(Reconnaissance of) The Desolation Death March

In loving memory of Emilie’s left ACL.

The Desolation Death March is a classic loop hike in the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe, CA. It involves climbing Pyramid, Agassiz, Price, Jack’s Peak, Dick’s Peak, Tallac and Ralston in a 30-mile loop circumnavigating Lake Aloha. Emilie had planned this trip as a preparation for the John Muir Trail. But since she is currently mourning her left ACL while coaxing the new one to start working, Terry Cline took on the trip leadership. After the usual cancellations, our little group was down to a trio.

We met up on a bright summer morning at Pyramid Creek trailhead toward Horsetail Falls. This being a record snow-year, the falls had very high flows as well. One bypasses the falls on the left. At one point, we found ourselves having to choose between (a) bushwhacking, (b) climbing up a steep slab above a cliff with the raging stream at the base, and (c) 12 feet of low class 5 climbing. Atop the falls, at around 7500 feet, the snow cover was about 50% on south-facing slopes and almost 100% on north-facing slopes. This was also the spot were we saw another hiker cross a snowfield barefooted.

Horsetail Fall

We aimed toward Pyramid Peak, but soon found ourselves at the base of the cliff bands below the Pyramid. From our vantage point, we could not tell if we could gain the ridge to the left of the cliff bands, nor of the creek down to Avalanche Lake could be crossed safely this low. Ice axes came out, and we slowly and judiciously picked our way through the cliffs. While the snow was only moderately steep this still was no place to test if your self-arrest skills would break a fall before reaching steep rock! It was slow going, and mid-afternoon by the time we had reached a rocky outcrop with some trees and flowing water at the base of the Pyramid for our much-needed lunch break. We chose to drop our packs there to climb the face of Pyramid unencumbered.

Summit Gnome

From there, we had a good view on our intended route. Given the time we lost navigating the cliffs, we had decided not to attempt the traverse to Agassiz and Price. Looking down the ridge, we could spot the Class 3 (some say Class 4) pinnacle. The snowfield reached almost up to the top of it. It was probably possible to pass the pinnacle by dropping to the west face of the ridge and gaining it back later.

Ridge traverse to Agassiz

Two snowfields and one long, steep talus slope later, we reached the peak. Shortly after us, two germans showed up. I have long ceased to be amazed by the high likelihood of fellow countrymen showing up in the remotest places. They had started later than we did and taken the route up Rocky Creek, which very naturally leads onto the ridge to Pyramid Peak. We took this ridge down, which turned out to be much easier travel than the talus slope up. Just when we had to come off the ridge toward our pack drop, the snowfield had a perfect 40-degree slope and safe runout. G-L-I-S-S-A-D-E 🙂

Glissade

The next morning, we set out early toward Jack’s Peak. Several choices here. One could stay high above Lake Aloha to traverse the snowfields below Agassiz, but stay above the cliffs at the north end of Aloha to reach Mosquito Pass. The second option was to drop and go along the west side of Aloha. We did not know if the cliffs could be passed on the bottom. Later we saw short, steep snow at the base of the cliffs directly dropping into the lake. Someone more risk-tolerant than us could have tried it, but a fall into the icy lake might have been the last swim ever. I do not know if this section is passable in summer. Our group opted for the third option, dropping down toward Aloha, cross over the outlets and travel along the east side.

Pyramid Lake

The most challenging part here was navigating the complex geography at the outlet of Aloha to find the stream crossings. We found the footsteps of the germans, who apparently also had bailed out of their plan to traverse the ridge to Agassiz. The most challenging part was getting across the outlet of Lake America. Scoot across America, anyone?

Scoot across America

We finally reached the southern tip of Aloha and started turning north toward Jack’s Peak. The Pacific Crest Trail was about 6-8 feet below us, covered by solidly packed snow topped with sun cups. If you have ever hiked across sun cups, you know how much energy it costs. The snow was mushy; every step meant also a small slip, energy spent balancing. We took our lunch at the base of Cracked Crack. Looked at the clock. Looked at the distance to Jack’s Peak, the altitude gain still needed, and considering the hike out and drive home. Terry was concerned about the hike out, because we had to navigate down Ralston for 1,500 feet through packed snow through steep forest.

Lake Aloha in July

I think at this point it became clear to us that due to the unusual snow conditions this year, this was going to be a reconnaissance trip for climbing those peaks later. We turned around, aimed for the ridge above Lake of the Woods at the base of Ralston, and made camp on a small, snow-free clearing with enough run-off for water nearby. It was only 3 pm, but we were bushed by sloshing around in soft snow all day, slowed down on top of that by the challenge to cross the Aloha outlets at peak snowmelt. So, we enjoyed some rest and relaxation in camp. I took a nap. We had a leisurely dinner. The views were outstanding, and the stars brilliant.

Summit View from Ralston. Notice the broken-off cornices in the bowl below. The flat plain below the peaks is snow-covered Lake Aloha.

Early on 4th of July we packed up and headed up the ridge to Ralston. The views were outstanding. Coming up and going down the peak, we found the trail for short stretches, but it soon disappeared below deep snow. Down through the forest, we had to pick our way carefully. To the west of us were the steep cliffs dropping down to Horsetail Falls. We did not get to far to the east either, because we did not want to get on the wrong side of Tamarack Creek and miss the trail. We mostly got it right, just had to go back high above a cliff outcropping once.

Last View of Pyramid Peak

At around 8,200 feet, we reached the snowline. Plenty of forest and brush, but no trail. Bushwhacking time! I aimed toward the west side toward the ridge were the trail was expected eventually, and plunged down the manzanita staying on deer trail as much as possible. How do deer get through that stuff on a  daily basis without being scratched up? As usual, I failed to get pictures of the most adventurous parts of the outing, but my legs can tell the tale. They look like I was in a major fight with my two cats!

Happy Return

Finally, we found trail and were at the Ralston Trailhead by noon. We finished the trip with lunch at the Strawberry Lodge, once a station for the Pony Express, and today a good stop to feed three hungry climbers.

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