A light and cold storm rolled through Tahoe on the weekend of December 7-8th, and it left hungry Tahoe skiers with a reported 15 inches at the base of Squaw, and more at Donner Summit and the Kirkwood/South Lake area.
The conditions, as mentioned by the Sierra Avalanche Center, left things in a state more familiar to an early season Rockies, Tetons, or Wasatch snowpack than the heavy Sierras. A foot or more of feather-light snow sat on top of a meager, faceted base-layer of less than a foot of snow. In addition, significant wind loading deposited even more snow in spots and a million trees, stumps, and rocks lurked below the shallow snowpack. Basically all the dangers existed somewhere.
Having maxed out my weekend Squaw interest on Saturday (our amazing first real pow day), I was itching to explore the Tahoe backcountry, a largely unexplored realm for me, but knew that any steep lines on most aspects were out of the question. Nevertheless fresh air and being away from crowds sounded like heaven, no matter if we didn't actually ride anything.
I drove with my friend Josh to Castle Peak, a highly visible mountain north of I-80 on Donner Summit. A popular recreation area with an easy approach, it seemed a great place to poke around.
We started off the crisp morning with temps in the teens and the skinning was smooth and fun. An easy trail, mostly carved out by snow-shoers, snaked through the shadows of the looming Douglas firs, loaded with pillows of crystalline snow on their droopy branches.
We caught a few glimpses of the peak as we broke through treeline and neared the ridge that led to the west side of Castle Peak. Immediately the main south face looked unrideable as large rocks peppered the slope. We noted one lone track down a south-facing slope off a sub-peak to the lookers left and we kept it in mind.
But the skinning was about as fun as I’ve ever found. Admittedly I usually find the slog to be a means to an end, but with the blood pumping amid the light winds and blue sky, I relished every step. The west bowls of Castle opened up and though the snow was thin, there was a smattering of 1,000-foot plus tree skiing lines. And while the technical terrain off the summit was nowhere near ready, it was an aesthetic treat to be exposed to the terrain and try and lock away ideas for later dates that might offer more snow and safer conditions.
We made it to the top of the line that we had seen from the skintrack, and it looked thin but fun. In addition, off the other side of the ridge lay a slope that went into the shade and through some trees, with snow that appeared straight out of a Utahan’s wet dream. However, this was basically north facing and a bit wind-loaded. On the other however, it was well under 30 degrees, through potentially snow-anchoring trees and free of gullies or ravines. Two other skiers had put a few lines down it and had given rave reviews. The classic dilemma emerged and the debate ensued.
In the end, the near flatness factor led me to believe we could safely take a few slow turns. The combination of slope angle and deep dry snow led to having to pump my turns to stay on top, and though it was only about 200 feet long, the light fluffy stuff flew in all directions. We skied conservatively to a rollover before it dipped into a ravine, and skinned on back up.
Celebrating our first fine BC turns of the season, we scoped a return route on the south side. We followed the line we observed and picked through the rocks. Though it was cold, the sun had baked the snow by what was now the early afternoon, creating a very edgeable sun crust.
At the bottom we pushed through the shady and deep powder, having to reapply the skins to get back to the ridge to find the trail we come up on. Skinning back to the car is always an odd sensation as splitboarders are essentially telemarking with skins on and no edges, but I bumbled back as skier Josh opted for the faster skinless method.
The sun dropped and the light softened. Looking over my shoulder back at the Peak it looked warm and inviting for a future shred mission. Ideally quite soon.