Round Top had been a focus of mine for over a year by the time I climbed it. I first saw The Sisters while skiing at Kirkwood the previous spring and thought that they would make a nice short but interesting snow climb. On the internet these peaks were often listed with Round Top, so I turned my search to this peak. It was then that I stumbled across Bob Burd’s trip report on the peak, which was by far the highest quality of info that I had found about the peak on the internet. I e-mailed Bob, and he referred me to the Summitpost.com webpage for more info – that was when I joined the SP community.
In the late winter of 2004 I saw Misha announce a proposed trip to climb Casaval Ridge on Mt Shasta and I was eager to join it. I then found out about his plan to climb Round Top that spring, and I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it. Eventually the date of the climb had fallen on March , which was the beginning of my Spring Break. By this time the Shasta trip seemed unlikely to happen, and I had opted to join SPer Grandwazoo on his own attempt on the route the following weekend. In order to make good use of the weekdays of spring break that I had off, I planned to climb White Mountain via the West Ridge and then Mt Langley between these climbs, making for a very intense spring break, and Round Top was the perfect peak to kick off the climbing bonanza.
By the time the trip occurred, the SP posting had gotten a lot of attention, and the trip had turned into an SP gathering. Sam Mills, Misha, Etsuko, Tyson, Doug, Dirk (Diggler), and I would be climbing the peak together, although Doug was going to break off from the group to climb the North East Ridge instead of the couloir. Two other SPers would climb the same route the following day.
Dirk and I managed to secure a ride up to Carson Pass with Sam Mills, and we headed up Thursday night to sleep at the pass, rather than leaving Berkeley VERY early Friday. We were all up early Friday, and after everyone got acquainted some group photos were taken, we left the trailhead at 7:30 am. The snow was hard enough that some of us left our snow shoes behind. I was worried about how soft the snow would be descending in the afternoon, so I chose to keep mine with me. The group quickly spread out, with me, Doug, Tyson, and Sam in the front, and Dirk, Misha and Etsuko picking up the rear. We all stopped at Lake Winnemucca to take in the views and regroup. As soon as everyone was caught up, Doug took off up the North East Ridge, and Sam and I headed up to the base of the Crescent Moon Couloir while the others rested and got their gear together.
The slope quickly steepened, and I headed straight up the steep slope (ca. 35o) to the base of the couloir while Sam arced around the steep hill. Once I reached an area where the slope leveled off, I traversed back the way I came to see where everyone else was. Sam and I met up at about the same time at the base of the couloir and decided to head up the route rather than wait for the others.
We prepped ourselves for the climb and began kick stepping up the 40o slope. The rock cliffs soon closed in around us and the snow slope steepened. Sam had put on his crampons, but since the snow was still just soft enough to kick-step, I left mine in my pack. I headed up the left side of the couloir, kick-stepping and plunging my ice axe shaft into the snow in a cane position, while Sam kick-stepped up the right side of the couloir, hooking the snow slope with his two ice axes in dagger position. We took turns photographing each other, and as the couloir narrowed we climbed more in single file, with Sam leading middle third of the couloir. Then Sam stopped on a small step in the slope against the left wall of the couloir. I snapped some photos of him as I passed, leading the last third of the couloir.
From this point the snow became noticeably harder, and some of it was wind packed. The steepness increased and kick-stepping began to get more difficult. My knees were banging into the slope when I raised my legs to kick-step, forcing me to swing from my knee rather than my hip. This, combined with the harder snow and my increasing awareness of exposure, required me to kick three or four times before I could get a step big enough to accommodate the entire front ball of my foot.
The last 50 feet looked less steep and more straightforward, but this proved to be a false assumption. It was the steepest part of the route, nearing 55o, and the snow was just barely soft enough to kick-step in. I was sinking my ice axe shaft in the snow down to the head at this time, and I made sure to angle it slightly up into the slope, in hopes that it would be harder to pull out – the snow was hard enough and steep enough here that I doubted whether self-arrest would be possible if I fell, and now that I was above the curve in the couloir, I wouldn’t have much time to stop before hitting the rock wall below. I began to feel like I was climbing a ladder, digging my free hand into the slope for support as I repositioned my ice axe. This feeling became even more pronounced when I turned around with my camera to get one last photo of Sam before topping out – this was certainly the most exhilarating snow climb I had ever been on!
After Sam and I topped out, we scrambled along the ridge and looked over the north side – we could look directly down the entire couloir! Everyone else had gathered at the base and waited for Sam and me to finish climbing before they began, and we were able to watch them enter the couloir from above, crawling up the snow like ants.
Sam and continued scrambling over to the summit, doing some class 3 scrambling to gain the summit block, where Doug had been waiting for us. It was now 10:30 am. We signed the summit register, took some photos, and made it back to the head of the couloir just as Misha and Etsuko were topping out. Dirk took his time on the last few feet, posing for some action shots as Misha shot away with his digital camera. Two backcountry snowboarders topped out on the West Ridge about then, and one of the boarders took off down the couloir while the other one headed back down the West Ridge. Everyone took their time on top, enjoying the views and trying different scrambling variations on the ridge, traversing up to the summit block several times. Eventually we headed down the West Ridge.
Since the top of the ridge was bare, I had taken off my mittens for easier scrambling, and I foolishly left them off as I down-climbed the mixture of snow and rock on the West Ridge. As I passed a lone pair of climbers heading up the ridge, I slipped on some ice surrounding a rock and immediately self arrested. Even though I only slid a few feet, my hands got cut up. Although they didn’t bleed much, all of the small lacerations on my hand were extremely irritating, and since then I’ve taken more care to wear gloves whenever I could possibly fall on the snow.
As I waited for the others to regroup at the saddle, I decided to head up to the summit of the Sisters. The climb turned out to be a disappointment – it was just a lot of sandy scree, and the snow that was present had become sloppy. Still, the summit had nice views of Round Top. I directed Tyson over to a better route up as I descended. By this time Dirk had reached the saddle and was eager to go up the Sisters. He talked me into joining him, so I climbed the hundred feet or so to the summit a second time. By the time we got back to the saddle, the others had taken off down the slope. Dirk took off the snowboard that he had carried up, and took off down the slopes. Tyson and I walked down, sinking into the snow. It was soft enough now to do some sitting glissades. At the first big slope, I tossed my pack down to see how it ran out below, and then I hurled myself down the slope. Tyson and I got several good fast runs in using this method.
I quickly ran ahead and caught up to Misha and Etsuko. They had left their snow shoes behind and were regretting it – they were constantly post-holing. I enjoyed part of the ordeal with them before I finally gave up on the snow and out on my snowshoes. Although I quickly got ahead, I took a wrong turn and got off route and ended up at the highway on the west side of the pass. I followed the highway back to the Sno-Park and was the last one to reach the cars at 4:20pm.
Before heading our separate ways, we all drove out to a restaurant in Kirkwood for a celebratory meal where we reviewed digital photos of the climb and took unflattering photos of each other. Then, Dirk, Sam, and I headed back to Berkeley. Dirk had a study session for his PE exam to look forward to the next day, and I had to get ready to drive out to Bishop the following morning.