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Ralston-to-Echo Tour, April 2003

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Ben, "Buddy" and Chris atop Mt. Ralston.

April Powder.   Mid-April 2003 and the Sierra is experiencing its heaviest snowfall since New Years.  The bad news is that spring corn season is delayed for at least another week.  The good news?  We will be skiing powder in April and corn well into June and July.

I had initially planned to head down to Bishop and ski up into the Evolution Region for a four day loop tour.  But persistent snowfall (with the promise of more to come) gave me serious reservations about an extended solo trip above 12,000' into uncharted territory on the other side of the Sierra crest.   So I called up Mr. Sobchak (aka Ben) to see if I could grab some couch space in SLT and ski a couple of days in the lower elevations of Tahoe. 

On Thursday, Ben and roommate Sherpa Jeff skied out their backdoor and up to the summit of Trimmer Peak for some turns.  Meanwhile, I hooked up with Nils and Paul Lutes from the TTips board to ski the Carson Pass area.  It was snowing fairly steadily all day, at times outright dumping on us.  With visibility being crappy, we stuck to the south side of the highway, skiing out along the ridge towards Little Round Top.  We yo-yo skied the mellow north facing slopes above Meiss Meadow that hold the headwaters of the Truckee River, finding some nice late season powder.  It wasn't the lightest snow, but hey, what do you want in April?  Like they say, the best powder snow is the stuff you're skiing.

When Friday rolled around, the Weather Channel promised "afternoon clearing".  I was skeptical.  The Tahoe basin was totally socked in with heavy clouds, and it was still snowing.  Perfect weather to do a long ski tour, right?

Unfazed, Ben and I made plans to meet bcrider (Chris) and Gimpy (Toby) in Meyers and arrange a car shuttle point-to-point tour.  We'd leave one car at the base of Echo Peak, and drive the other up to the south side of Ralston Peak.  The plan was to ski from Highway 50 up and over Ralston Peak, drop the Ralston Lake Bowl, then skin up above the Echo Lakes to the summit of Echo Peak.  From there, we'd ski down the Angora Lakes bowl and ultimately back to the waiting car shuttle (see route map).

We drove up to the turnout at Aspen Creek Tract and unloaded the gear.  Chris was on his splitboard.  Toby, Ben and I were all on Alpine Touring (AT) gear.  It was my first day ever on an AT setup and I was eager to give it a try.  Toby (and his dog Buddy) broke trail up the steep hillside, laying down a mean vertical skin track in the process.  The rest of us followed behind.  And let me tell all of you telemark purists out there, this AT shit simply STOMPS up the mountain.  We bagged the first 2,000 vert and I was barely sweating.  (see photo:  absolutely stomping up the south side of Ralston).  We climbed up towards the “Ralstonia” peaklet near Cup Lake, where Chris shot one of his recent videos, and then continued up the last few hundred feet to a resting spot on the Ralston-Becker ridgetop.  On this last pitch, Ben snapped a ski pole trying to whack the gloppy snow off of his skins (not recommended).  After a quick field repair, he was on his way up to meet us.

From our small saddle on the ridgetop (seen at the red “x” on this map), we peered down over the other side into cloudy oblivion.  A super steep powder line ran north, straight down into the fog.  The run looked sweet, but with visibility being so dismal, and with no sign that the weather was lifting, we decided to continue up the ridge to Ralston Peak and hope for better weather upon our arrival.

And better weather we did find.  As if on cue, the clouds broke right as we started our climb up the SE ridge of Ralston (see photo:  Chris, Toby and Buddy looking out to the summit of Ralston Peak).  To the left and 3,000 feet below us, we spied the Lovers Leap area coated in a fresh coat of white.  To the northwest, Pyramid Peak and the snowcapped peaks of the Crystal Range emerged from the fog.  And of course to the northeast were the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe.  As we climbed up the last hundred feet to the summit, adrenaline was pumping.  The weather was improving by the second, and a huge open and untracked bowl lay before us. 

We chilled on the summit for a few minutes enjoying the view.  Following the hugely corniced ridgeline we had just climbed, we saw monstrous Alaska-like lines pouring off of the north face of Baldy (Peak 9,165’) (see photo below).  We also saw a group of skiers yo-yo skiing the bowl just east of Baldy.  Now it was our turn.  We peeled skins and considered our descent options:  The face just below the summit had recently avalanched, and there was a mess of chunky debris below us, leading to a rather serious looking cliff band.  Hmmm, not going that way.  The northwest-trending ridge from the summit was guarded by a monster cornice and looked deadly.  Hmmm, not going that way either.  So Ben and Toby skied down along the NW ridge to the end of the corniced area.  Chris picked out a narrow gap in the cornice about halfway down, while I stayed on the summit to shoot some video.  Chris dropped in first on his splitboard and ripped up the first 1,000 feet in a matter of seconds.  Further down the ridge, Ben also dropped in, followed by Toby and Buddy.

Back on the summit, I clicked into my skis and -- ahem -- locked down my heel for the first time in over two years (and for the first time ever in the backcountry).  I skied down the ridge with a somewhat uncomfortable feeling that I’m sure all reformed telemarkers must feel when they clip back into “normal” bindings after a long hiatus.  There wasn’t much time to get used to it, however, as I dropped in the cornice gap where Chris did and started cranking parallel turns down through the powder.  OK, it wasn’t quite the feeling you get when carving graceful tele turns, but I will admit that it was pretty stellar nonetheless.   (photo:  the north face of Ralston Peak).

We regrouped a few hundred feet above Ralston Lake.  I skied over a roller and dropped down a steep narrow chute between some rocks.  In doing so, I stupidly kicked off a small slab avalanche that broke up and oozed down about 100 feet.  The potential consequences were not severe (the new snow layer was not deep, the chute was very short, and the runout slope below was very gentle), and I easily skied out of the slide.  However, I shouldn’t have taken my chances with a little terrain feature that I knew had a high probability of going even a short distance.   Live and learn.

We ripped down to Ralston Lake and skied across it.  Then down into the meadow above Echo Lakes, where we skinned up for the gentle climb up to the summit of Echo Peak.  An hour or so later of skiing through what Chris called the "endless Hansel & Gretel forest" and we were on the summit.  The weather had turned nasty on us again.  Clouds moved in and the wind picked up.  We didn’t stick around on the summit for long.  One by one we dropped down the steep glade towards the Angora Lakes.  (see photo: Chris dropping down to snow-covered Angora Lakes).   The snow here was a bit more crusty, but still plenty fun and skiable.  At the bottom, a short tour in the flats brought us back to the car. 

Thanks to Chris, Ben, Toby and Buddy for a perfect April day in the Tahoe bc.

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