Tahoe wrap up…

Phantom Spires

After another lost day (to rain) we headed out to the Phantom Spires. According to the guidebook they were called the Phantom Spires as before a massive forest fire they were completely hidden by huge trees. However, as the next picture shows, now they are very open and impressive looking rock spires high on a ridge above the highway. After an alpine style zig-zag drive almost all the way up, a dirt track (for brave off-road car drivers, or not-so-brave 4×4 drivers) took us to within 15 minutes walk of the spires. Unfortunately the path from the parking to the spires is hard to locate and follow – we got stuck in to an hour’s bush whacking before we finally reached the Upper Spire…

Middle and Upper Phantom Spires from the start of the dirt track approach
Pete starting Jugs Revisited, a steep route, but with with amazing large 'blob' holds almost all the way. One of the best single pitches (45m) we climbed.
Laetitia on the One Bolt Arete route of the Shark's Tooth
the Upper Phantom Spire is behind.
Moments after this picture Laetitia bailed and let Boris complete the scary section of the pitch...
Pete, Boris, and Laetitia on top of the Shark's Tooth

Lovers’ Leap Main Wall

Paul and I wanted to climb the famous (made so by being included in Roper and Steck’s now out of print Fifty classic climbs of North America) Traveller’s Buttress on the Main Wall of Lovers’ Leap. So early the next day we headed up to the Main Wall of the Leap while Laetitia and Boris scrambled up the much sunnier Hogsback opposite to take a few pictures, and then later enjoy a long walk to take a peek at the cascades coming down from Pyramid Peak that we’d seen every day driving down the highway from South Lake Tahoe.

Paul & Pete getting ready at the base of Traveller's Buttress' scary first pitch in the cold early morning shadow of the Leap's Main Wall

Meanwhile Boris and Laetitia headed off for a walk in to Desolation Wilderness to visit the impressive water cascades just visible from the highway.

Laetitia & Boris head off in to Desolation Wilderness...

The first pitch was steep, hard, and scary, much more so than we’d expected! And so, after looking at the infamous off-width second pitch of Travellers’s Buttress at close quarters, we decided that the proposition of climbing it without any large cams was silly. Twenty to 30 metres of unprotect-able 5.9 off-width climbing was something neither of us fancied. Make sure to bring several massive cams (Friend 5 and bigger) to protect the pitch. Or take our option and scamper off in to Corrugation Corner

Pete & Paul on the first pitch of Traveller's Buttress.
The start of the horrendous off-width second pitch is just visible at the top left of the picture, and you can see how wide the crack is - wider than a body and impossible to protect without monster cams!

One has to wonder how such an unbalanced route as Traveller’s Buttress with one hard thrutching 5.9 off-width pitch above a steep scary pitch and two more 5.7 dyke pulling pitches above can warrant it’s status? Whereas Corrugation Corner is balanced, pleasant, exciting, and brilliant the whole way!

Paul on the second pitch of Corrugation Corner
Paul at the top of Lovers' Leap Main Wall
Paul, Pete, and Boris enjoying a celebratory beer at Strawberry Lodge before leaving the Lovers' Leap area

Donner Summit

The next day we packed up and left South Lake Tahoe for a couple of final days at Donner Summit before embarking on the long haul back to the UK.

The view over Emerald Bay and beyond in to the main body of a misty Lake Tahoe

Almost all the campgrounds around Tahoe had closed at the end of September, and those that were open were closing on Sunday 16th October. Meaning we had to hunt around a fair bit to find a place to camp, and in the end the solution only came by visiting the Truckee Ranger Station where they provided fantastic service and pointed us at lots of options despite the late season. Although none had any better facilities than pit-toilets and a single cold water (not recommended for drinking) tap.

Camping near Truckee, we had the entire area to ourselves!
The morning mist from the lake at our campsite near Truckee

The main climbing at Donner Summit is spread out over a quite compact area on dozens of small buttresses. This, combined with being armed with likely the worst guidebook in the world, made locating some of the climbing a little tricky. The guidebook, a new full colour photographic guide, looks good at first glance. But take a second look (and you don’t have to look hard!) and there are hundreds of crucial spelling mistakes (e.g. projection instead of protection) and some of the most terrible published climbing action photos I’ve ever seen. OK, I admit any guidebook is better than no guidebook, so in that sense it’s a great book that allowed us to sample an area we wouldn’t have been able to without it. But beyond that it really highlights just how spoiled we are in the UK – our guidebooks really are amongst the best in the world!

Laetitia climbing on the School Slabs with Rainbow Bridge and Donner Lake beyond
A cheeky chipmunk watching me climb past

While sitting belaying at the top of one of the routes I spotted a car calmly drive in to a railway tunnel on the opposite side of the valley. Half expecting the next thing I saw to be a train smashing out through the entrance with a mangled car stuck to its front I wondered if it might be worth a peek myself…

Apparently this disused tunnel and snow-sheltered railway goes nearly twenty miles back to Truckee! 😮 But only having a car we were warned from going the whole way as there are some steep sections where water has eroded the route, a washed out river crossing, and a 360° spiral within the mountain to gain/lose height. We did see a few 4x4s piloted by adventurous locals head off into the mountain, and I wanted to follow, but the more sensible members of the team demanded that I stop…

Crazy adventures driving through the old railway tunnels near Donner Summit!
Interesting graffiti in the railway tunnels!


Finally we headed home via Chicago airport. We’ve been via Chicago before on the way to Canada and I remembered an awesome tunnel under one of the runways that was illuminated by an incredible lighting system with ‘waves’ of coloured lights pulsing across the ceiling accompanied by calming futuristic music. It’s still there (it would be would’t it) and this time I took a picture with a one second exposure to try and capture the memory…

The amazing tunnel under one of the runways at Chicago airport

And finally…

Altogether I’d have to recommend coming to the Tahoe area before the end of September … better to avoid the chance of snow and to have more camping options that include niceties like showers! We lost three days to the weather ( 2 snow 😮 and 1 rain 🙁 ) so not an awful result and a whole lot better than work (which we all know sucks). The rest of the time, out of the very chilly shade and in the sun, it was lovely. Having worn shorts and t-shirts on those days I have the suntan to prove it! 😉

One final point, the evenings are cold at this time of year, sometimes below freezing! Bring a warm sleeping bag if camping at the Lovers Leap campground…