Sat, Dec 13, 2003
No early start today. We slept in till the late hour of 7a, appreciating a good sleep after the previous day's efforts. We had continental breakfast in the hotel lobby, watched CNN Headline News on the overhead monitor, and took in the pre-ski ritual at the Days Inn in Truckee. Though we weren't going skiing, it seemed like everyone else around us was. We probably should have too, but that wouldn't involve nearly enough suffering to fill our needs. So we packed up after breakfast and headed south on SR89 around the west side of Lake Tahoe.
We drove for the better part of an hour and a half to Carson Pass on SR88 for a climb of Red Lake and Stevens peaks. Both of us had been to Red Lake previously, but we were mostly interested in hiking out further to Stevens Peak for no better reason than it had a name and neither of us had been to it before. No SPS peak, no county highpoint, just another bump on the USGS maps with a name. There were others at the Snow Park getting ready for outings, but they all seemed to be heading south towards Round Top and vicinity. Looking towards Red Lake Peak we couldn't see more than a few hundred feet vertically, it was likely to be nasty again today at higher elevations.
We didn't leave the Carson Pass Snow Park until 10a, probably the latest start either of us had gotten for a hike all year long. My toes were still smarting from the Lola North outing, but they'd probably be numb in a short while anyway, so what's a little pain amongst appendages? We headed across the highway - the most dangerous part of this climb might be avoiding the cars as we crossed the road on our snowshoes.
In fine weather the hike can be accomplished in an hour, today it would take twice as long. The wind which had been completely absent earlier in the morning had picked up to a howling 30mph by mid-morning. When we stopped to make adjustments, it took careful planning to make sure gloves and mittens weren't blown away. We could hardly see the route ahead of us, relying on memory of past visits to know what lay ahead. Had this been our first visit we probably wouldn't have found the summit. The clouds soon had us completely enveloped as the last peephole looking down through the cloud layer disappeared. We avoided the Southeast Ridge where we could because of the wind and blowing snow, choosing to hike up the slightly better protected slopes to the left (west). As we got over the first false summit the winds picked up even more. The clouds were blowing over the ridge depositing a coating of ice on our ski poles and blasting us with blowing snow. We followed along the ridge with only the wind direction to help orient us. We came upon the second false summit a short while later and where I expected to see the summit on the other side we found only cliffs. Hey, how could we lose the summit? We had both been there before and seen it dozens of times from the highway, but here we were but a few hundred yards from it and it was nowhere to be found. We guessed it must be further north, so we headed off in that direction. By now Matthew had donned his balaclava, I had my jacket's hood pulled over my insulated hat, and we both had on all the clothes we'd brought. It was cold up here!
Soon after we came upon the summit rocks - the clouds had hidden them from view. They appeared like a ghostly apparition plastered with rime ice on all sides. How we would be able to climb them was a little troubling. We expected to get some relief from the wind as we moved to the east side of the rocks, but the wind simply seemed to change direction and blast us wherever we stood. By now it was gusting to around 50mph - just standing was difficult and impossible when the strongest blasts struck us. I walked around to where I knew a short couloir would lead to the highpoint, but somewhere along the way I lost Matthew. My snowshoe tracks were nearly obliterated in a few minutes from the blowing snow and I wasn't sure that Matthew would be able to follow. Backtracking, I found him fighting the wind from his face. His glasses were not just fogged, but coated with blowing snow on both sides. He took them off and put them in his pack despite the fact that he's pretty much blind without them. Little matter - I don't think I could see any better. Together we went back to the couloir, a 20-foot chute filled with snow up to our waists. Climbing it was sort of like climbing into mashed potatoes (or what I imagine it would be like since I can't say I've had the opportunity) - each step seemed to just bring snow down upon us and slide us back down. We climbed with the snowshoes even though they were awkward to manuever - without them would probably have been even harder.
Once at a small nook in the summit rocks, we took off our snowshoes and set them off to the side along with our packs. We still didn't know if we could reach the summit, but we weren't far off, maybe 20 yards. The rocks were white on all sides. The winds shifted directions haphazardly and had coated all sides with the blowing snow. Fortunately the snow coating actually had some traction properties and with careful climbing it was possible to climb up higher. But once I got to the knife-edge just north of the summit I chickened out. The combination of wind and snow had me thinking it wasn't a safe bet. Another option presented itself in the form of a catwalk on the west side of the summit blocks. It required a short downclimb and then an easy walk over to the final 12-foot climb. This was a bonafide class 3 which took a bit of finesse, but we managed without slipping (and the nasty owies that would have ensued). At the summit we found a small wooden sign indicating the correct peak, and not far from it the summit register in a couple of inverted coffee cans. We made it! And we were freezing our butts off. I signed the register and handed it to Matthew, but he was just as happy to let me add his name under mine so he didn't have to take off his gloves. We weren't atop the airy perch more than three or four minutes before we headed back down. The views were pretty dismal.
We reversed our moves along the catwalk, picked up our stashed gear and headed back down. There was no debating whether to head out further for Stevens Peak - we'd leave that for another time. Returning we found ourselves facing the wind for the most part, and we had to stop every few steps to wait for a small lull in the tempest to allow us to make forward progress. Our previous steps were hard to discern, but we managed to get back around to the south side of the summit and start back down. A third of the way down we came across a lone skier hiding out amongst the summit rocks. In a heavy European accent (Europe was as much as I could narrow it down in the roar of the wind and the short time we exchanged words) he asked if the other side had a cornice to which I replied in the negative. I surmised he was planning to ski down one of the Southeast gullies, but we didn't hang around to see how he managed.
After descending about 2/3 of the distance from the summit we found ourselves below the cloud level and we could finally get some visibility down to the roadway. There was even a bit of sun that came out briefly as we made our way back to the parking lot shortly before 2p. When it was all said and done, we'd been out four hours and had a grand time "playing" in a winter tempest, and it was certainly tiring. We had briefly discussed continuing our adventure to Thunder Peak near Kirkwood Ski Area, but because of our late start we had only three hours left of daylight. We decided to save it for the next day, and headed back to South Lake Tahoe to find a motel room.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Red Lake Peak
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