Desolation Traverse

Despite living less than three miles from Desolation Wilderness I’ve done a shameful small amount of exploration in one of the country’s most popular wilderness areas. At the heart of the wilderness area lies Jacks and Dicks Peaks, both nearing 10,000 ft and very visible throughout the Tahoe basin. I set a goal to make a long ski tour out of a trip to visit these two peaks as well as to return to the tallest peak of Desolation, Pyramid, but on several occasions my plans were thwarted. Finally, after catching up with a Yelly whom Rafee introduced me to, it looked like such a tour might be in the cards. A welcome last minute addition of Chris and Jamie brought the party to four and it was looking like we’d have a solid group for the outing!

Thanks to the addition of so many friends and knowing that my original plan to do a circuit out of Fallen Leaf Lake might be complicated by the rising snow level we decided to do a car shuttle, starting at Rocky Canyon and ending at Fallen Leaf Lake. With the help of even more friends (what a lucky guy I am!) I managed to stash my car at Fallen Leaf Lake Friday night before we headed out to Strawberry for a 6 AM start.

Chris, I, Yelly, and Jamie pose at the Rocky Canyon pullout.

We ended up getting moving around 6:45 am (delayed mostly thanks to my own laziness in postponing packing to Saturday morning) and carefully crossed US 50, heading up the road in search of a cairn which I remembered from my previous outing along this route. I’d found that the trail was quite essential at the base of the Rocky Canyon climb which is a fairly horrendous bushwack when off trail.

Chris, Jamie, and Yelly climb up the embankment above US 50.

The trail isn’t especially well defined but, with only minor discussion where it grew faint, it carried us up the canyon quickly. It was apparent at the base of the trail that some team had been through recently to trim back the excessive manzanita and had piled it to dry and later burn for fire mitigation.

Rocky Canyon Creek roars with spring snowmelt.

The trail became mingled with firm snow and around 7,500 ft the snow coverage was complete and we could no longer follow the trail. I suggested that we could put our skis on, but the group pointed out that the hiking was still very easy and we might as well continue hiking until we decide that skinning would be easier. For the most part the snow was firm enough that we could float atop it but in steeper sections it was also soft enough that we could kick steps into it. Unfortunately, every once in a while one of us (normally Chris or I) managed to step through into a void and had to take some care to excavate ourselves. In one case I found myself up to my waist and had to carefully find my balance with one leg atop the snow, one leg dangling below, and the ungainly state of my pack with skis strapped to it.

Lover’s Leap and Hogsback bask in morning light.

We continued making good progress and the forest began to thin around us. To the south Lover’s Leap and Hogsback first rose high across the American Valley and then started to dwindle and disappear below us as taller peaks dominated the view. We reached 8,500 ft after about two and a half hours and decided that the snow was becoming soft enough that skinning made more sense.

Jamie, Yelly, and Chris hike up the headwaters of Rocky Canyon Creek.

Shortly after transitioning to skis the forest was reduced to small gnarled groups of trees and Pyramid Peak came into view above us. I set off on a beeline for the peak before Jamie pointed out that it might be better for the group to set a less aggressive angle. I acquiesced and let her set the track for most of the remainder of the climb.

Chris shows off some leg as Jamie sets a steep skin track.

The climb went quickly until we got within 300 feet of the summit and the winds started to pick up dramatically. We’d noticed that the forecast had changed overnight from a windspeed of 20 mph to 40 mph but decided that 40 mph still wasn’t too bad and we’d take our chances. Nearing the summit, however, I was confident that the wind was at least 30 mph and hoped that it wouldn’t get much worse atop the peak. I dropped down on the west side of the ridge for some relief from the brunt of the wind and put on my ski pants and jacket, expecting the wind to only get worse. Chris and Jamie joined me shortly, guessing that the windspeed was nearing 50 mph. We continued the climb up the ridge, eventually reaching the summit around 11 am and grateful to find that the wind was much calmer!

I photographed many of the nearby peaks, most surprised to spy Sierra Buttes far to the north. While I took photographs, Yelly, Chris, and Jamie set off to scope out the descent. Yelly decided that she would prefer to descent the east face of the peak, but I was certain that this would lead her far off course and would be difficult to return from.

Chris and Jamie admire the view.

After some lunch, we all agreed to descend the north face and started down. Yelly opted to bootpack the top section which appeared to be the steepest and which had a few rocky sections complicating the route. Chris took a creative route through the rocks while Jamie helped to coach Yelly through the trickiest part of the descent.

Chris gets halfway through a kickturn before deciding this rock is in his way.

Once we were through the rocky section, we all found our stride and the morning’s climb was rewarded with some excellent corn skiing!

We regrouped at the bottom of the pitch to traverse north into the next bowl before continuing the descent. Yelly continued further north towards a lower angle aspect while Jamie and I skied a direct route down to a tree we agreed to meet at. I noticed what I thought at first was a rodent track but later realized was the beginnings of a glide crack. Chris had gone only a few feet to the right of our line and found an even bigger crack — looking up at our tracks, if he had gone a few more feet right he would have crossed the glide crack where it was several feet across and he would have had an exciting ride indeed!

Yelly traverses north from Pyramid Peak.

We met up at our designated tree which had just enough shade for the four of us. We put our skins out in the sun to dry as much as possible and had a pleasant lunch, enjoying the fine spring weather. All across Lake Aloha, small teardrops of brilliant azure snowmelt accumulated in various low spots.

A small snow tarn lies below Mt Agassiz.

We started across Lake Aloha toward Jacks Peak at 1 pm. As we neared the edge of the lake we realized that the south aspect of Jacks was a bit too steep to easily climb. In addition it was strewn with cliffs which could present a rockfall hazard and scarred by innumerable glide cracks which could swallow us whole. We headed toward Mosquito pass before cutting back under some large cliffs.

Jamie, Chris, and Yelly climb the base of Jacks Peak; Pyramid Peak and Mt Agassiz rise high above Lake Aloha.

The snow was soft but it compressed well and made for decent skinning. As we rounded the large band of cliffs we discussed the route. Yelly suggested that we could traverse counter clockwise into the bowl on Jacks Peak’s southeast aspect, but I didn’t like climbing a south facing bowl so late on a spring day. The route above us on the south face seemed straightforward and, despite being a bit steeper than the bowl, did not present any terrain traps. I convinced the group that the south face was a better route to climb, but about halfway up Chris and Yelly began to feel uncomfortable with the steepness. Yelly opted to climb the rocks along the side of the snowfield. Chris regained his confidence after traversing off a patch of particularly slippery snow and he continued up the steep snowfield with Jamie and me.

Yelly climbs a rocky ridge along Jack’s south face; Pyramid Peak and Mts Agassiz and Price form a spectacular ridgeline, distant.

We arrived at the top of the snowfield to find that this was not the summit and that we still had half a mile of ridge to traverse before we would reach Jacks Peak. Unfortunately, the ridge was not covered with snow and there was not an obvious route we could take which would allow us to keep skinning.

Jacks Peak is still half a mile from the top of our climb.

I continued along the ridge on skis, mostly on the snow but occasionally skinning across rock. I heard Jamie grumble far behind me something along the lines of “I hate billygoating” so I was surprised when I looked back to see that all three of the others had opted to keep their skis on for this part of the traverse. Evenutally the ridge became more rock than snow, so we stopped to remove our skis and continue on foot.

Jamie and Chris begrudgingly skin across the ridge toward Jacks Peak; Pyramid Peak, distant.

I opted to shoulder my skis while the others strapped their skis to their packs. After five minutes of hiking we were back on snow with an obvious route to the summit. It was now 3:30 pm, however, and Yelly brought up the question of whether we were still planning to summit Dicks Peak. I hadn’t really questioned the goal, but it was obvious that we weren’t all excited about the prospect of another ridge to traverse. Chris decided that he wasn’t that keen on summiting Jacks either, so we decided that Yelly, Jamie, and I would summit Jacks while Chris descended from our current location. We’d all regroup below Jacks and start the descent to Fallen Leaf Lake. I was a bit disappointed that we wouldn’t make it to Dicks, but it was a wonderful day nonetheless and I’d be glad for an excuse to return.

Yelly, Jamie, and Chris at the top of Chris’s climb.

We watched Chris descend and continued upwards, first descending along the east side of the ridge below a large cliff band. After another 20 minutes of easy skinning we were on the summit at 4:30 pm! Being at the geographic center of Desolation Wilderness, the views in all directions were outstanding!

The view north from Jacks Peak.

We spent a few minutes on the summit before descending the southeast bowl to meet with Chris and continue on.

Lake Aloha lies carpeted with snow below Pyramid Peak.

The descent route was complex and we had to traverse north over several large ridges. We encountered a ridge which appeared to have a cornice running along its length. After checking it out, I found a stretch where the cornice was not as severe and Jamie found another section she thought everyone could get down. I mentioned that I might jump off the cornice and next thing I knew Jamie had her phone out to record, so I went for it. The landing wasn’t great as there was a lot of old debris from small slides so I traversed a bit before continuing to the bottom of the bowl.

I ski off a small wind lip below Jacks Peak.

At the bottom of the bowl, I decided to keep traversing so that I could figure out the next part of the descent. After one minute Jamie radioed down to me “did you see that slide?” She sounded non-chalant, but I didn’t want to joke about it so I told her honestly that I hadn’t. I started sidestepping along my traverse so that I could see what she was talking about.

The sun had set in the bowl, so it was hard to see, but I could make out that Jamie had traversed left into the bowl about 300 ft and the slope below the first half of her traverse had released. I radioed up to her “wow, that’s a nice one!” not feeling like it was any major danger. Apparently a few sluffs had released behind me as I skied so she opted to traverse the other direction into the bowl. The sluff she triggered seemed to be about 4-6″ deep and was not entraining snow around it.

Unfortunately for Yelly, this was her first experience up close to an avalanche of any sort and now she had to descend this same slope which had just slid. She made it twenty feet out before realizing the danger and deciding to have a good long think about her next move. I was pretty frustrated being several hundred feet downhill and unable to hear the discussion. I tried to offer some advice over the radio but eventually realized that excessive radio chatter would probably only complicate things. After Jamie told us that the bed surface was skiable, I was confident that Yelly was capable of skiing the face, but it seemed that Yelly was not confident in that.

Yelly had been frozen at the top of the descent for a while and I realized that she probably wouldn’t make further progress, so I put on my skins and started hiking back up the bowl, expecting that we’d need to find a different route down. After about 15 minutes, she started skiing down the bowl towards Jamie! I couldn’t believe it — I was incredibly impressed that Yelly was able to push through a situation in which she was out of her comfort zone in terms of skiing ability and snow saftey understanding! Furthermore, she was able to do so after 15 minutes of hard thinking! I know that when I’m skiing if I can’t commit to difficult line within 30 seconds I’m probably never going to ski it — I can’t imagine standing on top of a cliff for 15 minutes debating whether to jump and then actually doing it!

We regrouped at the bottom of the bowl and I was again impressed by how composed Yelly was. It seemed like she had handled the situation very analytically — although I’m sure it must have been incredibly stressful, she’d managed to collect herself and push through. We talked briefly about the incident but knowing we had a long day ahead, continued onwards, trying to be a bit more aware of hazards.

We quickly reached Susie Lake and put our skins back on to cross the lake and gain a few small uphills. I remembered from a visit in January that the return trip had enough small uphills mixed in that it might be worth keeping our skins on for the return. This was true for the next mile, but transitioning back to downhill probably would have been faster for the remainder of the descent.

Yelly sets off across Susie Lake.

Unfortunately we did not know this at the time, so we continued descending with our skins on, which made the descent take longer than entirely necessary.

Gilmore Creek bursts through the spring snowpack.

We followed the drainage down toward Glen Alpine and were a bit alarmed to see the massive amount of water in the valley below. I was hoping that we might be able to ski out along Glen Alpine road but the amount of water we saw made this seem an unlikely possibility.

A creek flows down the summer trail as the sun sets on Keiths Dome.

When we arrived in Glen Alpine we found that the road was completely melted but we were able to mostly skirt the road on the snow banks.

Chris watches the sun set on Angora Peak.

One of Jamie’s skins fell off and she and Chris stopped to deal with it. Yelly and I continued on but Yelly soon gave up on skinning and opted to hike out along the mostly dry road.

Yelly hikes along Glen Alpine Road.

I crossed several snow bridges which Yelly didn’t trust, as it turns out, rightfully — as I stepped across the last snowbridge, there was a thud and the snow on the far bank cracked two feet above my ski and dropped into the creek. I was now straddling a two foot wide channel of water which was rapidly dissolving the newly submerged snow bank on either side. Despite having fallen, the far bank seemed stable though, so I stepped over and continued along.

Water rushes across a recently broken snowbridge.

Yelly opted to wade through the stream where it crossed the road and we met up a few feet further where she decided to switch into her hiking shoes and I decided to stow my skis on my pack. Jamie and Chris caught up with us, having apparently already made the choice to put their skis on their backs.

Yelly tests the waters on Glen Alpine Road.

I was doing okay in my ski boots, wading through water that wasn’t deep enough to make it in the cuffs until we made it to Lily Lake where I suddenly found the water to be nearly a foot deep. I realized my sudden peril and ran across the road to where it was shallower, but the water had already rushed into my boots. Shortly after I found that there was a use trail on the west side of the road which circumvented the water hazard — oh well.

Glen Alpine Creek surges with snowmelt.

Yelly and I made it to the Lily Lake parking lot and crossed the lake’s outlet. On the east side of the canyon there was more snow, so I optimistically donned my skis, announcing to Yelly that it was probably a stupid idea and that I did not recommend it. Whether heeding my advice or just ready to be back at the car already, Yelly continued down the road on foot.

It was now well past sunset and Jamie and Chris radioed me to let me know that they were lost in the Lily Lake parking lot. I was reluctant to take my skis off or to pull out my headlamp so I tried to direct them based on landmarks and the movement of their headlamps without much success — it seems that they entered the lot from a different direction than I thought. After about 10 minutes I finally saw them heading in the right direction and I started down the road on my skis in the dark.

The road did not have good snow coverage and I did not have a good view in the dark. Any time I came to a dry patch I was forced to slowly stomp across in my skis as the light of Jamie and Chris’s headlamps caught up. Feeling the pressure of their lights, I’d pick up the pace, partially trying to prove to myself that my way was faster and partially out of embarrassment that they’d see me committing such heinous ski abuse. In the end, i took almost exactly the same amount of time as Jamie and Chris who were hiking. At least I found the “ski descent” a fun distraction!

We arrived at the car at 9 pm and wasted little time packing our gear in and hitting the road — we had to head back to Rocky Canyon to pick up the other cars before we could head home and call it a day! I managed to make good time, arriving back at the house around 9:45 and happy to find a house full of friends and delicious leftovers!

Snow Discussion

Avalanche Forecast

Snow Observations

  • Normal spring conditions
    • Firm in am
    • Softening, depending on aspect and elevation by 10 am
  • Snow level:
    • Around 7,500 ft in Rocky Canyon
    • Down to Fallen Leaf Lake at Glen Alpine, depending on aspect and tree cover

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 6,300 ft

Total distance: 15.19 mi

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