Mt. Tallac: Cross Couloir

In the never ending attention grab for weekdays, sometimes adventure wins. This time the adventure was the Cross Couloir on Mt. Tallac. So it was that I woke up at 2:30am on Wednesday, instead of a leisurely 6:30 and drove to Folsom to meet the rest of the team.

Mt. Tallac is an imposing mountain in the Desolation Wilderness, west of Lake Tahoe. A local favourite for skiing and climbing, it is one of the harder ones with about 3400ft of altitude gain. The Cross Couloir splits the east face and is a moderate snow climb with up to 55 degree snow.

I had climbed Tallac last year via the NE ridge and the low snow led to a horrible bushwhack. Things were much better this year as we hit the approach at 7:30am. The winter start is from the Spring Creek Trailhead and involves a mile of walking on the road.

Early morning snow conditions were beautiful! Consolidated, but not icy and no postholing. Once you leave the houses, follow the looker’s left branch of the creek into the central gully. The Cross Couloir is at the top of this.

Imposing Mt. Tallac
Imposing Mt. Tallac: With the fog and snow, Tallac looks menacing. The Cross couloir is distinct at center-left, the widest part between the first and second major buttresses.

We put on our crampons at about 7000ft to ascend the steep slopes towards the couloir. The higher I climbed, the more I regretted not having skis.

Powder on Tallac's flanks
Powder on Tallac's flanks: Tallac continues to hold excellent powder.

The climbing was fairly relaxed, with plenty of breaks since we were in no hurry. We reached the base of the couloir at 11:30 and put on harnesses in case the couloir would need protecting. Just then two skiers popped out and had clearly enjoyed themselves.

We proceeded unroped and were near the top by 12:45. The standard exit is to the left. A cornice covers the rest of the exit and is fairly big, and definitely dangerous. You’ll want to minimize time directly under it. Some of us wanted to see if things could be made interesting. Peeking behind the rock on the left seemed fun. It was mixed climbing with just a thin sheet of powder on rock.

Top of the Cross Couloir
Top of the Cross Couloir: Standard exit on left. We fudged around behind the rock at center left. Cornice at right.

Dominic tried to pave a path but things quickly got sketchy. His exact words were “Does somebody with bigger balls than me want to try this?” I can’t verify the literal question, but I did scooch up and try to make the moves. After about 2 steps on rock I couldn’t figure out the next thing I was willing to do unroped. After a tense 10 minutes we decided to just take the standard exit with our tails between our legs. This diversion cost time so that we topped out at 1:30pm.

Popping out of the couloir, I was glad we didn’t push our luck, because if we had stuck to the alternate route, we would have ended up on 20ft of unprotectable, unconsolidated snow.

The views from Tallac are spectacular, and although the clouds obscured much of them, Gilmore Lake was a star!

Gilmore Lake
Gilmore Lake: Gilmore Lake below fog covered Crystal Range.

I have left out photos of Lake Tahoe because it was a cold grey blue that was not at all appealing.

The descent down the NE bowl was uneventful. Plenty of glissading opportunities and hours of post-holing later (with one badly torqued right knee), we were back at the car at 4:30pm.

Hat tip to Rick and Waide who showed us how to climb in style in their 6th decade of life. I hope to have the same energy and passion.