Beginner's Luck: 1954 Ski Traverse of Lassen Volcanic National Park, by Gene Leach (updated 7/22/98)
Gene Leach, an avid explorer, adventurer, backcountry skier, kayaker and long-distance bicyclist, has made more than 60 crossings of Lassen Volcanic National Park since his first traverse in 1954. Although Gene Leachs party was probably not the first to make this crossing of Lassen Park, it is the first recorded account. Les Bodine or park rangers predating him may have made the first crossing in the 1930s or 1940s but there is no known record. The following is Gene Leachs entertaining account of that first crossing with the Shasta College Ski Club, the Hickory Knights.
When I began teaching at Shasta College, in 1950, Dr. Collyer, the President of the college, suggested, strongly, I become the Ski Club advisor. I reluctantly accepted the responsibility even though I did not know how to ski.
As part of my responsibility as Ski Club advisor I would take the club, we called it the "Hickory Knights," over to the Mount Lassen Ski Park. At that time, the Ski Park consisted of a single "T-Bar" surface lift. There I met the Chief Ranger of Lassen Volcanic National Park, Les Bodine, and he patiently attempted to teach me to ski. From Les, our group of college students were told about the cross country trip across Lassen over to Manzanita Lake on the north side. Some of my club members were all for the idea.
I am not certain how, or why, I ever attempted the first trip, much less lead it. I really was a city boy from San Francisco, whose only wilderness experience was either getting lost in Golden Gate Park, or leading an "expedition" to the top of the 2,586 foot, Mt. Tamalpias, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.
My first trip across Lassen Park occurred in 1954. On this first trip I had a map, but no compass. At that time I had no idea even how to use a compass. As the eight of us left the safety of the Ski Park (elevation 6,800 feet), Less parting words were, "Be sure to stay to the right of the Crescent Cliffs, and, for certain, do not miss the bridge across Manzanita Creek." What cliffs, and what bridge, I had no idea, but I do recall the image of cliffs standing out in my mind as some obstacle over which I might accidentally lead the group.
Until 1970 there were no lightweight, cross-country skis as we know them today. We used our heavy alpine skis, Head Standards. The concept of quick-release safety bindings was unheard of back then. Cable bindings were the high-tech standard of the day for alpine skiers. For skiing and walking up hill, we would remove the cables from the rear guides to allow some heel movement. On the descent, we would run the cables through the rear guides to hold the heels down and in place. The skis of course had no traction for climbing, but we were able to buy heavy mohair climbers from war surplus, which we attached to the bottom of the skis. The weight of the skis and mohair climbers was considerable.
Our route from the Sulfur Works on the south side of Lassen would follow the park road. Les had also told us about the cutoff around Diamond Peak. It does save two miles but back then, with our makeshift equipment, it was a serious challenge, very steep.
Maybe the rest of the group had some false trust in me, but as for myself, I felt as if I was headed for the moon. It would be many years before I would ever come across another person heading up toward Lassen from the ski area.
The road just below Emerald Lake is cut into a steep cliff. In the winter, the snow completely buries the road leaving only a faint ledge, and in places nothing, to indicate where the road might be as it traverses the face of the cliff. Not much room for safety, at least in our mind.
We struggled on up to the pass between Lassen Peak and Eagle Peak. I can recall going ten or twenty feet at a time, resting and gasping for breath. On this crossing, it took us six hours to reach the pass and we felt it was a huge struggle. By contrast, later, with the advent of lightweight, waxless cross-country skis, I hardly ever stop, once I leave the Sulfur Work, until I am at the top of the pass, taking less than half the time it took on the original trip.
It is hard to imagine the feeling I had, when, at the pass, between Eagle Peak and Lassen Peak (elevation 9,000 feet) looking down, down, to Manzanita Lake (elevation 5,600 feet), wondering how I was going to get the group down, and through all that country successfully.
I think I was blessed with what you could call, "beginners luck." This has been true so many times for me, and this was no exception. Everything went about perfect. We had great skiing down all the way, and, by luck, I seemed to have picked the best route down, for, in all the years since, I have hardly varied from this same route. I hit the bridge, on upper Manzanita Creek, right on. Did not even have to search for it. To this day after over sixty crossings I still marvel at our good fortune.
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