With the Groundhog’s announcement that Spring is to come early this year, I knew it was time to get back to the mountains for some snowshoeing before all the snow is gone. Super Bowl Sunday was a beautiful sunny day, and all I could think about was wide-open super bowls of snow. Traffic and people out on the trail are generally light on these big TV holidays, and I wanted to take advantage of it. I was able to find a friend with the same idea, and he was even planning to go to the same area. Great minds think alike. We agreed that Red Lake Peak near Carson Pass would be a fun challenge for the day.
We arrived at the Meiss Meadow SNO-PARK trailhead sometime before noon to a surprisingly busy parking lot. As we were unloading, a large group of around 20 people started coming off the mountain with camping gear in huge packs. The campers looked to be in their 20s, and it seemed most of them were women. They had spent the night up in the mountains, and had even dug snow caves!
We got our snowshoes on, then headed up the Pacific Crest Trail north from the parking lot towards Meiss Meadow. After getting around the first big hill though, we turned towards Red Lake Peak and began a gentle climb in that direction.
We picked out a path through the rocks above, and then made a big sweeping arc through the valley of snow. Once around the rocky outcroppings we were one the west side of the peak and into another large snowy bowl. Climbing gradually, we made for the ridgeline below the false summit.
On the way up we passed beneath a long cornice of wind loaded snow. The avalanche danger was rated as low this day, but I still didn’t feel like spending too much time here. We kept moving, finally getting up on top of the ridge for a break and some good views of Red Lake below on the other side.
Looking up, we couldn’t see past the false summit. We decided that straight up the mountain looked like the best route with the most snow though. The terrain got pretty steep here, so we decided to engage our snowshoe televators, little heel lifters on the back of the snowshoes that place your foot in a more comfortable position for climbing. I once tried them out after first getting my snowshoes, but I generally forget I have them. Especially when snowshoeing on rolling terrain. For this extended climb though, they worked wonderfully.
As we got further up the steep slope, the feeling was incredible. It was like being in my own mountaineering documentary, but without the danger. I had just got done saying how safe I felt on the side of the mountain when we came to a big crack in the snow. The two-inch fault line crossed the entire slab of snow above us. I suddenly lost that feeling of complete safety, and we carefully moved near the rocks to the side, just in case the slab we were standing on decided to break loose. The snow wasn’t real deep, and I have no idea if we were in any real danger, but I didn’t want to stick around to find out!
Once over the hump of the false summit, the slope eased up, and the snow became sparse. The wind swept summit was pretty much snow-free at this point, so we took off our snowshoes. Jonathon had come more prepared, and was able to strap his snowshoes to his pack. I had to carry mine in one hand, and go to one pole.
On top of the false summit, we could now see the real summit. My GPS showed that the nearest pile of rocks was the highest point at 10,069 feet. If you took away the steep rocks, we were pretty close in elevation to the top. I asked Jonathon, “What do you think? This high enough?”. He thought there might be a better view from the actual summit, and wanted to keep going. That’s the trouble with bringing courageous friends along.
Still out of the snowshoes, we hiked across the saddle to the rocks. There looked to be a way up on the west side. The snow was deeper here, and it was steep. Looking down though, I didn’t feel like I would die if I fell. I’d probably just get one heck of a sledding trip. Without the snowshoes on, our boots post-holed into the snow. But this was also somewhat reassuring, since it would be hard to simply slip down the mountain this way.
After traversing around the peak, it was time to go straight up again. Luckily there were some exposed rocks here that made the going easier. Good traction for the boots, and hand holds. I also used my snowshoes as an ice axe of sorts, digging them into the snow for something to hold onto when there were no rocks.
I made my way up to a little ledge between the two tallest rocky towers. This was as far as I would be going. My GPS said I was about 7 feet away from the top horizontally, but about 50 feet below it. Jonathon was already ahead of me, had dropped his gear, and was scrambling on up. I told him to be careful, and told him I wasn’t going to watch.
Through a window in the rocks, I had a partial view of Meiss Meadow to the northeast from where I was sitting. But to get a good view of the meadow and Lake Tahoe beyond, I would’ve had to stand up. I was sitting on a wobbly rock with good drops on either side of me. I felt a little dizzy, and my legs were beginning to cramp up from trying to grip the rocks. I had to get into a comfortable position and just tell myself to relax. Meanwhile, Jonathon came happily climbing back down from the top with a pair of sun glasses that he found up there.
I tried to have a little lunch while sitting on my perch, but found that I didn’t have much of an appetite. My body said it would wait until we were on flatter ground. Also, sitting on the shady side of the peak, I was starting to get cold. We packed up and made our way down and back over to the ridge. Going down was a bit more difficult that climbing up, having to go backwards or feet first, but we eventually made it back.
Back at the ridge below the peak, we were able to relax and get some warm sun. My body sensing that I was out of danger, was now ready for lunch. I remembered that Red Lake Peak is believed to be the vantage point from which early explorers John C. Fremont and Charles Preuss made the first recorded sighting of Lake Tahoe in February 1844. I wondered if they sat where I was sitting now, or if they had gone all the way up to the top.
In order to avoid having to walk through the dirt and rocks again, we scouted out a new route to get off the mountain. We also wanted to see some new terrain on the way back. It was late afternoon now, and the snow was warming up. At times it felt like walking in frosting. Every 4th step would be a slide. This tended to be tedious on the side hills.
When complete, our route looked like a figure eight. Along the way back we crossed a fun ridge with great views. Our route was not completely on the snow, but with only about 12 feet of mud and rocks to cross, we just walked slowly and carefully in our snowshoes across the snowless patch.
Back at the trailhead and looking back up the peak, I had a good feeling of accomplishment. It was about a 5 mile round trip with around 1,500 feet of climbing. While not overly difficult, I think this was my first real mountain peak climbed in the snow. I’m not sure how much longer the snow will last up there, but if we don’t get some storms soon, Spring really will be here before we know it. Tuckered out, we made one final stop on the way home at the Hope Valley Cafe for a round of well deserved beers.
For more photos of this trip, click on over to Flickr here.