I’ve probably climbed Mt Tallac more times than any other mountain but as a resident of South Lake Tahoe and avid backcountry skier, I’d yet to properly ski it. Looking west from downtown South Lake, Tallac’s Cross Couloir is tantalizingly close and this year the snow lingered in it well into June leaving me with regrets of not having skied it. After reuniting with Kevin whom I’d serendipitously met at the top of California Chute two years ago, I suggested skiing the Cross and we started making plans.
We arranged to meet at Spring Creek Road at 7am, along with two of his friends, Luke and Ian, and Luke’s dog, Taka. By Kevin’s report, Ian and Luke were experienced backcountry skiers and the three of them had toured together quite a lot. Although this would be Taka’s second ski tour, Luke vouched for him and agreed to take him down an easier route if the cross proved too dangerous for the dog. I was excited for my first ski tour with a dog and happy to make new friends!
We got our packs together (in my haste I managed to forget both my beanie and my sunglasses!), got our radios in best order as we could manage, and hit the trail shortly after 7:30am. Or rather, we hit the road. Kevin, Ian, and Luke opted to shoulder their skis and boot up the icy road while I skinned up the ice patches along the margins. Another skier and her dog hiked alongside us and I couldn’t believe how much energy Taka had to run up and down the road! He and the other dog (Waco) were easily doubling or tripling our distance.
After a mile the road ended and the others put on their skis. We followed a well established track along the North ridge of the Northeast Bowl. The sun was hot and I soon found myself lagging behind the others. I need to get in better shape! I was glad that our route followed the ridge along the shaded north side for the remainder of the climb. We stopped along the ridge briefly to apply some skin wax and had a stellar view of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake.
We continued climbing along the ridge until we came to the bottom of the Northeast Bowl which was well tracked out. Waco and his owner were descending the bowl and Taka, who had been helping Ian set the pace, immediately decided that he was also ready to head down. Taka took off alongside Waco down the bowl and out of sight. I joked that Luke would be needing to find a new dog, but he didn’t seem very concerned and, sure enough, Taka came jogging back alongside us in a minute, showing no sign of exertion.
We neared the top of the peak and Ian immediately began scoping out the Cross. I was intent on summiting, so I headed straight for the summit, not sure whether the others cared about touching the highpoint before descending. Eventually everyone joined me and we split the time enjoying the view, eating lunch, and trying to figure out how we’d get down.
The east face of Tallac is covered in steep couloirs and it took a while for us to identify the cross couloir. Eventually Luke and Taka went scouting while we had lunch and came back saying he had found it. We got our gear together and skied down to the entrance. He had definitely found the Cross, as we could see clearly down the mountain all the way to Fallen Leaf Lake.
The was an obvious line down the gut of the couloir where it appeared that someone had cut out a section of the cornice, but there also seemed to be several other options to enter uphill of the main route. I hiked out to a ledge lookers left of the cross to have a look. From here, I couldn’t see the main line at all, but I clearly saw that there was a decent stretch of water ice on the route I had been looking at, and easily decided that I’d ski the normal Cross Couloir.
Kevin, Ian, and I had a chat and we decided that we were all down to ski the Cross! We played some radio musical chairs to ensure that we’d be able to communicate down the line and meet up with Luke below the Northeast Bowl. Ian dropped first and skied down to the arm. He radioed up to us “Wow, I’m tired!” and reported that conditions weren’t ideal, suggesting that we not bother trying to link turns. Just as Kevin dropped, some strange gossipy chatter started blaring on his radio. It continued down the line, echoing up the couloir and I couldn’t help but think how distracting it must be.
Luke and Taka headed back to the summit to collect their skis and head down the other side of the peak. I dropped into the couloir and found that the snow was not quite as chalky as it looked. It was not very tight, but the snow looked very firm to either side, so I took my time making careful jump turns. After thirty feet the couloir widened, but the snow covered granite wall still towered above on either side. Below me gleamed Lake Tahoe and the north end of Fallen Leaf Lake. There can’t be many ski descents in the world to equal this!
I joined Ian and Kevin at the arm of the cross and plopped down in the snow, exhilarated and tired from the descent. We skied out the bottom of the cross, which proved to be some great, if heavy, skiing!
From here we cut hard left and met up with Luke on the ridge. We took the pulse and everyone decided that we were up for a second lap, this time hoping to ski a different couloir we’d seen on the ascent.
Along the climb we passed at least three other large groups of skiers, including one which had possibly done a naked lap down the Northeast Bowl!
We reached the top of the couloir but we did not have a great view of the line. Luke decided that it would be best if Taka took an easier route, so Kevin volunteered to take him while Ian, Luke, and I skied the couloir. Kevin and Taka headed down the lower Northeast Bowl while Ian headed into the couloir to scope it out. Before Luke or I could drop though, Taka reappeared and Kevin shortly radioed up to let us know that he was missing. Luke decided that Taka should be able to descend the couloir, but after a couple feet Taka decided he wasn’t up for it and climbed back to the top.
I was happy with a day well skied and elated that I’d skied the Cross. I didn’t need to ski another intense line so I offered to take Taka down with me. Now that Ian had confirmed that the line went, Luke decided that he’d ski it quickly and meet us at the bottom before Taka could run back up again. I started down the Northeast Bowl with Taka but after only a few turns he took off back up the mountain!
I skied down a bit further so that I could see the others and see if Taka had taken the hard route down, but Taka was not there either. After calling for him for a minute, Taka reappeared from above. I carefully guided him away from the cliffs and once he saw Luke he was quick to join up with the party!
We skied out the rest of the drainage and soon came back to the road. Although we were able to ski alongside the road most of the way, the return trip seemed to take much longer than the climb!
Soon we were back at the car and packing up. I was tired and happy — at about 5,000 feet of climbing, I think this is the biggest day I’ve had on skis so far! Taka on the other hand showed no sign of tiring and quickly set to playing with another dog at the trailhead! Everyone was eager to hit the road and return home after a great day of skiing.
Elevation Gain: 5,000 ft