Relay Peak
Mt. Houghton P750

Sat, Mar 24, 2001
Relay Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile
Mt. Rose later climbed Wed, Jul 2, 2008


Mt. Rose, at over 10,700 feet, is the highest Sierra peak north of Freel Peak and Jobs Sister (which are south of Heavenly Valley Ski Area). On a previous trip to the Mt. Rose Wilderness several years earlier I had climbed the lower peaks (Rose Knob Peak, Rose Knob, Rifle Peak, and Mt. Baldy) that line the Lake Tahoe Basin above Incline Village. At that time, I had a great view of Mt. Rose, but it was too far distant to include in the day's itinerary. Ever since then, I wanted to return to the area to climb it. On Saturday I got my chance, as Michael, Kitty, and the other cabinmates all went to Alpine Meadows to go skiing. Kitty was gracious enough to loan me her car, and after a slow start in the morning, I found myself parking off Nevada's Highway 431, between Incline Lake and Tahoe Meadows. Still March, there was snow everywhere, as a good of an excuse to play with the snowshoes as could be found anywhere.

My map shows a trail leading from Incline Lake up into the Mt. Rose Wilderness, but the entire area surrounding Incline Lake is private property with many, many "No Trespassing" signs to emphasize the point. Last time I had ignored them and walked in along the road thinking the road still provided public access to the trailhead, but have since found that even the road is private, and unwelcomed guests are not appreciated. Fortunately there is public access just to the north through Tahoe Meadows, although this is also an access point for snowmobiles (which I think are partly responsible for the dearth of "Keep Out" signs around Incline Lake). There were only a few cars along the road at 9:30a when I headed out following the Ophir Creek up towards the ridgeline. FS road 051 is the easiest access into this area, whose trailhead was another mile up the road. I could see the road etched in the hillside above me, but shied away since that is the most popular route for the snowmobiles as well.

Climbing up through the trees, there was plenty of snowmobile tracks and some ski tracks, but I saw neither in the flesh making for a quiet morning climb. I came across a memorial to a fellow named Jack (or was it Jeff?) who had died several years ago at the age of 36. He was born in 1961, a year after me, and I guessed that he must have died in some sort of accident, although the short placard didn't say. A picture of Jeff was attached to the tree as well; I could only guess that he might have died in the area due to a skiing or snowmobile accident.

As I climbed higher, I was treated to a first view of Lake Tahoe behind me, although only the northeastern part of the lake was visible. It was quite windy, even in the trees, and overcast with high clouds. The wind was gaining the upper hand on the clouds, slowly blowing them out to the east, leaving clear skies behind. But I worried the wind up on the ridge might become most fierce.

Relay Peak is a smaller peak (although at 10,324 feet, not to be sneezed at) on the ridgeline between Mt. Rose and Rose Knob Peak. There are several ridges leading up to the peak, and I chose to follow the east ridge from it's base to where it connects to the main ridge, just south of the summit. It turned out to be a delightful ridgeline to follow. Not knife edged, but narrow enough to provide fine views both north and south, as well as fine climbing (if you can call it that with snowshoes on your feet). To the north of this ridge is a small valley that is open to snowmobiles during the winter, accessed via FS road 051 that I avoided earlier. Tracks could be seen going everywhere, even high on the steep slopes descending from Relay Peak. A number of tracks breached the ridge I was climbing on. Looking down, I found it amazing the snowmobiles could make it up such steep slopes. Even more frightening (to me) was the idea that you have to turn your machine around and go down the steep slope. What keeps the operator from barrelling out of control was beyond me. Normally I'm pretty anti-anything-not-on-foot in the outdoors, but aside from the noise they generate, snowmobiles seem one of the less destructive of such vices. At least they aren't tearing up the terrain, and they aren't leaving smelly droppings all over the trail.

Once I reached the end of the East Ridge, it was another 10 or 15 minutes to reach the summit up the main north-south ridge. There were a number of other tracks here, some snowshoe, some boot, some paw. It appeared that some of the snowmobilers had hoofed it up the last several hundred feet to the summit from where they had left their machines (and brought their dogs along?). The views are quite fine, minus the lovely radio relay station located half a mile to the north along the ridge. One can view the Sierra Crest from Castle Peak in the north to Round Top far to the south. The west side of the ridge is all in the Mt. Rose Wilderness, and looks particularly inviting for its isolation (a few snowmobilers had apparently felt likewise and were unable to resist the temptation to ride around on that side). By this time I heard the first of only a handful of snowmobiles operating in the valley below on the east side. They didn't bother me high up on the ridge, and I was inclined to let them have their space if I could have mine.

I headed down the gently sloping north ridge of Relay Peak to continue my journey to Mt. Rose. A Wilderness sign along the way is the first evidence of the Mt. Rose Wilderness. A chain across the road going up the ridge is buried in snow. At the bottom of the saddle on the north side sits the relay station for which Relay Peak is named. The relay station comes complete with a bunker network that looks like it could easily shelter a few dozen technicians in the wildest of storms. There is even a rickety chairlift to bring personnel up the last 400 feet from the valley below on the east side.

A few snowmobiles had stopped a quarter mile down the road leading up to the relay station where a barrier crosses the trail. They milled about their machines as if deciding if a hike was worth the effort, but none came to visit while I was at the relay station. After a break I headed out, shooting for the intermediate summit of Mt. Houghton between the relay station and Mt. Rose. There were no tracks leaving north on the ridge past the relay station. I found out later there is an easier route to Mt. Rose from below, so the ridge route across Mt. Houghton is understandably less popular.

By now the wind was quite strong, bordering on fierce. The wind blew mostly at my back, so it caused little grief at this point. The snow on the ridge grew more scarce as I neared the summit, evidently the wind kept it from building up through the season. I hung on the west side where there was more snow so I could avoid the rocks and keep the snowshoes on. A few dozen yards before the summit the snow gave out. I carried the snowshoes the rest of the way to the summit, arriving at 11:30a, but not staying long. The wind was relentless and it drove me off the north side, onward to Mt. Rose.

By now it was clear that I had been deceived earlier from atop Relay Peak. From that vantage point, it looked as though one needed to lose about 300 feet from the summit of Mt. Houghton before beginning the ascent of Mt. Rose. Now I could see that the actual gap had been hidden by a higher ridge, and it was actually 700-800 feet of descent. Sigh. I followed along the northeast ridge of Mt. Houghton for about 5 minutes before realizing it was not the best way to approach Mt. Rose. The east side of the ridge drops off in cliffs and steep chutes, no place for me and my snowshoes. I backtracked a bit, heading down the east ridge instead, where I found a wide open bowl to descend down toward the saddle. It took only 10 minutes to descend the ridge and bowl, and looking back up it, I was silently dreading the climb back up on the return. This area had a number of ski tracks coming down various slopes, apparently poplular with the backcountry ski crowd. And with good reason. The lines were steep with good north-facing snow, wide paths, with good runout. I envied the beautiful S turns that came down the steeper slopes.

At the pass below, I was once again in the trees, and protected from the wind. I took a rest here and sat facing the sun to warm myself. There was a second wilderness sign here, where a regular trail enters from the southeast side of the pass. There was ample evidence of both skis and snowshoes as I guessed that this was the regular route for climbing Mt. Rose. It avoids the ridge I had travelled on entirely, and saves over 2,000 feet of climbing. Ah, but that would have been too easy, I try to rationalize to myself... I might be able to utilize this alternate route for the return, and hoped to get a better view of it from above on Mt. Rose.

I was getting tired now, but I had 1,000 feet and half a mile to go. I climbed more slowly now, partly because I was getting tired, partly because the snow was getting quite soft. Even in the snowshoes I would sink up to a foot in places on this south and southwest facing slope. As much as I could I followed in the tracks of previous parties, hoping the snow was more packed in these places. Mostly this was correct, but a number of times I was surprised as the snow collapsed beneath me. Once above the trees, I became subjected to the full force of the wind that was at its fiercest for the day. I guessed it was blowing 30mph steady, with gusts up to 50mph. I put on all my gloves, my warm hat, and my jacket in an attempt to keep warm. Climbing the steep slope was insufficient for this purpose. I could have used a facemask as well, but had to walk with my head turned sideways to keep my face from freezing in the stiff wind. The wind was blowing mostly south to north, across the west ridge I was climbing. The upper reaches of the ridge were free of snow on the southern exposure, so I removed the snowshoes. I strapped them to my pack to continue upward, but the snowshoes added to the surface area I was exposing to the wind and I got knocked over a few times. Screw it. I left the snowshoes, pack and all, taking only my camera and water with me. While this was much easier in the wind, I still found myself walking with a 20 degree cant into the wind. That would have been fine if not for the gusts which came along to regularly upset my balance.

As I approached the summit, I checked out the north side of the ridge to see if I could walk there, better protected from the wind. No such luck. The ridge was covered in snow on that side, hard and slippery, difficult to walk on without crampons or snowshoes. I could see numerous tracks on the north slopes, another popular ski tour. When I reached the summit at 12:30p, I found shelter among the rocks on the north side. Only four feet below the summit, the wind was but a breeze here, and the sun warmed me nicely. I could take off my hat, my gloves, and even relieve myself without having the jewels traumatized. I found no register at the summit (although I didn't look to long since it was still a gale up there), but the views were quite nice. The Sierra drop off steeply on the northeast side as the snow gives way to the Nevada desert below, the city of Reno laid out in the flats far below. I could barely see Round Top far to the south, but all of the peaks surrounding the Tahoe Basin were discernable.

I stayed atop for about 15 minutes, then put my warm gear back on and headed out to face the fury. Again it whipped my face, this time the other side, but going downhill I was exposed to the blast for a much shorter time, thank goodness. When I got back to my pack I collected up my stuff and heaved it on my back. I thought I would try to get down to the pass without the snowshoes, plunge-stepping my way back down in the existing tracks. That lasted all of 30 seconds as I plunged up to my knee on every other step, finally smacking my knee on something buried in the snow (it still smarts ten days later). In hindsight, a very dumb idea. I put the shoes back on, hiked down a ways, then tried to glissade on the steeper sections. But the snow was much too soft and I simply sank in about eight inches without any forward progress. Damn these south-facing slopes!

Down at the pass, I turned right and headed down the drainage following the route of the more popular trail I had found earlier. From above I had noted that it would be wise to contour to the right where possible to avoid going further down than necessary. My route back to the car would take me up the adjoining drainage. The trail likewise contours, or so the map says, but it was impossible for me to tell just where the trail was. There were no tree markers that I could find, and the previous tracks were ambiguous, going off in different directions. Where I finally decided to contour around was probably a bit higher than I should have, as I found myself traversing some steep slopes for about 50 yards. I went slowly through these mini-chutes, not wanting to cause a wet slide (the type Michael had been worried about before the trip). Once off these slopes and over the ridge to the south-facing slopes, I found I had to descend anyway another 200 feet to reach the shallower slopes of the drainage.

Wind was no longer a problem, just breezy down here. It was almost too warm, and I took a few moments to remove the outer pants and remove my jacket. I crossed a jumble of snow that was the terminus of a wet slide from several days ago. I examined it closely. It has scraped off most of the overlying snow to a depth of six inches to a foot, leaving rocks and previously buried bushes exposed. It had come down about 100 yards total, stopping where the slope was too gentle to support further sliding. The accumulation at the terminus where I stood was at most about 18 inches. Would this have been hazardous to have been caught in? It didn't appear so, but then I imagine it might be more dangerous than it appeared. Getting buried in even six inches of this wet, compacted mush could be quite difficult to extract oneself from.

I followed the drainage up the gentle slope for about a mile before it topped out at a gentle, almost imperceptable pass into the next drainage south, the one I had started the day climbing. A map at this pass and several signs clearly indicated which areas were open to snowmobiles and which were closed. The open areas had shrunk over the years, probably due to competition from the skiiers and snowshoers who also use this area. The drainage I had just climbed out of had a number of snowmobile tracks in it although it posted as a closed area. I could sympathize with the snowmobilers who must be frustrated to see their allowed areas shrinking over the years, feeling it unjust to turn over non-Wilderness area to non-motorized activities. I found a pair of skiiers relaxing on a nearby knoll, the first persons I had seen since the snowmobilers at the relay station earlier in the day.

My current location was the end of the access road that I had avoided earlier in the day. Tired as I was, I decided to take the easy way out and follow the well-packed road back out to Highway 431 rather than repeat the cross-country navigation I had used in the morning. It was an easy, pleasant hike back out, and I passed about half a dozen skiiers who were heading into the backcountry for an afternoon romp (no snowmobiles all afternoon, the snow was probably too soft by then). Once I was able to spot the car, I headed off the trail again, making more or less a bee-line through the trees and open meadow below. It was 3p when I returned to the car, the end of another fine day (except for all that darn wind!). I tossed all the gear and headed back to Kings Beach to meet up with the rest of the folks who would be returning shortly from Alpine Meadows. Oh yeah, I stopped for an hour at the State Line and dropped $80 playing blackjack. None of the other folks were gamblers, so this might be my only chance to throw my money away at the casinos this weekend (this turned out to be true). Snowshoeing and gambling -- how much better than that can it get? :)


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