy snowfall. Its proximity, combined with a relatively high elevation, equates to a long season and great Spring skiing. As the Lassen Loop Road is not plowed in Winter, the approach this time of year is a long one and may warrant a multi-day trip. In the Spring, the National Park Service begins to plow the road, with the intention of having it completely opened by Memorial Week-End. With the enormity of the task, the clearing process happens incrementally, over a period of weeks, and is dependent on weather. The Park Service starts at the Manzanita Lake Entrance Station and plows south to the Devastated Area (9.3 miles). Then they move their equipment to the Southwest Entrance and work north, over the pass (8500 feet), to the Devastated Area.
Once the Summit Trail parking area is accessible, you have a number of options for skiing Lassen Peak. You can climb the 2.3 mile trail to the summit and ski the Southeast Face back to the parking lot, or you can arrange to leave a shuttle vehicle at the Devastated Area and ski the Northeast Face for a 4000 foot descent–this, after just a 2000 foot climb! This run requires additional commitment and higher level of ability, as the top 1000 feet is rated Advanced (Black Diamond). Below an elevation of 9000 feet, the skiing is rated Intermediate. Diehards can easily do laps, though a second run requires the additional logistics of placing still another vehicle at the Devastated Area parking lot, or arranging a ride with new-found friends.
The Spring corn on Lassen Peak is legendary. For me, Spring skiing is the proverbial icing on the cake. One should always be prepared. That includes expecting the unexpected. Bluebird days do not preclude the possibility of avalanches. As temperatures warm and the snow becomes saturated with water, weak layers can release wet slides. Climb early and descend early. Check weather conditions and assess the snow. If snow stability is suspect, turn around or choose a safe alternative route. Carry a beacon, probe, and shovel, and know how to use your gear. At times, an ice axe and crampons may be required. On a mid-May ascent of Lassen Peak via the Summit Trail, a friend and myself encountered a 100-foot wide patch of glazed ice on a steep, shaded hillside. As we were skinning up on tele-gear, we dug our edges into the ice and prayed. It was one step at a time–one ski placed safely in front of the other. To fall here would have meant an uncontrolled 300-foot slide with potentially serious consequences. Recounting the incident years later, my friend described the experience as “…f*cking scary.”
Being prepared includes a level of physical fitness. While the Summit Trail is only 2.3 miles, it maintains a fairly consistent 15 percent grade. With skis and the necessary accompanying gear, this moderate hike requires extra exertion. Also, physical fitness allows for more laps, faster laps, which means more skiing.
Bring your camera, as the summit plateau offers striking aesthetics, and the panoramic view from the top is one of the finest anywhere. Lassen Volcanic National Park provides an abundance of opportunity to ski world-class terrain. Brokeoff Mountain, at the south end of the Park, is accessible year-round. Chaos Crags is a relatively short hike from the Manzanita Lake Entrance Station at the north end, and guarantees exhilarating skiing in a spectacular setting. Many excellent guide books offer trip information to several destinations within Lassen Park. Check out 50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California, by Paul Richins, Jr. (The Mountaineers, Seattle). This guide also includes four very worthwhile trips on Mount Shasta.
For more information on Lassen Peak and current conditions, visit the Lassen Volcanic National Park website.
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Safe skiing!! Until next time, happy image-making…