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Brokeoff Mountain brings solace in time of grief

I've never been one to climb mountains just to say I've been there. For me, mountains are powerful metaphors, so I always approach them with forethought and intent.

Pilgrimages to places such as Mount Fuji in Japan are taken with great deliberation as an exercise in humility and respect for nature. For me, to ascend a mountain is to experience symbolically the span of a human life in just a few hours.

The climb often starts in a lush meadow crossed by a stream, where spring flowers bloom and deep-green grass waves, seeming to carry all there is of youth. But as I rise, spring quickly gives way. Willows and mountain alders are replaced by lodgepole and white pine and red fir, the trees thinning as I ascend.

And then, in a lunar landscape of rock and wind, gnarled whitebark pine and splashes of alpine buckwheat are all that remain.

In the end, I am on stone only, standing solitary on the scoured spine of a mountain buffeted by sharp gusts. I try to catch my breath, feeling my vulnerability in the cold air, reduced to a self that could easily be blown away. If I am properly humbled as I should be, I sit or stand for a while to enjoy the view, and then head down relieved to be joining the truly living again.

This spring I made plans to climb 9,235-foot Brokeoff Mountain in California's Lassen Volcanic National Park as a test of knee surgery to correct a tear that had limited my hiking ability for a year.

But, as so often happens in life, when I actually set out to scale the mountain, that goal had changed into something very different. Two weeks earlier, my mother had died, and I badly wanted to carry a vial of her ashes to the summit to honor her. But the ashes had not arrived yet from her cremation, so I ascended alone, able to carry her with me in spirit only.

A similar impulse for remembrance had come to me in 1993 after a close friend died in a motorcycle accident. The next year I climbed Mount Bailey near Diamond Lake and stacked a few rocks into a small cairn for him.

But Brokeoff seemed the right place to be after my mother's death because of what it represents — the reduced and fractured edge of a once-great volcano called Mount Tehama.

The peak was 11,500 feet high and 11 miles across at its fullest extent 400,000 years ago. Eventually, as other lava domes grew on the mountain's flanks, the volcano diminished when a combination of steam and water from hydrothermal systems weakened its core rock. Long years of erosion and later glaciation added their own processes of wearing away, until all that was left of the grand summit were widely separated jagged fragments — today's Brokeoff Mountain, Mount Diller, Pilot Pinnacle and Mount Conard. All of us are broken in some way when a parent dies, and climbing a remnant of this broken volcano seemed to fit my feelings of incalculable loss.

Unlike Lassen Peak, for which the park is named, with a trail beginning at a higher elevation that is ashy and comfortless from the start, the path up Brokeoff traverses a varied landscape of forest, miniature lakes and rocky, wildflower meadows before narrowing to a windswept ridge of talus near the crest.

The trailhead is only .2 miles south of the park's southwest entrance station, and only five miles from the junction of Highway 36 heading east from Red Bluff and Highway 89, which visitors from the Rogue Valley can reach easily in four or five hours. The hike is arduous, seven miles round trip, two miles longer than the climb up Lassen Peak, but ultimately more rewarding.

Because what you find there is not only that life quickly becomes fragile and tentative as you gain elevation, but how strongly it seizes every opportunity to renew itself as you descend. Once I reached the top of the mountain, and found myself beset by grief and loss, I came back to a world revitalized. On Brokeoff's crest, Lassen Peak looms to the north, and beyond it Mount Shasta. To the west is the haze of Red Bluff and Redding. To the south the blue glitter of Lake Almanor, a popular boating lake, while to the east the dry expanses of the high desert stretch to the horizon. Lassen park is a meeting ground of Sierra Nevada, California Central Valley, Cascade Range and Great Basin ecologies, a place where different ways of living blend and cohabitate, adapting as they must to what is.

Everything was big up there and I felt small. But coming down, as individual wind-bent pines slowly became clusters — and then a thick forest laced with meadows and soothing streams — my grief eased a little. The vivid details of living came back as they always do when I see nature's resilience. Memories of my mother and evidence of life's continuity stood side by side in me in a place she would have loved, and I began to heal.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 776-4498 or sdieffenbacher@mailtribune.com

Lassen Peak looms as a powerful presence as it comes into view along the Brokeoff Mountain Trail in Northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park. Although the Lassen Peak Trail is considered by many the premier hike in the park, others say the Brokeoff trail offers a more varied landscape and more interesting panoramas.