Lassen Volcanic National Park: An unassuming winter backcountry destination
By Dave Zook
The Cascade Range, with the Goliaths of Shasta and Rainier — as well as the lesser visited peaks such as Lassen and McLoughlin — are known largely for their incredible spring and summer corn skiing bounty.
In our “special” winter of 2014-15 I discovered the terrain in Lassen Volcanic National Park to be an enticing, easy, and affordable mid-winter escape from the lean conditions at Tahoe.
Lassen, the southernmost active volcano in the Cascades, is not so far from Tahoe to see entirely different snow conditions, but the area did receive a few storms that Tahoe missed, and packed on enough actual snow to create a legitimate base.
Skiing the 10,457-foot Lassen proper in the winter is only for the strongest of the strong as the highway that leads to its base stays closed off until summer. Still, there is a large playground of mellow bowls, tree skiing, and on up to rappel-required couloir entrances all within a day’s hike from Highway 89’s southern terminus at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. This called for exploration as the area is only three hours from our homes in North Lake Tahoe.
Round 1: The All-day affair
I left Tahoe City in the pitch-black cold on Superbowl Sunday 2015 with friends Hazen and Spencer. Arriving at the visitor center, we thought that 9,087-foot Mt. Diller, a broad bowl that looked pretty sweet on Google Earth, was to be our loose objective. We wanted to avoid anything steep or technical, as the low tide snowpack was a limiting factor. Plus it hadn’t snowed for a few weeks and the north facing aspects were barely softening in the short days, producing the infuriating catch-22 where the aspects that caught the sun, and were soft, were baked off to almost nothing, and the shade-protected zones that had snow were rock hard.
We skinned up the unplowed road that continues toward Lassen. A steamy waft of rotten eggs blew our way as we neared a fumarole, a steam vents in the planet’s crust. We turned left just before it and followed an old skintrack through dense evergreens. Pine needles, sticks, and gloppy snow made the travel slow, but the woods opened up into the Ridge Lakes area, and we became almost surrounded by a bending ridgeline and a handful of attractive lines.
“Future camping spot?” said Hazen, as the flat swath of land was only a 30-minute hike from the road. Diller stood to our north, an unknown peak beckoned straight ahead from our skintrack, and Brokeoff Mountain loomed to the south.
Intrigued by the unknown peak, we ascended via its southern ridge, a moody grey sky lingering. Whapping our poles over the cornice on the way up revealed a firm layer on the lines we hoped to ride.
“Those were pretty…OK turns!” said Spencer. We couldn’t lie about epic snow or creative terrain, but we were trying to harvest some corn turns in volcano country, which seemed better than watching Tom Brady wear spandex.
We then bootpacked straight up Diller after skinning the bottom half. The sun had returned and it became soft fast. We transitioned awkwardly on some exposed dirt as there wasn’t much of a bench to rest on and made some more half-decent turns with the sun shining bright. Two lines down and about 17 more scoped out, we called the day a success.
Round 2: RV Life is the Right Life
Two weeks later I drove back to Lassen to meet Hazen, who arrived the day before with his camper and friends Katie, Rachel and Shannon. An enormous storm had just walloped most of California and made some tremendous precipitation deposits, but the snow level was obnoxiously high for most California peaks, and it rained a ton almost everywhere. Nevertheless, we had a camper, a lot of beer and goldfish snacks, and a fair amount of bacon and avocadoes, so the level of concern was very low.
The next morning we skinned toward Brokeoff Mountain and saw some east-facing lines that passed through a cliff band and looked potentially threadable. Upon closer inspection they were a little too bare and we would risk broken gear or bones, so we passed, but logged it in the mind’s eye.
Not to be dissuaded, the north aspect’s shoulder (the summit was a confluence of huge vertical craggy rock) had some short and tricky lines. But an attempt to gain the ridge was thwarted by a steep twenty-foot section of ice that didn’t budge after trying to kick in a bootpack.
Continuing to not be dissuaded, though perhaps a tinge frustrated, Hazen, Shannon and myself (the girls took off in the morning after a short run) lapped a few mellow lines in the pocket that came off the imposing rock face. The big lines looked like they might fill on a big winter and gave us another reason to return.
I doubt we felt collectively sated by the skiing action but we were highly piqued by what was on offer. We took a long run from the ridge to the car, starting with some wide-open slushy turns.
Then we found a surprise redemption in the lower portion of the run. The low snow had sculpted a consortium of natural low-angle bowls like those found in a skatepark. We blasted through about 15 slashes, hacks and small airs, laughing at our surprise terrain. Our minds were already thinking of cold brewskis as we stumbled into our most exciting turns of either trip.
We de-booted and had a few in the parking lot. An old-timer who was a fellow RV enthusiast came over and spoke of riding chairlifts at Lassen when a small ski area was operated from 1982 to 1993. He talked of the finer points of pop-up campers and interspersed info about several peaks and lines we didn’t know were around. Life was good and we knew we would be back.
Low Snow, High Fun
Winter has always been a guessing game, and now in California, it has been taken to a whole new level. But even the last few winters have been defined by low snow, not no snow, so there are still options. Of course we are hoping for the whopper of all winters to hit this year, but if not, call around the nearby ranger stations in the area to see if the base is any higher in nearby areas. And for resorts, the amount of snow making capabilities in California has skyrocketed as of late, so you can get some sliding in guaranteed. Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe has one of the most sophisticated snowmaking systems in the nation, and man-made snow can cover 73 percent of the mountain’s 4,800 acres, and Snow Summit and Bear Mountain in southern California, albeit a lot smaller mountains, can cover 100% of its developed terrain with its snow guns. No excuses!