Lost in paradise
Our hike seemed like any other for the first couple of hours. Then we hit the first drifts of snow. Looking back, this would have been the time to reconsider our outing. "Setting a turnaround time is the one of the most important things you can do to make sure you don't get stuck out there," Crimmens said. We pushed on, hoping the snow would give way and we could pick up the pace to make our goal, Big Meadow on Highway 89. Instead we found ourselves nearing the end of daylight with miles to go.
Even though we were packing for a day, with plenty of water and extra sandwiches, we did not have nearly enough provisions to comfortably spend the night. When the trail leads far from help, leave with enough food for an evening, tools for making a fire, rain gear and warm clothes. We got lucky; a fellow hiker, Ron Clementi, who was on the start of a two week hike, offered us warm food and gave us his extra clothing for the evening.
We also packed too little equipment. We had maps and GPSs on our phones, but phones drain batteries very quickly when used for navigation and all of ours eventually died, thankfully after we had called out.
A few minutes after calling my wife to tell her we needed to camp overnight, I heard a helicopter and realized in horror it was for us. It circled and made a harrowing landing on a rocky ledge, its engine still running. A sheriff's deputy hopped out of the passenger seat to made sure we were healthy and told us Search and Rescue would come for us in the morning. We spent a cold, sleepless night watching the fire and waiting for daybreak. When the sun finally rose another helicopter arrived with two volunteers, an ex-Marine and a ski instructor, who hiked us out. Scott, the Marine, led us with military hand signals. When we asked him if he was married, he answered with a curt "Negative". The thought that these guys spent their days off from work jumping out of helicopters to help stranded hikers like me, was truly humbling.
With no poisonous insects or plants, Tahoe has some advantages over tamer East Coast trails, but true wilderness hiking offers serious challenges like dehydration from elevation, a need to package your food to keep away bears and rescues that may be hours away. But the rewards are awe-inspiring alpine views and meditative moments of true desolation. It is that rare experience of solitude and quiet framed by an ocean of rugged mountains that will take me back out to Tahoe Rim Trail, armed with a bit more preparation and lot more humility.