Two full days of non-stop hiking under a blistering sun. Nearly 26 miles of ground covered, most of it off trail with a full pack. Over 11,000 vertical feet of climbing. Eight summits visited. Solo. Sound fun? Well, sort of, but only for those with a lot of tolerance for extreme suffering.
For quite some time I have been toying with the idea of a "horseshoe" shaped trip along the highest ridges of the Desolation Wilderness, connecting most of the major 9,000'+ peaks in the area. I also thought it would be more interesting if done in a quick two-day marathon (literally, it is about 26 miles in total). With a few free days in August, I decided to give it a try.
My proposed route (see topo map) would take me from the outlet of Rocky Canyon on Highway 50, up to the summit of Pyramid Peak, then northward across the more lofty half of the Crystal Range, tagging the summits along the way. From the top of Mt. Price, I would drop down to Lake Aloha and camp. This was to be a warmup. The next day would be much more difficult. Starting with a climb of Jacks Peak, I would then traverse up and over Dicks Peak en route to Mount Tallac, descending down into the valley after summiting, then hiking back up to Lake Aloha, and, finally, ending it all with a long hike up and over Ralston Peak back to my car.
I jumped in my car early Thursday morning for the drive up to Tahoe, intending to hit the USFS Ranger Station in Camino by 8am to pick up my permit. After getting through the red tape, I made it up to the Ralston Peak trailhead by about 9am. I parked the car, shouldered my pack, and ambled my way back down the hill to the highway to hitch a ride to the Rocky Canyon bridge. After about 10 minutes, I flagged a ride to take me the 2-3 miles down (yes, down) the hill. At about 9:45am, I started my way up the faint use trail leading up Rocky Canyon, and the gig was on.
The first to go down was Pyramid Peak. The hike up Rocky Canyon was surprisingly easy despite the full pack. Although I was "pacing myself", I still made it up to the summit in under three hours. Not a blistering pace, but a respectable one nonetheless. From Pyramid, I dropped down the NE face and contoured across towards Peak 9,686', gaining it via the flattish ridge extending eastward from its summit. I then headed across the never-ending blocks of talus to the spectacular summit of Mount Agassiz. I went around the back of the summit pinnacle for the easy class three climb to the top of the flat "diving board" over Lake Aloha.
From Agassiz, a quick and easy traverse led to the summit of Mount Price, third highest summit in the Desolation Wilderness. I lingered for a few minutes enjoying the view and the gradually setting sun, then considered my next move. My plan was to head east down to the shores of Lake Aloha to camp. However, the east face of Price is a sheer cliff, and the ridgeline to the north a jagged knife. Hmm... I ended up downclimbing a short class 3 section, then angling back upwards to a small notch. Approaching the notch, I crossed my fingers and hoped it would "go". As luck would have it, the other side of the notch provided a safe passage down sandy and snowy slopes, quickly yielding to granite slabs that would take me all the way down to Mosquito Pass and, below it, Lake Aloha. After a long and painful descent, I threw my sleeping bag in a small flat grassy spot and passed out.
The next morning, I woke at 6:30-ish, and hit the trail an hour later. First to go down was Jacks Peak, via the SE slopes above Heather Lake. This is an easy class 2 climb -- about 2 hours max from the lake. The summit afforded very nice views east to Lake Tahoe and west back to yesterday's Crystal Range. The traverse north to Dicks Peak was also relatively straightforward -- mostly moderate class 2 travel with a couple of easy class 3 sections thrown in for fun. Not surprisingly, Dicks had a better view of Lake Tahoe, but a worse view of the Crystal Range (since each of Dicks and Jacks blocks the other's view). From Dicks, I had an unobstructed view of my next project -- the long ridge connecting Dicks Pass to Mount Tallac.
So down to Dicks Pass I went, following a very faint use trail through the scree, talus and other junk on the ridgeline down from Dicks Peak. The traverse over to Tallac was harder than I thought it would be, as it involved quite a bit more up and down (and routefinding) than I thought possible. By the time I joined up with the Tallac summit trail heading up from Gilmore Lake, I was exhausted and ver,y pleased to be "on piste" again. Tallac was gorgeous as always, and I never seem to tire of the incomparable views from its summit. The day was cloudless and warm, and the blue waters of Tahoe looked so darn inviting -- but I had another 12-13 miles of hiking and one more peak to climb before getting back to my car.
From Tallac's summit, I went into Robo-Hiker mode, walking fast and trying to stay hydrated under the hot summer sun (central California was experiencing a heat wave during my little jaunt). Two hours hiking brought me back to Lake Aloha, and then a couple more got me up to the shoulder of Ralston Peak. By his point, my body was beginning to rebel -- feet throbbed, knees ached, throat parched -- you name it, I had it. With visions of In-N-Out Burger dancing in my head, I picked up the pace and bagged Ralston by 6:30pm. Three and a half excruciating miles of steep downhill travel brought me back to my car at the Ralston Peak Trailhead.
Additional photos and more detailed descriptions of the route are available on my website.
Day 1 stats: 7.1 miles, +5,500'/-3,150' (with full pack)
Day 2 stats: 18.6 miles, +5,800'/-7,500' (half day with pack)
Total: 25.7 miles, +11,300'/-10,650'