THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
"I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."
From "He wishes for the cloths of heaven" by William Butler Yeats (1899).
She crept up the steep trail behind me, not daring to look down the huge drop-off just feet away but staring at my boots and mimicking their steps. This was a foreign and frightening place, this barren, rock-strewn side of the great volcano, a place she could not imagine venturing to in the normal course of life.
Mount Lassen Lassen from trailhead
Mount Lassen is a beautiful snow-covered volcano in northern California, part of the southern Cascade Range and not far north of the Sierra Nevada. Along this sector of the ``Ring of Fire'' as the tectonic edge of the Pacific basin is known, volcanoes are born, live and die in the monstrous battles between the plates of the Earth's crust. Thus the Pacific coast is lined with a march-step procession of these fiery giants from Lassen to Shasta, from Crater Lake to Hood, from St. Helens to Mount Rainier and so on all the way to Alaska. Remnants of ancient volcanoes such as Mount Tehama also abound, though that volcano is long gone, having collapsed as Crater Lake has done and St. Helens may be doing. About 10,000 years ago Mount Lassen began its rise from the ashes of Mount Tehama, eruption after eruption sending silica-rich lava called dacite tumbling down from the summit craters and adding to the great talus slopes. After a period of quiet, Lassen Peak suddenly erupted again on May 30, 1914, with steam explosions continuing through the next year. Then on May 19, 1915, lava welled up in the summit crater and spilled down 1000ft of the western slope. More dramatically, lava also poured down the eastern flank where it melted the winter snowpack. The result was a catastrophic mudflow that accelerated down the steep mountainside, leaving a mile-wide path of destruction whose scar, called the Devastated Area, can still be seen today. But, more was to come. Three days later, a violent explosion threw ash 30,000ft into the air and propelled huge rocks miles from the mountain. Minor eruptions continued until 1921 and fumeroles spewed steam into the summit crater as late as the 1940s.
Now, in the late 1900s, it lay peaceful, the jewel in one of California's lesser known parks, Lassen Volcanic National Park. The lower slopes are gloriously pine-forested with many lovely glades, meadows and lakes that present endless serene vistas for the summer traveler. A scenic road snakes up the side of the volcano, eventually climbing through the treeline. There the landscape suddenly changes to steep slopes of barren lava fragments interspersed with great fields of snow. At the road's highest point beside the frigid Lake Helen there is a parking area (elevation 9222ft) for the trail that leads to the summit.
Doreen and I had passed this way once before in July of 1970. We had driven this scenic road with our two young daughters and played in the snow beside the trailhead. I had looked up at the tiny figures high above our vantage point, climbers ever so slowly making their way to the summit. Though I wanted to follow them it was not possible to do so then.
Two years later, we embarked on another of our epic camping trips, this time venturing further north and visiting several more sites along volcano alley, among them Crater Lake and Mount Hood. We also spent several lovely days in Mount Rainier National Park, another beautiful forest setting in the shadow of a giant volcano, in this case the awesome, 14410ft Mount Rainier. Our campsite in Longmire near the west entrance to the park was in deep cedar forest and, despite the nightly visits of the black bears, provided a pleasant sojourn. As usual in the evening at a campground, we made our way along to the campfire program. It was there that I first learnt of the possibility of climbing Mount Rainier with the guided help of a park-supervised program called Rainier Mountaineering Inc. Much more significantly, Doreen also listened to this possibility. Sitting around our own fire after the kids had been put to bed, she startled me by commenting that she would like to climb Rainier. Of course, she knew it was not possible at that moment but she was nevertheless serious and I did her a grave disservice by laughing at the proposal. It was a moment and a reaction that I deeply regreted in the days and years that followed. There was no doubt that she was physically capable, but she had never been an athletic or outdoors person and so this professed ambition seemed out of character. But everyone should be permitted dreams without the scorn I used that evening. Moreover, Doreen had spent a half a lifetime and much of her youth supporting my dreams and ambitions. It was time I started to allow her the freedom and space she had given me.
In later years as I reflected on that moment, it rightly became a turning point in our relationship though I certainly did not recognize it in the immediate aftermath. We both continued to be entirely engrossed in building our future and nurturing our family, neither of us having quite enough time for each other. Occasionally, Doreen would make reference to her desire to climb Rainier. Recognizing the unfairness of my initial reaction, I would express my willingness to help her achieve that goal. But little came of it.
As the years rolled by, I myself became increasingly interested in hiking and mountaineering. One obvious and natural ambition was Mount Rainier. I researched the climb and learnt of its difficulties and dangers. Mount Rainer is quite unlike Mount Lassen, its gleaming mantle of ice being composed of more glaciers than any other mountain in the United States outside of Alaska. Even by the easiest route, the summit climb is a very strenuous two-day adventure requiring experience with ropes, crampons and ice-axes. After a one-day basic climbing school, participants in the organized climb start at the high-point of the road at Paradise (elevation 5420ft) and climb over trails and permanent ice fields to the mountaineering hut at Camp Muir (elevation 10,000ft). Overnighting there, you set out before dawn for the 14,410ft summit, travelling roped up over glaciers, wielding crampons and ice-axes. Among other attractions, the summit features huge ice caves created by the volcanic heat below the icecap. It is a spectacular artic island in the sky. I wrote for application forms to the Rainier Mountaineering Inc.
View from summit trail At the summit crater
I never pursued it further. Not because it was beyond my capabilities; indeed I climbed more difficult peaks like the Grand Teton and made a serious attempt on Switzerland's Matterhorn. But Mount Rainier was in some sense Doreen's dream, however unrealistic, and I had no right to tread upon it. Then, in June 1994, there came a chance to make some restitution, to find some resolution. Doreen and I had driven to Lake Tahoe to attend a conference. Afterwards, we took a few days to ourselves and made our way north to Lassen National Park which we had not visited for more than 20 years. We stayed in a little motel in Chester and made several day trips into the park. On one of those days we drove up to the summit trailhead beside Lake Helen, resolved to climb a short way toward the summit. The trail starts easily, but as you gain elevation, the slopes steepen and the exposure becomes intimidating. Compounding the difficulty, the wind rose making it difficult to maintain balance on the narrow trail. I assured Doreen we would turn around whenever she wanted. But on we climbed passing the whitebark pine growing horizontally across across the volcanic boulders. She asked to hike behind me, holding on to my packback to steady her in the wind. And the landscape continued to open up below us, spectacular vistas of rock and snow, of forest, lakes and distant mountains including Mount Shasta. Doreen avoided looking at the exposure by concentrating on my boots. We slowed in the thin air, breathing hard to get enough oxygen into our lungs. But on we climbed. I am not sure I knew what she was thinking but I did not need to in order to marvel at her courage and her determination. Then, quite suddenly about 2.2mi from the trailhead and 1200ft higher, the trail gradient eased and we surmounted a rise to find ourselves there, on the cragged, 10457ft summit of Mount Lassen. We had made it and we could enjoy the spectacular vistas without the intimidating exposure. Doreen sat down beside the snow-filled crater to get her breath and recover her composure. I sat down beside her. Not much was said; I had said too much all those years ago. We asked another mountaineer to take our picture together and the smiles tell of the satisfaction of that moment. But, it was too cold to linger and we soon started down again.
I won't pretend to know whether she felt some resolution but I hoped that was the case. Back at the trailhead we drove south to the park restaurant and tourist shop near the southern entrance where we enjoyed a leisurely meal and a celebration drink. We then strolled through the shop. Stopping at the tee-shirts, she picked out one with ``I climbed the volcano'' emblazoned across the chest. She smiled at me as she paid for it. She is a beautiful, spectacular woman.
Back to table of contents
Last updated 2/2/05.
Christopher E. Brennen