Mt. Tallac is the most iconic peak on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe- close to the lake and to the town, with 3000ft of relief, its chutes and bowls beckon to be skied. As my appetite for big days increased this winter, I hatched the plan of backcountry skiing all of Tallac’s bowls in a day- some 10,000 ft of gain. Six laps of the same peak is just my type of weird idea.

Image of Mt. Tallac with relevant routes illustrated
Routes we skied on Mt. Tallac, starting at the left (south) and continuing until the final descent at the right of the photo (north).

And so one early morning, Pat Parsel and I started hiking up the Mt. Tallac trail with skis on our back, hoping to hit springtime corn on the southern bowls in the morning and lingering powder in the northern trees in the afternoon.  Six bowls, all lined up south to north.

After switching from running shoes to ski boots near Cathedral Lake, we skinned up the unnamed bowl traversed by the summer trail- a rocky talus climb in the summer, but now a smooth, featureless, low-angle bowl now in the winter. Ripping skins in gusty winds, we hoped that the blank bowl would mean hold old powder or untouched windslab- but on the way down found dust on a skittering crust, not yet warmed by the sun.  Twenty minutes after ripping skins, we were back at the top of the bowl and making our way on to the next one.

Eric skiing into the chute on Cathedral Bowl
Descent into Cathedral Bowl

Bowl number 2, Cathedral Bowl, had been a mystery to me- just far enough from a trailhead to keep me away on casual trips, this was the first time I’d set eyes on its stunning gullies, cornices, and chutes. The terrain was convoluted enough that it took us a few minutes to find a line which we thought would go- but Pat finally led us to the top of a beautiful chute, steep enough to be exciting but secure enough to be safe skiing, even in my race boots. The south-facing chute and the rising sun worked their magic, and we were blessed with beautiful turns arcing through dark towering walls, hooting and hollering out into the apron of the bowl.  One blemish marred my run: my experimental bindings were a bit too large for my boots, and I found myself repeatedly skiing with Old wet slide debris from earlier in the week blocked our descent into the lower reaches of the bowl, and so we booted back up the way we had come, finally topping out and continuing to skin north along the ridgeline.

Eric climbing back up the couloir from Cathedral bowl
Climbing back up Cathedral Bowl, lap 2.
Pat standing by the entrance to The Cross
The walls of The Cross, with Fallen Leaf Lake in the background.

Approaching from the south, the entrance to The Cross came as a surprise- an impossibly sheer drop into a narrow, menacing chute.  It took a while for me to recognize the line which I had skied in the past-  and after the issues with my heel binding in the Cathedral chute, I swallowed my pride and admitted that this wouldn’t be my day to ski the cross.  While Pat made quick work with the skiers’ left entrance, I booted down the headwall with skis on back, heart racing as I stepped over glide cracks and loose snow, wishing I had an ice axe rather than just a whippet.  Regrouping above the trees which mark the entrance of the chute proper, I clicked in and followed Pat down the chattery ice of the early-afternoon chute, trying to search for warmer snow wherever possible.  Finally clear of the chute and glad to have the crux of our route behind us, we opened up the throttle and hooked over the ridge into the bottom of the main Northeast Bowl, dodging pinwheels and trying to link turns through the heavy mid-afternoon snow. Bowl three down, halfway there.

The warm weather had taken its toll on the snowpack, and the next few hundred yards were an endless slog through manzanita, plants catching on ski tips at every step.  The sun was at its hottest, our bodies were starting to notice the calorie deficit, and the climb was tough- but now halfway there, we knew that the end wasn’t far.  Four laps into our day, we finally tagged the summit, enjoying the summery afternoon and giggling at a pair of bros from the SF Marina neighborhood who were cursing their way to the top beneath enormous packs.  The downhill was a sweet mix of corn, heavy old powder, and finally wet mank- better than I had feared, worse than I had hoped.

After the experience on the previous lap, we knew to exit early to avoid manzanita hell. We sped smoothly up the climb, both of us now working hard to monitor calorie intake as our legs started to tire.  The sun was dropping to the west as we descended Corkscrew Bowl on Mt. Tallac, and our turns were an odd mix of crust, mashed potatoes, and occasional pockets of perfect surfy corn.

Eric with the view of Lake Tahoe to the North
Stunning views before the final descent. Jake’s Peak, Rubicon Peak, Lake Tahoe, Emerald Bay, and Cascade Lake.

The sixth and final uphill lap was a push- time to down Gu and candy bars to fight the rising hunger.  This northernmost bowl had been a mystery to me, but as we gazed out over Cascade Lake and Emerald Bay with the suns at our back, I was filled with an incredible sense of happiness at being there, at that moment, and checking off a big tick-list item.  The downhill clinched the deal- fun terrain with hidden powder stashes as we dropped down through trees and over rocks, hooting with excitement.

Pat sliding down snow between trees
Trying to get every last bit of vertical.

All good things come to an end, though we chased the snow down to the last few turns before ending in a manzanita gully.  Below us, we could see cabins and a road, but before getting there we had to drop several hundred feet through untracked manzanita.  The next half-hour was filled with our curses as we stumbled our way down, happy to close off a big day, and looking forwards to returning to some amazing terrain.

Pat hidden by manzanita bushes, with skis on his back and no snow in sight
The joys of springtime skiing in the Sierras.

Here’s the Strava track– it ended up being 14 miles and just under 10k vertical. If you’re interested in trying it yourself, here’s a slightly more complicated and thorough route which I mapped out on Caltopo.


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