Joined: Fri Nov 19, 2004 8:41 pm Posts: 1619 Location: Santa Cruz, CA
My buddy Dan introduced me to Roundtop (at Carson Pass) last year, and immediately the sight of Crescent couloir was burned into my brain. I've been up there several times since, but the conditions were never quite right to ride it. Last year Dan and I climbed it in the late spring, and the conditions were horrible. We climbed to the top, but scrambled around to the east bowl to get in some actual turns. My most recent attempt was last weekend, while I was still on a high from the Halls of the Gods trip, but I was denied that time too due to the pounding winds.
Reasoning that the snow cover still looked good last weekend, and that Tahoe received another dump last week, and that it had had a bit of time to settle, I thought that this might be the prime time to try again. I called up my friend Larry, and we headed out early Saturday. Some of the ex-ttipsters on this site may remember Larry from some TR's I posted there at the end of last spring (which were subsequently lost in the ttips, um, "incident"). Does "b*tch squeal" ring any bells? OK, if not, just pretend I didn't say anything. It's a long story...
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah... did I say "early" Saturday? Well, early is a relative term. I left Santa Cruz at about 4:30 AM, already half an hour late. I met Larry near the 680/580 interchange, and the plan was to drive up 88 from Stockton to Carson Pass. Well, we got to talking, and before I knew it we were in Sacramento. Oopsie. Guess we'll head up Hwy 50 instead. On the plus side, this meant that we could stop at Larry's favorite coffee shop along the way and get some "real" coffee (I found out that Larry is a bit of a coffee snob). So much for the alpine start. After our little roundabout approach, we finally left the trailhead around 10:30 AM. Only 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. For me, that's pretty good.
The skin approach went pretty quickly, and soon we were nearing the flats by Winnemucca Lake, where the objective came into glorious view.
Larry says, "We're going to ski THAT?"
If the conditions in the chute didn't look good, the backup plan was to hit the east bowl of Roundtop above the lake. The many short, steep chutes dropping into the bowl were nicely filled in.
Here's a closeup of Roundtop, with the chute(s) marked. #1 is the fabled Moon Crescent couloir. The entry usually involves making a few turns on the hanging snowfield, then dropping into the couloir proper. Or so I've heard. I don't know if #2 has an actual name, but it's another nice chute that meets up with Moon Crescent near the bottom. I hadn't yet told Larry that my secret agenda was to bag *both* these lines if conditions were right.
At this point, we noticed a line of people in the skin track past the lake. Great, I thought - the bowl is going to turn into a parking lot. But as it turned out, they were all going somewhere else. We had the bowl beneath the couloir to ourselves. We wondered if they knew something that we didn't... like, maybe the conditions suck? I was a little worried because the snow on the approach to this point had mostly been windblown hardpack. However, as we started to approach the bowl, things started to soften up.
View of the couloirs from the base of the bowl
As we climbed the bowl, the snow conditions got better and better. By the time we reached the base of the couloir, I was convinced that this was going to be the day. Larry was feeling pretty good about it as well. We stopped at the base of the huge cliff marking the exit of the couloir and took a lunch break. While we snacked, a couple other climbers (Kevin and Chad - I think) caught up to us. One was on snowshoes, and the other had skis. We struck up a conversation, and found that they were planning on climbing the couloir as well. I wondered how much fun it would be run down the thing in snowshoes. OK, that was a joke. If you tried that, you would die. Their plan was to climb the chute, then scramble around to climbers right of Roundtop and descend the mellower slopes into the bowl. I believe that is the normal climbing route for Roundtop in the summer.
Kevin and Chad taking a break at the base of the couloir
Soon it was time to start into the real part of the climb. Right off the bat, the couloir hits 45 degrees, and consistently stays between 45 and 50 the entire way up. Combine that with the curve of the chute and an "interesting" entrance, and you end up with a spot that you do not want to be in if you are the least bit sketched out, or if conditions aren't good. Fortunately for me, both of those tests passed - at least for the moment. I was stoked to actually be in the couloir, and the snow conditions just kept getting better. I was sinking in about a foot in my Verts. The best way I can describe the snow is consolidated powder. It wasn't windpacked like it was in some of the exposed areas down below, but it also wasn't light, fluffy powder. It was consolidated, and felt like the kind of snow you could make confident turns in. So far so good.
Starting the climb
The Verts made the climbing as "easy" as can be expected in a chute like this, so I broke trail most of the way. Larry hung tight and was right behind me the whole way. Did I mention that Larry is a good 20 years older than me?? I hope I'm still doing this stuff when I'm his age. He's a great partner.
Larry hanging tight
The last 50-100 feet of the chute are the most sketchy. It gets narrow, the snow conditions can get funky, and it's the steepest part. Larry opted to go straight up.
I decided to traverse out onto the hanging snowfield to see what conditions were like there. I was afraid it might have gotten wind-hammered since it's more exposed, but I was pleasantly surprised. The snow was even better than in the couloir itself. Here's a look down at Chad in the couloir, taken from the hanging snowfield near the top. Kevin and Chad were practicing roped climbing. Kevin was right - just having the rope made them "look cooler" than Larry and myself... like "real mountain climbers".
Soon we were all at the top of the couloir, enjoying the views off both sides.
We discussed descent options. Kevin and Chad had been planning on scrambling out to climber's right side of the mountain, and descending the mellower slopes from there into the bowl. I was sure this was the day for me to hit the couloir. Larry was feeling a little sketched out though. For one thing, his boot had come out of his AT binding during the skin in. He was a little worried that something might be a bit out of adjustment, and this chute is definitely not somewhere to test that theory. He decided to stick with Kevin and Chad and traverse out. I decided that I still felt comfortable enough to hit the chute alone. We turned on the radios, and I promised to let Larry know as soon as I was down.
I strapped in, made sure everything was tight, and got ready to drop. This was it, the descent I had been picturing in my mind for so long. I made a couple turns on the hanging snowfield, which were mellow enough, but things quickly got steep. I then immediately traversed into the chute proper. In retrospect, I think I probably could have made a couple more turns on the snowfield before traversing in. This would have avoided some of the more variable snow at the top of the chute (and also would have joined up with the chute at a slightly wider point). Once in the chute, I took it slow and controlled... but as steep as it was, within probably six turns and 20 seconds I was at the base of the chute where it meets up with the climber's left chute. After how long it had taken to get to the top, I was surprised at how quickly it was over... but it was a first-class adrenaline rush!
For some reason, I was unable to contact Larry via the radio. Maybe the distance was too far. Maybe he couldn't hear me. I figured he had started to work his way around the top with Kevin and Chad. I figured that this might take awhile since it involved some scrambling, and since I had mentioned to Larry my "ideal world" idea of hitting both chutes... I started climbing again.
The climber's left chute goes through a narrower choke near the bottom, but has a wide snowfield that funnels into it from above. And at the very top, there is a little sliver of an entrance to the snowfield. The steepness was the same as the other chute, maybe even steeper in places.
However, the snow actually seemed to be even better in this chute. Maybe it was because less people actually climbed this one? I dunno, but whatever the reason I was stoked to be there. Not to mention the amazing views on the way up:
Here's a closeup of Black Butte from the chute. What a crazy formation, like a big ol' fin rising up out of the ground. Looks like there might be some fun lines over there as well.
After about 30 minutes of climbing, I was at the top of the chute. What an amazing view! Here's a shot looking down into the bowl. Larry is in the middle of the bowl, having descended from the shoulder at this point.
We finally got back into radio contact, and I told him I was coming down. He was glad to hear that, as the winds had started to pick up and were pretty strong in the bowl. I took a deep breath. Here's a photo of the entrace to the chute. It's tight, steep, and off-camber. Maybe about 2 board widths wide. Definitely not a place to take any chances. I took one turn and pretty much sideslipped through the crux. My goal was to get down in one piece.
Once past the entrance, things got good. The chute opened up, and the snow was great. I was actually able to make some real turns. Now, I realize that there have been no actual photos of me descending yet. For all you know, I could be making all this up, and in actuality I just rode down the chute on a plastic lunch tray. Well, here you go. A self-portrait descent shot. No snowboarders were harmed in the taking of this shot, but I did realize that this is a rather tricky thing to do in a tight, steep chute. Time to get a helmet cam!
At this point, the turns became good clean fun, as I made it through the funnel and out into the open bowl. It is hard to describe the feeling I had at that point... let's just say I was seriously stoked! Larry had been patiently waiting down in the bowl, and was ready to get moving. The wind was really starting to pick up.
From here, we traversed over a bit to one of the bowls that drops down to the lake. We both got in a few more great turns before hitting the flats by the lake and skinning up again. Here's Larry gettin' some.
By the lake, we took momentary refuge from the wind in a tree well, and had another snack before heading out. Here's a nice shot of the mountain peeking through the branches in the tree well.
Did I mention that the wind was really picking up?? The clear skies and blowing snow combined to create an eerie landscape, like a white desert. Um... only a lot colder. It was truly beautiful. This picture doesn't do it justice:
But to hell with the pretty pictures, we were getting damn cold! Time to get out of there. Here's Larry, glad to be heading toward the trees to get some respite from the wind.
And here I am, still on a major high from the couloirs, too stoked to be too bothered by the wind... yet.
Being motivated by the cold, it didn't take us long to get back to the car. Once there, we found a couple friends waiting for us.
And now, a brief word from my sponsor:
We packed up quickly and drove across the street to the other sno-park lot, from which you can actually see Roundtop. There, we watched as the setting sun basked the mountain in alpenglow, while downing the beers as we sat in the warmth of the car. Not a bad way to end an epic day.
I guess I got a little verbose in this trip report. I suppose that is probably because this was one of those descents that has been high on my list for a long time. We all have that one goal that really drives us; whether it is that steep chute, that nice tree line, that secret powder stash, that remote hut, or whatever. Something about that goal gives you an unquenchable inner drive.
When I tell my friends and family about my backcountry trips, most of the time they just think I'm crazy. I mean, why would one knowingly put oneself in a position where there is a real chance of dying if you screw up? I have a hard time answering that one, but basically, for me what it boils down to is this. There is something extremely invigorating about being in the wilderness, in some incredible natural formation, which I know is rideable but is pushing me a bit. I am not "insane", nor do I feel like I take unnecessary risks. On the contrary, I do as much as I can to mitigate risk... but there is always that element that can't be erased. If that part weren't there, I might as well just stay home or go to the resort. In any case, all I know is that I feel more *alive* at these times than any other. That's why I keep coming back. I guess that's why we all keep coming back.
Joined: Sun Nov 28, 2004 6:42 pm Posts: 62 Location: folsom, ca
Nice Work! Don't worry about the TR being long, it was great readin'. (Definitely liked your TR here better than the one that brought me over from the backcountry site ...Especiallly liked the slop-o-meter
Way to hit both you bad Ass!