The first time you reach a mountain summit will stick with you forever, but that doesn’t make the second, or third, ascent any less special. Mt. Tallac is the most prominent peak on the southwestern shore of Lake Tahoe, made even more distinguishable by the snowy cross that appears on its eastern flank for most of the year. Despite appearing insurmountable as a child, I first hiked Lake Tahoe’s Mt. Tallac as a 10 year old – halfway through a 9,000+ mile family road trip through the national parks and wild spaces of the Western U.S. This was the first time I really felt I had earned the view in front of me, and in many ways this hike played a pivotal role in motivating a lifelong pursuit of wilderness travel.
As a kid on Mt. Tallac, I learned the importance of packing plenty of water and food, the challenge of scrambling up scree and talus fields, and the definition of a false summit…three times. Over 15 years later, I have found myself back in the Lake Tahoe basin for the winter season with this natural classroom in my backyard. All winter I have been seeking out classic ski lines of the Northern Sierra, and from the get-go Mt. Tallac was on the top of my list. I knew it was only a matter of time before weather patterns, time off, and favorable avalanche forecasts aligned. All winter I patiently waited for my window.
Waking up on opening day of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament to a great forecast and strong spring snowpack meant the time had finally come. After months of ticking items off of my backcountry to-do list, the pieces had finally fallen into place for a solo attempt up this winter’s biggest goal. I left Truckee early in hopes of a chilly start on the skin track with quality snow awaiting me on the summit. After parking the car, strapping skis and boots onto my backpack, and hiking the 1.5 miles to the skin track, I was up and away by 8am. An hour later I found myself shedding layers on top of Sweat Hill with the ascent ridge taunting me just to the north. Another hour past and the steep switchbacks up this ridge were a distant memory. The final push across the summit snowfield provided the last obstacle before reaching a rocky boot pack for the last 100 vertical feet to Tallac’s highpoint.
At last – a triumphant return to the summit that exposed me to the power of a life lived in the mountains. Lake Tahoe shimmered to the east, the Desolation Wilderness beckoned from the west, and a slew of new chutes and glades made their way onto my must-ski list as I admired the mountains of the oft-skied West Shore from a different angle. Standing alone atop Tallac offered a cathartic moment as I reflected on a dream winter in Tahoe. Soon, that moment was shared with a few others trying to catch morning snow before the sun baked it past safe and enjoyable. Skiing solo, I took my time peering into the many shots and couloirs that pour off of Tallac’s extended ridge, dreaming. Maybe I would have another opportunity to point my planks into these technical options but, for now, the most sensible choice was seeking out soul turns in the powdery summit snowfield that emptied into a treed east bowl.
The near 3,000-foot run of untouched powder-turned-corn snow rode better than I could have imagined. Not only had I been able to revisit one of the most important peaks in my life but, this time, I traded the dehydrated and hungry slog downhill for an exhilarating ski in the warm spring sun. Upon returning to the car I was overcome with joy and gratitude, having spent such a beautiful morning in the mountains. Yet something was off. When I awoke that morning I intentionally reminded myself that the day was to be all about the uphill adventure and that I wouldn’t succumb to the shoulder devils taunting me into skiing something I shouldn’t. Now, back at the car, those pesky devils paid me another visit with a more reasonable offer. Maybe, just maybe, I could find myself back on top of Mt. Tallac in the next few weeks with a partner or two. Maybe, just maybe, I would still have a shot at skiing The Cross Couloir this season.
The next few days were a blur of work, music, a collapsing March Madness bracket, and tying up loose ends before winter in California came to an end. Always looking toward the next weekend and another chance to escape into the mountains, I found myself paging through ski tour options for the coming week. Without warning, a message popped up in my inbox.
“Maybe do The Cross Friday”
Another vagabond adventurer and good friend with roots in Tahoe was returning to town for a bit before taking off again in a couple of weeks. We had yet to connect for anything more than a beer this winter so, upon reading these words from Trevor, I knew it was go time. Whether conditions would permit a shot at The Cross or not, it is always great to play in the mountains with a kindred spirit. When my alarm went off at 4:55am the following Friday, I woke up feeling optimistic that in a few hours I would once again be standing atop Mt. Tallac.
Sure enough, after picking up Trevor in Tahoe City and hitting the skin track with a few of his friends by 7:30am, we were stepping into bindings on the summit less than 3 hours later. An earlier start and overnight freeze made our alternate and steeper ascent up the ridge a grueling, icy challenge worthy of ski crampons. Still, we made quick progress – putting us in the perfect place to ski the soft stuff in a series of couloirs before opening up our turns in the buttery spring apron below.
Skiing off of the summit, we did some quick analysis before dropping one at a time into the Upper Cross Couloir. Crusty snow at the steep entrance gave way to a softer base as the chute narrowed into its crux. After catching our breath and regrouping below, we were able to traverse over to another narrower cut in the Southeast face of Tallac. This hidden couloir held the softest snow and made for the most enjoyable and tightest shot of the day. From here we connected a third and final chute to our game of hopscotch – assuming some creative freedom and making for a more technical and exciting alternative to the classic Cross descent.
10 year old me would have never thought that one day I would have the chance to ski down a mountain I had just hiked. Even 26 year old me, knowing this scenario has become commonplace, is continuously baffled by how truly fortunate I am. Twice this winter, I found myself atop Tallac and high above the Eldorado National Forest and Desolation Wilderness. Both times, while tightening ski boots on the summit, I couldn’t help but smile. Was it a product of the invigorating view? The anticipation of the downhill rush? Perhaps it was the realization that life always seems to have a way of coming full circle. Regardless, something just felt right. Whether the first summit or the third, it is in these moments – when a smile is the only expression that seems to make sense – that I know this is where I belong.