Approach, Camp and Scout
My wife Vandi and I were in love with early spring trips to the Desolation Wilderness area just West of South Lake Tahoe. With the ski season coming to a close, but rock climbing season not yet started, these trips were a way to have some adventure, polish up our mountaineering and winter camping skills, and to see some amazing snow-covered scenery.
On March 24, 2007, we set out to do some snow camping near Dicks Peak, then make bag the summit of Dicks Peak the following day, then return home for the work week. We set out from the Bay Area on Friday evening, and made it to Emerald Bay and the trailhead quite late. Temperatures were pretty cold, but not unbearable - perhaps in the low 30s or high 20s F. We quickly set up a tent near our car, and intended to make an early morning start into the backcountry.
Vandi, ready to go at the trailhead.
We woke to beautiful weather - sunny, crisp, clear. After a quick breakfast, we geared up with full packs and mountain attire to make a weekend in the snow.
An overlook near the top of the steep section of the trail
The trail took us up steeply, then into the canyon containing Granite Lake, then up through the craggy granite between Maggie's Peaks. With clear skies, we had some truly beautiful views at this point in the trail.
After the initial steep section of trail climbing out of the Tahoe basin, we reached more gentle terrain, an expanse of granite covered by snow and sparse trees. Heading West and slightly South, we made our way to the final slope climbing out of the valley and into the basin containing Dicks Lake
The valley leading to Dicks Lake.
Several hundred feet uphill from Dicks Lake, we found a nice campsite with a beautiful view of Dicks Peak. After setting up camp, we set off with light packs to scout out our approach to Dicks Peak. We decided to head to the East side of the lake, up through the woods below the ridge running North-South that eventually wrapped around to join the peak. The following morning, starting before light, we'd take this route to the East Ridge of Dicks. We didn't want to waste our time getting lost. The late afternoon was beautiful on the snow-covered slopes. Satisfied with our approach path, we returned to camp, made dinner, and got into our sleeping bags as the temperatures dropped.
Our campsite near Dicks Lake, with Dicks Peak in the background.
Summit Day and Return to Car
Vandi, suiting up for our hike in the early morning chill.
The next morning we woke early, got a quick breakfast, and suited up to go for the summit. Still dark, we were thankful for having scouted the trail the afternoon before. We followed our own tracks through the trees in total darkness, across 30 degree snow slopes. Gradually the sky lightened with the rising sun, albeit with morning overcast. We made quick work gaining the point where the North-South ridge began heading southwest, toward our objective.
Dicks Lake from the Northeast Ridge of Dicks, still early in the morning.
As we climbed out of the trees and onto the ridge, the view was gorgeous. Snow and ice-covered Dicks Lake was silent and peaceful.
The shoulder of the Northeast Ridge. Vandi and I climbed the steep snow patch between the two rock bands.
With a view to the East Ridge, I saw a very interesting steep patch of snow that gained the higher ridge from where we stood. I was hoping to get Vandi onto some steeper snow terrain this Spring, so that she'd be more comfortable on steeper terrain on bigger mountains. The snow patch looked perfect. I mentioned the idea to Vandi - she wasn't immediately enthused, given how steep it looked from straight on. I knew though that slopes often look steeper than they really are once you're on them, so I held my tongue until we got a little closer so we could check it out. From up close, it still looked pretty steep, but manageable. I convinced Vandi to follow me up to the base to have a look. Vandi practiced her snow travel with crampons and ice axe, and seemed pretty confident.
Approaching the steep snow patch, with Lake Tahoe in the background.
With a little trepidation, Vandi agreed to climb the rest. I led up, demonstrating pied a plat facing straight into the snow, ice axe shaft buried deep into the snow at my waist. Vandi followed behind. The slope got steep - to about 45 or 50 degrees in places. Slowly, we continued up the steep terrain. I have to admit there were times I was more afraid for Vandi than she was, since I was looking from above and saw the slope descending below her. Soon, the terrain eased, and we were through the difficulties. Good job Vandi!
Vandi ascending the steep snow in good form.
On the rocky spine of the Northeast Ridge, on the way to the final rise to the summit.
Above the snow slope, we continued along the low-angle spine of the lower East Ridge, on broken rock. Not wanting to remove our crampons yet, we struggled to keep in balance on the uneven, unstable ground. One more steeper rocky section gave way to the final summit ridge.
Celebration at the summit of Dicks Peak.
The summit of Dicks Peak was quite windy. We stayed for a little while, took some photos, and had a bite to eat. Rather than return the way we came, we continued past the summit and around down the Northwest Ridge, far more gentle, and new ground we hadn't yet explored. It took us longer than expected to get down, and by the time we returned to camp, we were pretty beat.
Vandi looking back at Dicks Peak. Our route took us all around the ridgetop, from left to right, around the bowl containing Dicks Lake.
We took a bit of a rest, then began packing our camp and re-packing our packs for the trip back down to the car. We finally left camp by early afternoon. By now, the sun was really beaming down on us, the clouds from early morning having burned off. The sunshine was beautiful, but it also transformed the snow on our descent from nice and crusty to heavy, wet and slushy. The beginning of our trip back to civilization wasn't bad, but as the hours progressed, going got pretty tough. Vandi, thankfully, was often light enough to tiptoe softly across the snow without breaking through. I, unfortunately, did not fit in her weight category. in some spots, every third or fourth step, my leg would plunge into the snow, up to the top of my leg. With 40+ pounds on my back, doing a one-leg squat was never easy. The trail kicked my butt, and I was very happy to finally make it back to the car. Wet, tired, and unshowered, we emerged to find lots of tourists having a day at the overlook at Emerald Bay. We crossed Highway 89 to change clothes at the park bathrooms, then packed the car, and drove to one of our favorite post-Desolation haunts, Margarita's Mexican restaurant in South Lake Tahoe. It felt great to have some hot, tasty food after our long day in the snow.
Another great weekend in Desolation!