Mt. Tallac: Winter Ascent of The Central

18 Jan 2004 - by Robert Greene

Some mountain had to be #2 on the Sierra Peaks Section list to fall, and Mount Tallac was it. On the way, a relatively easy hike turned into an epic battle for life and death for my partner and me. We definitely got a bit more adventure on this particular day than we expected!

Mount Tallac Ascent Summary
Danger Precarious free solo mixed climb with no skills, virtually no equipment, and just a healthy helping of luck.
Thrills The threat of sudden, imminent death is always exciting ... I guess.
Injuries Sprained my big toes using snowshoes.

By the Book

We started out using the route information for the Northeast Ridge posted on Summit Post. The directions to the "trailhead" were relatively straightforward, and we were easily able to find the dead end in the subdivision despite copious January snow. We camped overnight, and started "nice and early" Sunday morning at 9am for the short jaunt to the summit. We had a bit of gear, so as soon as we jumped on the trail, we strapped it on. I had some rental Tubbs snowshoes I was trying out -- my first time using snowshoes. My partner had some crampons he'd just bought, and was using crampons for the first time. The start of the trail was fairly easy to follow, and we angled southwest out of the trees -- eventually we came out into the very bottom of the northeast bowl. After some inspection of our maps, directions, and keen observation of the progress of other parties, we decided to ascend to the ridge on the south side of the bowl, in between the main bowl and the northeast bowl. The trail picked up steepness here, but both our crampons and snowshoes were doing great. After slightly more than an hour, we exited the ridge and turned northwest, along the top of the bowl. Everything was by the book, and a short traverse would lead us to the south trail to the summit proper.

The Deviation

As we edged along the upper reach of the bowl, we passed a skier who was climbing up a little ways into a chute and then skiing down. We looked up past him, and right up that chute, we saw a highly visible high point. It was the right way, so we thought to ourselves, "hey, there's the summit... it's right there!" We had to know, so we had a brief discussion with our new friend...

[[ As a side note, it appears from inspection of pictures and snowboard route information that the chute we were looking at is "The Central" on the NE buttress. ]]

Unfortunately, common sense was in short supply that day. I don't know where this vision I had that we would go up the chute, and be standing on some flat ground where we could prepare the final assault on the last ten feet came from, but that's what I had in my mind as we turned up into the chute, and started climbing. For a few minutes, we were both able to make good progress with our equipment directly up the slope. My snowshoes began to fade soon though, and I started to traverse back and forth across the slope as the angle increased. My partner reached one side of the rock face, and sat down on a small outcropping to have a small bit to eat. My snowshoes continued to underperform (almost certainly due to lack of skill) and I was soon hardly getting any purchase at all from them, and mostly succeeding only in pushing ever greater amounts of snow down the slope. For the last twenty feet getting to the lunch rock, I lost all snowshoe purchase and just climbed up by using my arms as rudimentary climbing poles. I clambered up on top of the small (for two of us) rock outcropping, and we had a brief discussion - it looked like my snowshoes weren't giving me any advantage now, so we agreed I would remove the shoes (going with just hiking boots -- without crampons) and he'd step-kick steps for me to follow. I gained his ice axe to give me some kind of arrest capability in case of falls.

We finished our lunch, and we were off. The kick-step method worked masterfully and we traversed back and forth across the chute, making very rapid upward progress over fairly consolidated snow. He'd kick-step the lead, I'd kick-step and consolidate his steps, I'd run solid self belays (with the ice ax) directly under him when he executed turns in his traverse. There was an element of danger, but it was fairly controlled risk. Soon we passed the highest snowboard tracks where someone had entered the chute from the hanging face. We both considered moving up onto the face at that point, but the angle of the chute itself appeared lower and less exposed than the face above. That was probably the last easy exit from the chute. We continued upward, kick-stepping. Eventually, one of his kicks broke through the snow into a hollow pocket near a boulder. We moved around that and continued upward. As we moved up, the angle of the slope continued to increase, but always, it appeared that just "beyond that rock" or "after one more traverse" the angle decreased.

Finally, we reached a split in the chute -- the larger section went up to the left, while a smaller chute broke off to the right. We both wanted to go up the larger chute to the left, but every time my partner moved that way, he found huge pockets in the snow pack. We'd have to go to the right, and try to hug the wall and use it for added support. We moved over to the far right wall, and scrambled up the slope another 10-15 feet, no longer kick stepping, but rather using the rock wall to provide purchase. The snow condition was now very unconsolidated, and my partner was getting less and less benefit from the crampons as the grainy snow poured off around him as soon as he put weight on it. I felt I was in even worse shape, without even the benefit of crampons to get some purchase. My hiking boots weren't giving me any kind of real grip on the exposed rock surfaces either

The next thirty minutes seemed like an eternity. My partner was about 10-15 feet above me, and was slowly and painfully working his way around a rather large boulder - he thought after clearing the boulder we might be able to "belly-flop" our way up onto the top of the Hanging Face. Meanwhile, I'd had to move off the rock face due to lack of sustainable position, and now found myself about 5 feet across a slushy snow slide standing on top of this tiny pine bush. It really didn't look like it was prepared to handle 200 pound loads. And, of course, the exposure was fairly dramatic since the view was the direct line down the chute into the bowl. The slope we were on felt like it was about 80 degrees, but a picture I took shows it was only about 50; still pretty steep for the conditions. While I clutched the tree, I must admit that I lamented our lack of a rope so we could even belay each other; much less any kind of protection so we could at least lock in a fall, and of course, my lack of a pair of crampons. Having a protected climb can really make quite a difference. It was also about this point when I started to wonder if I'd be able to cling to the tree long enough for the rescue choppers to find me...

But back to the story. My partner was making slow progress, but he was worried about me since I wasn't on the face, and was stranded out in the snow pile. He had a few choice words that amounted to "you gotta move back onto that rock face", and, of course, he was right, I wasn't going anywhere with just the ice axe, though I did (briefly) consider trying some other routes to get back into some consolidated snow. In the end I slugged my way back onto the wall with a bit of aggressive downclimbing, and then slowly slowly started the climb back up to where he was. I'm guessing this part was probably only a class 4 section, but it the tiny little cracks and flakes I was using as hand holds made it feel worse than any of those 5.6 routes at Planet Granite. I also found I couldn't really get multiple hand and foot holds because of the small exposed surface area, so I ended up doing some flunky chimneying technique where I'd get a good single hand and foot hold on the rock surface and jam my other leg perpendicular to the rock wall into the snow (beyond where my partner's passage had disturbed it). Using this method, I was able to ever so slowly haul myself up the slope to where my partner was.

While I'd been playing rock climber, my partner had moved up to an area of deeper snow. Unfortunately when he tried to kick step into it, the snow was still too loose and his steps wouldn't have the firmness to support moving up. But he'd come up with an alternate idea and was scooping out large flat steps that he could kneel onto and gradually move up. Over the next hour, we moved progressively up the slope by cutting steps, kneeling onto them, then standing up on them. The steps were solid enough we both felt some measure of safety after the previous "clinging to the rock face" experience. Finally, finally, after a couple dozen steps, the slope's angle decreased enough that he was able to kick-step again, and minutes later, we crossed over the top of the ridgeline, and could see the true summit, about 2000 feet away and 500 feet higher than we were. Our adventure in The Central had come to an end!

The Short Finale

We ascended the bowl face directly to the summit (we crossed the ridge line almost immediately to the north of it. This section was a little steeper than the real "NE Ridge" hiking route (which was farther to the west) but had already been ascended numerous times, so we had deep steps to step into all the way up. At 4:30, we finally reached the summit. We'd spent over 4 hours in the chute, and had accumulated a world's slowest ascent speed of 6:54 from trailhead to summit. The weather all weekend had been perfect, and we were rewarded with some fine views from the summit of Lake Tahoe, Jacks, Dicks, Freel, Rose and other nearby mountains. Gilmore Lake was frozen over, and looked pretty cool. As is my typical luck, there was no summit registry to be found, so after a mere handful of minutes we were on our way back down.

Going down was a lot faster, we used the direct bowl descent with massive postholing and returned to the trailhead in just 92 minutes


  1. Crampons are a must for snowy climbing.
  2. Ice Axe is a must for snowy climbing.
  3. If you think you're going to do something crazy, bring some rope and at least some minimal protection.
  4. Turn around before it's "too hard" to go farther up because it's always harder to go down then up.
  5. Novices should stick to the "existing" trails so they don't get themselves in hot water.
  6. I only have 8 lives left.

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