Raphael bagged his second summit today: Lassen Peak, 10,457 feet. At ten months old, he’s a stronger hiker than I am — he didn’t even break a sweat. In fact I think he slept most of the way to the top.
The Lassen Peak Trail, as seen from the parking lot, is a laughably steep ascent straight up the mountainside. It’s enough to make the backcountry virgins keep their factory-fresh trekking poles safely out of sight in the cargo area of the “Eddie Bauer”-edition Explorer as they mull over their Starbuck’s and pretend they never planned to climb this mountain in the first place, and by the way isn’t there a nice paved interpretive trail around that lake by the park entrance?
I’m an experienced hiker, and I have to admit I was wondering how I’d get up this hill. That can’t be the trail, I thought. But looking left and right, I didn’t see a turnoff. Straight up is the only visible way.
At the point where a steep ascent would become a four-limbed scramble (or maybe eight-limbed in my case), I was relieved to see a switchback, invisible from below. The not-trail ahead of me was, according to a sign, the scar from past hikers taking shortcuts down the mountain. The sign didn’t mention that those particular shortcutters had to have been sliding out of control, “ass over tin cup” as my dad used to say. I mean, there’s no climbing down, much less up that hill; it was about a 45 degree angle. So I stowed my JATO bottles back in the lumbar pack and trudged around the corner.
Raphael collected comments from other hikers, as usual. “That’s quite a load,” said one guy, nodding at the baby carrier. “Yes, but it’s not a problem,” I panted, “we’re taking turns. He’ll carry me back down.” (Remember, the laughs come easier when the air is thin.)
The trail afforded increasingly great views of Lake Helen as well as occasional shots of the trailhead parking lot. (Which reminded me of the Hidden Canyon hike at Zion National Park, the most recent time I was able to see my car from 1000+ feet above.) It was well-maintained, clearly marked, and the signage was first-rate — color photographs, intelligently designed infographics, and informative text described interesting geological formations all around the trail.
The climb is a challenge. The elevation gain is just short of 2000 feet, over a roughly 2.5-mile trail, which averages out to a 15% grade. If you’re in good shape and you’re not carrying part of your family, you could reach the summit in about 65 minutes. I think I took about 90, putting me ahead of my Pike’s Peak ascent rate, although not by much. This was the first hike since Pike’s that I felt I really had to work at, evidence of spending too many hours in the studio and not enough on the treadmill.
The trail ends in a clearing with more signs and panoramic views of the park — and, on clear days, a view of Mount Shasta, 75 miles away. Most hikers stop here, as it’s a natural place to congregate. I appreciate that the NPS hasn’t built a gift shop here.
But the true summit is about 100 yards further on. There isn’t much of a trail, just a well-worn path across the ice field and around the backside of the peak. After that I lost track of it and ended up scrambling straight up the talus. From below it was a disheartening climb because the people at the top looked so small. Five minutes later, as I crested the peak, I realized the people were small because they were 11 years old.
There’s a solar-powered weather station up there, and not much else, except for the sense of achievement of finally finished the climb — by which I mean, there is literally nowhere to go but down — and the pleasure of having left 80% of the tourists behind at the end of the trail.
See more pictures in my Lassen Volcanic National Park picture gallery.