Peering cautiously over the slim granite shelf we are on, I could now see all the way down to the bottom of the deep ravine below us. Rocks and large boulders are poking up through the hard crusty snow. It is a hundred feet down, easy.
Like me, Kenny has his back pressed against the rock wall behind us. He is staring down intensely into that ravine.
I whisper more to myself than to Kenny, “How in the hell are we going to get off this ledge?”
The day before while stacking big plastic crates of clean water glasses that he had just wheeled down from the dish room, Kenny said to me, “I’ve always wanted to climb Mt. Tallac.”
I said, “I’ve climbed it.” He looked at me wryly with a big smirk on his face and said, “The face?”
I laughed and only paused for a second before I said, “No, let’s do it!” He just nodded and went back toward the kitchen to get more clean dishes to stock before the buffet opened.
Kenny was a work buddy. My fellow stock boy at the Sahara Tahoe Casino buffet.
When I started at the buffet I got to know Kenny right away. He trained me and showed me the ropes. He had known my brother in high school because they were in the same graduating class, both of them one year below me. But what I really had in common with Kenny was that he loved to climb. Within a few weeks we had gone on a couple of climbs together.
Working in the same area we rarely had a day off together. So, we would do little ascents in the morning and into the early afternoon before our shift started at four o clock, the swing shift.
Our first climb together was up Round Hill just across the state line on the Nevada side of the south shore of Tahoe. Not much of climb for either of us but it was a good start. It took us about an hour to climb it and about five minutes to hop down, literally. We bounced from boulder to boulder all the way down like we were spring loaded. Dangerous, but fun as hell.
We got a little more ambitious with each climb. Next was Round Top. It was a sizeable peak but driving over Luther Pass through Hope Valley and a ways up Carson Pass the trailhead started at an appreciable elevation that made it a fairly easy morning climb.
The Forest Service trail went up the south side of the peak. It was a moderately gradual ascent, more like a steep hike with only a little rock climbing. But a spring dump of fresh snow had us trudging up to our knees most of the way to the top. We had no gear, never did. Kenny and I both prided ourselves on being free climbers. Ropes, ice axes, crampons, pitons, even sunglasses…those were for posers and pikers. The whole thrill of climbing for us was to NOT be encumbered with that crap. Hell, we often didn’t even take food or water on our little forays. Why? They were just short hikes.
Despite the snow, the climb to the peak was uneventful. It was a crystal clear Sierra Nevada morning. At the top an azure sky, thin cold air and a magnificent vista welcomed us. Looking west you could see ridge after ridge towards the apex of Carson Pass and beyond. Looking east, the direction we had driven from earlier that morning, lovely green Hope Valley was glowing in its early spring splendor. You never get tired of views from the tops of mountains.
Round Top-Elevation 10, 374 ft.
After drinking in the view for while it was time to descend. Kenny and I were wet and cold. We both agreed that we didn’t want to go back the way we had come. This was partially because of the amount of deep snow and partially to explore a different return route…just because. We both liked to explore new and different routes both ascending and descending. It kept things interesting and fun.
Kenny wanted go down a rocky spine of rock that didn’t go straight down but edged off the peak at an easy angle, plus it was relatively free of snow. It was longer and was clearly rougher with all of the rocks than the way I wanted to go, which was straight down the steep open north face of Round Top. NORTH face…that should have registered with me but it didn’t. My proposed route was steep but not vertical. I thought if I crisscrossed the icy face in switchbacks it shouldn’t be too difficult getting to the open rocky area at the bottom.
One thing we both knew well and practiced was to not hike alone, especially on mountains. During our separate traverses down, both of us would be in sight on each other the whole way. We didn’t argue about it. Kenny went down the ridge. I went down the face.
I should have listened to Kenny. I watched him for a moment before he headed down the ridge.
After climbing a short distance straight down some rocks, I stood at the edge of the clear bright white north slope of Round Top. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time react. I had no sooner taken my first step on the wind-polished ice than my feet went right out from underneath me. I was air born at first and then landed with thud flat on my back. Gravity had me and I was slowly slipping down this icy chute. The hard crystalline surface provided nothing to grab on to or break my momentum. At that moment I would have sold my soul for an ice axe. To hell with free climbing!
But free climber hubris was going to kill me as the adage “pride cometh before a fall” was rapidly becoming literal truth by the second. I was going to die of irony. Of, course I had no time to think about these things. Panic was setting in as my speed increased. I tried to slow myself down with the palms of my ungloved hands but they were only ground painfully raw in seconds on the razor sharp ice. My speed was increasing rapidly and the rocky outcropping at the bottom was getting closer and closer. Bad combination, speed and rocks. This was not going to come out well if I didn’t do something, anything, and very soon. With all my strength I lifted my legs and then brought them down again as hard as I could grinding my heels into the crusty surface trying for some kind of purchase.
I got the desired effect as my heels dug into the ice all my speed was converted into a head first launch into the air. In a sort of awkward dive forward I crunched through the hard brittle snow with my head up to my shoulders. Kenny said I did a scorpion. This is where your legs arch over your back in an unnatural bend and your feet touch the back of your head. He later said that he thought for sure my back was broken. But I had stopped.
We hiked back to the car. Forehead scraped raw and burning we drove back to Tahoe. I actually worked that night.
A few weeks later things started to warm up as spring began to merge into summer. The deep winter snow pack was steadily receding up the flanks of the mountains. Every day you could see more and more of their rocky shoulders. Rock climbing season was here!
At the south end of Lake Tahoe you could see Mount Tallac from almost anywhere in the valley. If you ever saw a post card of Tahoe and it had a mountain, it was Tallac. Lovely Mount Tallac, with the iconic cross on its face formed by deep crevices that retained snow often even through the hot summer months.
Mount Tallac-Elevation 9,739 ft.
Kenny and I waited impatiently and watched as each day we could see more and more of Mount Tallac transition from white to gray as the granite became more and more exposed. There was still a lot of snow higher near the top and of course in those deep crevices like white veins on its face. We had been itching for this for weeks and couldn’t wait any longer. The next day we were going to climb Mount Tallac.
It was going to be a longer attempt both in time and distance than anything Kenny and I had done together so far. Unlike a lot of the hikes we did, there was no way to drive any closer up Tallac than its base. We had planned all along to take a route up the face, the face with the cross that you could famously see from the south shore basin of Tahoe. For some reason we thought going up the face would be quicker than hiking along the ridge that was Tallac’s western shoulder.
This was only the first of several things we were mistaken about that day.
We found a place as near to base as we could to park my blue 65 Chevy pick-up. We weren’t looking for a trailhead, we were making our way straight up the face. We looked up and worked out the most difficult (vertical) route we could contrive from that vantage. After beating our way through chest high manzanita brush and lose broken rock for a while we came to the near vertical monolith of granite that was the face of Mount Tallac. Kenny eagerly shoved his hand into a shallow crevice and started hoisting himself up the rock face. I followed just as eagerly.
We pulled ourselves up and up. We squeezed ourselves up chutes and narrow crevices sometimes in tandem and sometimes side by side. We picked our own individual routes. No leaders. We would pause to rest on a rock or ledge and look up to try and strategize our next move when we could see it; sometimes we couldn’t. The trick was to pause long enough to get your wind but not rest too long or you cooled down. Most importantly was to not let the adrenaline start to subside or you would start to get the shakes, which not good. On a shear rock face it is essential to stay steady not shaky, a balancing act between emotional exhilaration, intense physical effort, and fear.
About three quarters up the face Kenny and I pulling ourselves up side by side on a narrow sliver of a ledge almost at the same time. Flushed from the last few yards of tough climbing, we both took a few seconds to look down with satisfaction at our progress. That satisfaction quickly evaporated as we realized that our little balance beam of a ledge was topped by an overhang the likes of which we hadn’t seen before pulling ourselves onto this slender sanctuary. The ledge above our heads was like the thick brow of a stone giant. There was nothing but slick polished rock to each side of the ledge with nary a crack or hand holds to escape around the overhang. Trapped!
I whispered more to myself than to Kenny, “How in the hell are we going to get off this ledge?”
Our options were few. Try to go back down? Going down feet first you cannot see anything to grab on to. Very dangerous! We didn’t consider it for a second.
At one point I looked at a patch of snow between boulders about a 100 feet down and thought for one insane second, “We could jump.” I never voiced that crazy thought out loud.
Nope, the only way out of this was over.
Neither of us said anything as we stood on our tip toes to give us a few more inches of height and desperately strained to reach as far as we could over the top of that ledge in hopes of grasping a knuckle of rock or a crack we could shove our hand into and pull our weight up and over that crest of rock. We both stretched and grappled with that overhang for a while. At this point in the story I must confess that I was so hyped with adrenaline (scared shitless) that I don’t remember who got over that overhang first. Whoever did pulled the other over and we were saved from oblivion, our pride, and our foolishness.
We made it to the top of Mount Tallac with no other incidents that I recall. Adrenaline is a funny thing. I was so rattled by the ledge debacle that I honestly don’t remember the vista from the top or the hike back to my truck.
I never seriously rock climbed again after that day. It fun while it lasted but having been raised in a casino town I learned at a young age to never buck the odds and know when to walk away from the table. I also might add…don’t tempt the gods of heights and granite.