State of the Tahoe Backcountry 2011: XVII

State of the Tahoe Backcountry 2011: XVII


State of the Tahoe Backcountry 2011: XVII


The resorts are closing and lower elevation snow is melting fast. But if you’re willing to adapt to the seasonal changes and mix it up a bit, snowy adventures are just a short bike ride away.

Before sampling this week’s current backcountry conditions some truly memorable turns were had at Squaw. Hundreds of kindred spirits showed up to the Valley on Thursday to honor two of Tahoe’s finest. The top of McConkey’s saw a bunch of traffic, we made our own lift line at KT, and there was even a picnic held in “the Box”. The ceremony was as beautiful as could be, and many good memories and vibes were shared throughout the course of the night that will carry on for many years to come. Unlimited thanks goes out to all those involved!

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Needless to say the libations from Thursday somewhat carried over into my West Shore ski on Friday, but Saturday’s hit down off Red Lake Peak proved a bit more worthy.

 Linking up with Tom, Ben, and James the four us were treated to a smooth corn run off the east flanks of the peak with great views of Carson Pass to the south.

Ben and James were stoked with the view of nearby Round Top, and came back the following day to slide down the Crescent Couloir.

Silver Peak’s North Couloir off Ebbett’s Pass looked like it deserved a visit as well-more on that adventure later (apologies for the old blurry shot).

Sunday and Monday brought some turbulent weather including a few fresh inches of the good stuff. I found a very interesting surface to ascend and descend on Sunday-skiing an inch or two of new on top of a slushy bottom at about 8k feet-but Monday was much smoother.

For Monday I hooked with Dr. Robb G and his dog Indie. We figured Tallac would be a good call, since it usually is, and were treated to a brief window of quality spring-winter conditions. For most of the day the lower reaches of Tallac were clear, but the top half was socked in. Our first lap was down the “Front Mountain Chutes” splitting the descent between the “S Chute” and the line descending directly riders left. “S Chute” was still really filled in although the choke was a bit firm. We skied several steep shots on this day, all skiing great with biteable snow, but relatively firm at the higher degrees nonetheless. It was the moderate angled slopes the held the true smooth goods on Monday as the new layer of fresh snow provided a clean canvass over a silky base layer to shred on.

For lap two we headed to the summit in a complete white-out. Our run was a bit blind off the top, but once we dropped in the sky let up just enough to use Tallac’s huge rock walls for better depth perception. Once we entered yet another secret walled chute the stoke factor rose again. A great couple of tight turns led us out to an apron with a few thousand more feet of the exact turns we were hoping for.

At the bottom we noticed the spring melt had started giving way to evidence of what looked to be an incredibly large, destructive slide. Our best guess was due to the complex rolling terrain, and the fact that the upper reaches of this section of the mountain is the run out from “The Cross”, that the slide(s) probably went big during one of our many huge storm cycles this winter. Then all the hundreds of new inches just buried whatever was left in its path. Just look at the slide path and think about the potential for tons of new snow to let loose and run.

Here Robb and Indie check out the numerous downed trees and trampled vegetation.

The effects of this slide were seen hundreds of feet past where the first downed trees were noticed. Truly a huge event took place here, and it’s yet another reminder for choosing wisely, whether during or after a storm, when skiing in the Tahoe backcountry.

Traversing out to the car after lap two we were just about to ski the last pitch to the car when we both stopped. Robb said something to the effect of taking every opportunity this time of year to take advantage of skiing the quality we had just skied, so we both figured out how to pass off some afternoon obligations and turned around for another lap. Skinning back up this particular drainage we got yet another unique view of Tallac as well as a look at several worthy looking lines unscopable from other vantages on the mountain. Then we dropped in from a random peaklette, and arced our way back down another glorious lap.

Rounding out the week I linked back up with Ben Mitchell. Passing on a window for a mission to the Eastside I got Ben fired up on heading off to the Sierra’s most seldom visited mountain pass for an adventure. Ebbett’s Pass sees some ski traffic in the winter from snowmobilers accessing unreal mid-winter terrain via snow covered Highway 4, but it never gets the traffic it should in the spring because it’s historically the last Sierra Pass to open. This means catching some of the best terrain, like the North Couloir of Silver Peak (aka Glider Chute), takes a little something extra such as using a mountain bike to ride the four mile or so paved road to the trailhead when the lower gate is still locked.

While much of the skiing off Ebbett’s is adventurous in and of itself, Silver Peak is a whole other ball game. It’s not quite as ridiculous as the bushwhacking on Mt. Williamson, but route finding, patience, and a desire for something off the beaten path is a must. If you’ve ever seen what looks to be a huge chute off in the distance from the top off Jake’s, Tallac, Red Lake, or Round Top this is it.

Once you’ve peddled your bike out to the campground at the base of the Silver Creek drainage the fun begins. Creek crossings are a major hurdle in this mission. People have told me many times over to budget extra time for this aspect of the day. Ben and I found about as easy of a crossing as one could hope for in the beginning, although it wasn’t quite so easy at the end of the day when we overshot our cross over point.

Route finding is key at the base of this line as the terrain is densely forested, melting out fast, and very easy to get lost in. We managed to find our way, although in the beginning we were still not fully sure if we were on the right path, or just following a bunch of hungry bears.

Really, there were bear prints everywhere, and for a stretch of the ascent we were literally following their path wondering if we’d eventually stumble right into them. Thankfully we didn’t disturb them, and as we gained our intended gulley the terrain and uniqueness of our locale started showing itself.

In terms of steepness the couloir is about as gentle as a big walled line comes. As the line got steeper, the new snow on top of a firm base made for easy slips and tough edging. We probably could’ve skinned longer than we did, but booting made sense as the new snow from earlier in the week was just too slippery to skin through.  

Great views from the top were complemented by some great turns in the couloir.

 Did I mention that Ben climbed and skied on this day without the use of two poles? Yeah, we’ve all seen the kids throwing down at Squaw with no poles, but backcountry couloir skiing with one pole? Ben killed it. I gave him one of my poles for a few stretches on the up and down, but he pretty much just made it look easy and natural regardless of whether he was using one or two poles. A bummer he forgot the whippet at my house before we left, but I think we’re both pretty glad it all worked out in the end.

Ebbett’s won’t realistically be open for a few more weeks, although if you’re feeling a bike-to-ski mission Silver is not the only worthy line accessible from the clear paved road right now. However it looks like the next week will be interesting in terms of weather so deep backcountry missions may have to be put on temporary hold until this system passes through. Right now it looks like there’s a chance of snow from Saturday through next Wednesday, with the potential for snow levels to drop to 4k feet. I guess corn skiing may be put on hold for a brief shot here, but did somebody say a fresh plastering of high elevation lines throughout the greater Sierra? Sounds good to me.

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