Beneath our souls

Topping the summit of Brokeoff Mountain

PEAK PERFORMANCE Ron Erskine and 63 avid readers of his column trained for six months in preparation their ascent up Lassen Peak’s Brokeoff Mountain. Photo: Ron Erskine

Brokeoff Mountain is a noble peak. While it is smaller (9,236 feet) than nearby Lassen Peak (10,457 feet), it has all the alpine character that the hulking dome of Lassen lacks: a beautiful creekside approach through massive red firs and hemlocks, and at the summit, a sheer north face with a one-step-to-the-bottom plunge.

The journey to Brokeoff Mountain began, as it does every year, with a New Year’s Day hike at Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, a terrific way to welcome in the year. Throughout winter and spring we came together for five more local hikes, including Angel Island and Mount Umunhum. But these warm-up hikes were small potatoes compared to the task ahead.

Just three crow-flying miles from Lassen Peak, Brokeoff Mountain’s profile suggests its history and earns its name. The mountain appears to slope steadily up toward the top of a much larger but long-gone volcanic peak. Indeed, that is exactly what happened. Mount Tehama was once 11 miles across and 11,000 feet high, but 500,000 years of erosion and hypothermal activity have slowly worn the mountain down, leaving only a few residual peaks. Brokeoff is the highest remaining relic of Mount Tehama.

I wondered how many challengers would come all the way up to Lassen Volcanic National Park. On the five previous challenge hikes, we went to the Sierra: two peaks in Yosemite and three near Tahoe. Those mountains hit the challenge mountain sweet spot: a hard hike, but not too hard, and in areas with close-by fun for family members who didn’t want to climb a peak but didn’t want to stay home. Lassen Volcanic National Park in the Cascade Range is lesser known and farther from home. Would anyone come? Sixty-three people did.

The Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Range are part of the American Cordillera, a continuous range of mountains that runs along the west side of the New World from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. It is a fuzzy boundary, but just south of Lassen Volcanic National Park the Sierra end and the Cascades begin their march to the Pacific Northwest.

On Friday, the day before the challenge hike, we gathered for a shorter walk to a smaller summit in order to stretch our legs and breathe some of that thin mountain air. The 4-mile round trip to Mt. Harkness is a great day hike for anyone visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park. The views of Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta 75 miles away would have been the highlights if not for the hospitality of Dave, the personable and informative host at the summit fire lookout. Inside his windowed perch, as if talking to old friends, he told us about life on a mountaintop: the process of locating and reporting a distant spot of smoke; the measures he takes in a thunderstorm; how he gets food and supplies.

When I woke the next morning, the day of the challenge, I heard a faint distant rumble. Thunder? Indeed, on the drive to the trailhead, portions of the road were wet. But the bluster had blown through, and our day would be perfect.

Excited faces and the buzz of greetings filled the trailhead parking lot. The passing rain had washed the morning clean—a fresh and sparkling gem. Small groups, friends and families, trickled onto the Brokeoff Mountain Trail. The task ahead: from the parking lot at 6,635 feet, climb 2,600 feet and more than 3.7 miles to the 9,236-foot summit of Brokeoff Mountain.

Just steps from the trailhead, we came to the finest flower show of the day. Leopard lilies, monkshood, crimson columbine, bleeding heart and delphinium made a streamside garden no greenhouse could surpass. The first portion of the approach was a lovely ramble through a forest of large red fir and western white pine with an occasional brush past just-born Mill Creek. But as we climbed higher, the forest steadily thinned and each leg of the switchback trail steepened. Pounding hearts and heaving chests all around.

It was a quick transition from the shaded slope we had been climbing onto the mountain’s broad and bare backside. This expansive south-facing terrain held no pretense of being lush. One had to admire the gnarled hemlocks and ground-hugging alpine flowers that found nourishment on this dry rocky terrain relentlessly parched by the sun and raked by winds.

But not this day. We enjoyed gentle conditions, mild temperatures and still air. The sparse cover only served to widen the view and underscore the excitement and joy of looking across a landscape that is nearly entirely beneath you.

Except, that is, the top of Brokeoff Mountain still high overhead. One long ascending zig across the mountain’s expansive backside followed by an equally long zag, and suddenly there was no more up. Only Lassen Peak, beautiful on the horizon just a few miles away, rose above us. The rest of the landscape was beneath the soles of our boots.

What a fine peak! Few summits so wonderfully hoist you above your surroundings. The broken off side of the mountain fell 1,000 vertigo-inducing feet, then steadily rolled up to Lassen Peak. The summit buzzed with joyous chatter: This is the best challenge yet! I had never been here before. This area is amazing.To all 63 of you—moms, dads, grandparents, your sons, daughters and grandchildren—I tip my cap. I know that in the days since our adventure, the memory of stepping on top of Brokeoff Mountain has grown sweet. The ache of the effort goes away, but the memory lasts forever.

Ron Erskine

Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.
Ron Erskine

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About Ron Erskine
Ron Erskine is a local outdoors columnist and avid hiker.