Crescent Moon Couloir
Our route of choice is the formidable Crescent Moon Couloir (known as CMC to the regulars). The Crescent follows a crescent moon shaped dog-leg right up the center of the North face of Round Top, a peak topping 10,381 feet just east of Kirkwood Ski Resort.
The Crescent Moon Couloir Route
With the summit located ~2.5 miles from the road, and having been skunked on a previous trip, we decided a day-trip up the route was in order.
Being a day trip, we both knew we’d be expending serious amounts of energy to make it up this route. To that end, we both brought about 5 packs of “Gu” – the energy/calorie gel products marketed by the same people who make Clif/Powerbars – along with a ton of Cytomax electrolyte drinks and Clif bars. I myself took 3 liters of water/Cytomax, and my partner, Rob, took only 2.
After a 3am wakeup, a large breakfast (and mucho coffee), I was on the road from San Francisco at 4am. I met Rob in Sacramento at around 5:45am, and we headed towards the trail head!
We arrived at the Carson Pass Trailhead at about 8:45am, loaded up our gear, and were on the trail by 9:15am.
At the Trailhead
By 10:40am, we were at Lake Winnemucca making great time, beginning the steep approach to the base of the even steeper climb. By 11:29am, we made it halfway to the base from the lake. Once at the base, it was time to refuel. Having eaten as much “Gu” as I could stomach, and a whole Clif Bar on top of that, we rested up, and began our ascent.
Rob had one 65cm Mountaineering Ice Axe, leashed to himself with paracord looped onto his harness. I opted for a dual tool approach, citing the possibility of hard ice on the route. I had one 65cm mountaineering axe, and one 55cm technical ice tool, both leased to my harness with cord.
Looking up the Couloir
Once we entered the main couloir, we were stunned by its sheerness. We knew this would be a challenging climb, but felt comfortable with the level of commitment and plowed on. Back at the car, we had opted to leave all our rope-gear behind, citing the unknown protection options, and added weight. I believe it was a good call, at least until the exit from the couloir, where it would have been super nice to have a belay.
This gives you an idea of how steep the route is. It only got steeper from here!
About 1/3rd of the way up, the routes split off. There’s a left couloir and a right couloir. The right couloir is the CMC proper. The left is another variation, but I don’t think its crux is as hard as the right couloir’s crux. At this fork in the road, I stopped to take a leak. On a 45-50 degree slope – first time in my life I’ve ever done that!
The climbing gets scarier from the split – the route increases in slope to probably around 60 or 65 degrees at the crux. At one point, when trying to take a step up/forward, the route was so steep, my knee pushed into the snow in front of me, forcing my center of gravity precariously back of my heels. That’s a scary feeling, especially with the view of the funnel of rock below.
The crux starts at the last 1/5th to 1/4th of the route, with the steepness approaching 60-65 degrees. At this point, the depth of the snow (and thereby the amount of ice-axe purchase available) begins to decline to the point where you cannot plunge your shaft completely into the snow. It’s at this point that the climb becomes a zero fault zone – any mistake here could cost you a ride in space. Then, the exit from the couloir takes you out onto sun-exposed snow, melting under your feet. Gone are the solid kick-steps of the steeps below; here is where your steps start melting away beneath you, and time is of the essence. Do not loiter here – those photos you want to take may end up being your last. That said, at this point, you are mere feet from the top.
Rob at the Notch at the top of CMC
Once on to horizontal terrain again, you’ll be in a gun-sight notch between two bouldery crags. The one to the west is the false summit – to the east, over the first crag, and up onto the second (a little class 3/4 scrambling) is the proper summit, at 10,381 ft. Give it a climb, enjoy the views, sign your name in the register (if that’s your thing), and head on down.
If conditions allow (e.g., the snow isn’t hard as shit), ski the couloir – you just climbed it, so you should know all the hazards right? If the couloir is too steep or committing or rotten for your taste, and you brought your skis to the top, descend to the saddle to the west between Round Top and the sisters. If you have energy, climb the sisters (highly-recommended, and not much effort needed here), and descend one of the chutes on the north face - you’ll be in a beautiful, powder covered bowl. If you’re out of energy, simply descend the saddle, ski back towards Lake Winnemucca, and out to the trailhead to complete your trip.
All in all, I’d rate the climb a solid 5.5 (in terms of climbing ratings), with a scary factor of 8 (out of 10), increasing to 9 as the day goes on (since the exit snow starts to melt). There were no super technical moves required, but the route was very committing and exposed, especially near the top. Do not let it get too late in the day when you hit the exit snow field, or you’ll either be taking the great space-ride down, or descending the way you came up.
The crux of the climb was moderately technical, the main obstacle being the “no-mistakes” zones along the climb, and the shallowing out of the snow towards the top making purchase come in short supply.
This is a great climb, and well worth a go if you’re in the area, and into a good snow climb.
We hit the summit at 2:14 pm, which is a little bit late for my taste. Like I said, the sun-exposed snow near the top had started to melt, making the exit from the couloir a bit dicey. If you’re reaching the top any later than that, I’d give serious thought to a either a roped-up exit, or bailing out.
Our hike out took us a couple hours, likely because we were quite exhausted, but we made it to the car by 4:45. I was back in Sacramento by 7pm, and home by 11 (I stopped for food).
This is definitely doable in a day-trip, but I recommend getting the earliest start possible.