Fri, Mar 23, 2001
We left San Jose at 4:45a to ensure we'd have an early start out of Carson Pass. We encountered little traffic at that time of day, and made good time, arriving at Carson Pass sometime after 8a. We had made a stop for gas and a second one at Caples Lake to take in the views of Round Top and relieve ourselves of excessive liquid refreshments we had consumed on the drive up. We packed up our stuff, including ice axe, crampons, snow shovels, and avalanche transponders. These last two items had provided a small bit of contention in the previous days as we discussed what to do and what to bring. I had expected that the snow would be well consolidated after two weeks of no new snow and warm weather in its place. Michael was concerned about avalanches, particularly the wet snow variety. It made little sense for him to carry a shovel and transponder to allay his fears unless I did likewise. On a scale of conservative to risky, we both recognize that Michael tends to one end and I fall to the other. Buying into the other person's position sometimes helps Michael do things he might not otherwise, and sometimes it keeps me from taking unnecessary risks. In this case, the extra weight and cost were of little consequence, so I readily agreed to carry the items.
Michael had a brand new pair of x-country skis that he was dying to use, while I was on a pair of snowshoes. The weather was beautiful as we headed out at 8:30a, only a few scattered clouds and no breeze to speak of. Michael was struggling right at the start as he found the skiis offered little traction for the moderate uphill over frozen snow. The snow was great for snowshoes, and I was delighted. Michael stopped to put skins on his skis while I played around climbing the little hills around the trail. The skins provided much better traction, and Michael's locomotion improved accordingly. Unfortunately, the binding began popping open, first on the right side, then on the left, then on both. The first time this happened Michael remarked "Darn." The second time was something like "Drats!" We tried several adjustments, loosening them, tightening them, but still the bindings would pop after a few yards. Finally Michael got really upset and shouted out a healthy "F***!" We tried a few more things until we hit on the idea of using a couple of small pieces of cord that Michael had with him to tie the binding latch closed. It did the trick beautifully, but by then Michael had sworn off ever returning to Western Mountaineering to buy gear again. Michael's size 13 boots were stretching the limits of what the bindings were designed for, and it seemed that a proper fitting should have noticed the improper seating of the bindings. Oh well. We had a fix, and off we went.
There was plenty of tracks in the snow from those that had travelled before us in the several weeks since it had last snowed. While this diminished the illusion of being alone in winter wonderland, it did make it easy to follow the proper route. It's only a couple of miles before one reaches near treeline and is treated with a marvelous view of Round Top. We skirted past Lake Winnemucca and headed uphill on the steeper portions of the climb, our peak rising gloriously up to our left. When we reached due north of the saddle on Round Top's western flank, we stopped to leave Michael's skis behind. This was the steepest part of the climb (on snow anyway), and Michael wasn't having an easy time as the slope steepened. He considered carrying the skis up so that he could ski down the wide bowl from the saddle, but in retrospect it was good that he'd left the skis behind. The snow was pretty hard still, and Michael's skill level wasn't yet up to the point where the descent would be considered enjoyable. We could see far to the north now, from Desolation Wilderness to Lake Tahoe, and we pointed out the few landmarks we knew such as Pyramid and Freel Peaks.
We hiked up the saddle in short order. I had an easier time with it as I still had the snowshoes on, while Michael followed behind in his boots (his ski boots were remarkably good for climbing, even up the class 3 rocks). We took in the views briefly from the saddle, dropped the snowshoes and our ski poles, and began the short scramble east along the ridge to the summit. It is mostly class 2 with a few class 3 sections. This time of year the snow fills the gap nicely between the false and true summit, making it unnecessary to downclimb on the southside to get around it.
It was 11:30a when we reached the summit and congratulated ourselves on a fine (if easy) climb. Shortly after dropping our packs, we began to search for the register. Throughout the entire route all the way to the summit there had been plenty of tracks suggesting this peak is climbed quite frequently. In fact, we knew a Sierra Club party had climbed the peak just the previous weekend. Yet the register was nowhere to be found. We decided it might be several feet under snow that surrounded our summit platform. We had shovels with us which might prove useful for finding a register even if they were unnecessary for avalanche rescue that day. Just as we began to search, Michael's keen eye spotted it tucked under a small ledge, mostly burried under snow and several rocks. The rocks were frozen in the snow but were soon pried away, and the register was recovered. Either someone was trying hard to hide the thing, or it had spent the winter there. I think we were prepared to remove a great deal of snow in search of it, but it was fortunate that we did not have to expend the energy to do so. Michael found other outlets for his excess energy.
Opening the ammo box, we found not one but about eight registers, and something like two dozen pens. A very popular peak, indeed. There was little order to the registers, several having been used concurrently for the last several years. The most recent date we could find was from December, 2000, so it seemed the register had indeed remained hidden from the other winter ascent parties. We spent some time leafing through the various books. Partly I was looking for my previous entry from 1997 (but unable to find it since I thought it had been in 1996 and was looking in the wrong pages), and partly because some of the entries were quite amusing. One particular person was quite irate that his name had been crossed out in a previous entry, and went off on a tirade threatening testicular damage to the offending party should they be discovered. The name of the person making this entry was subsequently crossed out a second time by a later party.
We enjoyed the views that ranged from Mt. Rose and Desolation Wildernessto the north, to northern Yosemite to the southeast. We were sure we could see Matterhorn Peak, but were unable to determine which of several peaks in the distance it might be. We could see Bear Valley Ski area to the south along with nearby Mt Reba, where I had a bit of a misadventure the previous month in a driving storm. To the west we could see chairlifts and even skiiers on the backside of Kirkwood, several miles distance. Nearer, Round Top's ridge followed a westerly directions towards The Sisters, two smaller high points on the ridge. Altogether we spent about an hour on the summit, taking in the views, eating lunch, and perusing the registers, before heading out at 12:30p.
The Sisters sit a short distance to the west of Round Top, along the same east-west ridge. They seemed an easy addition to add to the summit of Round Top since that peak was not too far from the trailhead. It was still early afternoon (12:30p), the weather was fine, and I had much unspent energy. As we began retracing our steps down the main summit block of Round Top, I was able to talk Michael into joining me for the higher of the two Sisters. The lower Sister is split by a notch into two small peaks, and at the time we thought these two lower peaks (further along the ridge) were The Sisters. I brought all my gear with me while michael left his pack at the saddle, and we climbed up the to the higher sister in about 15 minutes. This perch brought us one of the more striking views of Round Top, which made it appear to deserve its class 3 rating.
Having gotten Michael to the higher of the two Sisters, I thought I might be successful in talking him into continuing along the ridge to the lower Sister. No such luck. So Michael headed back to the saddle while I headed west. I reached the lower Sister in only 11 minutes even though it had appeared it would take half an hour. I climbed down the notch and then up to the other half of the lower Sister. Looking towards Round Top, I could see Michael glissading down from the saddle. I waved to get his attention, but he seemed intent on his descent. When he was halfway down he looked over and spotted me, shouting to get my attention. I hadn't thought of shouting since I thought he was too far away, but it proved quite effective and I could hear him clearly from probably half a mile away.
Michael had said he wanted to start heading back by 2p in order to avoid the slushiest part of the day, and also because he hoped to get back in time to visit the x-country ski shop near Kirkwood before they closed so they could have a look at his skis. It was 1:30p as I left the lower Sister, still heading west along the ridge. I hoped to find a route down the north side so that I wouldn't have to regain the summit of the higher Sister in retracing my steps. I came to another low point in the ridgeline, where one could easily walk south to reach the trail heading to Fourth of July Lake. To the north was a narrow chute, filled with snow that offered a route down. I paused for several minutes to exam the conditions to access the difficulty. The snow was quite firm, and I wasn't sure if I'd be able to kick steps in the snow. The runnout was quite long, maybe 300 feet, but it was snow all the way. Should I fall, I would likely have a fast and bumpy ride down, but not terribly life-threatening. Still, more speed that I would prefer. I had a rather too-speedy descent down Mt. Sill last summer that was still in my mind, which I was not eager to repeat. Fortunately, I had been carrying these damn crampons and axe around all day, and I decided I would give them some air and a small workout.
Crampons on, axe in hand, I headed down the slope facing the mountain, kicking steps with my toes as I descended. The axe plunged into the snow up to the handle, giving a secure handhold, but I found it difficult to extract if I got too far below the axe. About halfway down the angle eased enough to turn around and do some plunge-stepping, which gave way to a sitting glissade. Below me was Round Top Lake, still quite frozen over. Long before I reached the lake, I found myself on a part of the snowfield that had been under the sun's rays for much of the day, and the snow was too soft to effect a good slide. My butt sank in the soft snow and brought me to a slow halt, glissading at an end. I walked down to the lake edge and swapped the crampons for snowshoes, and headed back for a rendevous with Michael.
I had to climb up a bit out of the Round Top Lake basin, and it took me longer than I had expected to return to where I expected Michael might be waiting. I had told him to start back if he wanted, so he might be anywhere between the base of Round Top (where we had left his skis) and Lake Winnemucca by now. I found that I had come back around to Round Top (after my little circuit through The Sisters) several hundred yards north of where the skis had been left. As it was uphill to return to the same spot, I chose to yell for Michael. If he didn't answer, I'd assume he was ahead, and then I would just head out myself. A bit to my surprise he did answer, having patiently waited for me at that spot. I think he was surprised to find I was down below him, possibly a bit annoyed, since I didn't communicate this route to him (I didn't hatch it until after I had left him on the ridge an hour earlier).
It was 2:15p, so I was only a bit late (I had told him I'd join him at 2p). Michael put his skis on and began the descent down the moderate slope to meet me. It took a few minutes, and Michael was quickly becoming frustrated at the difficult in learning back-country skiing. He would traverse across the slope for 50 yards or so, then fall down. He'd switch directions, and repeat the manuever. Clearly he just needed more practice to get the hang of it, but he seemed frustrated that the necessary skills didn't come more naturally. I could see that at this rate it would take a bit longer to get back, so I hatched yet another plan to leave Michael and scale Elephants Back on the return. By now Michael knows I'm up to something when I start to speak in a slow, hesitating manner. He quickly wished me away to climb Elephants Back and leave him to his frustration with his skis.
From Lake Winnemucca, Elephants Back is only about a 600-foot climb, but as it was getting late in the day, I was beginning to hit my limit. As I got to the steeper slopes I rested often, looking back for signs of Michael, but I never saw him. In fact, we hadn't seen another soul the whole day since we had left the trailhead, and wouldn't until we returned. Even though it's a popular trailhead even in winter, weekdays don't seem to see much use. I reached the top of the gently sloping peak at 3p, and sought out the slightly detached highpoint on the northeast side. The gap separating the high point was mostly filled with snow still, so it's hard to properly call it "detached." Although much lower than Round Top, Elephants Back offers better views to the lowlands to the east and southeast, particularly down to Hope Valley. I stayed on top only a few minutes before descending off the northwest side.
It was a mildly steep descent off the top of Elephants Back, and a tricky manuvuer in snowshoes. I slipped and slid, half glissading in a standing position, one shoe in front of me with my leg straight, the other behind me with leg bent to control my balance. I danced around a few rocky sections before I got to the gentler slopes. By now the snow had been beaten on by the sun for much of the day, and it was sufficiently soft that I found myself post-holing even in the snowshoes. This made the return all the more tiring, but at least it was downhill or flat, no more uphill today. I overshot the trail on my return and ended several hundred yards south of the parking lot. I crossed a meadow by the roadside and climbed back up the fifty feet or so to the lot. I found Michael there, having arrived ten minutes earlier. It was now 3:45p.
Elephants Back was a fine end to an almost perfect day (except for that business Michael had with his skis). We had both reached the level of exhaustion that was closer to satisifaction than pain, and had had a great day indeed. As we drove to Tahoe (Michael declined to return to the ski store at Kirkwood) and continued to take in the scenery, Michael began to look longingly at the large boulders on the side of the highway and finally suggested we stop for some bouldering fun. We found a suitable place to pull over and spent about 45 minutes playing around on the rocks we found. Afterwards we drove to Kings Beach where we planned to spend the weekend. We could only hope the weather would hold up so nicely for the next two days...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Round Top - The Sisters East - Elephants Back
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