Adventures in Emerald Bay Chutes

The view atop Emerald Bay Chute. | Sean McAlindin

It’s a misty morning in Glenshire as I set out for the West Shore on a week day. The cold air is still trapped over the Truckee River for 20 miles to Fanny Bridge in Tahoe City. A perfectly long inversion layer of moisture rests weightlessly in a dreamlike projectile over the lake. In the distance, I see the ridge connecting Jake’s Peak to Rubicon Peak, a vast Sierra Nevada back-country playground where skiing is at its finest. The parking lot by the winter gate is half-full and quiet as I ready by the entrance to the Spring route.

I drop in and immediately feel the grip of the soft snow. Picking up steady, yet controlled, momentum, I work my way down the slender shaft and into the widening meadows below. The steepness lets up a bit, but not much and its hero turns all the way.

The 2,400-foot climb from State Route 89 to the saddle between Jake’s Peak and unnamed Peak 9,195’ is not for the faint of heart. On the way, I pass early risers making tracks through freshly warmed, corn down the bowl toward Emerald Bay. Like a beacon, Fannette Island smiles in the distance at us humans knowing such joy in her morning presence. Nearing the pitch before the saddle, I’m met by forecaster Andy Anderson of Sierra Avalanche Center.

Andy Anderson and Spencer Heusman skin up the Spring route. | Sean McAlindin

The forecast for today is moderate near and above the tree line and he appears calm. Anderson’s report submitted later in the afternoon read as follows: “Sunshine, warm air temperatures and light winds had caused enough melting for 1 to 2 inches of soft corn snow to form on SE-S-SW aspects of Jakes Peak by 10:30 a.m. This snow rested on a supportable layer of consolidated melt-freeze snow. As we skinned up, the snow continued to soften, but the wet snow never got deeper than 2 to 3 inches.”

Jim Moore skis the Emerald Bay Chute. | Sean McAlindin

Corn snow is generally found in the spring when melt/freeze cycles meld large grains of snow together overnight, which loosen as the sun warms them during the day. The Goldilocks of snow, it’s soft and forgiving, but not too wet and slushy. This is what Jake’s Peak is known for, at least on the south side. The north and eastern glades often hold powder stashes for several days when the conditions are right.

On reaching the saddle after 90 minutes of steady climbing, I’m greeted by North Shore Adventures ski-mountaineering guide Jim Moore.

“I’m thinking about heading for Emerald Chutes today,” he says. “The snow should be just right.”

We wrap around the west side of Peak 9195’ hoping to find a ribbon of snow leading to the elusive entrance of the main chute. The warm weather and windy storms of January have exposed the granite boulders and gnarled old trees of the summit. We boot pack, post hole and boulder in ski boots through slow-going, yet exquisitely beautiful, terrain, a wide-open view of Desolation Wilderness in winter gently unfolding before us. When we reach the notch at the head of the chute, I am glad I came along with Moore for my first time here.

“There’s a waterfall at the bottom,” he says. “Sometimes I bring a climbing rope, but we should be able to get through by hanging off the willows.”

Such words of confidence ne’er bespoke a man before dropping into the steep and narrow confines of upper Emerald Bay Chute. Moore slices with precision the deepening corn between the granite walls on both sides before vanishing beyond the corner below.

I drop in and immediately feel the grip of the soft snow. Picking up steady, yet controlled, momentum, I work my way down the slender shaft and into the widening meadows below. The steepness lets up a bit, but not much and its hero turns all the way. We’re all smiles as we reach a small platform where the canyon narrows into willow-filled cataracts.

I work my way through the dense branches with my skis on my back. Every time I post hole, they hit the snow with a dull thud. I resort to sliding and crawling backwards on my tummy until I reach the waterfall proper. I hang onto the willow branches and lower myself down the 5.6 climb onto the skiable snow below.

A quick ride out the lower fields and we’re at Eagles Falls, one-fourth mile from State Route 89. If we’d planned ahead, we’d have left one car down here, but this was a random adventure today. After a few minutes a man in a pickup truck turns around to give us a lift back up to the gate. It’s just another day at Jake’s Peak.