Round Top and Black Butte

As the dominating peak on the skyline from Kirkwood Mountain Resort where I learned to ski, Round Top was the first peak I heard of where people went “Backcountry Skiing.” Ever since I can’t help but stare up at it every time I drive over Carson Pass on the way to the ‘wood and imagine skiing one of its daunting couloirs or its hanging snowfields. For a peak so within reach I’ve shied away from a winter ascent of it for years because I’ve been afraid of the climb to the summit.

Of course, there’s no need to summit the peak in order to ski it and of course, I didn’t expect to ski from the summit, but I felt like a winter summit was necessary to earn a winter descent and my summit of the peak last June led me up a loose class 3 climb which I was not eager to attempt in ski boots. Alyssa and Brian summited the peak on Sunday, however, and after somewhat disbelievingly confirming that they did in fact go to the summit, I decided to give it a try for myself. I recruited Morgan for the climb and we met at the Carson Pass SnoPark at 8:30 am.

Morgan takes in the first view of Round Top.

We started hiking close to nine and I was astounded by how quickly the snow has melted at the lot — a month earlier the snowbanks were more than 20 feet high around the entire perimeter, but now it was fairly easy to step up onto them! We followed a well-rutted winter trail towards Elephants Back, eventually entering a clearing and spying Round Top. The peak wasn’t quite as wintry looking as when I visited the area a month ago, but coverage was still great.

Winnemucca Lake takes on the first tinges of blue snowmelt.

We made quick progress — almost too quick, as I had to ask Morgan to slow down a few times! I have pretty good endurance, but after 15 years of hiking in Desolation, his body seems optimized for the task. I was reminded of the first time I hiked with him when I nearly had to jog to keep up with him on the downhill!

A crescent moon sets above the crescent moon couloir.

We took a fairly direct route from Winnemucca Lake to the shoulder and arrived at the base of the climb at 10:30. I was surprised how much smaller the peak was than I’d remembered (although I took a 15 mile, 4000 ft approach on my last visit, so this makes sense), and after pausing a moment to strap my skis to my pack we started up a short steep section of snow which led to bare rock.

Morgan admires the view of Mokelumne Peak from Round Top’s shoulder.

This portion of the climb was also easier and smaller than I remembered, even in my clumsy ski boots. I’d remembered an abundance of loose rock in this stretch, but it was barely a hindrance. I reached the top of the first summit and had a splendid view down toward Summit City Canyon. I’ve heard that this south face of Round Top provides some of the best corn skiing in Tahoe and I was planning to ski it after visiting the summit.

Round Top’s backside drops off to Summit City Canyon.

We traversed Round Top’s complicated summit taking a few glimpses down the north face and into the Crescent Moon and Dog Leg Couloirs. Some daring group of two had even skied a hanging snowfield skier’s left of Crescent Moon as an alternate entrance. The entrances to each couloir looked very reasonable and I considered possibly skiing one of these routes, but decided to save them for another time.

The Crescent Moon couloir drops off from Round Top’s first summit.

We arrived at the gully separating the middle from the tallest, east most summit and I instantly realized why Alyssa and Brian had said the climb was so easy. The gully was so packed with snow that several routes which were inaccessible during the summer were now easily reachable. Rather than a climb down along a slippery steep rock face, there was a gentle talus path to the gully. The route I’d climbed up in the summer was still present on the right, but now there was an easy staircase on the left side of the gully. In the summer this feature overhangs the Dog Leg Couloir and, if I had to guess, is probably more than 25 feet off the ground!

Lichen bedazzles a winter-only staircase to the summit.

I ditched my skis and headed up the rock face first, making sure I was clear of any loose rock before telling Morgan it was his turn, and we were on the summit at 11 am!

Morgan tops out on a beautiful spring day.

We signed the register and I was surprised to see that Alyssa and Brian were only the second party to sign it this winter. I know that Mihai did a winter summit, so I assume that the register was either buried or most winter parties didn’t bother with it. I spotted a July summit from Kristine and Sean as well as a summit by Rafee the following day. As usual, I took some time to photograph the peaks on the horizon, briefly thinking I may have spotted Matterhorn Peak, but later realizing it was an error. I was however quite amazed in reviewing my photos to see that I spotted Mts Lyell and Maclure on the far south end of Yosemite!

To my great delight (if not surprise), Morgan pulled out a couple of beers and we found some seats and had a drink. It was a splendid day to be on top of the world and we spent an hour enjoying the drink, the day, and the company.

I enjoy a beautiful spring day with an incredible view.

By the time we decided to head down, it was past noon and I was satisfied without adding another 3,000 ft of climbing out of Summit City Canyon. On top of the extra work, it was now so late in the day that the snow might be too soft for skinning. I told Morgan that I’d just descend with him and the thought occurred to me that we could head to Black Butte before returning to the parking lot. I warned him that I wasn’t sure whether it was actually possible to climb, but he didn’t take any convincing to join.

Morgan downclimbs the route I was loathe to climb in ski boots.

As we returned to the saddle, we met a split boarder booting up towards us. He said that the snow was still a bit firm and that he’d wait a while longer before riding it. I am not picky about snow and didn’t want to let the day go to waste, so Morgan ran on ahead in his boots while I put on my skis. The boarder was right about the snow being firm, but the descent was fast and I soon caught up with Morgan who had taken to running down the hill.

Morgan runs down the mountain to Black Butte, left.

I paused at Round Top Lake and Morgan and I planned to meet up just below Black Butte. I had to traverse quite far, but made it to the where the snow stopped below the butte with only a small amount of skating. I stopped to strap my skis to my pack (if possible, I wanted to ski down one of the couloirs on the east side of the butte) and have some lunch, but before I could grab my sandwich Morgan had already arrived!

Morgan eyes Black Butte.

We climbed up and over the series of buttes, and the climbing was pleasant. It was mild class 3 scrambling, which was just about at my comfort zone for climbing in ski boots. There was some loose rock, but for the most part, the rock was well featured and sturdy and very fun climbing!

Morgan takes in the view from one of the shorter buttes.

Just in front of the tallest butte was a large gully which dropped off steeply to a snowfield. I downclimbed to the left and again found it too steep but saw a route even further left that looked like it would go. Some easy scrambling brought us to the gully where I stashed my skis while we climbed to the summit.

Morgan climbs the final stretch to the summit of Black Butte.

Morgan spotted a small plastic jar and was overjoyed that he might have found a geocache but, alas, it was only a small register. There were only two entries — the second by Kristine and Sean who had apparently had the same idea to continue to Black Butte from Round Top (though I wouldn’t be surprised if they visited several other peaks on that day)! It was nearly two and we had a decent distance to return to the car, so after a few minutes we started back to the gully where I was hoping to descend. There was a fun looking couloir directly below us, but it was very steep and with the wet snow and no helmet, I didn’t like the possibility of my slush catching me. We also spotted what might be a glide crack, so we decided to descend thirty feet before traversing right onto a gentler slope.

Morgan descends the steepest bit of snow below Black Butte.

We continued down to Woods Lake where I put my skins back on for the meandering route back to Carson Pass.

Black Butte rises above a snowed over meadow. The summit is on the second butte from the right; we descended the snowfield to its left.

The hike through the woods was enjoyable and we were graced with some beautiful junipers, hemlocks, pines, and firs. After discussing the Jeffrey Pine (which supposedly smells like vanilla) we spent a while smelling the trees to see if we could find one, to no avail.

A lovely juniper disassembles a rock band.

I didn’t look at the map too closely, knowing that we would cross our track eventually and follow it out, so I was surprised when we suddenly arrived at Frog Lake. It was interesting to see one of my favorite sun bathing spots so buried with snow.

A snowbound Frog Lake sits high atop the Pacific Crest.

We eventually found the trail and followed it back to the pass, Morgan using each downhill as an opportunity to practice his downhill snowshoe running form.

Morgan runs downhill in his snowshoes.

We arrived back at the cars at 4 pm and agreed that it was a spectacular day to be in the mountains!

Snow Discussion

Avalanche Forecast

Snow Observations

  • Normal spring conditions
    • Snow softening by noon
  • 100 % snow coverage

GPS Data

Elevation Gain: 2,800 ft

Total distance: 8.92 mi