Three Sierra tours from green circle to black diamond
Words and photos by Brennan Lagasse
The snow has been flying all over the Sierra Nevada this winter with mid-January storms blanketing the Range of Light in a bright shade of white from north to south. The backcountry in the greater Lake Tahoe area has been filling in as a result, and February looks to be a great month to get out for a tour. Here are three classic spots with varying levels of terrain for those looking to get out and enjoy the best of what Tahoe has to offer this season. Don’t forget to have a good partner as well as the tools and knowledge necessary to safely access avalanche terrain before you head out for a tour.
TOUR 1 // Mt. Rose
The Mt. Rose area is home to some of the best easy-access, high elevation powder and corn skiing in the area. It’s actually just east of the Sierra Crest nestled at the northern end of the Carson Range, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the skiing isn’t as good as its neighboring Sierra peaks. Many backcountry tours in the region boast phenomenal views of the lake, and whether it’s your first time skinning around the decomposed granite of Tahoe Meadows, or you’re venturing out to the more solar slopes of Rose Knob, this area holds multiple tours, aspects, and lines to keep backcountry enthusiasts busy from early until late in the season.
Green Circle Tour: Tahoe Meadows is a very low angle, short approach skin that offers a few turns in a low key setting. By some standards it might be too mellow, but if you’re simply looking to get a feel for skinning, and make turns in a beautiful place it’s worth some time. If you’re ready for a bit more of a green circle/blue square experience, but are still wary to get “out there,” head over the pass toward Reno and use the big pullout on the right to access the Tamarack Peak zone. There are several bowls and short skiable pitches on the way to explore before getting out to Tamarack. If you make it out there expect 1,200 feet of elevation gain whether you choose the east or north sides of the peak for your descent.
TOUR 2 // Castle Peak
Castle Peak is one of the most classic backcountry locales in all of the Northern Sierra. You can’t miss its south couloir, splitting the rocky “castle” while driving up I-80 headed east, or its beautiful south slopes while driving from the west. The crown of the Donner Summit area, Castle Peak offers a backcountry hut experience (reservation required) with the Peter Grubb Hut and shares its terrain with a host of users from the daily backcountry skier, to snowshoers, and in some areas snowmobiles. Andesite Peak is popular as a beginner ski tour, as are the south slopes of Castle Peak when conditions permit. The northwest trees accessed from Castle Pass are a prime spot to find sheltered powder, and there is great skiing on the east and northern sides of the peak as well.
Blue Square Tour: It’s hard to beat the northwest trees of Castle Peak. Use the snowpark off the I-80 Boreal exit (pass required), walk a few hundred feet to the trailhead, and get comfortable for the relatively flat approach until you head up Castle Pass. From here a short descent will bring you to the Peter Grub Hut, or continue along the ridge checking conditions for your descent into the trees along the way. If you’re looking to ramp up this tour, and have the stamina and savvy for multiple laps, dropping off the backside of the northwest trees will bring you to some east and north facing terrain that advanced to expert skiers look forward to experiencing every season. If you stick to the trees expect 1,000-1,200+ feet of elevation gain before you’ll be skiing.
TOUR 3 // Carson Pass
While Castle Peak and Mt. Rose anchor the northern portions of the Lake Tahoe backcountry ski terrain, Carson Pass is the center of the south. Heading up and over Luther Pass from South Lake Tahoe-passing some exceptional tree skiing off Waterhouse Peak, you’ll eventually be on your way to Kirkwood and find yourself in a true alpine setting. Carson Pass proper has a SnowPark (pass required) that allows access to the well traveled Elephant’s Back, Round Top, and Sisters ski tours that are all some of the best in the area. Elephant’s Back sees the most traffic, and the Sisters the least, but you’ll likely run into other winter enthusiasts who are snow camping, or even ice skating depending on the snow conditions.
Black Diamond Tour: While some easy-to-moderate tours certainly exist in the region, Round Top is the 10k foot peak in the area that draws the most attention. There are several bowls and ramps to check out with east and north aspects, but the Crescent Couloir grabs the most attention. It’s the definition of a perfect couloir, arcing a crescent right through the middle of Round Top-hence the name. There are actually two other couloirs right next door to the main Crescent, but this one is “the one.” Many a solid backcountry skier has been turned back due to difficult-to-unsafe conditions in this line, so keep in mind it is definitely only for the very skilled backcountry rider and will likely require hard points (crampons, ice axe, whippet) to ascend safely. Count on a 1,500 foot approach for this prize expert line that’s impossible to miss when you’re driving over Carson Pass in either direction. If you feel up to the challenge at first, but don’t like what you see when you get out there, there’s still plenty of skiing to be done in the area, and there’s always another day to come back and get walled in the couloir.