Coon Bluff Chute: A Venture into the Unknown
Guest Post by Spencer Eusden
I had the pleasure of exploring a lot of new-to-me terrain on backcountry skis this past season. Among the seemingly endless snow and mountain tops in the area, one place sticks out the most: Coon Bluff. One friend who skied it with me called it the most aesthetic chute in the greater Tahoe area; another called it an epic slog.
It’s not labeled on any map I can find, and none of the local backcountry fixtures called it anything other than “way back there.” This rocky outcrop looms at the head of Carpenter Valley just north of Coon Canyon and, in my household, has come to be known as Coon Bluff. Others certainly have skied it before and may call it something else, but they aren’t sharing.
The couloir first caught my attention a couple years ago from the top of Red Mountain. It’s nestled below Basin Peak with an obvious east facing line of snow that cuts through the prow of the bluff. Along with its striking nature came the seeds of doubt: Does it connect through at the top? Do you need to rappel? Am I even the kind of skier who does rappels?
In late September, after as much workplace Google Earth procrastination as one can reasonably do, I channeled my overflowing enthusiasm for the upcoming ski season into a 14 mile run/bushwack out to the top of the bluff “just to take a look.” The reconnaissance proved fruitful and the subtleties of the line started to reveal themselves. An entry point at the top offered not one but two imaginary ribbons of snow forming the shape of the Greek letter lambda (λ). It seemed plausible to descend 250 feet through the narrow north-facing choke before choosing your line: continue down the winding north-facing line towards the outlet of Warren Lake or cut right into the east-facing chute I saw from Red Mountain. But questions lingered. How much snow does it need to fill in? Or do the howling winds of the Sierra Crest just scour the flakes away? Anyone who has looked down the Cross on Tallac in both summer and winter knows the transformative powers of a big Sierra winter. So I squinted hard trying to imagine 20 feet of snow covering the gully.
By the time late January rolled around, Squaw was reporting 250 inches of snow on the upper mountain, and the early season avalanche problems had settled out. With my backcountry legs under me, it seemed reasonable to give it a go. My roommate Pat and I slogged out to Castle Peak, got to know the snow with a few north-facing detours, and then sidehilled over to the top of the bluff.
Once again, the Sierra snowpack had worked its magic, transforming an heinously rocky gully into a silky-surfaced chute. A windlip had steepend the upper pitch to just over 45 degrees, and the weak January sun had preserved some soft snow between shaded walls of rock. We descended one at a time down to the break in the wall where the east-facing chute drops away to the right. Standing there—between looming pillars of rock, with two incredible lines diverging at my feet—was without a doubt the highlight of my winter. While Pat made his way down the upper section, I tucked myself up against a nook in the rock and let the view sink in.
Eventually, our eyes became saturated with the scenery, and we moved on to the fun crux of the day: which line to ski? The east-facing option was longer but had some sun effect. I was already dreaming of coming back during corn season, so north it was. The leftover cold snow we had been scraping of the top of the line deepened about halfway down allowing us to progress from jump turns, and we squiggled our way down to the apron.
I wasn’t able to align conditions and partners to ski the east chute until late April. This turned out to be a good thing, as we found out that the historic February snowfall had built an imposing cornice at the mouth of the entrance. We were able to skirt the cornice at skier’s right of the entrance and quickly ducked out of its path into the east chute. There, we realized we weren’t alone: a pair of peregrine falcons had also become enamored with the view on this craggy slope. They dive-bombed us as we leapfrogged down the line and out the bottom choke. At the base of the runout, we high-fived and revelled in having skied one of the longest, most walled-in chutes in the Tahoe region.
I am cataloging this hidden gem to help conserve another. Just across Coon Canyon from the apron of the east chute lies the better-known Frog Lake Cirque. The Truckee Donner Land Trust is in the midst of a campaign to protect the land around Frog Lake, including Frog Lake Cliffs and the cabins by the lake. Why is this relevant to Coon Bluff? Currently, the shortest route to Coon Bluff involves 10.5 roundtrip miles and at least 4,500 feet of climbing. Fortunately, one of the Land Trust’s goals with this acquisition is to open the cabins at Frog Lake to winter use. Starting from the cabins, a trip to Coon Bluffs could be about 60% shorter.
The skiable terrain surrounding Frog Lake is truly unrivaled in the North Lake Tahoe area, and the views are equally exceptional.