Saturday, March 25, 2023

Mount Rose Highway Skiing

Driving east thru the nuclear winter of the Cascades on Tuesday night, I started to wonder if I was going to make it to Reno. My rental bounced off giant piles of slush in the near zero visibility of the atmospheric river storm that alternated between heavy sideways snow and heavy sideways rain.

Finally, around 1:00 AM I crawled into Mike and Kristen's house very relieved and somewhat surprised that I wasn't stuffed into a snowbank somewhere in Lassen County. Mike and Kristen are old friends who I've known since first encountering Mike's sharpied Colorado 14ers shirt in freshman geology. From skiing 14ers on graduation day, to spearfishing in the warm waters of Hawaii, to hiding from brown bears while deer hunting in AK, we have so many shared memories together. In the morning it was nice to catch up with them while they quickly downloaded me on current conditions in the Sierras before heading to work.

Solo and in a totally new-to-me climate and snowpack, I decided to dip my toes in with a day at Mount Rose Ski Area. Driving out of town, and leaving the desert behind, I was impressed with the huge snowbanks of the Sierras rising above me.

The rare inbounds day was a leg burner for me, and a good chance to interrogate as many strangers as I could about local conditions. I could only laugh at myself as most of these reasonable people couldn't answer my unusually specific questions about the climate history of the area. At the same time I was starting to form a mental model of the snowpack here, and was stoked on the challenge of operating out of my comfort zone.

The next morning after a nice breakfast date with Nyssa, I headed into the backcountry of the Mount Rose Highway. From the Tamarack Lake parking lot, I scrambled over the ten foot snowbank, then skinned towards Tamarack Peak. Coming from sea level, I couldn't believe the impact the elevation was having on me, and struggled to keep my heartbeat below the aerobic threshold.

From the peak I looked down on the deep blue waters of the lake.

Operating alone in this unfamiliar terrain, I spent extra time thinking about escape routes and likely avalanche behavior before spooning existing tracks into Tamarack's north bowl.

The snow was fun and supportable windbuff. Stopping to transition for the next climb, I looked back up at my tracks as I slathered on my sunscreen.

Next up was Mount Houghton, which I knew I could ascend while staying out of avalanche terrain based on Caltopo's Slope Angle Shading. Climbing the solar southeast face, I was impressed by the power of the sun here. For reference, the sun angle on the equinox in Tahoe is about the same as back home in Anchorage on the solstice.

I was happy to find a few tracks in the northeast bowl of Houghton, and just like the last lap, made sure to thoroughly consider likely trigger spots, wind loading, and terrain traps and hazards before dropping in with a ski cut. 

Just like the last lap, I found more soft wind buff as I arced turns through the shady bowl. Skiing faster than I normally do on my floppy backcountry setup, I made sure to maintain extra momentum in case anything broke loose.

Next was the climb up Mount Rose's west ridge to its peak. As I rose above the surrounding terrain, I looked down on the fun cirque of full of varied mini-golf that I'd just skied.

About an hour later I was on the summit of Mount Rose, and drooling over Tamarack's north bowls framed by the striking turqoise of Lake Tahoe.

The scoured south face of Rose had now been through a couple stabilizing cycles of melt freeze, so I felt comfortable dropping into its big avalanche terrain. Scratching over the thin entrance, I picked my way thru the rocks and rime, before finding nice proto-corn in the heart of the face. Which makes me wonder: is proto-corn a standardized term for snow? How about duff?

Now in the biggest and most consequential terrain of the day, I focused on staying away from potential trigger spots and overly cooked surfaces.

The south face was a lot of fun, and seemingly a line that isn't skied that much. I felt lucky to get it in safe conditions as I slapped my skins back on at the bottom of the run for my last climb of the day to the top of the Tamarack Lake knob. I think Mike called this bump "Firehose", but I could be wrong. Working my way up the skin track, I looked back at my route up Houghton. There's some fun looking terrain over there!

Cooling in the afternoon shade, the east face of Tamarack was mediocre skiing through hardening freezer burned corn; but it was a safe descent to the car, which was my priority.

On Friday, with a slightly improved understanding of the zone, and the company of Mike and Nyssa, we set out to practice our aspangulation game around Rose Knob Peak and Incline Peak. Pulling into the Jennifer Street trailhead, we laughed at what would happen in Anchorage with this much snow. There wouldn't be a lot of roofs left standing, that's for sure!

As we finished the 2k climb to the peak, the snow was just starting to soften on the most solar aspects. Skinning in short sleeves above the big blue water body reminded me of magical spring AK days touring in the Prince William Sound.

With ripening corn, we dropped into a long run back towards the trailhead. Nyssa:


Its such a challenge calibrating the internal compass in a new zone with unfamiliar cardinal reference points, and I could feel my gray matter vibrate as we figured out the perfect aspect to harvest the morning corn.

Basking in the sun and glory of the first run, we climbed up for more. This time we picked a north run through the open trees to Mud Lake. Growing up as backcountry skier in Colorado and Alaska, tree skiing in avalanche terrain is such a treat for me - I loved this.

Like the day before, the shady aspect held shallow, soft, cold snow. It was good enough we wanted more of the same and skinned for the north side of Peak 9773.

From Peak 9773, we skied rolling terrain through the big old trees towards Ginny Lake. Nyssa:

The afternoon shadows were starting to grow and it was time to work our way towards the car. A quick skin had us back on top of 9773, then dropping into afternoon corn towards Incline Peak. Nyssa:

With some of our previous laps in the rearview mirro behind us, we shuffled up Incline.

Its been such a joy sharing time in our wild lands with these two over the years. We smiled together enjoying the early evening light and each other's company then slid south towards the parking lot.

As is often the case for pieces of any in backcountry ski run, the top of the line was a shitshow of bouncing over crusty wind drifts. As we descended below the wind effect, the snow transitioned to well cooked corn. Mike:

By following a southerly ridge for a couple thousand vertical feet as we descended to the car, we were able to work the subtle changes in aspect to hit the sweet spot of cooked, but not over cooked corn. Sunburned and slowly acclimating we called it a day.

A few days and another storm later, I headed back to Incline Peak for a solo ski. We get so used to knowing our local zones like the back of our hands, and even just predicting the perfect parking spot was good practice for my brain. I got it a little wrong and ended up skiing through flat woods for a bit. There is so much to learn about moving through the mountains.

Aware of a new slab from the wind storm sitting on the now buried crusts and surface hoar we'd seen, I followed a low angle skin track to the summit.

Focused on avoiding wind loading, I skied into Incline's northeast bowl. The moment the bowl curved away beneath me I knew I was in prime avalanche terrain with a consolidated slab sitting in it. Keeping up speed in case a slab released, I avoided skiing above trees and other local terrain traps.

My first lap down and there were several tracks in the bowl by now which increased my confidence about bonding of the storm slab. I headed up the skinner for a second serving.

Soon I was back on top and looking west at the terrain around 9773 and Rose Knob Peak that we'd skied the day before. So many nooks and crannies to explore!

My second lap was a close repeat of the first. The spring sun was rapidly warming the northeast aspect, and we all know the impact that warming has on a slab as it settles and creeps, so I moved to the more shaded side of the bowl as I skied the second lap.

Two laps in the sun and I could feel the snow changing under my PTEX. Returning to the skintrack for a third time I knew it would be time to switch to a truly north aspect.

At the top I interrogated a speedy local about buried surface hoar concerns in the Sierras and the incredible Hoover Wilderness area, then slipped into the quiet and colder north facing trees for my last lap of the day.

As I skinned back to the car I looked across the valley at the morning's turns and reflected on the trip. Times like these where I have been forced out of the weather, snowpack, and terrain comfort zones that I can navigate with my eyes closed are when I feel my backcountry skiing mind grow the fastest - I can't wait for the next one!

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