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ADVENTURE 19: Cinder Up (Lassen Volcanic NP)

Updated: Sep 10, 2022

Saturday, 30 July 2022, Redding CA

Time to break camp - and see where we were supposed to camp. (Hmmm... maybe I should show Sandy what a tent with poles looks like.)

It took 50 minutes to drive out of the park, circle around to the northeast, and follow a dirt Forest Service road back into the park at Butte Lake. Given that we saw no services en-route beyond a single gas station, a (sparse) country store, and a café, we knew we'd made a good decision in switching. Braving that washboard road for 6 miles/15 minutes more than once each way would have likely shaken the rental car apart.

Butte Lake hurt for water (as did many spots in the drought-stricken West),

with the shoreline visibly receded. The weather agreed with us, with temps in the low 70s - perfect for a morning hike. Immediately after starting, we saw the wall marking the edge of the Fantastic Lava Beds which stretched to the Cinder Cone.

(These features helped inspire the National Monument in 1907.)

The trail proceeded beside the lava wall with nearly no grade through a grove of well-spaced trees providing early shade. Ahead of us, a father out with his 7-yr-old daughter moved along, with daughter flitting back and forth, examining nature around her. "Look, I found a walking stick!"

AS we proceeded along the trail, I read from the trail pamphlet (available at the trailhead) each time we passed another numbered marker. The Fantastic Lava Beds, one capsule noted, was formed from a'a (broken lava blocks with a rough surface), not pahoehoe (streams of smooth, unbroken lava). Another page says the first settlers pegged the Fantastic beds as only 25 years old: researchers soon recalculated their age as 200 years. The final word (for today, at least): the lava flowed here in the 1650s.

By the time we reached the last station of the pamphlet, we had entered the wilderness portion of the park. Nothing changed on the ground - the trail continued just as before. Soon, we passed a man returning from the cone with his son that appeared around 6-yrs-old. "That's good, get 'em trained early!" I joked in passing.

He paused, then turned to his son. "Tell the man what you climbed a few days ago." The boy looked confused - should I be talking to a stranger? - but then he proudly said, "I hiked Half-Dome! I used the cables!"

Whoa! show me up! Ron and I had just talked about climbing Half-Dome, and concluded I wouldn't have time for that mega-hike. Since I was heading to Yosemite next, I asked about the conditions. "Of course it's smoky. But looks like everything is open. At least it was a few days ago..."

The trail retained its gentle slope for over a mile, staying in the trees. Then we saw Cinder Cone, and it stopped us in our tracks. A minute later, hikers behind us caught sight of the cone, and we heard one comment: "OH MY GOD!"

Ahead of us sat Cinder Cone, a perfectly conical mound of fine volcanic debris rising 700' from its base. (Volcano type #3: a cinder cone is made up of loose rocks, cinder, and ash that accumulate around a single vent.) The pamphlet said that the sides of the cone angled 30° off horizontal - any steeper and the debris would fall off. Given that physical restraint, the trail heading steeply up its side must log in at 20-25°. I truly have not seen a trail that steep since climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Seeing it in un-obstructed glory made me consider my sanity for tackling this.

Nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other (and slide back half a step with each step forward), along with the other fools out there. I steadily outpaced Ron, who gamely tried but accepted his limits at around the half-way mark. I plodded along, my legs cursing me all the way. They finally swore to report me to the ASPCL (the L standing for Legs, of course) before clamming up and giving me the silent treatment.

I grew dissatisfied with my slow progress, resting after each dozen slow steps. For something new, I tried a jackrabbit approach where I quick-stepped for 30 seconds or so, essentially running up the trail then stopping to catch my breath. I thought it worked well, steaming up the trail on my spurts - but then the 6-yr-old girl and her father caught me while I wheezed leaning over my walking stick. As I recovered my breath, I tried to chat with him, but his daughter reminded him, "Dad, you said no distractions!" As I rested after my next burst, they quickly passed me. (I'd become the embodiment of the tortoise and the hare story: slow and steady wins the day.)

Finally - the summit! or at least, the rim.

I sat and celebrated with water, admiring the high view to Lassen Peak.

After 15 minutes, I figured Ron had shown the sense I hadn't and retreated, so (now rested) I climbed a tad further to the high point of the rim.

The majesty of the surroundings made the effort worthwhile, as I looked over to Mt. Lassen, across the Fantastic Lava Beds to Butte Lake, past the Painted Dunes to Snag Lake, and more.

Another spur took me to an vista looking over the Painted Dunes and Snag Lake,

then to the edge of the crater, where I could see a pair of hikers that had descended to the bottom.

"Didn't they realize they've got to climb back out?" I asked no one in particular.

Time to head back down the steep, gravelly path. I remembered descending Kilimanjaro on a similar surface, but I was too exhausted to do anything- but survive a trek down. Now I could use an energetic technique - almost hopping step-to-step, sliding downhill a bit each time I planted a foot (very similar to skiing down a mogul field). This method sped me to the bottom with little effort. Bonus: I flew past the 6-year-old girl who'd waltzed past me on the way up - she struggled with the loose gravel, choosing to side-step down as I glided past her.

When I reached the tree where Ron patiently waited in the shade, I had to sit down and take off my boots. Ever gotten a pebble in your shoe? I had two boot-fulls of pebbles! Musta been carrying half the trail down with me.

On our stroll back to the car, I mentioned a great entrepreneurial idea that had leapt into my mind. "When I was in junior high, my home town held a big parade every July. people would line the streets to see the bands, politicians, and whatever. Being July, it would get hot lined up on the sidewalks - and there were no vendors selling any refreshments. So one year I went to K-Mart, got a case of cheap Cragmont pop (many flavors), stuck 'em in an ice chest on a little red wagon, and sold them for a quarter apiece. Always sold out, too! [NOTE: That worked for a few years, until someone reported me to the police for having no license.]

"Just think, Ron! Some enterprising youngster could get a case of pop, haul it up Cinder Cone, and charge $10 a can!" Not that I would consider hauling anything up the cone - but maybe a boy scout troop could raise funds... We got a good laugh out of that notion.

We'd started our hike at 9:00; the clock now approached noon. Time for one more PB&J sandwich for lunch, then a long drive back down to Redding.

After the exertion of the climb, I didn't care whether we hit one more (easy, this time) trail beside the lake. We'd seen our share of beauty in our three days here; calling it a day would let us do business in town, talk to our wives, and get the skinny on a trail for tomorrow morning. (Since Redding again hit 102° today, we knew any hike nearby in Whiskeytown NRA better be REAL early). Following that, Ron would fly home, and I would try to avoid the fires to reach Yosemite.

And to complete our lessons for Volcanoes 101: the fourth type is a shield volcano, created by multiple flows of very liquid lava oozing away from the central vent. This produces a rounded, spread-out mountain that park info says 'resembles a Roman Shield'. Once we left the dirt road to Butte Lake, West Prospect dominated the landscape south of the highway.

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