100 Peaks #2: Lassen Peak, Dehydration, and Gold Rush Optimism

I’m writing about 100 somewhat arbitrary mountains in the northwest, as I climb them and decide they are interesting. Here’s the list.

Lassen Peak in the summer is another seemingly underappreciated National Park (that I had never heard of). It’s got a short hike to the summit and a visitor center with the video about volcanoes and devastation we’ve all seen, some black and white photos of smoke pouring out and an explanation of the different types of volcanoes. In the winter, though, it’s a largely untouched place of snow and ice and quiet. Even more surprising than the winter solitude in this national park is the bizarre origin of its name.

The mountain’s namesake was far more deadly than its most recent eruption. Peter Lassen, a Danish blacksmith and prospector, made a trail as a “cutoff” to the California Trail that settlers took to find gold. Hoping to profit, he directed a trail past his own establishments and put up signs claiming it was a shorter route West– only 110 miles. In reality, it was over 200 miles longer than other routes. “The suffering of those choosing the Lassen cutoff was severe” because many hadn’t packed enough food for the true length of the journey, the route was almost totally devoid of water sources, and people and pack animals alike died in the road, leaving their corpses for the next group to step over.

While our route seemed to be about as long as the map advertised (and easier than trip reports made it out to be), I did also let my own optimism lead me to dehydration. Even though the peak is over 10,000 ft tall, I’d never felt anything like altitude sickness at that elevation, so I basically ignored the possibility. Hoping to test out some winter camping stuff, we hiked several miles of the snowshoe approach in the last couple of hours of daylight left after the drive to the park. Then we set up camp, the only people in the park, and set out early to get to the summer trailhead and make the shortish climb for sunrise.

Apparently, sleeping at altitude is what does it for me, because even though I was trying to drink water, I felt a little awful once we really started climbing. We watched several dizzyingly beautiful changes in lighting– crescent moon and stars to delicate grey blue dawn, to dark blue skies and orange clouds. Then, blindingly glittering little fortresses of solitude at my feet bordered a view of the valley below overflowing with a sickening number of highlighter colors. Or maybe the colors weren’t sickening, I was just sick. I sat on the ground at a flatter spot with my head in my hands, drinking the rest of my water and cursing not my inability to walk like a normal coordinated human, but the fact that feeling sick was keeping me from fully appreciating the beauty around me.

Luckily, this internal melodrama actually lasted only around 15 minutes. I didn’t throw up on the beautiful snow. The light changed to the subtler sunrise colors and the soft morning light that makes the detailed shadows on everything look like they were drawn with a graphite pencil and a light touch. The only sound was the glassy ice skittering across the snow.

Even at half-Nastassia-power, I got through what felt like doing an easy thing in a worse body thanks to Kincaid patiently taking a couple of extra breaks with me. We stayed at the summit for a second while the sun really came out and appreciated the complete solitude and expanses of ice. It was cold, though, so we went back down.

It was strange thinking of the Lassen Trail victims on this cold, slippery descent. The cutoff trail, weirdly, and most of Lassen’s contributions to society, seemed to all be at least 150 miles from this mountain. The Lassen Cutoff, fondly called “The Death Route,” crossed Black Rock (yes, where Burning Man is), where the only water was boiling instead of frozen. There were reminders of inhospitable heat on our frigid hike too, though, with bubbling fumaroles and evidence of the channel made by the boiling lava during the 1915 eruption.

After breaking camp, we headed back down the snowy road, where toward the end we saw just a few people, who for whatever reason were all very keen to worry at us about the sizing of their snowshoes. The sky was clear, the surrounding peaks were all white and peppered with fascinating rock formations, and the air smelled like rotten eggs. And we got back to the car before 1, in time to be drinking a beer in Oregon by dinnertime.

As usual, I wonder why we aren’t using the original name, Amblu Kai (“mountain ripped apart”) and instead honor this questionable character. But in the end, he got his due. After requiring rescue on his own dangerous trail, Peter Lassen was shot in the head by an unknown sniper, maybe one of the people he almost killed with misinformation.

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