Carson Pass-Three Terrific Tours and Two Splendid Summits
by Paul Richins, Jr. (updated 8/23/00)
A similar, but abreviated article, appeared in Couloir Magazine. Much of the information is also contained in 50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney.
For more info on backcountry ski touring, ski mountaineering, and backcountry ski summits in California's Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada, see California's "Hall of Fame" ski expeditions.
The Kit Carson Pass area is rich in California history, for it was here that John C. Fremont and his party made the first winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada in February 1844. Fremont's crossing was a huge success as he was also the first to climb Red Lake Peak and the first to record sighting Lake Tahoe. And not a single man was lost in the ordeal. This is in stark contrast to the well-known, ill-fated Donner Party two years later, when 34 of 81 persons died attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada near Donner Pass.
Imagine what it was like for the Fremont Party more than 150 years ago, in the midst of winter, somewhere west of Markleeville. They had no four-season tents; Gore-tex parkas; down parkas; down sleeping bags; or modern-day skis. The temperature plummets to near zero each night and the winter snow conditions are appalling--they are lost and nearly out of food, their horses are in poor condition, and the snow is deepening as they inch westward towards Carson Pass.
Charles Preuss, the German topographer, describes the hopeless situation by writing in his diary:"We are getting deeper and deeper into the mountain and snow. We can make only a few miles each day. We are now completely snowed in. The snowstorm is on top of us. The wind obliterates all track which, with indescribable effort, we make for our horses. It is certain that we will eat horse meat." Charles Preuss, (from History of the Sierra Nevada, by Francis P. Farquhar)
Freemont summarizes the bleakness of the situation on the day that he climbed Red Lake Peak and first viewed Lake Tahoe:"I gave Godey leave to kill our little dog, (Tlamath,) which he prepared Indian fashion; scorching off the hair, and washing the skin with soap and snow, and then cutting it up into pieces which were laid on the snow. Shortly afterwards, we had an extraordinary dinner-pea soup, mule and dog. In the morning, with Mr. Preuss, I ascended the highest peak to the right; from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet." John C. Fremont, February 14, 1844. (from, A Treasure of the Sierra Nevada, by Robert Reid)
Hopefully your experience in the Carson Pass area is not as traumatic as that of the Fremont party. Modern-day gear should make for enjoyable skiing and boarding and a nearby highway provides effortless access to high, open bowl skiing and boarding.
In fact, today, Carson Pass is one of the finest areas for general touring and ski mountaineering in the Tahoe region. The pass is located 15 air miles due south of Lake Tahoe and is roughly a 2.5-hour drive east of Sacramento and Stockton, California and less than an hour's drive from Carson City, Nevada, on Highway 88. At 8,574 feet, Highway 88 is the highest trans-Sierra Nevada highway kept open throughout the winter. Because of the higher elevation and colder temperatures, the area receives copious amounts of snow, the powder is exceptional, and the skiing begins sooner and lasts longer each season than other areas in the Tahoe area.
With Kirkwood Ski Resort and Kirkwood Cross-country Ski Center a short distance to the west of Carson Pass, there are ski and snowboard opportunities for all abilities, from the beginner to the expert ski mountaineer. The Kirkwood Cross-country Ski Center is a great place to learn to cross-country ski. They also have intermediate and advanced groomed trails and skating trails heading further into the nearby wilderness-a total of 80 kilometers with three warming huts (phone: 209-258-7248, web site: http://www.skikirkwood.com/xcountry.html). The nearby alpine resort is a great place to improve your boarding and skiing skills. However, if you crave the backcountry, the high passes and summits, head up to Carson Pass.
Below, I briefly describe three of my favorite day-tours in the area followed by a more detailed description of the featured summit in the region-Red Lake Peak.
This tour starts on the east side of Carson Pass at the Red Lake parking area (7,840 feet) just off Highway 88. The route follows an unplowed road for the first 1.5 miles traversing gentle, rolling terrain. After crossing the Forestdale Creek bridge, angle right and climb steadily staying to the east of Forestdale Creek. Above the tree line, pick up a jeep road and follow it to the pass (8,900 feet). There is excellent intermediate terrain in the many open bowls. Easy access to great terrain and dependable powder make the Forestdale Creek tour an excellent choice.
Carson Pass to Highway 50
Several winters ago, Bob Carlson and I retraced, on skis, a portion of Fremont's route across the Sierra Nevada. On the first day, we started at Grover Hot Springs (near Markleeville) and skied west through Charity Valley, Faith Valley, and on to Carson Pass. The second day we skied in a northwesterly direction to Highway 50. The tour described below is the second day's segment.
Park at the Carson Pass Sno-Park on the north side of Highway 88. Begin by skiing west. Do not gain any elevation. After 0.5 mile, traverse into a small valley losing elevation slightly. Angle north and climb to a gentle saddle at the 8,800-foot level. From here, angle northwest up the ridge to the first in a series of connected peaks or high points near the 9,500-foot level. Ski along the ridge or traverse the high, open bowls. There are many fine opportunities to descend the north slopes towards Meiss Lake and Showers Lake. However, continue to the northwestern-most peak due west of Showers Lake. From the summit, descend the ridge dividing Sayles Canyon and Strawberry Creek or ski in a northwesterly direction into a tributary of Strawberry Creek. When we skied through this area in February, the powder was outstanding. Continue down Strawberry Creek to Highway 50. The drop into Strawberry Creek is strenuous intermediate and advanced skiing.
Carson Pass to Winnemucca Lake to Woods Lake
This intermediate tour starts from the Carson Pass Sno-park located on the south side of Highway 88. Ski past Frog Lake and on to Winnemucca Lake (8,960 feet), a distance of about 2.0 miles. Ascend the pass (9,400 feet) between Winnemucca Lake and Round Top Lake. From the pass there is an enjoyable 1,200-foot descent to Woods Lake. To increase your turns, climb up the ridge towards Round Top Peak. There are many enticing runs on the upper slopes of Round Top Peak. Plenty of powder can be found in the winter and the area provides wonderful spring skiing into May. Alternatively, a longer, gentler descent passes Round Top Lake and follows the broad ridge down to the 9,062-foot distinctive rock fin before descending to Woods Lake. Ski out to the highway and hitch a short ride back to Carson Pass.
Red Lake Peak-Great for Skiers and Boarders Alike
Red Lake Peak is the featured summit in the area as it includes a descent of over 2,600 feet after only a 1,500-foot climb. Can't beat that for efficiency!
From the Carson Pass Sno-Park on the north side of Highway 88, head west. The natural tendency is to gain elevation at the start, resist the temptation. In 0.5 mile, traverse into a small valley losing elevation slightly. Turn north and climb to a gentle pass (8,800 feet). As you reach the pass, Lake Tahoe will come into view just as it did for John C. Fremont more than 150 years ago. From this pass, traverse north and then northeast, gaining elevation steadily towards Red Lake Peak. Gain the summit of Red Lake Peak from either the south or the north.
There are many excellent descent routes off Red Lake Peak. If you return to Carson Pass directly, there is enticing intermediate skiing in the well-spaced trees that grow high on the northwest shoulder of the peak. Nearby is a prominent gully that also provides a wonderful descent route.
There are even better descent options to the northeast. These routes drop over 2,600 feet from the upper slopes of Red Lake Peak past Crater Lake to Highway 88. The northeast ridge provides a continuous, direct descent to the highway passing to the south of Crater Lake. Another option is to ski towards Stevens Peak descending to the saddle north of Red Lake Peak. From the gap, descend to the north and then to the east, passing to the north of the steep drop into Crater Lake. A third option is to ski or snowboard the center of the northeast bowl to Crater Lake. This route is the steepest option and is flanked by rock cliffs. Exercise caution and be aware of the potential for avalanche hazards. A fourth option is to continue along the ridge to Stevens Peak descending either its northeast or southeast slopes.
Red Lake Peak in a Nutshell
Route: Ascend Carson Pass to Red Lake Peak descending the northeast ridge or northeast bowl
Maps: Carson Pass and Caples Lake (7.5 minute)
Trip duration: One day
Level of difficulty: The descent is advanced (Black Diamond)
Mileage: 3 miles to the summit with a 2.5-mile descent
Elevation gain/loss: 1,560-foot ascent with a 2,661-foot descent
Snowboards: Yes-short approach with a continuous descent
How to get there: Drive to Carson Pass on Highway 88 and park in the Sno-Park area on the north side of the highway. Place a shuttle vehicle on the east side of Carson Pass near the unplowed road (7,400 feet) to Crater Lake.
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