5. THE SNOW CROSS

My first mountain adventure of 1957 was by far the craziest of my early life. Charlie and I decided that we wanted to climb the “snow cross” on Mt. Tallac, near Lake Tahoe, and we wanted to do it in winter.

   The “snow cross” results from a combination of ledges and creases in the rock face of Tallac that often keep snow and ice much of the summer, forming a lopsided, white “X” plainly visible from Lake Tahoe.

Mt. Tallac from Lake Tahoe - too much snow to see the “cross” plainly, but you can get the idea of it below the main summit

   The reason we wanted to climb it – and why we wanted to do it in winter, when neither of us had any snow and ice climbing experience – is lost forever, along with a lot of other grandiose dreams of childhood. I suspect the germ of the idea must have started with me, because I was the one who had some previous experience in the Tahoe mountains. In fact, I had hiked to the top of Mt. Tallac by the easy back route a couple summers before. Whatever the motivation, it seemed like a good idea at the time. We gathered two new recruits from among our high school friends, and at Easter, headed off over snowy Echo Summit to Fallen Leaf Lake.

   It was an impossible trip from the start. The snow was already deep and powdery, and more fell as we hiked from Fallen Leaf Lodge up the approximate route of the trail to Floating Island Lake. As we started uphill toward the face of Tallac, we were sinking into the powder up to our waists, at times. 


Finally, we decided we’d gone as  far as we could go that day, and stopped and – using our metal “Sierra Club” cups as shovels - built a snow cave big enough to hold the four of us. We huddled inside and told ghost stories until we finally fell asleep.

Charlie peeking out of our snow cave

   In the night, I was awakened by strange “whooshing” sounds that seemed to be coming from inside the cave with us. Soon, we were all awake, hearing this odd slurping sound. The ghost stories and the surreal aspect of being in a hole in a snowy slope far from any other humans was enough to get us all concerned - well, three of us, anyway. Finally, Charlie couldn’t take it any longer, and laughingly confessed to making the noise by sucking water off the wall of the cave. It had started because he was thirsty, and continued because he had us all going.

   In the morning, it was gray and spitting snow. We half-heartedly climbed another hour or so, but knew we were done for this trip. When one of us [me or Charlie, I can’t remember] dropped a glove and it skidded thirty feet down the hill, we unanimously decided it was time to turn back. Muttering about “Herzog’s glove” [Charlie and I had just read “Annapurna,” the Himalaya classic, and knew about frostbite from missing gloves], we retrieved the glove and sloshed our way back to Fallen Leaf. Sitting in our old car, drinking hot soup before heading home, I don’t think any of us were really dissatisfied with the adventure.

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