Round Top

Morgan Brown

Canadian Rockies
Sequoia/Kings Canyon

Books that Morgan

50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney
By Paul Richins Jr.. Decent info, lots of good skiing ideas. Approaches/descents often imprecise--bring a map!

Selected Photos...

Morgan, Robert, & Round Top

Robert Descending

Round Top Panorama

Summary Image Gallery Trip Map
  • Date: February 26, 2002
  • Route: West Ridge of Round Top from Carson Summit
  • Total distance: ~8 miles.

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Other Trip Reports...
Kim and I took a week off to do some skiing around the Kirkwood area in late February. Luckily, Kim's brother Robert, who spent this winter working as an instructor at Kirkwood Cross Country School, had the day off and was able to join us for a backcountry ski descent of Round Top, one of the most prominent and popular peaks in the Mokelumne Wilderness. At nearly 10,400 feet in elevation, Round Top stands highest in the immediate area and provides 360° panoramic visibility of the "forgotten" region of the Sierra Nevada between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. Our plan was to do a continuous ski descent from Round Top's West Ridge, down to Winnemucca Lake.

Kim and I were anxious to try our new telemark skis in the backcountry, as well as to see how the year's snow was progressing. We started from the Carson Summit trailhead around 10:30 am, Kim and I feeling surprisingly energized. On our first day of the visit, we took a 12-mile road run, which undeniably improved our acclimatization to the thin 8500'+ air. We skinned through the forest on a firm, well-beaten set of tracks. I had full skins, Kim had the minimalist "kicker" skins, while Robert wore a pair of Karhu Serpens patterned backcountry skis, although paired with very beefy telemark boots. The difference in skins would play a role in our varying degree of fatigue later in the day, but in the morning, we happily and very rapidly skied toward Round Top.

In less than an hour, we were treated to grand views of Round Top from the high ridge which overlooks Winnemucca Lake. Out in the open, a warm spring-like sun rapidly melted the snow, making for slower going, especially where hikers postholed through the ski track. The day was ideal for skiing versus hiking; snow firm, but still fragile enough to send a hiker postholing a foot deep. We descended a couple hundred feet to Winnemucca Lake and started to climb the mellow slopes that we later planned to descend. After another half hour of exertion, around 12 noon, we stopped just below Round Top's northwest shoulder, the prominent ridge we would use to ascend to the West Ridge of Round Top. We relaxed for a half hour or so, eating snacks and admiring the fantastic northeast bowls of The Sisters, a 10,000'+ ridgeline due west of Round Top. Given favorable snow conditions, one could imagine a week's worth of fantastic descents, from gentle 20° affairs to double-black-diamond 45°+ slopes. Looking northwest, we tried to spot continous descent routes all the way down to Caples Lake, nearly 2000 feet below. Ahhh, so many possible descents, so little time! I eschewed eating my peanut butter & jelly sandwich, which I would kick myself for later.

Soon we started up Round Top's Northwest shoulder, finding highly variable snow conditions on 30° slopes. In spots, the slope was bare, in others we struggled through fairly deep powder. A fall here could result in anything between a harmless inconvenience to death, so we treaded very carefully, making many a kick turn as all three of us skinned up the slope. Robert put on full skins, but Kim only had her kicker skins, which made the going quite tough. Still, she was able to manage as long as the slope angle never exceeded 20° or so. After a short while, we topped out near Round Top's west ridge. To the south, we took in fabulous views of the Mount Reba area, and to the north, views of Lake Tahoe. While the air was a bit hazy, the weather was warm, and the solitude complete.

We dug a rutschblock on a northwest-facing, 30° slope and found relatively stable conditions (failure of the top 3" wind slab after 3 jumps). In spite of the warm weather, some (8-12") unconsolidated snow remained below the top wind slab. Under that, it was the rock-hard stuff which has been consolidating since early January. The winter of 2002 has been a binging winter, with huge, unrelenting December storms, followed by a month of sun, then another week of big dumps, followed by three weeks of late-spring conditions. As of today (March 4, 2002), we are praying for a "Miracle March"!

Robert took Kim's new Tua Heliums up to the 10,100' level on Round Top and descended over the northwest shoulder and down to the northeast bowl of The Sisters, down icy, 30°+ breakable crust. Kim and I elected to forego the top 200' of the descent, for the wrong fall could have fatal consequences. We mostly traversed the 30° stuff and tried to make some turns low in the bowl. Wow! Was this stuff ever hard and unforgiving. Not the best snow for telemark turns! We descended gingerly from our lunchspot back down to Winnemucca Lake, traveling over snow that consisted either of icy breakable crust or very sloppy "mashed potatoes". I employed parallel turns over the worst ice, switching to telemark when I hit sloppy stuff. The snow is still a long way from the sweet corn that we salivate for in the Sierras.

The return to the car was basically uneventful, aside from some clumsy snowplowing as I descended the 15° slopes west of Elephants Back over sloppy snow with my skins on. My toes began hurting more and more as the day progressed; why I cannot tell, but I would urgently like to find out. By the end, I was totally exhausted (I didn't eat lunch) and hardly able to walk on my sore toes. Although I felt pain and the snow totally sucked, our trip to Round Top was nontheless quite a memorable affair.

© 2008 , Stanford Exploration Project
Department of Geophysics
Stanford University

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