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 humility.