What’s the old saying...when life gives you lemons, make lemonade? That's the phrase that comes to mind when I think about the last two winters in California.
Each year I look forward to carving out some time to schedule backcountry trips with my ski partner, Aron. We typically aim for late winter/early spring, as this transition period offers longer days, generally moderate snow pack, and often stable conditions: the perfect recipe for a good backcountry adventure. These last few winters have been tougher to work with, however. Four years of drought and record low snowpack has justifiably spun many Californian skiers/riders into a drought-induced panic. Some threw in the towel on winter months ago.
So what is all this talk of lemonade you may be asking? Well, California is a big state, and with a bit of searching, a diligent eye on the weather, and a willingness to explore a bit further down the road, good conditions can still be found. Even the leanest of snow years, as we have been discovering, can provide.
A recent trip to our local haunts in the Tahoe basin reaffirmed our concerns that this year was looking worse than last. It was time to get resourceful. We had a hunch Lassen would be a good starting point, as the area nearly always seems to pull in more snow than elsewhere in California, even during meager years. Some pre-trip research revealed that a special road, typically closed through late spring, was partially open through winter this year. So we packed up the ski van, headed north to Lassen Volcanic National Park, and set out to make lemonade.
Highway 89 winds through Lassen Volcanic National Park in spectacular fashion. It boasts the highest road in the Cascade Range. Each year as the snow creeps in, the park road closes at the Manzanita Lake entrance. Typically it doesn't reopen until June when it grants drivers and visitors full access to the park. Due to the lack of snow at lower elevations this year, however, the park road was open to the Devastated Area.
The Devastated Area, one of the major features for which the park was created, is a large swath of land covered in spewed ash, volcanic boulders, and deposited mud. A series of eruptions during 1914 and 1915 created these features that dominate the landscape to this day. It also happens to be a great access point for skiing the broad northeast face of 10,457-foot Lassen Peak.
Initially, our main objective was to ski off the summit of Lassen Peak, or the summit ridge, down the volcano's broad northeast face. We knew we had a couple of days of high pressure and light wind ahead of us. As it turns out, we never did officially summit during our trip. But we did have three of our most memorable backcountry days this season - what we're calling Lassen lemonade. Below is a day-by-day account of that experience.
We had arrived at our destination, the Devastated Area parking lot on Lassen's north side, the night before. Following a good night of sleep we awoke for our first day of touring with the intent to reach the summit ridge by noon. The hike to the northeast face began by meandering through a young stunted forest, a walk we would do two more times and become intimately familiar with. Ash deposits from the eruptions a century ago left little for the forest to nourish from. The western white pine, lodgepole pine, and mountain hemlock within this patch remain strangely small compared to their undisturbed brethren nearby.
The trees thinned as we gained elevation, and an unobstructed Lassen Peak came into view. With the morning alpenglow lighting up the mountain, we settled into a pace and continued up the Lassen's lower slopes through lava-formed gullies en route to the north ridge, our intended route for the summit. As we continued, aiming for the saddle between Crescent Crater and the North Ridge, the terrain became significantly steeper. Soon we were breaking to switch over to crampons and ice axes. The north ridge was quite a bit steeper than it looked from the parking lot.
With heart rates high we climbed at a steady pace but could feel the day moving on. The steep pitch of the north ridge took longer to climb than expected and soon we realized if we kept pushing for the summit our descent could well be in the afternoon shade. Climbing for a quality descent on soft corn snow, we were far from excited about the prospect of punchy, frozen snow we knew would set up with shade. As we gained elevation we also noticed that the snow that was consolidated on the lower ridge was less so higher up. Due to warmer daytime temps and little recent snowfall, we were anticipating freeze-thaw corn conditions, but we found heavier unconsolidated powder higher up.
With safety in mind, we chose to reconsider our summit ridge objective and drop in off the shoulder of the north ridge into a northeast facing bowl at an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet. The bowl looked to be holding quality snow, and it had been protected from wind scouring. We identified safety stops along the descent and readied for the down. After a ski cut and easing into some soft turns we felt confident in descending the gut. As it turns out this more easterly aspect was holding not just good, but fantastic snow. We had made the trip to Lassen in search of higher elevation corn. Much to our delight, we found chalky powder reserves and fresh tracks instead.
Tired from the previous day's climb, the alarm seemed to go off extra early. Daylight savings had begun overnight, pushing the clock forward an hour. We were groggy but excited to have gained an hour of light and a jump on the day. For Day 2 we decided to head out on an exploratory tour around the southeast side of Lassen. We thought we might hit the Lassen Peak summer hiking trail and perhaps give the summit another go by way of that route.
Once again we weaved our way through the stunted forest, this time in early dawn light. Upon reaching the tree line we headed for the southeast aspect. We hit increasingly steep terrain and began a long traverse across a broad slope. The chutes that loomed above us conjured up fantasies of future objectives on the mountain.
The day had a stronger sun about it and temps were warming up quickly. After tackling the traverse we found shade in small stands of subalpine fir and discussed our game plan. The slopes above us steepened significantly into a series of parallel chutes and became an entire face of enticing lines that we were seeing for the first time. We donned crampons and ice axes and began our ascent. Confident in the stability of this south facing snow, we navigated between anchor points up through a chute. As the day wore on the sun grew warmer and we could feel the corn setting up under our feet. It was nearing the ideal drop-in time for these southeasterly facing aspects.
We had climbed to 9,800 feet as we neared the top of our respective chute, and we were separated from the summer summit trail by a large canyon. The day was heating up. We decided it was in our best interest to avoid the risk of wet slides and to descend the steep chute we stood upon, maximizing the velvet corn setting up around us.
We leapfrogged our way down the steep sun-kissed chutes for a few thousand feet. Wave-like banks of snow flowed out from the edges of the chute making for some playful turns. At the bottom we began our traverse back around to the northeast face. Before entering the tree line we paused for a snack. The summit ridge still taunted us, glistening in the last few minutes of sun before shadows began to creep in. With one more high pressure day ahead of us we decided we would give the summit ridge another shot by ascending the north ridge once again the following day.
Our third and final day began again with tired legs. Although we were fatigued, we were feeling acclimated, rested, and invigorated by the prospect of a new descent line. Upon starting out we were once again graced with views of the northeast face and a beautiful waning full moon setting over our ascent line. After a swift trip up through the lower gullies and we were soon putting on crampons and again hoofing it up the steep north ridge.
One of the welcomed parts of climbing the north ridge for a second time was again seeing the views. Mount Shasta dominates the northern horizon across a vast stretch of conifer forest that blankets a volcanic landscape dotted by cinder cones. From that vantage one can imagine how volcanic events of the past created the dramatic landscape we had come to ski.
Soon we reached our drop-in point from Day 1. Things were looking up, as we had plenty of mid-day hours left to reach the summit ridge and we were both feeling strong. Skirting between rocks and ice we made our last push up the north ridge, navigating around fumaroles and gaining the ridge at 10,350 feet.
After a quick assessment of terrain we determined we were standing above an aesthetic hourglass shaped line that funneled into a steep chute. We couldn’t see past the chute's choke, indicating it was likely around 45 degrees. We knew the line from analyzing it over the last couple days and had both been eyeing it from the parking lot. We decided this was to be our descent, selected a safe drop-in point, and began to prepare for the descent.
Aron was the first to drop, ski cutting his way across the top of the chute confirming our confidence in the stability and opening the door to a few thousand feet of steep turns. He reached the his safety stop and it was my turn to drop. The snow was chalky and there was softer snow up high in the bowl and through the chute, and this opened to a sun-kissed east facing aspect that held perfect corn snow down below. The turns were fast, fun and steep--so steep that my heel edge turns had to be swift and nimble to keep from slipping through the throat of the chute.
High fives and hugs commenced at the bottom while we gazed back up at the line. As we stood there discussing the descent, we noticed that it closely resembled the shape of a martini glass with the current snow pack. But not just any martini... I was quite dirty from taking a little spill while hiking through ash and scree to access the line. This coupled with a constant smell of sulfur that was venting from the fumaroles near the top of the bowl left us thinking that "Dirty Martini" was much more fitting. Thus the name Dirty Martini Chute was borne.
While we didn't stand on the summit pinnacle of Lassen this trip, we felt like each day transpired as it was meant to. We made prudent decisions and got to explore an entirely new side of the mountain. A rule of thumb for staying safe in the backcountry is that you have to remain flexible in the mountains and not get too fixated on a single objective. Each day we rode a great line conservatively. We were blessed with high pressure, which gave us cold clear nights and warm sunny days. Great conversations were shared apres-style in the parking lot with fellow backcountry enthusiasts and curious onlookers enjoying the park from their cars. We even managed to fit in a side trip to explore a lava tube cave one evening. It was a very productive and rewarding three days at Lassen. As the high pressure weakened and our sore legs told us to it was time for a rest, we left the park smiling, happy, and content with our refreshing drink of Lassen lemonade.