Getting Out: Reap the reward of the Mt. Tallac Challenge

A shot of Mt. Tallac as seen from across Lake Tahoe.

Last winter, I challenged you to join me on a climb up Mt. Tallac this summer. Judging from the attendance at our various prep hikes and the email and Facebook buzz I am getting, many of you have accepted the challenge. Last week, I took a detour on my return from Modoc County and climbed the mountain to refresh my memory.
Sit down. There’s something I have to tell you.
At 9,735 feet, Mt. Tallac is the highest peak on the Lake Tahoe rim. It was twenty years ago that I last went to the top of Mt. Tallac, and I had forgotten the details of the climb. In order to be able to accurately describe what difficulties to expect and where they are, I needed to see it again.
Few hikes begin as beautifully as the approach to Mt. Tallac. Less than a mile out, the trail rose to the top of the glacial moraine that separates the Tallac Creek drainage from Fallen Leaf Lake. What a perch to traverse! On my left, a full view of Fallen Leaf Lake; on my right, the impressive craggy peak (Gulp!) of Mt. Tallac 3,000 feet overhead. Along with the views, a succession of creeks and subalpine lakes set in a bright forest of Jeffrey and western white pines made for wonderful Sierra walking.
The summit of Mt. Tallac is 3,300 feet above the trailhead, so the gentle approach had to eventually give way to the business at hand: going up. The forest thinned as the trail steepened. More and more steps were up huge chiseled granite blocks set in place by the trail builders. Finally, I entered Cathedral Basin, the rocky cirque beneath the summit ridge.
Before starting this hike, I consulted Barry Parr’s book “Hiking the Sierra Nevada.” The first sentence in his description of Mt. Tallac calls it “a very impressive notch in any mountaineer’s belt.” Last summer, our hike up Clouds Rest was a tremendous challenge and accomplishment for those who came. But as difficult as it was, it was always a hike and never rose to the level of mountaineering. Looking at the headwall of Cathedral Basin, I saw that his characterization of the ascent was apt.
The approach to the impressive headwall was gentle. On this May date, fields of snow on the face still blocked portions of the trail, so I either kicked steps across the steep snowfields or maneuvered around them depending on which option appeared to be safer. The few times I was actually on the trail, it was a steep path up loose unsure footing. Tough going.
Mt. Tallac Challengers: here is where our July appointment with the mountain will test your resolve. The headwall is a bear, but there isn’t a one among you who can’t do it. Pretend you are an 18-wheeler climbing Interstate 80 to Donner Summit. Move over to the right lane, downshift to first, and find a slow and steady pace you can maintain. Then, dig deep and just make yourself take another step.
From atop the cirque, it is a long steady traverse to the summit. It is child’s play compared to the cirque headwall, but walking in the thin air after the steep headwall climb, I was happy to see the summit finally come into view.
This climb once again proves the point: the greater the effort the greater the reward. Accept the Mt. Tallac Challenge and reap the reward. We meet Saturday morning, July 19. Email me at [email protected] for details, and see photos of the hike at

Leave your comments