A slippery trip up Mount Tallac’s half-frozen flank
February 2, 2012
About half way up Mount Tallac’s Summit Bowl the snow became hard with rain crust. Our split boards, halved into makeshift alpine touring skis, crunched through the ice, offering just enough grip to hold us on the sheer slope. Chunks of the frozen husk slid, bouncing and tinkling like broken glass down the mountain. Within 100 yards of the summit, the shell was too thick to break through. I slipped.
Some four hours before, my roommate Wes Minton, his brother Jackson Minton and I walked up Spring Creek Road, packs full of food and water. Our boards were on our backs. Where Yurok Road dead ends into the early reaches of the South Shore’s most recognizable peak, we slapped skins on the bottom of our boards.
I’d bought a 10-year-old Voile 166 off Craigslist the day before. This was my first day trekking around on two halves of an overly stiff, awkwardly long and dangerously heavy snowboard, let alone riding the thing in crummy backcountry conditions. To say the least, Tallac’s descents, ranging up to 55 degrees, probably weren’t the place for a green bean.
“It’s relatively big for Tahoe,” said Lake Tahoe Community College wilderness education director David Reichel. “There’s no super easy way to climb it either.”
Mount Tallac has a magnetic draw to it. If people come to Lake Tahoe to climb mountains, it won’t be long before they tackle the 9,700-foot peak. If they come to ski backcountry, the body and the arms of the telltale “Cross” are obvious targets.
“It’s just that classic peak that’s just staring at you wherever you are around here,” said Sierra Ski and Cycle Works owner Gary Bell, who first ascended Tallac in the 1970s, shortly after moving to the area.
My friends and I wound our way up the bush-strewn bottoms. With little snow, we had to swerve around trees and till. Twisted branches of manzanita jutted out where the heavy wet drifts weren’t deep enough. The shallow pack hardly smoothed the wild deviations of the boulder field, leaving a dodgy roller coaster of ups and downs.
Despite all the veering, I found ascending on the splitboard really easy. The toe-sliding motion seemed to take less effort than walking. The thousands of tiny angled hairs of the skins held fast even on steep steps. A pair of poles helped me balance on traverses.
By midway up Corkscrew Trees, with a solid base under our feet, we could make long straight diagonals. At the top, we turned south along the ridge. It was warm enough to sport just base layers rolled up to our elbows until we entered the shade of the north bowl and a frigid breeze froze the sweat on our backs.
When my foot came unglued from the icy wall, I came down hard on my side, head down the mountain. My weight broke the crust and I jammed the poles through downhill, stopping myself from sliding. I dragged my legs back under me and unbuckled. We booted to the wind-scoured crown.
After lunch, we strapped in and peered down at the South Shore, 3,300-feet below. The ride down was fun enough. The North Bowl’s Gobstopper glaze gave way to a Three Musketeers layering of crumbly top layer over whipped sugar. A few small rock bands offered safe drops, but just-buried boulders kept more technical terrain out of question.
I rode over to the entrance of the south arm of The Cross. The sun dropped behind Tallac’s peak. We were in the shadow now. Black crags lined the banks of the chute. No entry there.
We hooked around the ridge toward the southern end of the Northeast Bowl. Sun had blasted the face, turning the snow sticky. Tiny gullies where small chunks rolled into snowballs bigger than Frosty’s bottom half decorated the canyon sides. I picked up speed to slash a small bank. Clearly, somewhere between the turning radius of my 166 and my projected velocity, a miscalculation was made. I careened off the rocky ledge on the far side of my objective. I landed in a fluff.
On a strange board in strange conditions, the fall was a reminder not to mess around. We bounced our way through the manzanita, over logs and past glistening granite. At the bottom, we stared back up at the tower we’d just come from. We almost headed back for more, but someone mentioned Burger Lounge.