Thursday, April 19, 2007
I had arranged for a weekend trip to South Tahoe for Spring touring after research talks at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley and Google. My tour mates were Stefan Riezler and Graham Katz. We might call ourselves Computational Linguists in the Backcountry, which I'll admit has much less cachet than Babes in the Backcountry. We left Menlo Park at 6:30 am Saturday morning and we were ready at the Echo Summit trailhead for an attempt to ski NE Ralston Peak. It was not to be. The forecast snow showers turned into a real storm with high winds and very poor visibility above 8500 ft. We slogged over the frozen lakes and rolling terrain to the planned ascent route and we trudged up in snow and fog until the poor visibility started to make it treacherous. We turned around and skied a mix of ice, dense shallow wind slabs, and sun crust with a veneer of new snow in low visibility. The worst of skiing in those conditions is that a bit of speed makes it easier to ski crud, but speed is not a good idea when rocks, small cliffs, and deep wind pillows are hiding in the murk. Still, the last 50 turns or so below the fog were enjoyable. Stefan's route knowledge allowed us to ski and skate back over rolling terrain and frozen lakes without putting skins on. The stiff wind on our backs helped too.
Although the original forecast was for partly cloudy conditions after the storm, Sunday came in hardly any better. Our target was the South route up Jakes Peak. We got there at 9 am and soon after starting skinning over the patchy snow, we hit bare steeper pitches. We walked up for a while. As we were about to give up for lack of snow, Stefan noticed a more continuous patch. Starting as a nasty steep melt-refreeze mix, the snow became more skinnable, although still challenging in places — a few inches of slippery wet snow over frozen crust — and in less than two hours we had skinned up a steep ravine and a less steep summit ridge to the South summit of Jakes Peak. The clouds did not let us see much and the wind was stiff and cold, so we turned right around and skied the same steep nicely spaced trees that we had ascended. The snow that was a challenge to skin up turned out to be quite skiable and we had a great run for 1500 vertical feet or so to the edge of the snowpack. A few hundred feet down, the clouds suddenly opened up and gave us an eerie view of Lake Tahoe under storm clouds, touched patches of intense blue light. That provided the only photos of the weekend, but my mediocre photo skills cannot do justice to the magical view. A quick downclimb got us to the car at 1 pm for the drive back to the Bay Area.
There's more to Spring skiing than sunny corn mornings...