Sometimes you get the
perfect day -- bottomless fluff, blue skies, no wind, and
you're feeling rested and fit. Today was not that day.
Frankly, I felt like crap. I got about five hours of
sleep on a Friday night after a long work week.
Arriving in South Lake Tahoe on Saturday morning, the day
was warm and clear, but the wind was howling. This
combination of warm temps and strong winds wreaked havoc on
the snowpack, morphing our perfect December powder into a
ragged combination of decent windpack, difficult crust,
dangerous ice, and unskiable sastrugi. On a day like
today, you take what you can get and you ski to just enjoy
the scenery. With that in mind, we chose to head back
to Tahoe's most scenic peak -- Mount Tallac.
Chris and I had been up
Tallac countless times. In fact, 2004 marks
Chris's 14th year on this peak. But our bud
Toby, who has the good fortune to live about 2 miles from
the base of the mountain, had never trodden upon it.
The decision was made. Chris and I wanted to spice
things up a little bit, and lobbied to continue past Tallac
down the long Kalmia Ridge that leads into the Desolation
Wilderness and Dicks Pass. We hoped that there would
be some decent snow on the steep north face of this ridge
and that it would be worth the extra effort to get out there
(fast forward: it wasn't). There's also some
outrageous scenery en route, so Toby agreed and the plan was
The initial climb up the
frontside of Tallac to the summit is steep. About
3,300 feet in less than 2.5 miles. And what normally
is a difficult skin was made even harder on this day by icy
conditions on the uptrack. Virtually the entire way up
the NE ridge, our skis were holding onto that precarious
balance between barely staying put and violently slipping
backwards. A few spills were taken -- names withheld
to protect the innocent.
Just below the summit, the
boards went on the packs and we kicked steps up the final
few hundred feet to the ridgetop. Resting at the top,
we saw a group of ten or so tele-skiers coming up behind us.
For such a big group, we noticed that they moved awfully
fast. Turns out they were members of the
Tahoe Nordic SAR Patrol out for a tour and some beacon
practice near Gilmore Lake. Rather than head up to the
summit from here, we dropped down the Kalmia Ridge towards
The views from the ridge
are awesome over Lake Tahoe to one side, and the craggy
Crystal Range on the other. To the southeast are the
peaks of Carson and Ebbets Passes, and to the northwest one
can see the fog in the upper Sacramento Valley. We had
scattered high clouds, but visibility was outstanding.
Along the ridge, one member of our group ventured too close
to the edge and accidentally kicked off a sizeable cornice.
It let loose with a deafening boom, and triggered a small
avalanche on the face below (the top 3-5 inches of windcrust
let loose). Given the size of the cornice that let
loose, and the relatively benign impact it had on the slope
below, this was a good indicator that the north facing
slopes below were fairly stable. But a seriously
rookie move on our part getting too close to the cornice.
Those things certainly do have a tendency to break off much
further back than you think. Nobody was hurt, and we
had another firsthand lesson in safe travel protocol.
We reached the Kalmia
peaklet (Peak 9,376') about halfway between Tallac and
Janine Peak. A couple of steep and narrow chutes drop
off the north side of this peaklet. Today they were
unskiable without a serious death wish, so we passed.
Instead, we dropped the bowl above Tallac Lake. The
snow was brutal, with some fairly large wind-created dorsal
fins sticking up to grab our skis. Challenging skiing
to say the least. At the bottom of the bowl, we put
the skis on our backs and began the steep hike back up to
the ridge. I won't lie to you -- this absolutely
sucked. The only blemish on an otherwise fine day in
the mountains. Ultimately we made it back to the
ridge, where we drained our water bottles and chowed down to
get our energy back.
A moderate skin brought us
back to the summit of Tallac at 9,735', with views over the
entire Tahoe basin and beyond. Toby and I ventured out
down the east face to check out the entrance to the Babycham
and Cross couloirs. SICK! Today was not the day
to test fate, so we debated mellower alternatives like
Cathedral Bowl or North Bowl. We did a variation on
the north side run by dropping the first steep face, then
angling hard right into the elevator chute that leads down
into the right arm of the Cross. The skiing wasn't
great, but big smiles were had all around anyway. We
skied down towards Fallen Leaf Lake, then made a long
traverse back to the car. The sun-baked and
wind-frozen crust on lower sweat hill was, for me, the crux
of the descent. Somehow we all managed to get down in
one piece. Another fine day in the Tahoe bc.
to see the photos