A skier’s dream greeted us: a perfect day, 2,000 vertical feet of virgin powder to descend, and no one else in sight on the mountain. It took us several hours to ascend the 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, a tough workout that earned us a spectacular view of Mt. Shasta and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada range. Next, came the long drop down the mountain’s steep southeast face.
My companion Andy flew down the mountain first, cutting tight telemark turns as he descended to the snow-covered road in just about five minutes. I tried to follow him, but rather than tight, controlled turns, I found a face full of snow the first time I turned down the slope. That wasn’t my only fall of the descent, and soon I resorted to the proud tradition of intimidated skiers faced with a daunting drop: zig-zagging. Dividing the slope into about 20 switchbacks, I slowly but painlessly reached the road in half an hour.
Lassen Peak may be too steep for novice telemarkers or even downhill skiers with less-than black diamond ability. But in winter and spring, the peak offers a rewarding mountaineering experience, requiring relatively little gear or technical skill.
During my climb, I knew little about the mountain’s history, but the adventure inspired me to learn more. Lassen arose from the now-collapsed Brokeoff Volcano 27,000 years ago. Indigenous peoples including the Atsugewi, Maidu, Yahi and Yana used the area as a meeting point during summer months for millennia, calling the mountain Waganupa.
Native Americans had warned that Lassen “was full of fire and water, and that one day the mountain would blow itself to pieces.” The volcano proved them right with discharges between 1914 and 1916, especially on May 22, 1915, when an explosion hurled rock high into the air and rained ash up to 280 miles away. The eruptions attracted national interest and led Congress to create Lassen Volcanic National Park.
During its snowbound months, Lassen is most easily approached from the park’s main south entrance. In winter and early spring, cross-country skiers and snowshoers park at the Lassen Chalet ranger station, where Highway 89 seasonally closes. From here, winter trekkers generally travel the snow-covered highway past the Sulphur Works, a roadside cluster of steam pits and bubbling mud pools. Follow the smell of rotten eggs and you can’t miss it.
In good conditions, the next four miles to Lake Helen are easy for moderate skiers and snowshoers. Many shorten the distance by cutting off the road in favor of a shorter and steeper route.
Lake Helen makes a nice base camp because of its flat terrain, scenic view and its proximity to Lassen Peak. Many trekkers camp here, though those who come in late spring may have no need. That’s because once the park reopens Highway 89, its only north-south thoroughfare, Lassen Peak becomes an achievable day trip for skiers, snowshoers and even hikers. Only one mile separates the road’s nearest point from the summit, though that tough mile features a 2,000-foot elevation gain.
Climbing the peak itself is tiring but not complicated, and those who ascend the southeast face won’t need any mountain gear besides their skis or snowshoes and poles. Crampons are optional, but are certainly helpful in icy conditions. All the standard mountain-climbing tips apply. Stay hydrated, and climb slowly but steadily. Aim for the exposed rocks, which provide comfortable rest stops. Retreat if the weather becomes threatening. Remember your sun hat, lip balm, and heavy-duty sun screen. It may not feel like it with the chilly temperatures, but it’s easy to get sunburned on these snow-capped peaks.
From the summit, we see Brokeoff Mountain to the southwest, Reading Peak to the east and Loomis peak to the west. You might also see the mighty Mt. Shasta about 75 miles to the northwest.
Descending will thrill capable downhill skiers, while others may enjoy a more leisurely trip down the mountain by glissading: simply sit on the snow and slide down, feet first. In soft snow, this is both fast and fun, but you will need an ice axe for a brake. Be sure to take off your snowshoes or crampons first. Don’t attempt glissading in icy conditions which can be dangerous.
Skiing or climbing Lassen from the roadside takes half a day for most visitors. Before the road opens, count on two days from Lassen Chalet. Either way, folks who reach the snowy peak will enjoy privacy and solitude that Lassen’s multitude of summer hikers can scarcely imagine.
Weather and snow conditions make or break an outing like this, so check the forecast. No matter what it says, prepare for surprises. During my first winter outing to Lassen, heavy snow fell all night unexpectedly. Time after time, my buddy and I took turns leaving the warmth of our sleeping bags to dig out our tent. Unwisely, we both fell asleep, and the weight of the snow snapped our tent’s main pole around 2 a.m. dropping a truckload of snow and delivering a rude awakening. After the night finally ended, our party labored the entire day just to break three miles of trail back to our cars.
But at least the volcano didn’t erupt on us.
Our snowy setback only made our eventual success more enjoyable, and Lassen Peak was definitely worth a return trip – as long as you’re adequately prepared.
Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.
Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting, factual news, and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.