Since first climbing Freel Peak last May and spending a miserable afternoon postholing along the peak’s west flank I’ve wanted to return to the summit with skis. However, as midwinter ski approaches go, Freel is fairly remote and requires a minimum of 4,500 ft of elevation gain over 5 miles. The climb can be significantly shortened by starting at Forest Service Road 051 but this entails a long traverse up and down the southern face which would make exceedingly dull skiing in sub-par conditions. I had resigned myself to the likelihood that I’d be unable to recruit anyone for such an arduous ski trip with no guarantee of decent skiing and would therefore end up skiing the latter (safer) route solo.
By a stroke of luck Zach, whom I’d met hiking this summer, visited and was game for the long northern approach! I’ve never skied with him before, but there isn’t anything especially challenging about the tour and he’s on the short list of people whom I completely trust when they tell me that they’re capable of a hike. Friday night we made plans, alternate plans, and alternate alternate plans, shared them with Brian and tried to get as much sleep as possible before a sunrise start.
Not surprisingly, we found the parking at High Meadows Trailhead completely empty when we arrived at 6:15 AM and within 15 minutes we hit the trail in the predawn light. We followed the well packed snow along the 4×4 road until we came to the gate, which was nearly buried. After another hundred feet or so, I recognized the area where I’d turned south up the slope toward Trimmer Peak on a recent trip and decided to follow the same route despite the lack of broken trail.
We easily crossed a small tributary of Cold Creek via snow bridge and continued uphill to the large power line that rises from Meyers to High Meadows before going up and over Monument Pass and down into Nevada. The tree cut along the power line afforded a limited but nonetheless stunning view of morning alpenglow on the lower peaks of Desolation Wilderness.
We continued up a small subsidiary of Trimmer Peak, affectionately known as Bonus Peak among skiers, since those who ski Trimmer and have the energy to make one more small climb on the way back to the trailhead are rewarded with a bonus lap.
The climb went quickly despite having to break trail through about four inches of snow. Zach and I occasionally stopped to admire the views and trade trail breaking responsibilities.
After little more than an hour of climbing we crested Bonus Peak and started up the north face of Trimmer. Our plan was not to summit Trimmer, but traverse into the hanging valley to its southwest and follow this to Armstrong Pass. We easily found our way into the valley without losing much elevation, found a nice meadow in the sun and stopped for lunch, expecting that this might be the last opportunity to stop out of the wind.
We started moving again and suddenly I felt as if I’d just climbed 3,000 ft (I had). Zach pulled ahead, but soon he started taking frequent breaks and I realized that he must be feeling fatigued too.
We reached the head of the valley we’d been climbing and although the topo would suggest that we could contour directly to Armstrong Pass without gaining or losing elevation, an impressive wall of rock lay between us and Freel Peak. To traverse below the cliff, it appeared we’d need to descend at least 100 ft and it was unclear whether such a route even existed. The route above appeared to involve a 100 ft climb and seemed more feasible. I eyed several notches in the rock wall and unconvincingly suggested that we might be able to pass through them.
We travelled up and around the wall before making an uncomfortably steep full pizza descent in touring mode toward the pass. The snow along the east side of the ridge was remarkably soft and now that we had a full view of Freel Peak in its wind-ravaged state it was difficult to resist ripping skins and descending right here.
The ridge was severely wind affected and not easy going. We had to maneuver around and through trees as well as the large snow drifts laying in their wake. We made it to the first of the large couloirs on the west side of Freel’s north bowl and took stock of our descent options. Our lowest risk option was to ski due north from the summit along a gentle ridge. We were happy to see that there appeared to be enough snow along this ridge for it to be skiable. Our second option was to ski northwest from the summit into the bowl, but that part of of the peak was alternately wind scoured and badly sun affected. Our final option was to ski one of the couloirs, but the 10 ft cornices guarding the entrance made this route unacceptably dangerous. We decided to continue to the summit and ski the north ridge.
Despite spotting distant snow showers in the area, we’d been spared any inclement weather to this point. Now, the clouds built in overhead and amidst us and snow fell lightly. We climbed toward the east peak along dense wind buff before spotting the summer trail denoted by a white line of snow cutting across the wind scoured rock. However, we found that despite being white, the material composing the summer trail was closer to ice than snow and Zach opted to remove his skis and boot across the scoured part of the peak.
I have a fairly ridiculous desire to keep my skis on in these situations and forged ahead, mostly skinning across the bare rock which provided better grip than the slippery snow. We reached the far side of the rock and found the snow there to be only marginally more supportive. Zach opted to bootpack most of the rest of the way to the summit, although I managed to ski the entire way.
We summited unceremoniously and I regretted having told Zach that Freel had “the best view in Tahoe.” At the moment, we could hardly see a hundred feet. We transitioned and started down the north ridge. After descending several hundred feet, two snowmobilers flew past us heading toward the summit. I tried to wave one down, hoping that they might be willing to drive us back to the summit for some extra skiing but they didn’t seem to notice us.
After skiing 1,000 ft we traversed west into the bowl, hoping for some higher quality snow and a more direct route back to Armstrong Pass. The snow was still a bit wind affected but it was great skiing!
Zach and I were beat and we were tempted to continue descending north into the Cold Creek drainage. Although such a route would be downhill the whole way, I knew that it would be very flat most of the way and could easily end up being more work than heading back the way we’d come. After a short but exhausting climb we arrived at the top of the rocky wall we’d encountered earlier and began our second descent, rewarded with a short but incredible bit of skiing!
We were able to follow our partially buried track back down most of the valley before we reapplied our skins and headed toward the north flank of Trimmer Peak for our final descent. We encountered a skin track heading the other direction and were glad to make use of it! It appeared that either four people were heading to ski The Elevens or two people were on their second lap.
The track was a bit meandering and we might have been better off following our own half buried track, but we soon came to the top of our descent. The descent began in raucous fashion, with lots of rocks, trees, and large wind buffs to negotiate. I twice found myself accidentally jumping off fairly large cornice-like features and radioed up to Zach to warn him not to follow my track too closely.
We reached the top of Bonus Peak with minimal skating and found the best skiing of the day — the peak is aptly named! I entertained myself by jumping off whatever bumps I could find and before we knew it we were near the base of the peak.
We noticed that the other tracks suddenly converged and veered right and after checking the topo, saw that they were likely avoiding the meadow at the base of the gully we found ourselves in. We followed these tracks, crossing the power line fifty feet lower than on the way up and emerging on the 4×4 road just below the gate.
We arrived back at the car before 5 PM, tired and hungry. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a dawn til dusk hike, let alone a 5,000 ft hike and I’d forgotten how exhausting this business was! Luckily it seemed that in our absence some of our friends had planned quite extravagant dinner and after a quick shower and large dinner, I slept very soundly!
- Passing snow showers throughout the region
- Snow showers, light wind, and accumulations of 1″ from 1 PM to 2 PM
- Shooting cracks around 9,000 ft about 4″ deep on soft bed surface (possible buried surface hoar weak layer)
- Evidence of strong SW winds above Armstrong Pass: 10 ft cornices on ridges, large wind buffs in wake of exposed trees, wind scouring on exposed northeast aspects.
- Minimal active snow transport
Elevation Gain: 5,100 ft