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In summer the hike seems a straightforward effort, as a maintained trail leads most of the way, and a use trail follows the last mile from Dicks Pass to the summit. In winter and spring, the snows lies fairly deep in Desolation Wilderness, and snow conditions make the undertaking more of an uncertainty (adding to the adventure). The last time I attempted to climb Dicks Peak was as a winter climb the previous December that resulted in a lesson on the value of snowshoes in deep snow (we forgot the snowshoes and found ourselves post-holing through knee-deep snow - we didn't get very far). Defeat in mountaineering merely provides experience for future attempts (unless of course by defeat you end up dead, but scrambling in the Sierra Nevada rarely leads to that), and so I let the remaining winter months go by while I waited for another opportunity.
That opportunity presented itself when I got a free weekend (these things tend to get worked in around my wife's schedule now that we have two toddlers) when my wife made plans to visit her family in San Diego for the weekend. I enlisted Mark from the Sierra Scrambles Yahoo! Club to join me on a third attempt (yes, there was a first attempt several years earlier that got me within 1 1/2 miles of Dicks Peak, but alas, the snow was too soft even with the snowshoes). We drove up to Tahoe Thursday night in Mark's Geo, the back loaded with about as much gear as it could hold. In addition to snowshoes and the usual hiking paraphernalia, we had ice axes, crampons, camping gear, climbing gear (we planned to go rock climbing on Saturday), and a couple of ice chests. We arrived at Inspiration Point in Tahoe just before midnight and found the campground across the highway still closed for the season. That didn't surprise (or deter) us, so we parked in the Inspiration Point parking lot and went across the street to camp in the campground. There was very little snow left at this elevation, so it was very easy to find suitable sites for sleeping. Our biggest concern was that we should be far enough from the road to avoid detection should a ranger stop to check out our car in the Inspiration Point lot (there are no signs there indicating overnight parking is not allowed, and they generally keep the lot plowed all season long - a good parking spot for winter/spring excursions into Desolation Wilderness).
On the drive up, we discussed briefly what time we should start the hike. It seemed to both of us that we should start early to ensure success, but neither of us wanted to take the initiative to proclaim a 4a start. It was already below freezing when we arrived in Tahoe, and the weather forecast was calling for temperatures in the teens (the previous night, Truckee, CA had been the coldest place in the nation at 10F). It would be very cold at 4a, that we both knew. As we were going to bed we finally agreed to a 6a wake up, Mark set his alarm accordingly, and we went to sleep. It was indeed cold that night, but probably not below 20F. I woke up several times to notice the air was getting progressively colder, and I would adjust by closing the bivy sack hood more, or sliding deeper into my sleeping bag.
6a brought the expected call from Mark. I hesitated only a moment, but then got out, dressed, and began packing up my stuff. It was already getting a bit warmer as the sun was only a few minutes from rising above the mountains to the east. My residual heat from the sleeping bag was soon used up as my fingers went numb while trying to stuff my sleeping bag and roll up my padding and bivy sack. I had to put my hands in my pockets periodically and jump up and down to try to restore circulation and warm them enough to continue packing. We soon had all our gear back to the car, and we switched tasks to packing for our hike. Warm clothes seemed of vital importance then, and in addition to warm gloves and hat, I tossed in a sweatshirt (which I normally wouldn't carry on a dayhike) as insurance. About 10 minutes before 7a, we were on our way. We carried the snowshoes and poles strapped to our packs, as we wouldn't need them for the first part of the hike.
The trailhead out of the campground heads uphill quickly, rising 1500 feet in a little under two miles. We warmed up quickly, and stopped after only a short distance to let Mark remove his warmer outer jacket and pants, leaving him with thermals, a fleece pull-over and a pair of shorts. I had a pair of jeans, T-shirt, jacket, hat, and gloves, and wasn't yet warm enough to part with any of it. There was relatively new snow on the ground, maybe 3-4 days old, but at the lower elevations where we were it had mostly melted. There were tracks in the snow indicating another person had come this way not long ago, heading downhill, in the opposite direction. Soon after entering Desolation Wilderness, the snow was sufficient to cover most of the trail. It was fairly easy at first to follow the trail by following the footsteps that lead down. The best view of Emerald Bay is had after the first 1/2 mile, after which the trail heads southwest towards Granite Lake.
At Granite Lake we saw a tent set up, but no one stirring about. The lake had thin sheets of ice on it, evidence that it had only recently thawed from the winter, and was still going through some freezing cycles. The footsteps lost the trail (or rather, it was this point where the person had found the trail on the way down) shortly past the lake and we found it more difficult to keep from wandering off in the wrong direction. We kept slipping on the snow trying to walk along the contour that the trail followed. Eventually I decided it might be easier to head straight up to the saddle rather than follow the trail. This worked great for a short while, until the slope became quite steep, and we found ourselves bushwhacking and climbing over large boulders, struggling to make progress. An hour after we had started, we made it to the saddle between Maggies Peaks North and South where we took a short break. The south peak is the highest of the two, but the views and climb to the north peak are better. While we rested, we had our first glimpse of Dicks Peak, 4 miles to the southwest, just peeking up behind Peak 9190ft. We skipped climbing Maggies Peaks and headed across the other side of the saddle.
We found the trail again, although it did us little good. There was continuous snow coverage now, well consolidated except for the last 2-3 inches that had fallen recently. Our route took us along a ridge in a southwest direction, towards a shallow pass between Azure Lake to the south, and Eagle Lake to the north. Looking north we had a good view of Emerald Point (no snow), and a more wintry view of Mt. Tallac's northwest face (lots of snow). The snow slope on the north face (in the photo, it's where the sun is shining) would provide a nice glissade later in the day. On we marched, over easier ground now. The second mile is relatively flat with minor elevation gain or loss. At the foot of Peak 9190ft we joined up with the Pacific Crest Trail, where we took a second break. Dicks Peak now commanded an excellent view, and all the surrounding areas were buried deep in snow. We began the short uphill climb towards Dicks Lake. The new snow was much fresher here, and it seemed almost like a winter hike, except that the fresh snow was only 3 inches deep, not 3 feet. We still carried our snowshoes tied to our packs, but began to suspect we would have no use for them today. The wind began to pick up now, and as we gained altitude, it got distinctly colder. I put on my mittens and sweatshirt that I had been carrying, and donned my warmer hat.
Before we got to Dicks Lake we looked around to consider which route to take up. Going by way of Dicks Pass, which we had planned to do from the start, was actually a bit of a detour from where we were. We spotted another saddle higher up on the ridge towards Dicks Peak, and decided we could shoot for that saddle by going around Dicks Lake to the west. I actually wanted to take a direct route straight up the face, but didn't want to push for that just now, as it looked more scary than I thought I could talk Mark into. I was hoping that once we got around Dicks Lake and up under the face, it might look more reasonable.
Dicks Lake was completely frozen over (although we didn't venture out to check), but the stream emerging from its outlet was a bit more than a trickle. We found some boulders to cross over the stream which was maybe 6 feet wide. The rocks were a bit wet, so I gave Mark the usual warning to be careful and not fall in as I went across first. So of course he fell in. While his boots are waterproof, the openings around his ankles aren't, as he pointed out, and he ended up with one foot dry and the other soaked. Neither of us had an extra pair of dry socks, so Mark was out of luck. His foot would soon warm the water to take away the chill, but it remained wet for the remainder of the day.
We began climbing steadily upward, the slopes now devoid of trees. The lack of trees exaggerated the distances on the wide open slopes covered deep in snow. The wind was blowing the loose snow into drifts, some a foot deep, and other places had the new snow completely blown off, leaving patches of hard, icy, consolidated snow. I slipped regularly on these, all the while debating whether to stop and put crampons on. I declined, thinking the slopes not yet steep enough to warrant it. Mark was 50 yards behind me, following my footsteps. He looked mesmerized and completely engrossed in what he was doing when I would turn to look. I didn't notice him ever looking up during this part of the hike.
At the base of Dicks' north face we stopped to rest and put on our crampons. To the northeast, Lake Tahoe was just making itself visible through Eagle Falls Canyon. We could see the sheen in places on the slopes above, indicating that much of the new snow was absent, and the conditions would be steep and icy. I had all my clothes on now (I added another jacket), and my pack was nearly empty save for the snowshoes and poles still strapped to the sides. Ice axes in hand, we headed for the slopes along an ever-steepening ridge that led to the very center of the summit slopes. I scanned the slopes and noted that we could approach the saddle to the left, take a snow-filled chute on the right, or head up through the rocks in the middle. None of the routes looked impossibly steep. Without discussing which way to go, I headed up what I thought would be the most interesting route, though the rocks. As expected, the snow was icy, but the crampons bit well into the firm snow. For the greatest safety and firmest grip in the snow, it becomes necessary to walk flat-footed up the steeper slopes. This puts a very great strain on the ankles, which are completely unused to being wrenched at such angles under weight. To relieve the strain, I would switch positions and directions often, going left, then right, walking flat-footed for a ways, then front-pointing. Front-pointing is best done with stiff boots, which neither of us had, so that was a bit more dangerous as the front two points tend to slip out of contact as the boot flexes in stepping. I used the ice-axe in my left hand as an anchor, driving the shaft deep into the snow every couple of steps. This was difficult to do with such firm snow, but once through the outer layer, it would go in deep much easier. My right arm is not as strong as my left, and did not have the strength to drive the axe in, so I relied only on my left arm for this task. The last 50 yards were very steep, probably 50?, and I made a last push to reach the top. Resting at this angle seemed to wear me down and put undue strain on my ankles, so I drove on, left arm burning, feet cramped and in pain. All of this minor suffering was instantly relieved when I crested the ridge, the summit only 70 yards to my left.
I had lost Mark near the bottom of the slopes, the view of him obscured by the rocks around me. Now on the ridge, I got out my camera and looked around for him on the slopes below. I found him in the right-hand chute, a short ways down. Ice-axe in his right hand, using his left hand against the slope to steady himself, he was making steady progress upward. As he made the last few steps to the summit ridge, he smiled and expressed his gratitude in being able to thaw his hands out, now that the "hands on" portion was done. He had only thin cotton gloves on, which did little to keep out the cold that conducted directly from the snow to his left hand, and through the cold metal axe head he gripped with his right. On the plus side, it seemed to keep his mind off the pain in his toes and ankles that had bothered me so.
We climbed the last easy slope to the peak and celebrated our victory. It was a short celebration, as it was cold and windy, and hardly seemed a good locale for a picnic lunch. The views around us were as good as we expected, providing us with possibly the best views of Desolation Wilderness that can be had from a single point. An excellent view of Lake Tahoe and Maggies Peaks to the northeast, Mt. Tallac to the east, Jacks Peak a mile to the south (with Pyramid Peak and Mt. Price behind it), and snow covering everything around us. We took the requisite summit photos (Mark & Bob), looked briefly for a summit register (assumed buried in the snow somewhere), and then discussed plans for the rest of the day. It was only 11:30a, and there was plenty of daylight left. More likely we would be limited only by our endurance today, not by available sunlight. Our options were to climb Jacks Peak, Mt. Tallac, or both (or neither, I suppose, but we didn't really consider that one). I let Mark make the decision, stipulating only that if we were to do one or the other, I'd rather climb Mt. Tallac (this would let us explore the long ridge that connects Peak 9190ft and Mt. Tallac). Mark decided Jacks could wait for another day, and I congratulated him on an excellent choice. Although only a short distance away, Jacks would have involved a lot of up and down climbing to get us there and back, and I wasn't relishing the thought - apparently Mark wasn't either.
On to Mt. Tallac!
We headed east, following the normal ascent route from Dicks Pass. There were some steep sections that required some careful attention to avoid a nasty slide over 500ft down. Just before the first saddle (between the peak and Dicks Pass) the slope eased enough to risk a glissade. With ice-axe firmly biting the snow to my side, I was able to control my speed and arrive safely below. I avoided more pain to my feet from the flat-footing on crampons, but traded that for the strain it put on my shoulder to hold the axe in the snow (sore shoulder tomorrow!). The glissade wasn't all that much fun, and Mark decided to continue hiking down to join me rather than glissade. Further down, he did join me for some glissading fun where the slope and snow conditions were more reasonable. Just past Dicks Pass, my digital camcorder began to act up, and none of the photos I took for the next several miles came out. It probably didn't help that I had fallen on it at the summit when I dove to retrieve a glove I dropped and was in danger of being blown off the summit.
Climbing up from Dicks Pass, we skirted the south side of Peak 9579ft and climbed up to the ridge. The hike along this ridge was more tiring than we had hoped, as we found ourselves climbing up and down over a number of smaller peaks. In many places the ridge is narrow, requiring time to find suitable routes around the north or south side. Much of the north side is overhung by cornices, so we gave it a healthy distance when we walked along that side. We still had our crampons on until we reached a saddle going up to Peak 9376ft. Here we took a break, packed away the crampons, and then continued our hike along the ridge. This time we looked for rocks to climb over and avoided the snow, as much for the change of pace as because we thought it was easier hiking. We were getting more tired by this point, me more so than Mark. I was no longer hiking out in front as I had earlier, and soon we were back traveling together over rock and snow.
It was 2:30p before we reached the final climb up to Mt. Tallac. It had taken us 3 hours to go less than 3 miles. I'm pretty sure this is not the fastest way to get from Dicks Peak to Mt. Tallac. In the summer time, it's probably faster to follow the trail that goes south of Gilmore Lake even though it requires an 800 foot loss of elevation. We trudged up to the top of Mt. Tallac, quite spent. We were very glad there was no more uphill, and also quite glad we had decided not to attempt Jacks Peak. At the summit of Mt. Tallac there were numerous ski tracks from recent visitors who had come up the Mt. Tallac Trail from Fallen Leaf Lake. We took a break and I ate the remainder of the food I'd brought with me. In addition, I had carried 1-1/2 quarts of water with me which I had been supplementing that with snow along the way. It seemed I'd have just enough water to finish the remaining three miles. We began to talk about the beer waiting for us back at the car and just how good it was going to taste when we got there...
Looking down the north side of Mt. Tallac, it appeared we had two options: Follow the ridge to the left (the safe route), or glissade down the large north face and climb a short way back to meet the ridge at the bottom. We weren't at all sure we could stop ourselves as the slope was somewhat slick, and the consistency of the snow lower down would be a big factor (and unknown to us on top). Tired, we convinced ourselves that the glissade was the better option. Going first, I found the slope to be in excellent shape for glissading. The axe blade was easily able to penetrate the tough crust, and I could control the slide to whatever speed I wanted. Further down, I found a layer of the newer snow on top, providing several inches of heavy, but soft cushioning for glissading. Halfway down I was able to hold my axe in the air and control my speed by how wide I opened my leg. The wider they were, the more snow would be scooped up between me, slowing the descent. Mark followed behind me, about 15 yards to the east. We made two excellent "tire treads" down the entire slope, that were easily visible later at lake level when we driving back along highway 89.
We followed the north ridge of Mt. Tallac for about a mile, which was most of the way. At about the 8400 ft level, the slopes looking down to our left looked both steep and inviting for a glissade. I had gotten tired of finding our way along the narrow ridge, and guessed that a glissade might get us down in a hurry, assuming we didn't find ourselves above a cliff. It's very steep in this area, and impossible to tell from our topo whether we could get down this way. It turned out to be a great glissade route, down over 1000 feet, taking steps only to get around a tree or rock and continue our glissade. As I zoomed down the slope I caught of glimpse of two hikers to my left who were heading up. They cheered me as I went past (which was the only reason I noticed them), apparently looking forward to their own descent sometime later. Mark had failed to notice them all together as he came down. By the time we reached the bottom, our behinds were thoroughly soaked and frozen. I was better off for having worn jeans, which provided a bit more padding and insulation (at least initially) than did Mark's thermals and shorts. The shorts proved particularly troublesome as they scooped up chunks of heavy snow and sandwiched them between clothes layers right under his butt.
All we had to do now was find the trail that leads to Cascade Creek Falls from the trailhead we had started from in the morning, completing a grand loop. We had seen the trail from above while we were glissading, so we knew we were close. Even better, the trail appeared to be free of snow, a welcome relief after the so much hiking in snow. We had to bushwhack a bit to reach Cascade Creek, and then downclimb through some class 3 rocks (the rock climbing could have been avoided if we'd been better navigating) before we reached the trail proper. The last mile went very quickly as we found our way back to the start. The two hikers I had briefly glimpsed a short while back were the only other people we saw all day until we were back in the parking lot, just before 5p, almost exactly 10 hours since we had started in the morning. We dumped our packs by the car and dove immediately into the cooler. We took one final picture toasting Captain Dick, the old drunken sailor for whom the peak was named.
Three Cheers for Captain Dick!!!
The following day we drove down US50 to Lovers Leap, about 20 miles from Lake Tahoe. There we did some rock climbing on a few of the easiest routes rated at 5.6. The remaining photos were from our Saturday climbing adventure. It is a very popular climbing spot, the main wall rising 400 to over 600 feet in spots. The only downside was that there weren't more easy climbs, as even the ones we did were testing our limits. Still, much fun was had!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Dicks Peak - Mt. Tallac
This page last updated: Tue Feb 15 18:14:47 2011
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