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Mount Tallac & Kalmia Ridge,
January 2004

Desolation Wilderness, California

(click on any photo for a full-sized version)


Sometimes you get the perfect day -- bottomless fluff, blue skies, no wind, and you're feeling rested and fit.  Today was not that day.  Frankly, I felt like crap.  I got about five hours of sleep on a Friday night after a long work week.  Arriving in South Lake Tahoe on Saturday morning, the day was warm and clear, but the wind was howling.  This combination of warm temps and strong winds wreaked havoc on the snowpack, morphing our perfect December powder into a ragged combination of decent windpack, difficult crust, dangerous ice, and unskiable sastrugi.  On a day like today, you take what you can get and you ski to just enjoy the scenery.  With that in mind, we chose to head back to Tahoe's most scenic peak -- Mount Tallac.

Chris and I had been up Tallac countless times.  In fact, 2004 marks Chris's 14th year on this peak.  But our bud Toby, who has the good fortune to live about 2 miles from the base of the mountain, had never trodden upon it.  The decision was made.  Chris and I wanted to spice things up a little bit, and lobbied to continue past Tallac down the long Kalmia Ridge that leads into the Desolation Wilderness and Dicks Pass.  We hoped that there would be some decent snow on the steep north face of this ridge and that it would be worth the extra effort to get out there (fast forward:  it wasn't).  There's also some outrageous scenery en route, so Toby agreed and the plan was made.

The initial climb up the frontside of Tallac to the summit is steep.  About 3,300 feet in less than 2.5 miles.  And what normally is a difficult skin was made even harder on this day by icy conditions on the uptrack.  Virtually the entire way up the NE ridge, our skis were holding onto that precarious balance between barely staying put and violently slipping backwards.  A few spills were taken -- names withheld to protect the innocent.

Just below the summit, the boards went on the packs and we kicked steps up the final few hundred feet to the ridgetop.  Resting at the top, we saw a group of ten or so tele-skiers coming up behind us.  For such a big group, we noticed that they moved awfully fast.  Turns out they were members of the Tahoe Nordic SAR Patrol out for a tour and some beacon practice near Gilmore Lake.  Rather than head up to the summit from here, we dropped down the Kalmia Ridge towards Dicks Pass.

The views from the ridge are awesome over Lake Tahoe to one side, and the craggy Crystal Range on the other.  To the southeast are the peaks of Carson and Ebbets Passes, and to the northwest one can see the fog in the upper Sacramento Valley.  We had scattered high clouds, but visibility was outstanding.  Along the ridge, one member of our group ventured too close to the edge and accidentally kicked off a sizeable cornice.  It let loose with a deafening boom, and triggered a small avalanche on the face below (the top 3-5 inches of windcrust let loose).  Given the size of the cornice that let loose, and the relatively benign impact it had on the slope below, this was a good indicator that the north facing slopes below were fairly stable.  But a seriously rookie move on our part getting too close to the cornice.  Those things certainly do have a tendency to break off much further back than you think.  Nobody was hurt, and we had another firsthand lesson in safe travel protocol.

We reached the Kalmia peaklet (Peak 9,376') about halfway between Tallac and Janine Peak.  A couple of steep and narrow chutes drop off the north side of this peaklet.  Today they were unskiable without a serious death wish, so we passed.  Instead, we dropped the bowl above Tallac Lake.  The snow was brutal, with some fairly large wind-created dorsal fins sticking up to grab our skis.  Challenging skiing to say the least.  At the bottom of the bowl, we put the skis on our backs and began the steep hike back up to the ridge.  I won't lie to you -- this absolutely sucked.  The only blemish on an otherwise fine day in the mountains.  Ultimately we made it back to the ridge, where we drained our water bottles and chowed down to get our energy back.

A moderate skin brought us back to the summit of Tallac at 9,735', with views over the entire Tahoe basin and beyond.  Toby and I ventured out down the east face to check out the entrance to the Babycham and Cross couloirs.  SICK!  Today was not the day to test fate, so we debated mellower alternatives like Cathedral Bowl or North Bowl.  We did a variation on the north side run by dropping the first steep face, then angling hard right into the elevator chute that leads down into the right arm of the Cross.  The skiing wasn't great, but big smiles were had all around anyway.  We skied down towards Fallen Leaf Lake, then made a long traverse back to the car.  The sun-baked and wind-frozen crust on lower sweat hill was, for me, the crux of the descent.  Somehow we all managed to get down in one piece.  Another fine day in the Tahoe bc. 

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