There was only a hint of civilization from the 9,000ft-high, snow-dappled, pine-covered ridge: a tiny sliver of Highway 88, more than six miles away. And the only sounds came from a helicopter, hugging the ridge, searching for my hiking party and me.
It is not fair to say we were lost. We knew where we were going. The
trail, covered by snow, was lost. But semantics did not change the fact we were
spending an unplanned night tending a makeshift fire and sharing a spoon over
meals we borrowed from another, more prepared, hiker. As a former Eagle Scout
with hundreds of miles of Rocky Mountain hikes under my belt, my mantra should
have been “be prepared.” Watching the sun go down in shorts was not what I
pictured when I started my day hike.
To most people, Lake Tahoe, on the border of California and Nevada, is a skiers’
paradise, complete with casinos and boating in warmer months. But the same
dramatic Sierra Nevada mountain range that collects some of the world's
greatest powder, dries out in the summer, giving day hikers and backpackers
access to an unspoiled outdoor experience only miles from the comforts of town.
There are hundreds of miles of authorized trails in the Tahoe Basin, and if you
factor in unofficial trails, the number of possible routes becomes nearly endless.
Dreamt up by a US Forest Service
employee in 1978, the Tahoe Rim trail is a relative new entry on the hiker's
to-do list. Although pieces of the trail have been available for years, the full,
165-mile Tahoe Rim circuit was not completed until 2001.
Circling the entire lake, the volunteer-maintained trail offers stunning vistas
and climbs ranging from gruelling to causal that lead to high mountain meadows.
Because the trail is on ridges, the views from any section are spectacular. The
Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,663 miles from Mexico to Canada, shares half
of the lake with the Rim Trail and brings an influx of "through
hikers" (the ultra-serious lean visitors who routinely make 20 plus miles
a day). More than 100,000 people use the Rim Trail each year, said Teresa
Crimmens, the Director of Trail Operations for Tahoe Rim Trail Association,but so far only a little more
than a thousand have claimed their prize for a full circumnavigation: a patch
available on the Association’s website.
The accessibility of the wilderness around Tahoe belies the dangers of day
hiking. Campgrounds line the lake and everything from rustic cabins to four-star
hotels can be found in areas like Nevada's Stateline and the California side's
Camp Richardson and Tahoe City. The ability to spend all day in the wilderness
and return to comfortable hotels, restaurants and gambling floors, can mislead visitors
into thinking the area is more tame than it is. "You need to think that
you're going out to seek real solitude," advised Jacob Quinn, Trails Coordinator
for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, "and think of everything that
comes with it". The cost of that solitude, I discovered, is that if
trouble does arise, help is often more than a couple of hours away, and a day's
jaunt can easily take a dramatic turn.
It is easy to see the mistakes my group made but it is a bit harder to say how
we allowed them to happen. We packed light and paid for it, taking far too much
assurance from our dozens of day hikes and old Eagle Scout badges. The Tahoe
Rim Trail Association has online bulletins about trail conditions, kept
up-to-date by hiker reports, so a few minutes on the Internet would have informed
me that we were in for up to 5ft of snow as the trail ascended above 8,000ft.
"This area is not for the inexperienced. It may not be for the
experienced, too!" the website warned. The site also flagged that this is
an awful year for mosquitoes, which would have saved us some discomfort if we
had researched in advance.
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