Winter at Lake Tahoe is great for choose-your-own type adventures in the backcountry. There are additional considerations to take into account during winter travel. However, your options are plentiful if the snowpack is stable, you know your gear and its capabilities, and you are willing to embrace your inner pioneer spirit.
For a couple of winters I’ve wanted to cross-country ski through the high meadow in Meiss country north of Carson Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail. This swath of land is only a few miles long, but it sits directly between Red Lake Peak and Stevens Peak on the eastern side (as you travel north) and Little Round Top and its continuous ridgeline along the western border. I also wanted to xc ski up to Little Round Top mountain because the tail end of a now defunct cross-country ski race called the Echo to Kirkwood race used to travel near this mountain.
For the majority of January (2017), however, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was highly unstable due to the massive amounts of fresh powder we received during a long continuous stretch of time. Essentially, the snow kept falling and never had a chance to properly set or stabilize. Fortunately, by the end of the month the Sierra Avalanche Center classified the avalanche danger “low” on all aspects of the mountains. The forecast was also favorable, calling for freezing temperatures at night but clear skies.
On January 30th, 2017, I grabbed my gear, drove to the parking lot on the north side of Carson Pass (Sno-Park permit required), and hit the trail for an overnight cross-country skiing adventure.
I followed, albeit loosely, the Pacific Crest Trail for approximately seven miles, setting up camp a couple miles north of Showers Lake. I knew by taking this route it would be a gamble to make it to the summit of Little Round Top on that first day, but it was the most logical and safest option.
Whenever I travel in the backcountry, particularly during the winter, I start by considering worst case scenarios. These scenarios compel me to identify routes in which I can evacuate the backcountry as quickly and safely as possible. Like in the movie Ronin where Robert Dinero’s character says, “I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of,” I want to know what my options are for exiting the backcountry when shit goes sideways. And to hammer the point home I conjure another priceless Dinero line, this one from the movie Heat, in which he says, “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” Basically, if you are not willing to make the hard call to turn back, abandon your adventure, or drastically modify your plans because of unforeseen circumstances, poor route planning, impending bad weather, mishaps, accidents, or emergencies, you have no business being in the backcountry. Always remember that the summit is optional, but the descent is mandatory.
Since I knew this stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail/Tahoe Rim Trail fairly well, I identified multiple exit routes in case of emergency. Although none of the options would’ve been easy to execute due to the snow and distance that I would have had to negotiate, I at least had options. My evacuation routes were to:
- ski directly back to the car
- head to the Big Meadows parking lot on the north side of Luther Pass via the Tahoe Rim Trail
- make my way past Round Lake and down the Lake Valley Trail to South Upper Truckee Road
- or, just continue all the way to Echo Summit
In addition to having options for leaving the backcountry, by traveling first through the meadow, there were a number of safer camping options of which I could choose if I couldn’t make the miles by sunset. In contrast, had I skied directly to Little Round Top via its continuous ridgeline, I would’ve been entirely exposed throughout the day and night. Not knowing what to expect, I chose to attack the ridge at sunrise and allow myself plenty of daylight in which to negotiate the new (to me) terrain safely.
Lastly, by following the Pacific Crest Trail north I would be breaking trail through the meadow (where I assumed the snow would be deeper and slower going) with the sun at my back allowing me to protect my face and eyes from prolonged exposure to it and its glare off of the snow. Although I traveled south and directly into the sun while traversing the ridge the following day, it was early enough that the sun was not as intense and it reflected at a lower angle limiting the exposure to my face.
For a shelter I camped in an Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy, used a Sierra Designs Mobile Mummy sleeping bag, and laid on top of a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite closed cell foam mattress pad. I don’t know the actual temperature overnight, but I believe it was in the high single digits to low teens (Fahrenheit). It really didn’t matter to me because I was plenty warm all night long.
On my way up to the ridge the following morning, I used Fischer EZ-Skins with my S-Bound 112 backcountry cross-country skis. These skins are not nearly as aggressive as the full length skins you would use on alpine touring or Telemark skis. However, they definitely made the ascent up the ridge more manageable and prevented me from skidding across the wind scoured and sun baked snow once I began to traverse the upper terrain. I also carried with me a set of Kahtoola Microspikes just in case. And believe me, I wore them instead of my skis on some sections of the ridge. There was a lot of ice on top and, when I travel alone, I mitigate risk factors whenever possible.
The only real issue I had on the trip was the fact I arrived at the trailhead an hour too late. This was poor execution on my part because I had actually planned to leave my house at noon, but did not start driving until 1pm. Thanks to losing that one little hour, I arrived at my alternate campsite just after sunset. I was not confident about pushing on further from that point because I would have been venturing into uncharted territory at higher elevations at night.
Ultimately, the trip was a blast! Cross-country skiing through that high meadow was as rewarding (and exhausting!) as I had hoped. Throughout the 24 hour adventure I was treated to an incredible sunset and sunrise, pristine views of Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe bathed in fog, and snow-covered mountain ranges as far as the eye could see. Also, I bore witness to a red-tailed hawk having way too much fun riding the thermals. For ten minutes I watched as it created a graceful sine wave trajectory by dive bombing in a full tuck, arcing upward while flapping its wings a couple of times, then returning to a full tuck as it ascended to the heavens.