The hard way down: Backcountry skiing in Lake Tahoe
Special to the Tribune
The mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe are full of excellent terrain for backcountry enthusiasts. From the basin’s tallest mountain, Freel Peak, to some of the more accessible zones like Powder House, there are tours for every ability level.
Though the area isn’t on par with Alaska for steep, technical runs, a few of Tahoe’s peaks are worth any expert’s full attention.
That’s to say, there are a few gnarly spots here. If you’re an expert, you’ll find the lines listed below challenging and fun. If you’re a beginner, this will give you something to shoot for.
Mount Tallac: The Cross
Perhaps the most prominent line on the South Shore, The Cross is legendary among locals. Visible from almost anywhere on the South Shore, The Cross is so named for the prominent intersection of vertical and horizontal gullies on Tallac’s east face. To ski or ride this, conditions need to be ideal, and avalanche danger must be low. The entrance to The Cross is just south of the peak. A 50 degree bowl drops into a narrow main chute. Follow the fall line or there’s big cliffs. Toward the bottom, stick to one of the walls or you’ll have to walk out over the little roller known as Sweat Hill.
Round Top: Crescent Couloir
One of Tahoe backcountry’s heaviest runs, Crescent Couloir is dangerously steep and deadly narrow. A few locals use the Crescent as a training ground for Alaska expeditions, honing their climbing skills and preparing for serious descents. Slicing through the north face of Round Top near Carson Pass, the chute arcs to the east and drops nearly 600 feet. Just climbing it can be a rush. Most skiers and riders choose to bootpack straight up the chute, so they can check conditions inside, rather than go around to the summit. Dropping into an icy Crescent Couloir would essentially be a death sentence.
Jake’s Peak: Eagle Chute
Though it’s not the most imposing line around Lake Tahoe, it’s probably one of the most scenic. Eagle Chute rises is a southeast facing gully on the northwest side of Emerald Bay. That means it gets plenty of sun and the views are spectacular. From the top, it looks almost like you could ride straight to Fannette Island. Eagle Chute isn’t especially steep and it’s one of the wider chutes, but there is still an element of danger. With so much exposure to the sun, heavy, wet avalanches can be a serious concern. It’s best to take on Eagle early. If you hit conditions just right, some of the offshoots above the entrance can add a little spice to your descent.
Red Lake Peak: East Face
The Red Lake Peak area is one of Tahoe’s most popular backcountry zones. The terrain varies from rolling powder fields to precipitous bowls and long winding gullies. Red Lake’s east face lands somewhere in between. What’s unique about these lines is the wildly open nature of the mountain. For those who want to arc wide powder turns with hardly any obstacles, this is the spot. The sustained 35 degree slope descends nearly 2,000 feet to Hope Valley. Some skiers and riders choose to park a car at the bottom and shuttle to the Carson Pass parking area to start the hike. This shuttle cuts a few hundred feet from the climb.
Job’s Peak: Fay Canyon
The peaks on the far eastern edge of the range hold Tahoe’s longest ski descents. But they are seriously heavy. Conditions must be perfect to ski the 4,500-foot lines into Carson Valley. Many winters, the canyon doesn’t even fill in. If there’s not enough snow, skiers and riders could end up walking for miles. Even if you’re an expert skier, do not tackle this one without an experienced guide. The chutes from the top of Job’s are extremely hazardous, and correct navigation is essential. Luckily, the mountain’s lengthy approach keeps most backcountry users far from these dangerous lines. Access is from Luther’s Pass or the steep way, up from the Carson Valley. You’ll need a map.
This article will appear in the winter edition of Tahoe Magazine, which will hit area newsstands Nov. 23.
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