Brokeoff Broke My Spirit

Note: A similar version of this article was initially posted on ActiveNorcal

A few weekends back, I was planning on hiking in Lassen National Park, not knowing tat the main road through the park would be closed by snow. I learned of the closure and the effects of the storm while en route, and stopped at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to reassess my plans. 

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I decided I was going to try to hike Brokeoff. I had on jeans, hiking boots, a sweatshirt, beanie, and light jacket. I also brought my camera, a lunch, and a full water bottle. There was one car in the parking lot, so at least I wouldn’t be entirely by myself on the hike up.

I had never attempted Brokeoff, but I had heard it could be quite daunting even in the best of conditions. It has a round trip distance of 7.4 miles, with an estimated round trip time of 6 hours. The elevation change from the trailhead to the peak is approximately 2600 feet. The NPS park service says “The trail is considered one of the toughest in the park, though one of the most rewarding.”

I was reading all of this, sitting comfortable and warm and drinking coffee the day after I had attempted the hike. My legs were sore and my knee bruised. And I didn’t even make it to the summit.

Before I left, I had reached out to a friend to ask about the hike. He guessed that it took him two and half hours to do, and I took that to mean two and a half hours round trip. I was expecting a challenging, beautiful hike. With the snow, I didn’t expect a beautiful view at the top, but I want to have that notch on my belt that that I had summited it. I have yet to do so.

I started up the trail optimistic. There was a layer of fresh snow on the ground, gleaming white and beautiful. The trail climbs steadily, but was easily distinguishable as many people had broken the snow since it had fallen. I passed over small burbling creeks and across layers of leaves that had lined the trail. It seemed more muddy than snowy, and although I started the hike feeling a little chilly, it was not long until I was warm with exertion. I even unzipped my jacket and took off my beanie.

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Although there was snow, it was not really snowing. Every now and again I would walk under a few trees that would drip fat, cold drops of water on my neck or face and it felt like rain.

I passed by a tent, some brave soul or souls had camped here last night and were no doubt attempting this same hike now. Eventually, I passed a group of four hikers on their way down. They were equipped with snow pants, face protecting balaclavas, hiking poles, and waterproof boots. They looked to me like a group of Boy Scouts, with three younger men and one older. We greeted each other friendly, and parted ways.

The wilderness was beautiful. I passed by streams and miniature waterfalls, and even a few small lakes that had a layer of frozen ice. I had to cross a marshy, lake area once, which I believe was the Forest Lake crossing.

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I snacked on the food I had brought in my backpack, and have to admit made a few stops to get water. At some point I remember feeling my wet hair, and wondering if it was sweat or snow that had made it wet (ultimately I decided it was both). As I rose higher in elevation, visibility started diminishing. I could still see the multiple tracks in the snow, but I could not see how high Brokeoff was above me nor how far I had climbed. The trail was less mud and more ice and snow, with the snow covering any rocks below. A few times, I stepped and nearly lost my balance after finding an oddly shaped rock beneath the surface of the snow.

I’d been hiking about an hour (remember – I was under the impression the total hike took two and a half hours) and I saw my first discouraging sign. I was able to find the trail based off the multiple footprints and holes made from the trekking poles. Then, at a kind of meadow, I could tell that a larger party turned around. No doubt the four men I had seen earlier. I was now following the footprints of two people. I hoped they were following the trail, otherwise it would be like the blind following the blind.

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As I climbed in elevation, the trees thinned. I could see tracks in the snow for deer and small birds, but the only wildlife I spotted the whole trip was a small chipmunk closer to the trailhead. About 20 minutes after the (human) footprints narrowed, I ran into the twosome who I had been following. They were definitely wearing winter gear. They were two friendly gentleman who had camped the night before, and were on their way down from the summit. They politely advised me to turn back. I let them know I couldn’t give up just yet, but despite the fact I was up there by myself, I had let family and friends know where I was in case something should happen.

We parted ways, and I continued to follow their footprints up. After a small while, I crossed to (my best guess) what was the western face of the mountain. Where I had been shielded from the wind before, I was now exposed. Cold, snowy wind battered my exposed face. I used my beanie to try and cover my face, and kept my hands in my pockets. I trudged on, out of sheer stubbornness. Earlier, I knew that the hike would keep me warm as I exerted energy. I was no longer warm.

I hiked up the hill for two hours. At the two hour mark, seeing no peak in sight, I decided that I should turn around. Without cell service, I wouldn’t be able to convey to anyone that my supposedly two and a half hour round trip had turned into me trudging two hours one way.

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The view from the spot where I decided to turn around

My jeans, boots, and socks were quite wet. Up to my knee, my jeans appeared to be darkwash. On the plus side, my ice water was still nice and cold. I didn’t mind hiking in the snow, it was really the bitter wind that was the worst part.

The way down was relatively easier, although I was going faster which increased the number of slides I had. I had one particularly bad fall, where my foot slipped and both my knees went knee first into a pile of rocks. I suspect that’s why they both are mad at me today, especially going down stairs.

On the way down, I passed two women on their way up. I let them know, sadly, I had not made it to the peak. They looked better prepared, so I tried to let them know what was up ahead and give them encouragement. They also asked me to take a photo of the two of them, since they could only take selfies. In return, they snapped this one of me:

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I made it down to the car after 3 and a half hours. I turned on the engine, changed into dry socks, and took off my wet jacket. I texted everyone to let them know I made it back okay, if not a little bummed that I didn’t make the summit.

If properly prepared (knowing the actual time it takes, for one), I believe it can be summited. However, it will take more than just sheer determination: if you are going this time of year be sure to bring snow gear including waterproof pants and shoes, and a face protector. You wouldn’t be doing it for the view at the top, as I’m sure you would not be able to see anything, but more for the knowledge that you did it. I will get it one day, just not that day.

Until next time, never stop adventuring.

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