Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Skiing Lassen Volcanic National Park – February 2013

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The parking lot at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitors Center was almost empty as we watched and heard the clattering old diesel 4x4 Ford F250 truck enter the south end with its equally aged large Bigfoot overhead camper looming above. It moved slowly, as if the occupants were taking measure of the area and then it speeded up coming right toward us. It slowed down as it passed and pulled right in beside our truck, not 5 feet away.
A man hopped out of the truck, “You guys have metal edged skis!” he said and continued, “You mind if we camp with you?”
“Do you have a generator? You can’t if you have a generator” was the Lady’s answer.
“I’ve got 500 watts of solar on the roof. I don’t need no generator!”

That’s how we met Mike and Arthur. They have been buddies for over 30 years. They told us this was a “mancation”. They didn’t have any women along on this trip.

This was late Friday morning and the start of the Lady’s four day break for President’s weekend. We had checked in at the Visitors Center at Lassen Volcanic National Park, paid our fees for staying three nights in the parking lot, and were relaxing after setting up our campers. Along with us for three days of backcountry skiing were the Barking Spiders. Barking Spider was turning a year older in a couple of days so this was also a birthday celebration trip.

We geared up as did Mike & Arthur as they proudly showed us their new Voile skis with alpine touring bindings and their new Black Diamond light weight AT boots.
“We used tele gear for years but this AT stuff is very good and its easy for us,” they explained.

We were headed out past the Sulphur Works. They headed up to Ridge Lakes.

The fumaroles and hot ground at Sulphur Works is easy to spot in the winter.

Brokeoff Mountain stood proudly above us to the southwest.

We headed up the bypass around the north side of Diamond Peak.

This made for a nice orientation to the area and brought back memories of past ski trips at Lassen. We returned for a dinner with steaks grilled outside a la Barking Spider, potatoes, pasta, and fresh salad. If we were going to be parking lot bums over the long weekend, we were going to do it with style. The sun dropped below the ridge to the west. The temperature immediately dropped too. As it got later and darker, our eyes kept being drawn up the snow covered road, the access for ski adventures, looking for any sign of Mike & Arthur.

The snow covered walk in campground adjacent to the parking lot is available for winter snow camping and two boy scout groups were camped with their adult leaders tending to fires in BBQ tubs in the parking lot. The lobby of the Visitors Center is open 24 hours as are the heated bathrooms with warm water and flush toilets. That was darn luxurious even if it was a bit of a walk and we had to put up with boy scouts camped inside on the floor earning their “warm crapper” merit badges as their buddies outside in snow caves and tents earned their “snow camping” badges. There is also a direct line emergency phone. We kept that in mind as the night continued getting colder and darker and still no returning Mike & Arthur. We have decades of experience with winter mountain search & rescue on skis. It is never fun and always hard work and many times are tragic. This was our vacation. We didn’t want an incident created by our new acquaintances. Various scenarios were going through our heads. Come on guys get your butts back here.

We heard their skis on hard frozen snow. It was a welcome sound that foretold the explanation. Barking intercepted them as he was walking back from the bathroom. Arthur, never shy about telling a story, started in. “There was a lot of drama! Most of the drama was me. We should have started down at two and not four. Everything froze up and was ice.” They had been skiing the high slopes just below the ridge lines. It was nice spring corn on the south facing slopes but crap down in the trees, especially after it froze up. Arthur described one of the falls he took; glad he had a whippet ski pole so he could arrest the fall after the cartwheel. Drama.

The overnight low was only in the mid twenties. “Decedent, I like that we can be decedent!” the Lady said as she slipped out of our sleeping bags just enough to reach the thermostat and start the forced air furnace. The Lady usually stirs early and I do my best to hold her down until a more reasonable time. At five she likes to click the thermostat and enjoy the decadence of a warming camper. Coffee was started and we walked and enjoyed the quiet of the morning.

Today’s plan was to ski up to the Ridge Lakes, an open bowl just below the ridgeline.

The lakes are surrounded by fairly open slopes at the elevation best for red fir and mountain hemlock.

We dropped the packs and snacked. Three young men from Davis (I had spoken with them in the parking lot as they started in the day before) had an excellent camp set up in a group of trees. We watched as they descended from a high point. The Lady took off, “Just to check things out.” I followed with the camera.

We could not have asked for a more beautiful day.

Ridge Lakes with Mount Diller.

We had to apologize to the Spiders for this but our skins were still on our skis and the terrain sucked us upward.

We soon found ourselves at the top looking west across the Sacramento Valley with the snow covered Coast Range beyond.

We watched as another group of skiers climbed to the top of Diller Bowl to our north.

The Lady had taken a little different route up. “The snow has softened  the way I came. It could be good corn!” she said.
We pulled our skins and started down her route. It was perfect. The slope dropped off steeply and we surrendered to the fall line linking turn after turn. After her latest knee surgery the Lady is understandably apprehensive about skiing. I couldn’t see any problems as her graceful arcs cut the slope below me.
“How are the new boots?” she called up as we stopped to let the thighs relax. I had just picked up a brand new pair of T2’s. The day before was the first ski. Today was the first serious turns.
“They’re great! I forgot all about them. I’d say they are officially broken in.”

We finished the final slopes, skied across the lake, and before the Spiders could scold us for wandering off we said, “We found perfect corn. Grab your packs!” Soon they were atop the ridge.

I got distracted watching the other skiers’ descent in Diller Bowl.

The Spiders started down and then I heard the Lady behind and above me.

She had climbed higher and was pulling her skins. This was heaven. We farmed the slope and made the decision to drop down while snow conditions were not “drama.” The route down from the lakes is on steep treed north facing slopes with very changeable snow from hard crust to packed powder to breakable wind slab and a little bit of slop and breakable crust thrown in. It was a fun challenge and a good workout of survival ski skills – step turns, stem christies, side slips, parallels, and the good old fashion snow plow. This is the Lady’s favorite skiing. If you want to learn how to get down a slope in challenging conditions, follow her. She doesn’t do anything fancy. She doesn’t do anything stupid. She is solid. Those knees are going to last. She has many many more years of fun ahead for her.

What would make this tale even better? The Teds! We had casually emailed about our long weekend plans. Traveling in February is weather dependent. The Lady really wanted to ski Lassen again and we were delighted the forecast was looking good. Ted asked in an email if we had finalized plans. I shared our plans. He replied they were thinking of the Lassen area for snowshoeing but were unaware camping in the parking lot was allowed. They would be driving up on Saturday in time to do the snowshoe trip with the Ranger. “You know our rigs, make yourself at home nearby!”

Three pop ups were in line when we returned from our ski. The Teds were heading out on the “snowshoe with a ranger.” The Lady and Mrs. Spider turned right around and joined them.  My Mom always told me, “Find yourself a tough woman and you’ll be happy.” I did and I am.

Barking and I did a few chores and checked out the movie in the Visitor Center. It is well done. On weekends there is a café running serving the standard fare. You can, of course get Lassen t-shirts in the gift shop. The Lady got me a nice one the next day.

I should say that all of the Lassen National Park personnel we interacted with were very nice. We talked with two LEO (law enforcement officers) Rangers and shared stories about common experiences. They were great guys and good at dealing with all the people this busy holiday weekend.

Everybody returned from the ranger trip and gave it high marks. We put up screens and discretely took hot showers against the snow bank. Ted got a wood fire going in his collapsible grill. Mike & Arthur returned from their ski at a responsible time. Arthur joined us and made himself completely at home.

He mentioned he had a very special IPA. Ted knew what he was talking about.

Ted is always ready if things get out of hand.

Things remained on the up and up and Ted was at home working on his surprise for us – lamb on the grill.

Arthur surprised us by taking a break in his endless storytelling and Ted took over with a real crowd pleaser.

When the lamb was ready, the atmosphere turned sophisticated.

You could hardly call us parking lot bums. When people passed by and got a whiff of the lamb grilling over coals, the expressions were priceless.

It was, indeed, a very happy camp.

All the loud boy scouts had packed up in the morning and left. This was promising to be a quiet night in the parking lot as all the day trippers left. We all turned in early.

The Lady and I were up before dawn. Staying at a place like this, we had to try and see all the nuances of morning light.

The Teds were heading up to spend the day exploring on their snowshoes.

We were skiing to Lake Helen. We took the ranger bypass which is higher than the bypass around the Sulphur Works. The views from the ridgeline are wonderful.

We crossed just to the north of the summit of Diamond Peak. Lassen Peak was ahead.

We dropped to the road and continued on to Lake Helen.

The wind was strong and the snow frozen hard.

There is just nothing like high mountain landscapes in winter.

We watched as a father and son team on snowshoes started down from the summit of Lassen. They reached the parking lot after dark with headlamps.

It was a wonderful nice long ski. We ate lunch overlooking where the road runs along the south slopes below Ski Heil Peak. Wonderful slopes we have skied in the past. Three young women on snowshoes passed us. We had seen their camp set up on the lower part of the ranger bypass. They were college buddies and had graduated together from Sonoma State and now all had professional jobs. This was their first snow camping adventure and they shared their fears as the first night set it. Barking told them they were our heroes, young women getting out there and doing it. I told them they were our hope for the future of wild places and thanked them. When Barking Spider said he was soon going to be 64 years old, they said, “That’s not old!” Barking smiled and got wound up and told them he and the Mrs. were close to being married for 30 years and in all that time she never had to clean a crapper, “Because I always take care of that cleaning!” The women asked if Barking could have a talk with their boyfriends.

The snow was starting to harden up and we pointed the skis down the road. It was less than an hour back to camp. The Teds had returned from their snowshoe adventure and were ambassadors of the pop up truck campers, happily answering people’s questions about these rigs.

It was warm. There was no wind. We hung or laid everything out to dry. The Lady said it was our “gypsy camp.”

Our adventure was drawing to a close. We had enjoyed three great days of skiing in marvelous terrain. The weather could not have been nicer, except for maybe a surprise dump of a foot of cold powder. Our new friends Mike & Arthur left around 3 pm. They were meeting friends for dinner. We stayed up later this night. The parking lot was almost empty.

A coyote woke us the next morning, erupting in song close by our campers. It was a perfect ending to a great trip.


  1. Great story! My dad and I a getting ready to visit Lassen in February, the 14th to be exact. Just wanted to as you about the park. How much can you visit and I wanted to know about those t shirts. Can you still get one even if the visitor center is closed? Thanks :)

    1. Good information about Lassen National Park in the winter can be found here -


      The Visitor Center and gift shop is usually open during normal hours.