This winter has provided some incredible conditions for skiing with large multiday storms dropping stable high quality snow and long stretches of bluebird weather between! I had made several plans to take advantage of these lulls between the storms to climb Mt Rose but on two occasions I backed off because of fear of high winds which never materialized. Tuesday was just the same, with expected ridgetop gusts of 130mph (not too unusual — a recent storm recorded a ridgetop gust of 175mph at Squaw Valley) as the next storm system approached, but I didn’t want to let the threat of wind stop me this time.
I left the house shortly after sunrise and started the not-so-long drive to the opposite corner of Lake Tahoe. As I drove through Meyers I glimpsed what looked like fog hanging high along the eastern edge of the Crystal Range, but realized that it was snow being blown off the ridge. The wisps of snow crystals danced in slow motion as the wind changed speed and direction. I was reminded of recent videos I’d seen of Mt Everest being scoured by the jet stream and hoped the spindrift was occurring because there was so much loose snow rather than because of such strong winds.
I arrived at the parking on Mt Rose Summit and put my gear together, very glad to see that there was not as much blowing snow as I’d witnessed in South Lake. I started the climb out of the parking lot around nine heading west toward Tamarack Peak and found a skin track heading in the right direction. The track must have been set on Monday however, as it mercilessly crossed along the top of the ridge which was exposed to a constant 30mph wind out of the southwest.
I came to a local highpoint and had a view of the route ahead, gently sloping up to Tamarack Peak. The east face had a lovely slope with a few ski tracks curving down it. I opted to dip down along the south side of the ridge where a small forest of stunted trees provided meager shelter, rather than the more sheltered north side where I was liable to trigger new wind slabs or cornices.
The south side of the ridge afforded me a great view of Tahoe. On the opposite side of the lake I could make out the peaks of Desolation Wilderness and see that Tallac, as well as Pyramid, Jacks, and Dicks were still shedding snow in dramatic fashion. Far south I saw the Monument group, the tallest peaks of the Tahoe basin, and saw no sign of high winds. Strangely, only Desolation seemed to be visibly affected by the winds.
I arrived at the summit of Tamarack Peak around 10:15 and was glad to find a small clump of trees nearby in which to shelter while I transitioned. The wind was stronger up here but not so strong in this shelter that I was afraid my gear might blow away. I had my best view of Mt Rose yet and it was apparent that I would have to take my skis off to make it to the summit. I decided that I would climb the western side of the south face to the highest point where snow met the ridge and continue on foot from there.
I started skiing westward along the ridge, sidestepping through some uphill sections so that I could descend the northern bowl which would provide the most direct approach to Mt Rose.
As I reached the ridge where the northern and northeastern bowls diverge I was surprised to see two splitboarders close above me, boards together and looking ready to descend. I spoke with them briefly, hoping that they might also be descending the northern bowl, but found that they were planning to drop into the northeastern bowl named “Hourglass.” The northern bowl, Chris and Christian told me, was named “Broken Glass.” Since they were about to descend anyway and looked prepared, I asked to join them and they seemed happy to have me. I wasn’t overly worried about avalanche danger in these bowls, but in this case it seemed better to have company than not.
I let them have their choice of line before following them down to the meadow below through firm snow. I said a brief farewell as I continued down the drainage, trying to traverse as far left as possible so as not to lose too much elevation. Eventually, when descending any further would take me in the wrong direction, I stopped to put my skins back on and have a snack.
I skinned a hundred feet up the drainage towards the summer trail which I was hoping to use to gain the ridge when I came to a clearing and was a bit dismayed by the route the trail took. It traversed below an avalanche slope and above a tight gully. Avalanche danger was not high, but this was clearly not the safest route up the mountain. Instead I looked across the valley toward Mt Rose and found a ridge which appeared to climb directly toward the summit. After a brief downhill skin, I started up the ridge.
The ridge proved to be a great route, rising at a good angle, and the snow was good for climbing, consisting mostly of small wind slabs which didn’t compress much under my weight. In addition, a small line of brush along the western shoulder of the ridge provided some shelter from the wind which was occasionally strong enough to transport snow across the ridge left to right.
At about 9,800 ft the ridge became less defined and I began traversing westward through the large treeless section of the south face. Although it was well covered with snow, it was badly wind scoured and very firm. I only gained about 400 ft while traversing this section but the wind was probably closer to 40mph here without any trees to provide shelter and it was mentally taxing, trying to keep my eyes on a target and to keep my legs moving. I would have liked to rest, but with high winds, steep slope, and firm snow, I didn’t want to stay on the exposed slope any longer than necessary.
After a long 20 minutes I reached the far side of the treeless slope and stopped to have another snack. As I looked around, cirrus clouds were building noticeably all around and the lake looked dark and ominous.
I continued climbing upward toward the ridge and was surprised to find that I was able to attain it with minimal skinning over rocks. I guess that the wind was closer to 50mph here and I found a large outcropping of rock behind which I could shelter and stash my skis. I got all of my gear ready for the descent, knowing that although I was warm at the moment, I’d probably be quite wind chilled by the time I’d return. I leashed my skis together and stuck them into the snow as firmly as I could. Hopefully even if the wind managed to dislodge them, the clumsy shape of two loosely leashed skis would prevent them from sliding too far!
I headed for the summer trail, but the first switchback headed vaguely south and the uncomfortable sensation of air forcing its way up my nose and into my throat encouraged me to head more directly up the slope. Soon the wind became so strong that I decided to head to the north side of the slope which I hoped might be more sheltered, but I didn’t notice any appreciable difference and this side of the ridge was uncomfortably close to steep snowy north face and I knew that a slip down this face without skis could easily benight me and with a storm rolling in, it would be a very difficult night to weather.
I headed back towards the summer trail, relying heavily on my poles to keep myself upright as I climbed. In the best of times, hiking in ski boots is clumsy. In the strong wind each step was a struggle to find sure footing. I aimed for the patches of snow which were more predictable than the jumble of rock, but often stepped accidentally on the talus. The wind continued to intensify as I climbed and I decided to dip south along the ridge, realizing that it was unlikely to provide any relief but knowing that a stumble there was unlikely to send me flying off the mountain.
I gained another 50 feet and the flapping of my hood against my helmet was deafening. I saw a rocky outcrop above me and climbed toward it to take shelter in its lee and formulate a plan. As I rounded the outcropping on the windward side, the intensifying wind pushed me against the rock and I tried to regain my footing but found that I was utterly pinned. I was still holding my poles so perhaps I did not have the best hold of the rock, but I could not free myself. I waited for the wind to let up, but this was not a gust, and it did not let up. I squirmed around the rock, and was once again pressed to the ground, crawling on all fours into the downwind side of the rock.
The lee of the rock was small and I had to sit down to get out of the wind. I pulled out my phone to check my map and make a decision on whether to continue to the summit. My exposed nose was painfully cold and the rest of my face and fingers were not much better off. My toes were cold as well and I knew that in such high winds it would not take long to get frostbite. I wanted to climb to the top of Mt Rose but I was not willing to risk life nor limb to do so. Unfortunately my map indicated that there were still nearly 200 vertical feet before I would reach the summit, and I greatly doubted whether I could gain another ten feet, so I decided to turn around.
I stood to hike back to my skis and was almost immediately blown off my feet. I was suddenly and acutely aware that my poles were not strapped to my wrists and that an attempt to arrest a slide would almost certainly result in the other pole being blown off the mountain. This is generally considered to be good practice when traveling in avalanche terrain where any gear attached to your body is a liability, but here I wished my straps were around my wrist. Luckily after landing on my butt, I was blown against a large enough boulder that I was able to hold on. I carefully stood up and fought my way down the slope, leaning severely into the wind so that I didn’t blow over. My wrists quickly became tired from trying to place my poles ahead of me while the wind tried to steal them and I found that I was better off holding my poles in one hand and focusing on balancing into the wind.
I returned to my skis, glad to see that they were still there and picked them up to head down. The wind immediately caught them and I was lucky to grab on with both hands before they sailed away. I staggered down towards the snow line and took and ungraceful seat to carefully don my skis. When buckling my left boot I found that one of the buckles had come off, but I didn’t think about it much — it would hardly make a difference on the descent.
Looking at historical data, the weather station at Slide Mountain less than three miles away and 1,000 ft lower, recorded an average windspeed of 63mph and a maximum gust of 89mph during the time I was on the Mt Rose ridge. Given the difference in height, the wind speed on Mt Rose was likely higher than that. Although I had been concerned about frostbite, the recorded temperature was 20F, and it appears that even down to 15F there is no real danger of frostbite, even in the strongest wind.
Skis on, I started to descend, first picking through scrubby trees and then entering the more mature forest. I was surprised how quickly the wind died. The snow was very wind affected but I was able to find some nice stretches of decent snow and soon found myself linking turns.
In no time at all, I found my tracks from the bottom of the climb and transitioned back for the hike to the car. I found an old half-buried skin track from earlier in the day or the previous day and was grateful for the energy it saved me. As I approached the Tahoe Rim Trail, I had a great view of Mt Rose and blue skis around. I had a hard time believing that it could really be so windy up there, but knew that the winds were only supposed to intensify throughout the day, so I resisted the urge to make another summit bid (again looking at historical weather data, by 8pm the wind speed averaged 111mph and gusted to 136mph).
I eventually neared the Tamarack ridge line and kept wary of the possible cornice avalanche above. The forest petered out and above me grew only small trees, leaning severely from the load of avalanche debris. I opted to move downhill into the more mature forest before realizing that even these tall trees were badly flagging from avalanches past, and dropped another fifty feet into the forest for good measure.
I reached a saddle on the ridge and continued along its north side, arriving back at the car around 3:15. I packed up my gear and headed towards Incline Village to grab some food. The wind was drastically worse than it had been in the morning, and I encountered several whiteouts just below Mt Rose Summit. I researched frostbite over a burger and some beer before heading home. Hopefully I’ll find a more hospitable storm window later this year!
- Strong SW winds.
- Large cornice formation on E and N sides of ridges.
- Significant wind scouring on S aspects, often to the ground.
- Small 2-4″ wind slab formation below cornices and N of large trees.
- Unable to trigger any slabs on ascent.
- Some cracking of slabs on S aspect of Tamarack near Mt Rose Summit around 3pm, no propagation.
Elevation Gain: 3,700 ft