Climb: Eagle Lake Buttress

The Falcon guide to Lake Tahoe climbing has a brief but intriguing mention of a formation called Eagle Lake Buttress. Multipitch granite with a backcountry feel near Lake Tahoe had me interested, and even though I couldn’t round up a partner for the weekend I decided to go in and check it out. I figured this way I could sandbag the approach with authority when we did decide to hump ropes and a rack back there.

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake

The walk in to Eagle Lake is trivial and the lake itself is quite beautiful – so accessible and so beautiful this is no doubt someplace in danger of being loved to death. Desolation Wilderness is the most-used wilderness area per acre in the United States, and I get the feeling that most of the impact is concentrated in a few areas; Eagle Lake has to be one of them.

After Eagle Lake, you get the pleasure of either making your way up some biiig slabs or gunning up a talus chute. I chose the talus, as the slabs looked nontrivial – 5th class in my estimate, though I didn’t investigate up close. I did meet two guys on my way out who had come up that way and they didn’t seem overly shaken. What do I know? Once the ridge is gained weave through the huge boulders, point yourself to the buttress, and pick a line.

Eagle Lake Buttress

Eagle Lake Buttress

After sitting and scoping the lines for a bit, I thought that I recognized the line described in the Falcon guide. After lacing up my shoes and telling myself that I would make no move that I wasn’t certain I could downclimb, I set off on my first real free solo.

Funny enough I had just watched “Return to Sender” at Mark’s place the night prior, and was at turns intrigued and made to feel ill by the guy who is profiled in the SoCal free-soloing feature. He talks about how when you’re soloing you exist within an egg – a kind of reduced sensory reality where your body and its immediate surroundings are the only things that exist. About 30 feet off the ground I realized he was right. It was a beautiful day in the high 70’s, a nice breeze, and I was surrounded by beauty on all sides, but all I knew in that moment was the way my hands, feet, heart, and lungs felt, and the possibility, security, and reality of each move.

I’m not sure I went up there intending to solo a 300 foot route, but I did bring my rock shoes, and that says something about intent. The route (takes the obvious line towards the blown pine tree, but stays vertical where the crack leading to the tree diagonals leftward) was well within my ability (probably 5.6 with the possibility to keep it easier if one chooses the easiest moves rather than the most aesthetic), and I never had a thought telling me to “keep it together” or “man, don’t fall”, and I think that there’s a lesson in there to be held even while leading harder stuff: just do what you can with each move.

The rock quality up there is great – granite with some Tuolumne-like inclusions and laser-cut cracks. The crux for me was the downclimb on the mountaineer’s route; a wrong turn or two on those slabs gets sketchy in a hurry.

Would it be worth it to head in with a rope and rack? If you’re in the Tahoe area and want to feel like you’re in an alpine setting, yes. I think of this place as a big crag with a less-than-ideal appproach, the kind of place you go with a friend when you can’t or don’t want to make a full weekend of climbing. And as I’ve thought nearly every day I’ve spent outside; it beats almost anything else you could have done with the time.

View from the top - Emerald Bay

View from the top - Emerald Bay

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