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Ralston Peak Ski Descent

North Face of Ralston Peak

Roadside Attraction.  Ralston Peak is an easy access gem for a peak located in a wilderness area.  This mountain serves up varied terrain and great scenery.


Overview

Ralston Peak is located on the north side of US 50 opposite the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski area.  The south side of the peak viewed from the highway is not terribly impressive -- a broad non-descript ridge that rises above the Pyramid Creek canyon near Twin Bridges.  From the north, however, Ralston looks like a challenging peak with plenty of terrain to get you excited.

Ralston is usually accessed from US 50 at Camp Sacramento or the Aspen Creek Tract.  It can also be accessed from the Desolation Valley or Echo Lakes area, although this obviously requires a much longer approach.

- Click here for an annotated topo map

Route #1 -- Aspen Creek Tract

Stats:

Distance:  Around 2 miles to the summit

One Way Elevation Gain/Loss:  +2,485'

Aspen Creek Trailhead:  6,750'

Ralston Peak Summit:  9,235'

When climbing the south side of the peak, I prefer Aspen Creek as a starting point; the trailhead here is 500 feet higher than Camp Sacramento, and the preferred route makes a long upward traverse to the summit that is easier than following the summer hiking trail from Camp Sacramento.  There is a small turnout at Aspen Creek Tract that will accept a few cars.  I have not had trouble parking here, but you should inquire locally if you are unsure about the rules.

Cross over the highway and start climbing.  Stay on the left (west) side of the unnamed creek that shows up on the topo map.  After several hundred feet of climbing, you will emerge from the tree-cover and have nice views down the North Fork of the American River towards the great rock wall of Lover's Leap.  Aim for the flat area at around 7,800' from where the creek drains.  Angle left from here, gaining the ridge that leads south from the vicinity of Cup Lake.  Follow this ridge up to the high saddle on the main Ralston ridge, and then continue all the way up to the actual summit of Ralston Peak.  Note that there are some great runs in the vicinity of Cup Lake and the "Ralstonia" peaklet that juts out of the hillside nearby.  This might even be enough to sidetrack you from going all the way up to the summit.

Snow conditions on the south face returning back to your car can be tricky.  This area is an excellent place to go when there is fresh snow after a storm.  Otherwise, given the southerly exposure, it tends to set up rather quickly when the temps rise and the clouds disappear.  If the snowcover is sufficient (the lower elevations tend to be a bit thin), this is a great corn run -- even in midwinter!  The north face can be skied from here as well (see description below), but remember that you'll have to climb back out to get to your car.  Another option is to leave a shuttle car at the base of Echo Peak and make a long day out of traversing these two peaks.  We did this shuttle tour on a powdery day in April 2003 and it was a most excellent trip.  Highly recommended.


Route #2 -- Northeast Shoulder.

Stats:

Distance:  Around 9.5 miles round trip from Echo Sno-Park (about 1.8 miles one way from Haypress Meadows)

One Way Elevation Gain/Loss:  +2,000' if coming from Echo Sno-Park (+980/-140 from Haypress Meadows)

Echo Sno-Park Trailhead:  7,500'

Ralston Peak Summit:  9,235'

Another fine way to experience Ralston Peak is to ski over it as you exit the Desolation Valley (i.e., as the final leg of a trans-Desolation tour), or to make a longer day out of it by skiing in and out from Ralston via Echo Lakes.  Both of these routes would take you up the NE shoulder of the peak from near Tamarack Lake/Haypress Meadows area. 

If coming from Echo Summit, park at the Sno-Park (permit required) and ski out across the upper and lower Echo Lakes (and make sure they are frozen!).  From the inlet of the upper lake, start a gradual ascent up the creek, following the right-hand branch up to Tamarack Lake.  Up to now, the skiing has been mostly flat touring, but now the fun begins.  Climb steeply above Tamarack Lake to the saddle due west of the lake.  At the saddle, turn left and follow the NE ridge to the summit. 

If coming from the Desolation Valley, ski southward generally along the summer path of the Pacific Crest Trail.  At Haypress Meadows, start climbing up the NE ridge of Ralston Peak and follow it to the summit.  Be forewarned that this ridge gets blasted with wind and develops some major cornices.  Stay far back from the edge as a falling cornice can kill you and also trigger a deadly avalanche onto anyone below you.

Pick your lines down the north face of the peak.  The NE face above Ralston Lake has some major cliffs and should be scouted first and skied with caution.  Great runs can be had down the huge and empty bowls on either side of the summit.  Remember if skiing the bowl on skier's left of the summit (off the NE Ridge), pick a safe spot to bypass the cornices that will almost certainly be prevalent along much of the ridge.


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