Having negotiated a hallpass, I made my way up to Tahoe on Friday night of Thanksgiving weekend. I left late, so I brought along the mandatory 2-pack red bull driver's companion. I made it in one piece and promptly crashed out in the Tahoe Pad. Early the next morning, I picked up my new minty green sumos at the Backcountry in Tahoe City, where they had mounted up my hammerheads & UTB lifters. Coffee and a bagel at Syds, and then down the west shore towards Carson Pass. En route, one couldn't help but notice that the entire top of the Tallac's north bowl was windblown down to the rock. Not a skiable line to be found on this aspect. Hmm.... I sure hope the snow's better 20 miles south of here.
I arrived at the pass at 9am and geared up. Chris was camped somewhere up near Lake Winnemucca. I skied south from the pass and made it to the lake in about an hour. On arrival, I called Chris on the radio. "Dude, I'm down at the lake, where are you?" Reply: "What lake?" This should've been my first clue that we were in for a mini-epic, if not a full-blown epic. "Um, the huge friggin' lake at the bottom of Round Top." I figured out that I had skied right past Chris's tent, but he didn't see or hear me. "Sorry dude, I had my tunes on too loud." Clue #2 logged.
Chris, his dog Sierra and I then began the skin up towards the Round Top/Sisters saddle. As the slope steepened, Chris popped on his Burton split-crampons. My skins held fine, however, so I continued cruising up the slope. "Shit!" I turn around to see Chris on his stomach, sliding downhill, with his splitboard below him and boots in the full heel-up position -- basically the most awkward, compromising position you can be in on a slippery slope. Below him is a nice clear sheet of ice with a small rock band below for good measure (see photo below). Chris manages a self-arrest through some combination of rapid ice axe deployment and what I'll call the "Wile E. Coyote frenetic snow clawing technique". Mini-epic Clue #3 registers internally, but I say nothing. Well, OK, maybe I snicker ever so slightly when I conclude that Chris will not in fact slide down to his death. Ice axe now fully engaged, Chris is back on his feet, muttering something about having lost his sunglasses.
Catastrophe avoided, we continue uphill. We pause for a snack at the flat spot at the base of the Cresent Moon Couloir. It looks absolutely unskiable in these low snow conditions (see photo below). Chris thinks it could be doable. We debate this for awhile but then continue up towards the saddle. "Shit!" Again I hear Chris yelling. I spin around expecting to see Chris sliding down the mountain. Instead, his Sony Memory Stick is straightlining down the mountain like Seth Morrison in AK. Since the memory stick didn't bring an ice axe, it was resigned to careening down the fall line until gravity gave up. I volunteered to ski down and get it. Unfortunately, I forgot to put my heel lifts down when I turned downhill, so I promptly stacked myself. Clue #4 that this isn't to be our day, check.
I skinned back up to Chris and started needling him. Only because he is otherwise the most organized and together backcountry traveler can I get away with this. "Dude, you are struggling.com." I'm rewarded with a smile. We continue up towards the saddle with Sierra in tow. Looking back, Lake Winnemucca is getting smaller below us. Above the lake, Elephant's Back is laid out, completely bare of snow on its upper half (see photo below).
Once at the saddle, I drop my skis and head up the ridge towards the summit of Round Top. Somehow I take the hard way up around the backside. I drop my poles at the bottom of some steep class 3-ish cliffs. I scramble up to the top, only to find myself on a nice sandy slope leading down towards the saddle. I guess I'll go down that way. But then I realize I'll have to downclimb the cliff to retrieve my poles. Oops. I get up to the high west bump of Round Top's summit and peer down the Crescent Moon. Nasty and definitely unskiable right now. I enjoy the views for a minute, despite the onset of snow squalls. Notes are taken of future skiable lines: A real nice chute dropping down to Fourth of July Lake; some ridiculous looking steeps over across the way in Devils Corral, and a monster 2,500'+ run down the NW side of Deadwood Peak to the depths of Summit City Creek. Yum. (photo looking out to devil's corral from Round Top)
For a brief second I contemplate running up to the true summit of Round Top, but then Chris checks in on the radio. He's at the saddle and is heading up towards some nice looking chutes off the east Sister. I remember that we are here to ski, so I climb back down, get my poles, and run down to the saddle. When I get there, Chris is already up at the snowline below the east Sister. He radios down that there's a nice little shooter dropping down into the bowl. (photo: looking over towards the sisters from near Round Top/Sisters saddle)
I start skinning up from the saddle. Immediately, the angle of the slope moves towards the vertical. "I can skin this sucker," I think to myself. Wrong. Within seconds, I am relegated to an embarrassed heap of gore-tex and ski gear, sliding back down towards the saddle. I manage to stop the unplanned glissade. Clue #5 anyone? (photo: Looking back at Round Top from the east Sister)
I finally get up to Chris, who is piecing together his splitboard. The plan is to drop the chute, bank hard right and head over to the lower bowl and look for Chris's sunglasses. Chris drops in first. Some nice turns and he's at the bottom waiting for Sierra and me to follow. But Sierra is spooked by the slope angle and won't go down. "She'll follow you, just drop in." And drop in I do. Fully expecting to find ice, breakable crust or some other form of "good backcountry snow", I am surprised to find myself cutting tele turns down some nice edgeable windpack. Soft enough to make nice turns, but solid enough that it wasn't breakable. Actually, it was pretty friggin' fun. I turn around to see Sierra absolutely tearing down the mountain. If anyone had fun on that slope, it was Sierra. What a killer dog.
Working our way back down to Chris's camp, we don't find the sunglasses, but we do actually find a small stash of powder below a small cliff band -- only about four turns worth, but hey, I'm not complaining. We also find a natural half-pipe lower down, which I promptly arc into and eat shit. Chris snickers from afar, happy to know that it is my turn to dork it.
Back at camp, we feast on backcountry ambrosia -- red bull, salami and cheese. Its about 2:30. "Think we'll make it to the car by four?", Chris asks. "Sure," I spew confidently. "Half an hour to break camp, and about an hour back to the pass." A leisurely hour later, we're still at the campsite. Oops. Clue #6. We get going around 3:45 or so. Chris doesn't feel like skinning out, so he keeps his splitboard together. He thinks we can slide downhill much of the way, avoiding the need to skin up. I am skeptical. "Um, I think we need to stay pretty high and close to Elephants Back to get back to the pass." Chris demurs. "Nah, I came in this way, and it was uphill most of the way." Still skeptical, but unwilling to split up, I follow. A half mile later, we come upon a creek. "Um, Chris, I think we're way too low. Creeks flow downhill, yet we're trying to get up to a pass. I think we're hosed." Chris looks unconvinced, and the map is buried deep in the pack. Laziness trumps cautiousness; we continue on. By this point, its getting dark, and we are bushwacking through increasingly thicker trees. I tell myself this could be the beginning of a mini-epic. But I know that in a pinch we can simply jam down the drainage to the highway, so I mellow out somewhat. That said, I'm not relishing the thought of a cold walk up a dark highway in duckbills. I start contouring to the east, but it is too late. We're too low, and I resign myself to a long walk.
We get to the highway right as it gets dark. We start walking up the road, but with all of our gear on our backs and a rambunctious dog that seems to want to play chicken with oncoming traffic, that plan quickly becomes just plain stupid. I volunteer to walk up to the pass and bring the car back. Little did I know the pass was nearly 3/4 mile away. Clue #7 hits me and I realize that this was not the most organized bc outing I've ever been on.
I get the car, and head back to pick up Chris and Sierra. As we're packing up the car, two headlamps approach on the shoulder of the highway. "Which way is Carson Pass?", asks Headlamp #1. Now even after our dumbness of this day I still know that Carson Pass is uphill from wherever you are on the highway. I point that out to Headlamp #1 and tell them it is "about a mile thataway." I offer them a ride in the back of the Jeep with Sierra. Headlamp #1 conferences with Headlamp #2 and sneaks a furtive glance in the backseat at a drooling and quite hairy Sierra. "No thanks, we'll walk." OK, maybe they were smarter than us.
Note: larger versions of photos available on my website.