Echo Lake – Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe, CA Jan 10-11th, 1997

Flag Stone Peak – Echo Lake

Business trip to California followed by a weekend…..sounds like a plan to visit the Sierras for the first time. I had originally planned on going to Lassen National Park and climbing Lassen Peak, but my visit corresponded with the terrible CA floods. When I first posted by intentions on the Internet, I received lots of good feedback on my proposed trip and one taker as a partner, Steve Hunsader. Steve lives in the Bay area and suggested we go together to Lassen so plans were made and I packed my large duffel.

Once in California, Steve and I continued to call Lassen and the news was bleak. The access road to the entrance of the park was closed about eight miles out due to a mud slide. As the week progressed, it was obvious that Lassen was out and Steve started on an alternate plan near Lake Tahoe. He had climbed many of the peaks in the Desolation Wilderness area in the summer and knew there would be plenty of snow in the area. Since Route 50 was closed due to slides, we would have to take I-80 over Donner Pass and circle Lake Tahoe on the east side.

Steve picked me up on Thursday night and we headed to Sacramento to stay the night. Steve is about the 5th rec.backcountry/rec.climbing friend I had met over the Internet and later climbed/hiked with in the last 4 years. All of my associations have been great and Steve and I hit it off right away. We left Sacramento early Friday morning and headed up I-80 to Truckee where we headed over and around Lake Tahoe to the southern end of the lake. It was obvious road conditions had kept many people away from the area and the ski resorts.

We found the ranger office on rt. 89 just on the edge of town and talked over the possibilities with the ranger on duty. We discovered our planned entry was probably a high avalanche risk so we opted for the Echo lake approach. By this time, neither of us had a specific goal in mind other than perhaps Ralston Peak, but were now leaning towards a snowshoe winter campout and just enjoying the scenery. We got our permit, snow park pass ($3 a day) and changed into our winter clothes in the restroom before heading up to the snow park. We sorted gear and lifted our packs to our backs – ugg…pretty heavy. The ranger had told us the trail was right across from the parking lot (7360′), but we were too busy talking to see it and promptly walked past it and down a hill before we realized that we were heading in the wrong direction. Backtracking we still did not see the snow cat trail so we broke our own trail with Steve doing the map reading. He dead reckoned the right direction and we intersected the snow cat trail after about a mile of snow shoeing through deep snow.

A middle aged woman in her 60’s (middle age is 50/60’s as we grow older) and her two dogs was skiing up the trail… the dogs had a really good kick and glide. She pointed out that the snow cat trail actually started at the parking lot and could not understand how we had missed the trailhead. She seemed irate we missed it and we tried to explain we hit it dead on by following the map. Evidently she was having a bad day and told about some guys who had been killed recently back in the wilderness, implying we were next. We thanked her for her advice and followed her down the trail to Echo Lake. Arriving at the lake, we stopped for lunch in the sun and debated the frozen lake as we watched the lady ski across it with her dogs. There were signs posted warning not to cross the lake but a brief inspection by Steve and his trusty ice ax revealed at least 6″ and probably much more.

We headed across the lake keeping to the south side. We made good time across first lake and through a short stretch of trees to Upper Echo Lake. We continued west across the lake to a bowl area that gave us access to the end of the valley and the peaks to the west. The lady and her dog were crossing the lake headed home and she wished us a pleasant stay. Evidently the ski and her sit in the sun had mellowed her and she decided to be nice to us! We set up Steve’s new VE-25, made a kitchen site and started digging a snow cave

Bob with Steve’s new VE-25

The snow was hard and going slow. With Steve doing the brunt of the effort, we made it large enough for one and stopped for dinner. I knew it would be solid in an hour… the tent sounded well. We had dinner sitting on our foam mats outside of the tent while the dusk settled in the valley. The sky was perfectly clear and stars started appearing by 5:45pm. By 6:00pm, it was just plain dark and starting to get very cold. We headed indoors for the long winter’s night…. 12 plus hours. Steve hung his candle lantern and we talked into the night…covering diverse topics. Occasionally one of us would not answer a question due to drifting off but we were both warm in our bags. The temperature dipped to 5 degrees that night but it was surprisingly warm when I awoke at about 2:00am to watch the stars (oh, I was also doing one other function) and saw more stars than I have seen for a long time. A shooting star went whizzing overhead while I whizzed below. I probably could have stayed out there all night but my sleeping bag beckoned.

We awoke at about 7:00am and I got up to start the stove and begin to melt snow for breakfast. As we sat around the stove munching breakfast, the sun peeked over the east ridge and blanketed the campsite with welcome warmth. Glorious to say the least. Taking some water, we decided to just snowshoe up the valley as Ralston Peak’s approach was barred by avalanche prone slopes.

Ralston Peak

We headed up under great snow conditions and simply immersed ourselves in the beauty. Steve identified where Lake Aloha was and we took pictures with Steve’s new digital camera.


Stripping down to our light weight polypro and rolling our sleeves up, we headed back to camp to pack up. After cleaning our site, we trekked back across the lake to upper Echo Lake where we again had lunch before ascending the snow cat road to the parking lot. Yep, it sure does intersect by the parking lot…darn if we saw it though.

Packing the car, we headed through a “deserted” South Lake Tahoe driving all of the way to the Bay area. That night we downloaded the digital pictures — instant record of the trip! Overall it was a great weekend, first new friendships were made with Steve and his wife, spent some quality time in a beautiful wilderness area while exploring the Sierras for the first time. Steve and I made plans to climb MT Shasta and hike Lassen Peak in July when I return to California. If the water will now just recede…