Far from the smooth slopes of the ski resorts, winter in Tahoe also offers up interesting snow and ice climbs in Tahoe- if you know where to look. South of the lake, near Carson Pass, the craggy cliffs of Roundtop Peak jut towards the sky- dark volcanic rock painted with brilliant white couloirs and gullies, perfect to thrill the mountaineer.
Galina and I had noticed Roundtop two years ago while hiking through the area, and had been captivated by one line- the Crescent Couloir, a narrow ribbon of snow arcing 900 feet from the summit from the summit to the base of the peak. Crossing hanging snowfields above a band of cliffs and ducking into a tight gully, the route is a coveted ski line in a full winter… but in this year’s thin snowpack it perhaps would be better as a snow climb.
Rounding up some like-minded friends, we set out from Carson Pass the morning of February 22nd, getting to the trailhead at 10AM in a typical Tahoe “alpine start.” Our late start and a comedy of errors – running back to the cabin for forgotten gear, getting lost on the trail- was ameliorated by the firm snowpack that made for a fast approach on skis. Breaking for lunch underneath the peak, we stared up at our route- which seemed to grow steeper and steeper as we stared at it, turning from a mellow snow couloir into an overhanging alpine face.
Shaking away our fears, we skinned up to the snow cone below the route, leaving the bright Sierran sun as we moved close under the shadow of the peak’s north face. Transitioning to crampons as the terrain grew steeper, we were happy to find firm snow and easy booting as we made our way up into the steep walls of the couloir. Huffing and puffing, but trading leads breaking trail, we made our way upwards through untouched snow- the route was still too thin to be skied, and too early for most climbers, and we were awed by the narrow twists and the beautiful interplay of dark rock and bright snow.
Moving out of the tight couloir and onto the hanging snowfield, I happened to be in the lead, and came to the first crux- a choke where the snow narrowed to a few feet squeeze in a rock corner. As I clambered upwards, the snow under my crampons began peeling off of the rock, and I could no longer dig the shafts of my ice tools into the snow for self-belay. Unable to see whether there were opportune ledges in the rock underneath the snow, I was left struggling for purchase, my left hand and foot shoved firmly into the deep crack at the back of the couloir while my right side flailed for something solid to grip onto. The skis on my back exacerbated the problem, banging against the tight walls of the couloir and forcing me to contort my body in order to keep a solid grip at the back of the crack.
I retreated back to the others, panting for breath and reeling with adrenaline. Backpack off, rope out, harness on- I pounded two pickets into the snow, and belayed by Marty I set off again. This time I deliberately wiped the thin veneer of snow from the rock with my tools, excavating until I could find ledges on which I could rest my pick and crampons. I have almost no mixed climbing experience, so it was with the greatest trepidation that I finally inched my crampons up onto a ledge and shifted my weight onto the two frontpoints. What would have been an easy 5.2 or 4th class move on rock felt like a delicate highwire act, and my feet felt totally disconnected from the rock through the ski boots and steel crampons. Slowly, I stood up, stemming between the rock on the right and the shallow snow purchase on the left. Reaching up, I found a solid fist crack, and carefully placed a cam- my first and only good piece for the route. I matched feet, found another ledge for my right foot, then matched my left hand and foot, standing on the steel as I explored for solid snow once again in the higher ground. And with that move, the crux was over- I was able to once again find purchase in the snow with my tools, and began moving upwards once again, rushing to be away from the unsettled feeling of the mixed area. Two pickets later, I was nearing the top of the couloir, and once again forced onto steep terrain at the rollover created by the wind. The rock on the left was loose and disintegrating; placing a cam in the only good crack I gave it a tug and it pulled free as it popped out the rock. To the right, the snow was stiff windboard over rock, falling down in large blocks onto my friends belaying below. I reached high and placed a picket deep at the
of the lip. Clenching my mittens in my teeth and scrabbling for purchase with my bare hands, I struggled upwards, kicking my way finally to the top of the couloir and flopping out onto flat ground and sunlight. With a whoop, my lead was done.
Fifteen minutes trying to set up an anchor on the bad snow, and I was finally belaying the others up- and slowly they popped up and over the edge, grinning with excitement. The sunlight was already turning orange as the last of our party came over the ridge, and we set off west down the ridgeline to descent back to the bowl and ski out in the waning sunlight.