Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maximus Lassenus

When we started climbing, back around 2002, we would pretty much do anything to climb something. We were hungry to climb, and no obstacle would stand in our way. Since we lived in the Bay Area, the most elevation we could hope for was usually on the top of Mt Diablo, and that is only around 3,800’. Mt Diablo was our home mountain, and most weekdays we found ourselves on its slopes anyway. However, although the vertical gain on Diablo can be about 3,500’ depending on your trailhead, it just didn’t satisfy our craving for high places. Another complication of life in the Bay Area was the expensive cost of living, which forced me to take a second job delivering newspapers – daily. The only way to take a day off was to hire a substitute driver for the morning I would be gone. Despite this hurdle, we would still manage to take a day here and there, driving up to Yosemite and the Sierras, enjoying precious time in the mountains. Hiring a substitute was not always an option, financially, so sometimes we had to plan 1-day get it all done trips. One such day was Memorial Day 2003, and an adventure to Lassen Peak in Northern California.

Today, we live so close to Lassen that if I stand on my tiptoes in our bathtub, I can see its majestic west face from inside my house. Depending on the time of year, I’m often treated to spectacular sunrises as the day begins and an orange glow illuminates behind Lassen for my drive to work viewing. But back then it was a good 4 hour plus drive from home. We had gotten the idea to go up to Lassen from a “mountaineering class” we had attended at our local REI. It sounded like a fun day out, and all the more challenging when there was still snow on it. At this point in our development as mountaineers we had already summitted Mt. Whitney via the normal route. We had our permit to go back to Whitney two weeks after Memorial Day, to try the more difficult Mountaineers Route, and we had our reservations in with RMI to tackle Mt Rainier in August. This would just be a training climb.

Saturdays were not difficult days for delivering newspapers. The Saturday Contra Costa Times was usually small, and as long as they arrived at the Distribution Center on time, I could finish my route pretty quickly. Luckily, the papers were on time and I finished ahead of schedule, arriving back home around 4 am. I had already phoned Gina to get up and get ready, and most of our things were packed from the night before. We said goodbye to our two dogs, Ziggy and Maximus. Ziggy was about 9 years old at this time and was a gentle soul and quintessential “Good Dog”. Maximus on the other hand, was just barely a year old. Seeing the love that Gina had for Ziggy, a dog who had moved with Gina from Florida to Costa Rica to California, and what a great canine companion he was, had inspired us (particularly me) to adopt a collie that would be mine – really the first dog I have ever owned who was not the “family” dog. I saw an ad in the newspaper for collie pups, and convinced Gina that we should just go and look at them. Well, nobody ever goes and just “looks” at puppies, especially collie pups. Hence Maximus Meridius Soto Buturla joined our family, named after the Gladiator movie character who shared the same middle name “Meridius” as our favorite trail on Mt Diablo. We soon learned that Max was no Ziggy. One of the biggest things about Max as a puppy, he had a rather severe case of separation anxiety. Once, left alone in a makeshift pen inside our tiny house, he escaped – popped open several sodas with his teeth, ripped up a couple of sofa pillows, and chewed beyond recognition a book on the coffee table titled “How to Train Your Puppy”. Maximus was the devilish combination of pup who was both destructive and smart – he knew what things to destroy that would bother us the most. Now just over a year, he had calmed down a little – and fooled us into thinking we were okay to leave him and Ziggy outside for the day while we were gone.

Since climbing in Lassen was new to us, we also made one other gigantic mistake, one of many we would make that day. Being inhabitants of the area these days, we know that Lassen Park receives enormous amounts of snowfall each year, and the road to the base of Lassen Peak sometimes does not open until July in a good snow year. We were blissfully unaware of this as we made the drive up, arriving at the closed South Gate entrance around 8:30am. After examination of the park materials handed to us by the Park Ranger, will realized that Lassen Peak was 8 miles away still, and the road was not yet opened to vehicular traffic. We were stunned. But, we really wanted to climb – we were desperate to climb as a matter of fact. Had I known then what I know now, I would have checked the NPS website and made an alternate plan. We even could have climbed Brokeoff Mountain, another Lassen Park peak that is also a worthwhile snow climb and is accessible from the South Gate Parking Lot area, in its place. Instead, we embarked on an eight mile odyssey to even begin our day of climbing. Since I did know that the actual climb of Lassen was not that many miles, I foolishly made the decision that we could hike it, climb it, descend it, and hike out all before the darkness moved in. Learning by your mistakes is not the best adage for the mountains, as I would soon find.

The road up was not really in that bad of shape, actually. The snowplows had already been working on it, and we walked on it a bit miffed that it was actually closed. Were it not for a mini-avalanche here or there, we would have been right about it too. We only had leather boots at this time, not until our Rainier trip would we purchase our first pairs of Koflach plastic boots. Still somewhat climbing newbies, we had not yet learned about packing light backpacks for speed. Our packs were loaded up with all we thought were essential at the time, just in case the unexpected occurred. Each of our packs probably weighed in about 35 pounds or so. Not exactly packed for just a dayhike. The road as I said, was mostly clear, so we walked on asphalt the majority of time. It was not too long before the hot spots and pre-blisters started to make themselves known on our feet. The eight miles we needed to cover started to seem like, well, EIGHT MILES.

Finally, at about 1pm we reached the end of the road – the snowplows sat idle in front of us, and the fact that they were clearing out snow that was 20’ deep in places was evident to us. Lassen was obviously just right in front of us, so we had arrived – or at least almost arrived. From comparing our surroundings to photos I had seen of Lassen, I realized we must be just above Lake Helen, which sits at the foot of Lassen.. We ate our lunch of Subway sandwiches that we had packed in with us and surveyed our situation. If the climb took us 2 hours, we would still be able to descend in the daylight. Even if it took us 3 hours, we could top out, and surely descend faster than the ascent – getting us back to the road and relative safety before nightfall. (It was the end of May, remember) We made a decision to go for it, and try to at least see how high we could get. We stepped out into the trail-less snow….

“Whoomp! Whooomp! Whooomp!” Each step we took, we sank farther and farther down into the snowpack. Unfamiliar with the term “post-holing” at the time, I could not define it, but knew it was making us miserable. Suddenly, instead of a challenging summit climb, we were barely making way through depths of snow I had not seen since my childhood in Wyoming. A couple of times I would think we were a little out of it, that the snow was harder as we moved up and therefore able to hold our weight. Each time I thought that, though, soon one of us would be letting out an exasperated cry as we sank down once again. A thought occurred to my Rookie mountain climber’s mind, “Oh, this is what snowshoes are for.” Yet still we headed up, we really, really wanted to climb something.

In the end, after finally reaching the lowermost slopes of the main mountain itself, the weather grayed up and clouds moved in. Gina and I sadly looked at each other, and then made the first wise move of the day. Having never climbed Lassen before, and not exactly knowing how long the climb would take, plus with the cold wind now biting at us a little harder, we decided we could not reach our goal for the day and would have to turn around. I looked back to the area where the snowplows were parked. In about an hour of postholing we had traveled maybe a half a mile. The “climb” was nothing but a failure. We made our way back down to the asphalt, and continued aggravating our blisters as we high-tailed back the 8 miles to the South Gate and our truck. On the 4 hour drive home we made a pit stop to buy a 12-pack of our favorite beer at the time, Steinlager, to help us soothe our psyche back home and contemplate our escapade. Or so we thought.

We arrived home around 8:30pm and walked through the gate. All seemed well, the dogs were predictably happy to see us, and Max did not have the guilty look on his face that he got when he did bad things. Everything was okay, we thought. We went inside, prepared to change our clothes and shower, and surveyed the refrigerator for our evening dinner. That’s when Gina turned on the TV. Snow. Only not the kind of snow we had been up to our waists in just 4 short hours before. The TV kind of snow. “Honey, something’s wrong with the TV.” I was summoned to the living room. “Probably just the receiver needs to be reset.” We had DirecTV at the time, and sometimes those things happened. I reset the receiver, but still nothing. “Maybe something with the connection, I guess.” I reached behind the TV and grabbed the cord cable that connected the receiver to the Dish on top of the house. Everything looked okay. I pulled on the cable a little, thinking it would come taught.
I started pulling… and pulling… and finally, pulled up the frayed end of chewed cable. Grabbing a flashlight and heading outside, I ran out to where the cable exited the house and made its way up to the satellite dish. About six feet above the ground was the other frayed end of cable dangling helplessly in the air. Maximus had hit us with the one thing we could not ever live without – television. Upset that he had been left behind, Max had grabbed a hold of the exposed cable within his reach and done his work. “Maximus!” I yelled and saw him slink back into the shadows of the far corner of the yard. There was no time for punishment, however. Quick action was necessary.

We certainly did not want to go a Saturday night without television, although we could probably make it. The problem was that it was Saturday night, with Sunday upcoming and the Memorial Day. I had to think quickly and efficiently, how to rectify the television situation. What I needed was a new coaxial cable, and Radio Shack surely would sell that. Our local Radio Shack though didn’t open until 11am Sunday. I phoned them up to see if they were still open that night. They were open until 9pm, and it was now 8:45. I rushed down to the store and spent somewhere like $50 getting the right cable. That was actually the easy part.

To re-install the cable, I would have to venture into the crawlspace underneath our very modest 1,000 ft rental house. When the original installer of the DirecTV had gone underneath there, he had to go back to his truck to get his “spider suit”. It was a dark, never-ever land down there. Armed with 2 flashlights and wearing my oldest clothes that I wouldn’t mind throwing away, I entered the under-the-house-world. It was just as bad as the installer had described. The whole space was about 24” high, and every 4’ or so where the floor beams. The entrance to the hell below was back in the guest bedroom, meaning I had to travel about 30’ under the house to reach where the TV connections where. I shimmied along the muddy ground ducking the beams, spider webs, and god knows what else. At last I found the splitter for the TV cable and made the switch. When I emerged from the whole, I was completely covered in muck. After making the final connections outside, we were finally backed with television. It was about 10:30pm. The next day I would have to have Gina keep a sharp eye on Max, until I could get to Home Depot and buy some ½” conduit and straps, so that the cable exposed to the outside could be sufficiently Max-proofed. Being that the next day was Sunday, the biggest newspaper day of the week, I caught myself a good two hours of sleep that night. I arrived at the DC at 2am, only to find that the presses had broken and the papers were late. I wouldn’t make it home that morning until 9am, which worked out OK since I could just take care of the Home Depot business directly.

Nowadays, we’ve reached the top of Lassen so many times we’ve lost count. It’s a great summertime hike, a great place to hike that makes everyone from pre-teens to senior citizens to feel like mountain climbers for a day. During the winter, however, we don’t spend much time there. The drive to Mt Shasta is about equidistant for us, if not shorter, and weighing the two options against each other we always choose Shasta. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m sure, the memory of our first Lassen adventure also plays a role in that decision as well. Maximus has since grown out of his separation anxiety, and has become pretty much a “Good Dog” himself, his only remaining bad habits being deep dislikes of the lawnmower and bicycles. Occasionally, we get his boots out and he joins us on our snowshoe outings. He doesn’t much like the snow though. If we do decide to drive up to Lassen, even in the hottest middle of the summer, I always, always, always check to see how far the road is open.

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