Desolation Traverse- Skiing the Crystal Range and more…

Ever since reading Leor Pantilat’s post about his Desolation Seven summits traverse I’ve wanted to the traverse the Crystal Range (Pyramid, Agassiz, Price) and the nearby peaks- and since getting into skimo, I’ve wanted to backcountry ski the route in winter.

With corn season coming together and a good weather window between storms, I was itching for an adventure to close out March. Pat Parsel and I set out on March 26th to backcountry ski the Crystal Range (Pyramid Peak, Mt. Agassiz, Mt. Price), cross over Mosquito Pass, head up to Jack’s and Dick’s Peaks, and then tag Mt. Tallac.

View of the route from Pyramid Peak, looking north
View of the route from Pyramid Peak, looking north

With no idea how long the trip would take, we left the Twin Bridges trailhead at 7:40AM, scrambling up the granite slabs with skis on our backs and sneakers on our feet. Switching to skis where the granite vanished beneath snowfields, we skinned over firm snow to gain the ridgeline of Pyramid Peak which I’d skied in January. With no idea of how big our day would be, we pushed our bodies hard on that long first 4000-foot climb, charging wordlessly upwards without pause as we emerged from the trees and into the grand vistas of Desolation.

skinning up the backcountry to Pyramid Peak
Ascending to Pyramid

We topped out at 9:48- just over two hours after leaving the car! We were ahead of my best hopes for the pace of the trip, and it started feeling more like we could enjoy the traverse rather than worry about being benighted. Relieved, we took a snack break and enjoyed the scenery while I taped blisters on my heels.

The Northeast face of Pyramid Peak is supposed to be one of the finest ski descents in the Tahoe area. Yet we found it to be the worst skiing of the season- 500 feet of steep bone-jarring ice. I had brought a whippet self-arrest pole but hadn’t thought to unsheath the tip for the descent- and was now afraid that in shifting my weight to unsheathe it I might take a long slide, so instead just just held it dumbly as I side-slipped down the 35-degree ice.

The relief that washed over us when we hit the snow was incredible; I laughed in relief while my hands and muscles shook from the adrenaline and tension. But the crux was not over yet- to continue, we needed to find a break in Pyramid’s north ridgeline so that we could descend to the northwest bowl and ski onwards to Mt. Agassiz.

The first chute that we passed was probably skiable, but looked challenging and icy- and after the last descent we didn’t want to risk the shady, crunchy snow below. We continued further north, to where we thought we had spied a good notch from the ridgeline.

Instead of a clear passage, we found a couloir split by a rock wall- a shadowy thin gully to the left, a steep exposed sunny snowfield to the right. Whippet in hand and skis on back, I kicked steps down the gully- adrenaline rising again as I began to feel my steps get shallower and my feet bounce off hard ice. Cursing myself, I slowed down and proceeded carefully, finally walking out the snowfield at the bottom with relief. I dropped my skis and ran back to offer Pat assistance, watching his progress downwards until he too finally got out onto the flat hollow below the couloir.

Boot descent of a couloir to cross over the North Ridge of Pyramid Peak
Our route across the North Ridge

Relieved to have the crux behind us, we clicked into our skis and traversed around the bowl between Pyramid and Agassiz, not turning but instead staying as high as possible, only giving up once we were 2/3 of the way across the bowl and unable to skate or pole ourselves any further. Looking back, we laughed at what we had just come from, relieved that the mileage was finally flowing and still riding the high of the adrenaline.

Skiing up to Mt. Agassiz with Pyramid Peak in the backgdrop
Skiing up to Mt. Agassiz with Pyramid Peak in the backgdrop

The ascent to Agassiz was as easy as I could have wished, and we scrambled onto the flat sunny summit block to take in the views, scooting out on our bellies over the overhanging drop of the east face. The vistas over Lake Aloha were incredible, and the view back to Pyramid was intoxicating- already so far, and we had only been moving for three and a half hours.

summit of Mt. Agassiz with Pat eating pizza
Pizza and smiles on Agassiz

The traverse to Price was so easy as to be laughable, a shallow saddle with just enough elevation to require skinning the 100 feet up to the summit of Mt. Price.  Here the path forwards was less clear, and as I once again dressed my blisters, Pat scoped out our options.  We settled on wrapping around Mt. Price to the Northwest, and aiming for a gap in the North Ridge where we could cross over to long ridgeline to Mosquito Pass on the East.

Checking out a steep couloir near Mt. Price
Checking out a steep couloir near Mt. Price

As we readied to go, we heard the strangest noise- human voices. At the most remote peak on our trip, before noon, there were two people skinning up the west flank of Price- and to our surprise we saw another speck working up from Lake Aloha to the Southeast. They were too far to speak to, but we waved as we traversed around the northwest bow of Mt. Price, aiming for the notch where we hoped to cross the North Ridge.

Booting up the snowfield below the notch, I already knew by the windlip that we were golden- no rocks, no drop, just a smooth passage down to Mosquito Pass.

Finally able to make turns, we gleefully swooped through the windboard and old powder, the best snow of the trip so far. By the time we got to Mosquito Pass, the combination of great skiing and relief at being halfway through the trip had huge smiles plastered over our faces.  And most astonishingly- it had barely turned noon.

The long ascent to Jack's Pak
The long ascent to Jack’s Pak

The sun was baking as we began the ascent to Jack’s Peak, and we opted to traverse the west side of the peak to avoid a hot, sunny bowl to the east. Piecing together a continuous line of snow amongst the rocks and krumholz of the summit cone, I saw Pat dropping further and further behind, slowing down in the heat of the sun. By the time we summited it was clear that he was starting to feel the mileage, and we took a good-sized break while we both reloaded with calories and stretched out our legs. Summit 4 of 6, with the rest of our route in clear view, and only 1PM- it was clear that we were going to make it in good time.

From Jack’s, the route to Dick’s Peak wasn’t straightforwards- a steep traverse to the East, a long bootpack along the ridgeline, or a mellower skin along the North ridge of Dick’s? Pat’s topo map showed the gentlest slope being along the North Ridge, so he weaved between krumholz down down the scratchy snow along the North Ridge of Jack’s peak.

“Yell if you can’t make it!” I said as he left the summit. When I hadn’t heard anything after he disappeared from sight around a rollover, I followed down the face, then finally saw him shooting out into the light. Following his tracks, I found a spicy traverse over a rock and into a couloir- a few feet of sideslipping, then some tight steep turns to safety. Looking back at the icy sheen of our line and the matte color of a powdery snowfield that had been just out of sight to our left, he laughed- “Guess we could have taken the easy way out!” We shook our heads, glad we hadn’t been cliffed out- and turned our sights to Dick’s Peak.

Our interesting line from Jack's Peak
Our interesting line from Jack’s Peak

The long traverse in the heat of the day started to get to me, and this time I began falling behind, trying to catch up with Pat’s steps as he wove up through the twisted woods on Dick’s north flank. A false summit brought me cursing, and I plopped down on the true summit, hungrily swallowing down Gu gels and candy bars.

It's winter up by Dick's Peak
It’s winter up by Dick’s Peak

It was my turn to lead off down the next descent, but as I made my first turn my ski rebounded off hidden ice and I found myself falling, ejected from my ski. I slid to a stop on the side of the face, my ski dangling by its leash. Slowly and carefully, I snapped back in and locked my toes down, once again shaking with adrenaline.

Wiping out
Wiping out

The next few turns were warier, but I was surprised to find great wintry snow lower down- a welcome relief and a delight before the next long traverse.

Gaining the col before Dick’s Pass, Pat led off- and here there was no thought of turning, but instead a long and grinding traverse as we struggled to hold enough elevation to make it to Gilmore Lake without needing to skin up again.

It worked- a few beautiful corn turns, and we were on the backside of Mt. Tallac and the base of our final climb.  The sun was at its hottest, and we both downed a few Gu packets on the frozen lake before setting off on our last ascent, linking together shadowy patches of forest and darting across meadows under the baking heat.

I did not know how long the climb was going to be, but it felt interminable- the heat, the constant grade, the unchanging scenery, and the endless challenge of finding an efficient yet shady route wore me out physically and mentally. I sucked slowly on my water, suddenly conscious that I hadn’t been drinking enough over the past few hours. Though it looks mellow from a distance, we gained 1400ft in about one mile- a grueling pitch in that sun.

Finishing the descent to Gilmore Lake
Finishing the descent to Gilmore Lake

I was never more glad than when the summit rocks drew into view- I cried “Civilization!” as I finally stepped onto the main skintrack up to the summit, savoring the familiarity of being on the herd trail.

And then, suddenly, we were on our last summit- at 3:30 in the afternoon, less than 8 hours after starting. Behind us we could see the whole sweep of our route, but it was impossible to believe that we had started from the Pyramid Peak trailhead that morning, that it was only a few hours ago that we had been booting down that icy gully,  that we had just summited six peaks in eight hours.

We savored that summit -and the two cookies which Pat had saved for the moment- before clicking in one last time, for the best descent of the trip: powder turns through steep trees, pushing our quivering legs one last time on the way home.

Final Descent backcountry from Mt. Tallac
Final Descent backcountry from Mt. Tallac

17.4 miles, 8500′ of elevation gain, 9 hours trailhead-to-trailhead. Strava trace.

Modifications I’d make in the future:

  • Ski the first good-looking couloir on the way down from Pyramid Peak. We ultimately booted down something longer, thinner, and less skiable.
  • From Mt. Price, the easiest descent to Mosquito Pass is via a nice snowfield about 100 yards south of the summit
  • If descending the Northeast face of Jack’s Peak, better snow and easier turns are to skier’s left- a set of cliffs and chutes crop up along the ridge on the right.
  • With lighter skis and flexible boots, booting the South Ridge of Dick’s would have been a great choice- we took 35 minutes to skirt from the col to the summit via the North Ridge, but the South Ridge would have gained 550ft over just 0.45 miles.
  • The best way to add Mt. Ralston to the trip would be to start at the Pinecrest Camp / Camp Sacramento trailhead, ski Ralston, then ascend Pyramid Peak.
  • Take skimo race skis. The snow conditions would have been perfect.
  • Take shorter breaks. We took 10-20 minute breaks on each of the summits, which added up to over 1h40m over the course of the trek.
  • Sharpen your edges and wax your bases.

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