I woke up at 630am, slightly angry because I had somehow snoozed my alarm at 5:45am and slept an extra 45 minutes. I have developed a special wakeup routine for nights spent in the back of my car in cold weather. First I awkwardly grope for my keys in the center console, with as much of my body still in my sleeping bag as possible. In this same position, I start the car and wait for the warmth to come. 5 minutes later I deftly unzip my seeping bag and get all my clothing on in one fell swoop before the cold can have its way with my bare skin. Then I open one of the back side doors and swivel around in order to get my legs out of the open door. Given that nobody else is around, I automatically unzip my fly and let the evening’s urine deposit fall on the ground…ahhhhhh. The next step is preparing the magic liquid…coffee. I walk around to the back of my car and open the hatchback, set up my dual burner stove and pour water into my pot. 5 minutes later I pour 2 cups of the boiling water into my thermos which contains a generous serving of high quality instant coffee (not the supermarket brand), and then pour in some creamer which I dirtbag (take lots of free stuff, usually condiments) from every gas station and/or supermarket I go into along the way (I know Nate will disagree with my definition of gourmet). The coffee gives me energy to cook my gourmet breakfast, which varies, but on this trip consisted of plain instant oatmeal with honey drizzled on top, a banana, funky little yogurts I bought in Canada, a couple handfuls of Gorp, and half a liter of water with vitamin powder.
The morning light, dim and colorless, slowly began to drown out the stars as I slipped into my snowboarding boots and inspected my snowboard, which was in splitboard mode for my ascent up Lassen Peak. A man in mountain attire strolled by…the only other person in the parking lot at 7am. “Where you headed?” he asked. “Up,” I replied. “Me too,” he said. And so it was. We started cross country skiing at 8am, Collin with a telemark setup, me with my splitboard. He moved fast. We skinned (cross country skied with traction skins stuck to the bottom of the skis) through a forest of towering pine trees. The surface of the snow was smooth and gave just enough under our skis for good traction, but not enough to impede travel. About 1.5 miles in, Collin stopped for a break. He asked if I smoked as he removed a giant spliff from his chest pocket. He told me it was grown by Mexican mafia that had been squatting on his family’s land. It was mixed with other herbs grown in their greenhouses and very pleasant. I began to take more notice of what looked like a universe of twinkles playing on the surface of the snow. The early morning light threw shadows everywhere and added to an already intensely pristine setting. The wind was nonexistent and the temperature rose sharply with the sun, which was a nice change from the hand chilling 17 degrees that greeted me when I stepped out of my car to pee first thing in the morning.
Our ski tracks were the first of the day, and in fact the first of to be laid in the fresh snow on account of the weather system leaving Northern California only the day before. The same weather system which barraged me and my car on my way north, the same weather system which attempted to cast gloom on my Canadian vacation, but failed miserably. Now that weather system had given up, or perhaps just moved on to flatter land, where high mountains will not threaten to rob it of its precious moisture. Before long we were above tree line and were afforded an incredible view of Chaos Crags, which loom below and to the North of Lassen Peak, still clear of snow due to wind patterns, formed by volcanism less than a century ago. Beyond the immediate subpeaks of Lassen, Mt. Shasta appeared as a dim mass of rock and snow with over 4000 feet of glaciated glory above where the trees stopped. To the west, the trinity Alps dominated the horizon, short in stature but hardly in grandeur…a land best appreciated from within.
Directly above us, the Northwest face of Lassen Peak stood stoically below a fingernail moon and a cerulean sky. Its proximity and my excitement both belied the toil and punishment that awaited any would-be ascender. Its northern slopes held what little snow had escaped the wrath of the wind and were glazed over with plastic ice.
I found this surface to be incredibly hard to zig zag up despite the gripping skins on the bottom of my splitboard, so I strapped the board to my backpack and went straight up the 50 degree face in a direct line, kicking what little of my snowboard boots I could into the surface and putting all my weight on my toes. My calves bore the strain during this final 500 foot push to the top of the skiable snow. Sweat drenched every article of clothing I was wearing, and exhaustion began to rear its ugly head, but my perseverance was fueled by a continuous adrenaline rush. Thanks to my everlasting aerobic conditioning and the mental fortitude gained from enduring through much harder and more desperate mountain situations in the past, I was able to block all the pain from my mind. Instead my senses were tuned to the beauty which spanned to every horizon, and the thought of a downhill run through untouched snow and crisp forest. Collin and I both agreed that the snow above approximately 9500 feet was too thin to enjoy, and he stopped next to a peculiar vent of steam next to some exposed rock, where he built a shelf for the both of us to sit on and relax before we handed over the hard work to gravity.
The initial 400 feet of descent was more than decent, and while Collin turned hard and often as telemarkers do, I lightly rode my back edge over slightly icy crust and only turned about 3 times. We re-entered tree line through a wide and well curved gully. This was the most fun downhill part of the ride, like a half pipe with no lip. Then the terrain flattened out and for the next 15 minutes I cruised through trees until I slowed to a stop on a flat populated with trees that were very well spaced and incredibly tall. Bright green lichen grew all along the bark like a 1 month beard. That was the end of the “fun.” For the next 2.5 hours I followed Collin’s tracks through cross country terrain, struggling awkwardly to ski downhill with my faux cross country ski setup and one trekking pole because my other one had broken. This was pure punishment, plain and simple. The very forest that had enchanted my morning now succeeded in harassing me in the form of dense trees, icy shade, short visibility, and deep creeked gullies. The surrounding ridgelines prematurely set the sun, and my hopes of making it back to the car before dark became desperate. Panic was suppressed by the comfort of having tracks to follow and the headlight, whose presence I routinely reassured myself of by rolling it around in my pocket. But soon we hit a trail marked by reflective discs nailed to trees, which Collin recognized as a trail that would bring us right back to the car. This comforted me, but my spirit was instantly lifted when I suddenly emerged over a small hill to see the parking lot. Collin invited me to eat dinner and stay with his mother and father who he lives with along with his girlfriend. We arrived at their house no more than 20 minutes later and were immediately treated to an incredible homecooked meal consisting of vegetables from their garden and a fine fish stew. The warm dinner and easy conversation was quite a treat, especially since that morning I had imagined my day ending in my chilly car, drinking harsh coffee and eating canned chili before returning to my sleeping bag for a night of mediocre sleep. Their house is beautifully rustic, and after dinner we headed down to the dry cedar wood sauna which Collin just finished building. There I sweat out the days built up toxins and periodically went outside to cool off under an ice cold outdoor shower fed by the creek which runs through their property. Collin and his family are far from simple people, but they have managed to artfully construct a life of relative simplicity for themselves, grounded in self-subsistence, love and respect for each other and the land, and hospitality unmatched in my travels. That night I slept in their guest room, sore from a day of grueling adventure, tired from a trip of intense emotion, and more content than I had been in a very long time.