The alarm clock rang out signaling it was five o’clock in the morning. Even though there wasn’t any fresh snow in sight, there was a sense of excitement like it was a powder day. Our plans this morning were to venture into our backyard. Down the road from the house sits one of the quintessential peaks in the Tahoe Basin, Mt. Tallac. Today we didn’t plan to summit. Since this is my first year in the backcountry, this was only a warm up run to make sure the gear was dialed and our planning was in order. We may not be hitting the steepest or gnarliest terrain in the region, but it was still going to be an adventure and we were stoked! After a cup of coffee at the house, we were scheduled to meet up at the Tahoe Keys Café to plan out the day and make sure we were all in agreement.
Patience is key in the backcountry
Our buddy, Sean Geitner, and his furry four legged friend Zeus were guiding us today. He’s an experienced outdoorsman and guide that has traveled in this area for twenty plus years. Originally, we were going to meet him around 7:00, but he was delayed on his way up from Napa Valley. It was all good. We pulled into one of our favorite coffee spots and grabbed a piece of their homemade pumpkin bread, and a cup of coffee. Upon paying, Sean stepped in wearing shorts and a big grin on his face. He took a deep breath stretched and exclaimed, “It’s good to be back in Tahoe!” After a quick greeting, we sat down and planned our day out.
Since its spring, the Sierra Avalanche Center stopped providing the avalanche conditions for the season. Based on our training we knew the major concern would be a loose wet slide. To make sure we had a few options in regards to aspect and snow level the final verdict was to head to the South Bowl on Mt. Tallac. The only thing that made us nervous was the weather report. It stated that after 11 am there could be a chance of scattered thunderstorms and rain. We made the choice that if the weather started rolling in we would re-assess and determine what our next course of action was.
Reconnaissance from Camp Richardson
From Tahoe Keys Café we hopped in our ride and drove up Highway 89 towards Emerald Bay. We pulled over near Camp Richardson to scope out the terrain. From that distance the snow looked really good but the snow level was a bit higher than expected. This meant we would be dry hiking. Instead of skinning up we would be strapping the skis or snowboards onto our back and walking up. Jumping into the truck we headed further up the road to our destination. Arriving at the parking lot it was empty except for a couple of other die hards and a crew going out to camp in Desolation Wilderness that night.
Gearing up to hike
With only a tiny sliver of snow in view from the parking lot the idea of skiing today just didn’t seem reality. Lacing up a pair our hiking shoes and fastening our gear on our backs, we began the ascent. As the saying goes, earn your turns. We should’ve known that it was going to turn out to be an interesting day when we even had trouble finding the beginning of the trail. After a few minutes of fumbling about we picked it up and started following it upwards. Ascending quickly away from the cars the view of the peaks around us, the clear air in our lungs, and the sun shining made the beginning of the task enjoyable. As we continued climbing the trail became smaller and more challenging. The ground cover went from dirt, to loose granite rocks, to large boulders that we had to climb over. Looking down to the left the side of the mountain fell quickly down to the valley. It was absolutely gorgeous, but at the same time terrifying. My gut clenched at the view and my mind began to worry. I imagined taking one wrong step and suddenly the entire boulder field breaking loose and I end up falling to my impending doom. Sean quietly guided us through each boulder field calming my nerves and giving tips on how to walk through the demanding terrain. In the distance the snow field began to creep closer and closer.
Thinking the worst was behind us …
Out of nowhere the trail stopped at a cliff band. All I can could think is are you kidding me!?!?! What kind of situation did I put myself into? Looking down the face it dropped nearly twenty feet to a steep slope that fell another thousand feet. Once past my initial pure fear of heights Sean pointed out the foot and hand holds to cross it easily. As soon as we overcame this obstacle a sense of elation filled my body. This is one of the most adventurous things I’d ever done. We continued climbing upwards until we reached the snow line. Transitioning from hiking boats to splitboards we skinned up the rest of the mountain.
Overlooking Lake Tahoe
Reaching the summit I felt a sense of accomplishment. Thinking back to my childhood, I couldn’t imagine being able to do something like this. This wasn’t a real summit to real backcountry skiers, but this is my biggest achievement so far. Slapping high fives we looked over the ridge to the massive bowl filled with snow. The entire bowl was untracked! It was like a giant blank canvas ready for our masterpiece. Looking south-west we could see deep, dark thundering clouds rolling over the distant ridgeline. Sean commented that it seemed that the weather would stay south of us. If so, we would lap it and if not we would head down sooner.
Perfect Sierra Corn!
They say working for it makes it taste that much sweeter. There must be some truth to it, because dropping into that bowl it felt like the best snow I had ever ridden in my life. It was truly enjoyable and possibly one of my best runs all season! Corn in the backcountry is amazing! It can only be compared to ego powder, but without burning up your legs. Looking up from the bottom I watched Jaime drop in. She slashed her way through the bowl and each turn became more pronounced. With a loud “WHOOP” she arrived to the bottom with a huge smile. Finally, Sean dropped in taking turn after turn though the corn. As he arrived at the bottom he said, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!” Giving a couple of quick pounds we split our snowboard into skis and placed our skins on the bottom of them so that we could climb back up.
The weather rolls in
Looking up the clear blue sky transitioned more to the deep menacing clouds we were worried about. We agreed that it was better to call it a day and start heading down before we got stuck out in the storm. To get out of the bowl we had to climb back up. Ascending the slope, the terrain felt a lot steeper than it felt riding down. Half way up Jaime’s skis begin to slip in the corn snow and she suddenly falls over. Seeing this happen in front of me I begin to have trouble as well. At the same the clouds that were looking like trouble begin to block out the sun and the sky begins to darken. After twenty minutes of frustration it was time to take off our skis and hike the rest of the way up. We didn’t want to get stuck here if the storm did roll in. At the top it begins to lightly snow making us attempt to hurry.
From the peak the easiest way back down was the way we came up. The problem was the terrain on the back side of the bowl was too flat to transition back to a snowboard. Today was the day to try split skiing down the mountain and hike our way out. Talk about exhilarating. It felt like pure chaos as we made the awkward pizza / French fry gestures with our skis. Laughing the entire time we make it to the bottom of the snowline safe and sound. Looking up it seemed that we had lucked out and the storm burned itself out.
Switching back into our hiking boots we hike back down to the car. With the sun setting over the peaks and two hours of descending we finally make it to the parking lot. This was an awesome journey and the quest was all worth it. I can’t wait to go again!