Backcountry Skiing in the Golden State: Desolation Wilderness

The higher you get, the higher you get

Tahoe-based skier Mike Vaughn enjoying the better-late-than-never Sierra corn. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

Tahoe-based skier Mike Vaughn enjoying the better-late-than-never Sierra corn. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

Jeremy Benson

Based out of Lake Tahoe, California, Jeremy Benson has worked as a busser, landscaper, ski tech, bartender, waiter, and freelance writer to facilitate his skiing addiction. He is currently working on a backcountry skiing guidebook to the state of California for Mountaineers Books.

After the driest year on record for the state of California, and virtually no precipitation in the first month of 2014, a classic Pineapple Express, complete with an "atmospheric river" of moisture, finally took dead aim at the central Sierra in February. When nature's fire hose turned on, it dropped upwards of 10 inches of liquid, and above 8,000 feet on the crest of the Sierra, that translated into five-plus feet of heavy Sierra cement. That's the thing about the mountains of California, all it really takes is one big storm.

Shortly after the downpour, a friend and I climbed one of the more popular roadside backcountry zones on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, Jake's Peak. From the summit, we could see that the deeper and higher peaks in the distance--a place called Desolation Wilderness--were completely plastered with Sierra cement, like cream cheese frosting spread on the side of a layer cake. While the lower elevations had seen mostly rain, the mountains in Desolation were as fat with snow as either of us had seen in recent years. Without hesitation, we hatched a plan to head out for one of the classic Desolation tours the following day.

En route to high ground in Desolation Wilderness, California. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

En route to high ground in Desolation Wilderness, California. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

The next morning our party of six pulled up to the trailhead and started hiking out, weaving our way through the thin patches of snow intermixed with large patches of bare dirt and bushes. The snow covered more and more ground as we gained elevation, and when we passed the Desolation Wilderness boundary sign just 400 vertical feet from the car, our mission again seemed completely reasonable, except for the survival skiing we would have to do on the return trip. The higher and farther we traveled into Desolation, the more fully immersed we were in winter.

Desolation's treeless, windswept granite peaks are strewn with dozens of shallow alpine lakes. Almost 100 square miles of protected land located southwest of Lake Tahoe on the crest of the Sierra, Desolation is one of the most visited Wilderness areas in the country in the summer, but the area sees little traffic during the winter months, with the exception of a few skiers who stretch their legs beyond the usual backcountry zones that are easier to access.

Desolation is a bit of a misnomer since the 20-plus peaks within its boundaries are home to some of the finest descents in the Tahoe region. At 9,974 feet, Dick's Peak is the third highest summit in Desolation. It stands almost directly in the middle of the wilderness area, the centerpiece to a white, barren landscape. There are plenty of options for beautiful descents down Dick's Peak, its location lending well to overnight and long, full-day tours. Three hours out from the car, we neared the top of the windswept north face and realized that what had looked so good from afar would actually be far from good skiing. Fortunately, we had the time and flexibility to change our plans and we opted for the sun-ripened corn on the peak's massive southeast face, an 1,800-foot pitch that drops at a consistent angle down to the frozen Half Moon Lake far below.

The day's tour wasn't anything particularly gnarly. The snow quality was far from all time. But seven hours, three summits, 11 miles, and 6,000 vertical feet later, we returned to the car from the most rewarding tour any of us had been on all year.

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