Round Top Peak – winter hike

Since moving to the Bay Area recently, I’ve been craving to go on a good climb, preferably a snow-covered peak. And so after making-and-breaking plans for Mt. Shasta (a very famous 14er in this region) because of crazy weather week after week, one of the hikers from that group, Tomoko, came up with a day-hike plan for Round Top Peak. After trying to get some other folks on board this plan, finally it was just the two of us on a Saturday morning, headed off to climb in the snow!

(click here for the entire album)

Typically this 10k feet peak is climbed a lot during the summer and there are good trails all the way to the top. Climbing any peak in winter poses a significant challenge compared to summer and we weren’t even sure exactly how much snow we would have to dig through. We decided to bring whatever winter gear we had, fully prepared to used crampons and axes on the higher slopes.

A small note for those wanting to climb this peak – buy parking permits for the trail head online to save some time. We had to go back to a nearby ski resort to buy the permit and print it out etc, setting us back by almost an hour to get on the trail.

During winter, if you start around 9-10 am, you’re likely to find a trail left behind by skiers going up the mountain. It’s also a good idea to have a topo map of the area fed in a GPS, to confirm your progress, specially if the visibility is low.

Beautiful weather (Round Top is the left most of the three)

Beautiful weather (Round Top is the left most of the three)

And although there was crazy amount of snow dumped on the mountain, we were greeted with excellent weather in the morning and could see Round Top and other nearby peaks for reference very clearly.

Another note for winter hikers – GET SNOWSHOES! With more than ankle deep snow on the lower trail and over a foot deep snow on the higher slopes, I was totally miserable digging my feet in and out with each step. I couldn’t believe how much energy I was wasting, just pulling each foot out of deep snow and putting it ahead, only for it to sink into another hole! Tomoko was much smarter and had brought along a nice pair of snowshoes. She also admitted it was much better hiking with snowshoes than post-holing through the fresh powder, as she had experienced on an earlier hike recently.

Wish I had brought something like these along...

Wish I had brought something like these along…

Following the trail made by skiers earlier in the morning wasn’t difficult at all. We did consult her trusty GPS for elevation from time to time though.

One of the popular trails up this peak (the one we took) goes by the base of a hill called ‘Elephant’s Back’ – both of us agreed it was a very apt name indeed!

Elephant's Back (!)

Elephant’s Back (!)

After passing Elephant’s Back, the climb to Round Top actually begins. Our progress was not very fast, mainly because of my lack of snowshoes. But I must say Tomoko was very patient and kept encouraging me to push through when I was getting utterly frustrated sinking in the snow. We climbed with very few and short water / rest breaks, up to about 9k feet. Many skiers were skiing down by now – probably the first ones who had climbed up early in the morning.

Taking our first real break; ~ 9k feet

Taking our first real break; ~ 9k feet

After this stop, the climb became a bad slog through knee deep snow (with my axe going in the whole shaft length before hitting solid ground) and I was actually considering turning back. The summit looked close now and the weather was holding beautifully well, which is why we decided to push through as much as possible, take a lunch break and then decide what to do. If we could just make it to the ridge (rather if I could; since my partner was doing fine with the snowshoes) I knew the route above would not be as deep-snowed.

Finally patience paid off and after the ridge we reached the bottom of a scree section, which led directly to the summit. We took a quick break here, Tomoko swapped her snowshoes for crampons (similar to the ones I was wearing but with bigger spikes) and we headed for the top.

My shiny new Hillsound crampons - the 'Trail Pro' version

My shiny new Hillsound crampons – the ‘Trail Pro’ version

After stepping a little extra-cautiously on the mixed rock / snow scree with my new crampons, I quickly began trusting their hold. These crampons are rock solid (no pun :p) and definitely provide all the assurance you need. I would pick these over ‘microspikes’ anyday!

On our way down I decided to try some glissading – basically butt-sliding with the axe held in both hands, ready to self-arrest. The snow was so soft and deep that I sank into it, rather than sliding down! Other comic stunts included me trying to roll down (on my side) and arrest myself after a few rolls but that was quickly abandoned after the ensuing dizziness. Then it was just plain old throwing one foot after the other in to the snow.

In all it was a great hike and specially good winter experience.


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