Thursday, September 11, 2014

Tahoe Rim Trail: 185 Miles in Six Days

I love doing hard things, things that I'm not confident I can accomplish. I love pushing up against the edge of reasonable, past the boundary of comfortable, and into the realm of the unknown. I'm not afraid of failing, but afraid to not try.

It all started with an article by Meghan Hicks in the January 2014 edition of Trail Runner magazine. After reading her fascinating account of running the entire Tahoe Rim Trail solo and self-supported I responded with unquenchable hubris, "If she can do it then I can do it." I texted my friend Andy Cornett and discovered he had read the same article which had sparked the same dream in him. If we did it together it would be even easier because we could share certain items such as a tarp and cook stove, lessening our pack weight.

So we committed to doing the trip in late August 2014 and spent the spring and summer training (some ultras including Burning River 100 for me and Andy's first marathon), planning (testing freeze dried meals, comparing packing lists, selecting new backpacks), and reading Meghan's story (over and over again).

Near the end of August we flew to San Francisco. We spent the night at my sister's house in Palo Alto and the next day we purchased a few last minute supplies (stove fuel, trail snacks, and jugs of water) and drove up to Lake Tahoe. We dropped a stash of food at a hotel in Tahoe City where we planned to stay half way through our adventure and also stashed a few gallons of water at trailheads along our Day 1 route where there were no natural water sources. We also scouted out the Kingsbury Grade South trailhead where we planned to start the following morning in the dark. (Andy Cornett left, Adam Pratt right)

We spent the night at a local hotel where we packed and repacked our gear for the week, reviewed maps, charged the Garmin, and tried to grasp the challenge ahead of us: 170+ miles on foot, self-supported, in six days with backpacks starting at about 25 pounds.

Day 1: Kingsbury Grade South Trailhead to Marlette Campground, 29 miles
We were up early, cleared out of our hotel, and hit the trailhead right at 6am. It was brisk and dark when we started, but the sun rose quickly to reveal a beautiful, meandering trail.

After almost three hours of running we took a short break for what would become our morning ritual: boil water for a breakfast of quick oats with dried fruit, nuts, and powdered milk.

About 12 miles into the morning we stopped for another break with one of our first good views of Lake Tahoe.

After only a few hours of running we found ourselves rather scared of the four-lane road crossing at the Spooner Summit trailhead. Being at the crest of the hill gave us limited visibility in both directions and invoked memories of Frogger. We finally made it across the road and with 18 miles under our belt stopped for lunch in the shade. From there it was a tough 7-mile uphill, sandy slog toward Snow Valley Peak.

After we passed Snow Valley Peak, beautiful Marlette Lake came into view which meant our camp site for the night was close!

After a few switchbacks we finally rolled into camp where we pitched our tarp (with cord and hiking poles), washed our feet, made dinner, and were in bed by 8:15.

Day 2: Marlette Campground to Gray Lake, 26.6 miles
We were awake at 5:30am, but every morning it was a struggle to get out of our sleeping bags, get packed, and get moving. Most days it was about an hour between the time we were awake and the time we were running. When we finally got running at 6:30am we were rewarded with more great views of Marlette Lake and Lake Tahoe.

Five hours into the day we crossed Ophir Creek and entered Tahoe Meadows where we stopped for a break and to filter water. I should mention that in the previous section of the trail we crossed paths with scores of mountain bikers. Exactly two of them willingly yielded the trail, the rest didn't, and two guys buzzed me uncomfortably close. As both a runner and a cyclist I have to say I was NOT impressed with the trail etiquette of this crowd. If you have a choice, avoid this section on even days. If you're a mountain biker, read the signs and share the trail.

After crossing the road over to the Mount Rose Trailhead we hiked a few more miles up to the beautiful Galena Falls where we stopped for a lunch of lemongrass ramen noodles and more water filtration.

After hiking up the switchbacks above the waterfall we had some more steep hiking as we approached Relay Peak. There was no running in this section, but we made good consistent progress.

We finally made it to the peak at 10,420 feet.

Caught our breath.

And took in the great views.

But we still had miles to go, so we attacked the switchbacks on the way down, hoping to find water to camp by. We passed the dry remnant of Mud Lake and took a 1.1 mile off-trail detour to Gray Lake. When the view cleared and we saw water we celebrated our discovery.

We choose a flat camp site on the north edge of the lake by the outlet, and settled in for the night. It was a great place to filter water, wash clothes, and mend feet. Andy's feet were looking pretty rough after two long days, but with some good dressing and rest I knew he'd be okay.

We ate a dinner of freeze dried chicken and rice, enjoyed a long and beautiful sunset, and were asleep by 8:40.

Day 3: Gray Lake to Tahoe City, 33.6 miles
After a good night's sleep at Gray Lake we started the day with beautiful views of the back side or Rose Knob Peak.

After hiking 1.1 miles back up to the Tahoe Rim Trail we skirted the front edge of Rose Nob Peak and found beautiful views of Lake Tahoe spread out before us. This is one of the best places to take in the entire perimeter and imagine completing the loop.

It was a chilly and windy morning, but with a clear ridge line we were able to log eight miles before breakfast, cross the state line from Nevada into California, and find a nice breakfast lookout in front of Martis Peak.

After our daily oatmeal routine we pressed on, taking in fantastic views of Lake Tahoe, great trails, and awesome trees like this one at Watson Creek.

At about 17 miles we pulled into Watson Lake for a break, water filtration, and lunch. The lake was beautiful with a warm bright sun lighting up the shore and clear blue skies overhead. We took a long break here to rest, eat, and for Andy to tend to his feet. If we could have anticipated the impending change in weather we certainly wouldn't have stayed as long as we did.

Within a few miles of Watson Lake we noticed some clouds starting to form on the northwest corner of Lake Tahoe, which was exactly where we were headed. The storm was becoming more ominous, the clouds more dark, and the thunder was long and low. We felt a few stray drops of rain, so in an attempt to outrun the storm we really hit the gas for the next two miles.

We went back and forth between optimism and fear, but the thunder became louder and closer. It was becoming apparent we could not outrun this storm. We threw on our lightweight (but not waterproof) jackets and pulled up our pack covers at the same time the rain turned white and started to bounce…hail! Andy and I ran side-by-side for the next half mile with my sleeping pad over our heads as protection from the ice pelting.

We went through a total of four distinct hail storms, lots of cold rain, a 30° drop in temperature, menacing clouds, and a good dose of frighteningly close lightning. As the trail continued to climb higher and higher around Painted Rock and Cinder Cone I've never been so afraid in nature. We ran fast, stayed low, and prayed constantly. I didn't realize it at the time, but we were running along a ridge called "Thunder Cliff" in the worst of the storm. Not funny! Logging some 12-minute miles, we covered the last 12 stormy miles in about three hours. My GPS indicated the trail was about 2.5 miles longer than we expected, but we finally descended into Tahoe City as the storm cleared and we saw the sun again.

We had a hotel reservation for Day 3 which we had planned as a "treat" for our halfway milestone. After such a cold and wet afternoon we agreed that a warm shower and bed sounded great. We cleaned up, warmed up, ate up (Lakeside Pizza, we love you!), and stocked up. We even did some laundry before repacking everything for the morning.

We had covered more than 89 miles in three days, but we were a bit worn out. Andy's feet needed lots of attention and I used more than my fair share of Balmex, but we were in good shape. We got a solid night's sleep, ready to go another day!

Day 4: Tahoe City to Middle Velma Lake, 32.8 miles
We ate breakfast in our hotel room and started hiking back to the trailhead (0.6 miles away) at 6:30am. It was the first time we had any real cell phone reception in three days, so we both used the opportunity to check in with our families back home. As I overheard Andy's conversation with his wife I could tell he was feeling exhausted and discouraged. His ravaged feet were making this trip harder than it should have been.

When we got to the trailhead we started a challenging climb of about 2,500 vertical feet. It was a challenging stretch but our legs felt good, Andy's feet were well-protected, and we enjoyed beautiful places like this misty mountain meadow. 

We ran several fast miles along Ward Creek and got a good start to the day. Starting the day this strong was the tipping point for me: I knew we'd finish the entire loop. I knew that if we could run this strong on the beginning of day four then there was no stopping us! We spent time on some long traverses like this one…

We finally made it to Twin Peaks and intersected with the Pacific Crest Trail, which overlaps the Tahoe Rim Trail for the next 50 miles.

Around mile 21 we stopped at Richardson Lake to filter water, eat lunch, and enjoy the peaceful view. We ate some tortillas filled with extra sharp cheddar cheese and dry salami which we bought the previous night in Tahoe City.

A few miles later we entered the Desolation Wilderness area, which would turn out to be the most beautiful section of the entire trail.

Our goal was to make it to Middle Velma Lake by 7:15pm which would give us just enough time to filter water, clean, and cook before sundown. With some late-day hustle we pulled into camp exactly at 7:15pm and found a fantastic little camp site near the water's edge.

As we got close to the lake we met a school teacher and group of high school students on a multi-day trip to kick off their school year. The unfortunate surprise was that they were missing a student for the last four hours. Ironically, the missing student had been designated as the group navigator. We were too tired and useless to help search for her, but we offered to pray for her safe return. We never heard the full story, but as dusk turned to dark the student, stunned and shocked, stumbled back into camp. It's a precious thing when the lost are found and we fell asleep in peace, and exhaustion, at the end of Day 4.

Day 5: Middle Velma Lake to Showers Lake, 30.2 miles
We slept well under the stars, but had a late start in the morning. We finally got running at 6:50am and quickly came upon Fontanillis Lake which is surrounded by beautiful granite peaks and offering back mirror-like reflections.

After that we came around the equally-stunning Dick's Lake.

A strong hike up to Dick's Pass at 9,400 feet gave us great views of where we had come from. That's Dick's Lake in the foreground and Fontanillis Lake further in the distance.

As well as where we were headed, deeper into the Desolation Wilderness.

After descending from Dick's Pass we were passing water sources constantly. Considering the trip started with 42 miles with no natural water source it was a relief to have more frequent access to water. We filtered all our water for drinking and cooking, but at least we didn't have to carry a full day's water on our backs anymore! We passed many beautiful lakes, including Susie Lake.

But the highlight of the day was Lake Aloha. It's a stunning experience and my photos don't do it justice. Click the panorama below for a little taste. It's one of the most beautiful places I've seen in my life and would love to bring my family back here one day, set up camp, and just relax and explore for a few days.

But what goes up, must come down, and the descent from Lake Aloha was brutal. The trail was strewn shards of granite which shred our feet and forced us to pick careful lines down the mountain. At one point I noticed we clocked a 27:48 mile, hiking downhill. Ouch!

But at the end of that tough stretch was another beautiful site: Echo Lake. Andy and I agreed we could retire here and split a place. The lakes is about 2.5 miles long, guarded by steep white granite peaks, and rimmed with beautiful little cabins that are only accessible by boat. The views were magnificent but the trail was hot and dry as the granite cliffs reflected the heat of the day down onto the Tahoe Rim Trail.

We finally made it to the far end of Echo Lake and were relieved to find that Echo Chalet was still open. We had heard this deli/backcountry grocery had limited hours and we were hungry for their famous milkshakes.

We bought a bottle of Gatorade, a gallon of water, a turkey sandwich, and a blackberry milkshake and the total was over $20. It was worth every penny! The sandwich only lasted about a minute and the milkshake was awesome on a hot afternoon.

We took one more look back up the length of Echo Lake before getting back on the trail for the last push of the day.

We had a few miles of rolling trails after Echo Lake before we ran into a big nasty surprise that neither of us had noticed on the map: a crushingly steep climb of 1,500 vertical feet. It was a tough stretch that really sapped our energy and enthusiasm.

We were hoping to make it to Big Meadow to sleep for the night, but between a late start, a tough afternoon climb, and longer mileage than expected we make it to Showers Lake at 30.2 miles and call it a day! We set up camp on a clearing above the lake with an unobstructed view of the sky and hustle through or evening routine. I filter water while Andy gets dinner ready and we're both relieved to be done for the day. We wash feet and clothes at the shoreline as the sun goes down and eat dinner in the dark as we absorb the experience of the day.

As we settle in for the night we talk about Meghan Hicks, our inspiration for this trip. We talk about her like she's our virtual traveling partner, wondering what she ate, where she slept, and how in the world she did this whole trip on her own. We're amazed by her strength and guts and agree that we need to meet her some day!

We lay on our backs in our sleeping bags and gaze into the milky way, oo-ing and ah-ing at the shooting stars. I feel excited to almost be done with our adventure, but a little sad this would be our last night sleeping outside. I fell asleep quickly as I know we have one more long haul ahead of us.

Day 6: Showers Lake to Kingsbury Grade South Trailhead, 32.1 miles
Realizing that today was going to be a tough, long day on the trail we wake up early at 4:15 and were running by 5:30am. The first few miles are in the dark, illuminated by our headlamps. The sun rises two miles into our run, just as we leave the Pacific Crest Trail and and continue on the Tahoe Rim Trail.

After about six miles we pass through Big Meadow. As much as we would have loved to wake up in this beautiful meadow and have a shorter last day, we know we made the right decision to cut the previous day short instead of death-marching through the night.

After exiting Big Beadow we hike another two miles and up about 1,000 vertical feet before stopping for water filtration and breakfast at the Grass Lake trail junction. We calculate that we have about 10 more uphill miles to Freel Peak so after a relaxing breakfast in the shade we hit the trail with full stomachs and a hunger for the finish. After some grueling, hot, and dusty switchbacks we make it over Armstrong Pass and to Freel Peak. We want so badly to get to the summit, but it's an extra mile each way and 1,000 vertical feet up. We take a picture, vow to return one day, and start the descent toward Star Lake.

We make it to Star Lake for lunch. I really want to jump in for a swim, but there's a chilly breeze blowing over the mountain. Andy's also tempted to swim, but is afraid that if he takes his battered feet out of his shoes they might never go back in. We settle for fresh water and a quick noodle lunch before we hit the trail and continue our descent.

Monument Pass is a hot and dusty blur, but some of the trees along the way were just mind-boggling!

After a few more miles of running along the east ridge of the mountains with views into Nevada we finish our descent back to the Kingsbury Grade South Trailhead with a steep last mile. We told my sister to meet us there at 6pm. She arrives at 5:53 and we arrive at 5:57. Pretty good planning if you ask me!

And that was it…we were finished. It ended as unceremoniously as it started at a trailhead next to an empty parking lot. The Tahoe Rim Trail is advertised as 165 miles. Using the Tahoe Rim Trail Guidebook and the TRT Map from Tom Harrison we expected closer to 173 miles. My Garmin 910XT calculated 185 miles for the week. The clock said five days and 12 hours. Regardless of the exact distance, it was an amazing experience with a great friend.

We made our way down to the asphalt parking lot where we shed our backpacks (sigh) and peeled off our shoes.

I adore my Brooks Cascadias, but as you can see from the photo below even a pair of socks, gaiters, and shoes couldn't keep out all the fine, silt-like dirt from this trail. You also might notice that my only injury from the week was a minor blister on my left left heel (poor lacing job on the morning of Day 2).  But I covered the spot right away with moleskin and didn't have any more issues all week.

Where do I go from here? I'm not sure, but my world just got a LOT bigger. I hope you enjoyed reading about our adventure and that we've inspired you to try something new and challenging. Maybe you should go watch the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and plan your own adventure!

For those interested, here's my packing list for the week:

Backpack with rain cover (Osprey Stratos 36)
  • 100 oz water reservoir
  • Bear Canister (Bearvault BV450)
  • Sleeping Bag in stuff sack (North Face Scorpio, synthetic 40F)
  • Steripen Classic 3 with fresh lithium batteries
  • Steripen pre-filter
  • Two 20-oz Ultimate Direction water bottles
  • Lightweight water-resistant jacket (Patagonia Houdini)
  • Lightweight GoLite Down jacket (warmth and pillow)
  • Long-sleeve shirt (Brooks compression running shirt)
  • Running tights (GoLite Castlewood Canyon)
  • Spare pair of socks (Wrightsock Coolmesh)
  • Spare pair of underwear
  • Plastic rain poncho (never used, even when it poured on us)
  • Camp towel (super tiny)
  • Trail map
  • Laminated itinerary
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Body Glide
  • Balmex
  • Sunscreen
  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Band aids
  • Moleskin
  • Toilet Paper
  • Nail Clippers
  • Nail file
  • Garmin 910XT
  • Garmin charging cable
  • iPhone (for photos and emergency contact)
  • Optrix waterproof phone case
  • iPhone 5 cable
  • USB battery backup (2200mAh, for Garmin)
  • USB wall charger
  • Petzl Headlamp
  • Breakfasts (oatmeal with nuts, dried fruit, and powdered milk in individual ziploc bags)
  • Lunches (peanut butter packets, nuts, trail mix, ramen)
  • Dinners (freeze dried foil packs)
  • Nuun
  • Endurolytes
  • Gels (VFuel and Gu)
  • One bar of Theo's chocolate
  • Light My Fire Spork
  • I carried a tarp for ground cover/makeshift tent and Andy carried our stove (MSR Pocketrocket) and fuel canister
  • 20 feet of cord
  • 4 aluminum tent stakes
  • Underwear
  • Compression shorts (Salomon)
  • Short-sleeve compression shirt (GoLite)
  • Wrightsock coolmesh
  • Dirty Girls Gaiters
  • Brooks Cascadia
  • Brooks running hat
Restock on Day 3
  • Fuel canister
  • Sunscreen
  • Food

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