Selfish take on Sierra backcountry: Steer clear of Carson Pass (opinion)
January 27, 2018
Two thrilling pillow lines and a cruise-fest through trees —1,000 feet of descent and it took hardly anytime to make it happen.
Carson Pass is heaven for skiing in winter. Or wait, no it's not. Everybody should just drive right on by the parking area on California State Route 88 and go to Kirkwood Mountain Resort a couple miles away.
"Move on, nothing to see or do here."
I moved to South Lake Tahoe in August. I traversed Highway 88/89 to Sonora every weekend for a couple of months while looking for an affordable place to live. (Who's heard that one before?) I was excited at the possibilities about what the peaks would look like blanketed in snow.
Sonora and Tioga passes, the two spots I frequent, are amazing for spring skiing, but really difficult to reach in winter. Or maybe I just don't know the secrets.
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I got my first, small taste of Carson Pass Saturday, Jan. 20, and, after sampling it, I was disappointed. (Remember: Nothing to see or do here.)
I arrived to the parking area armed with my season permit at about 8:30 a.m. My backcountry partner, Kevin, and I were quickly on the trail. I used skins, he wore snowshoes.
It was clear from the beginning that is was going to be a tough go and the misery set in fast. (Remember: Nothing to see or do here.)
The approach to Elephant's Back, a small dome in the Eldorado National Forest that reaches about 9,600 feet, was horribly long. (Horribly long in that it took about as long as a long lunch break). The miserable, continuously steep climb made me wonder why I was out there and I felt like turning around (to do it again after I skied down because it was such a blast).
The three separate, distinct descents were difficult and not very enjoyable. (To say I was giddy with about seven inches of fluffy powder on mostly un-tracked terrain would be an understatement to say the least.)
The first, steep, screaming fast descent off the shoulder of the dome was over in the blink of an eye, it took only about 10-15 seconds (and has provided several minutes of daydreams that I have relived a few times everyday since). On the second descent, there wasn't another track in site to show me the way down (I stopped to look back after my skis sliced the only path through the unblemished slope and burst out laughing). And the final few hundred feet I had to weave my way through thick groves of pine trees (it was so fun I can't wait to choose another path through those same pines the next time).
After my partner and I skied down, he rode, toward Red Lake, we had to hike back up a snow-covered road a few hundred feet on tired legs to our car. (That's all unfortunately true).
The round trip took about four hours, a total waste (that I didn't make it a longer tour and take on Round Top, a taller mountain a bit farther away).
I got back to an overflowing parking lot and wondered why so many people would want to waste so much time when there are perfectly good chair lifts down the road. (Remember: Nothing to see or do here.)
So, upon review, I would not recommend making the trip to Carson Pass at all. Steer clear. (It's mine. All mine). I definitely won't be back again anytime soon after the four intolerable hours I spent there. (Remember: Nothing to see or do there.)
Bill Rozak loves spending time in the backcountry and enjoys sharing it with all like-minded enthusiasts. He's also the sports and recreation editor at the Tahoe Daily Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.