By Elizabeth White | Special to Moonshine Ink
I had been wanting to do a through-hike for quite a while. I’d taken previous backpacking trips and loved spending extended time in the wilderness, walking and reflecting. After graduating from college and having my graduation trip abroad canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, I decided that hiking the Tahoe Rim Trail with my partner, Isaac Laredo, could be an alternative worth considering. Unfortunately, the stay-at-home order had left me quite out of shape and was not contributing to any sort of much-needed training that the trail mandated. My entire preparation for the Tahoe Rim Trail consisted of walking 10 to 15 miles a couple of times on the Flume and Rubicon trails, without any sort of extra weight.
After we finished days of prep and a little bit of training, Isaac and I began our trek, setting out from Tahoe City on June 8. We were walking mostly vertically for the first half and rather quickly reached the incredible views of the Sierra Nevada. One of the biggest benefits of the Rim Trail is that it traverses over the ridgeline along Lake Tahoe, bringing in views from the highest points all over the lake.
As beautiful as it was, things started to turn sour in no time. Isaac began struggling and hurting after just a few miles. He had stayed silent about it until he finally took off his pack and examined it to see what was going on. It had ripped, and its metal frame was protruding through the hip strap, jabbing him. By mile 9 he was slowly limping up the trail. He had tried everything he could think of, even tying a pinecone between the protrusion and the hip belt to relieve pressure.
At one point Isaac moved the backpack, strapping it to his front side to see if it would hurt less. While this relieved some of the pain, the dynamics didn’t work and the weight of the pack kept pulling him forward. Thinking it might balance out the weight, he put my pack on his back and, at mile 10, Isaac was hiking with both packs. Once we were able to make it to an area of the trail where we had cell service, Isaac called one of his roommates to bring a different pack to a nearby road. That day, his roommate came to our rescue; we exchanged packs and were now on our way.
The next day we commenced our 20-mile trek to Gray Lake. I was feeling confident until about mile 8, when we began hiking up switchbacks toward Martis Peak. I began to feel as if I had been walking on pins. We were both rationing our water as much as possible throughout the day, and I felt constantly thirsty. We had walked all day long, and the sun was beginning to go down. My feet were screaming in pain by the end and I was wretched with thirst and fatigue.
The only way to make it to Gray Lake was to ignore every part of me that wanted to throw myself on the ground and give up. I put in my earbuds and began hiking as fast as I possibly could — despite my feet starting to go numb from the persistent pain and cold. I was so in the zone that I actually ended up going past the sign pointing the way to Gray Lake. Isaac had to run me down and get me to turn around.
I was beyond happy to finally be there, but once we reached the sign and looked down, we realized the entire downhill was covered in snow. We began our walk, post-holing the way to where we thought the lake would be. Once I heard the sound of frogs I began running in their direction. I finally saw the lake and screamed with joy. That easily had been the most difficult trek of my life — and it was over! We put up the tent and made dinner as fast as possible. I tucked away in my sleeping bag and closed my eyes. I don’t even remember falling asleep. It felt like moments had passed and then it was morning again.
The next day we picked up camp and began our journey back up to the trail. It was a shorter day, but the snow was really slowing us down. It was then that I realized Yaktrax, strapped to my hiking boots for trudging through the snow, would have made all the difference for this trip. I was having an incredibly hard time keeping my balance, and we moved impossibly slowly the entire day until we made it down Mt. Rose.
As we sat down for lunch, we looked across to the other side of the lake at Desolation Wilderness. The mountains were still snow covered from the late winter. We were ill-prepared for the conditions and it resulted in us trekking unbelievably slowly. We knew we couldn’t make it all the way through in just 13 days, which was all the time I had off work. We also hadn’t packed enough food for the extra days the trip would take, and we needed traction for the snow. It was then that we decided we would hike to South Lake Tahoe and end the journey there.
I began to feel the tears well up in my eyes; I felt like I had come all of this way for nothing. At the same time, I also felt somewhat relieved. I was already in a lot of pain and all I wanted was for this to come to an end, to drink a cold beer, eat a hot meal with no dirt in it, and sleep in a real bed. I was dying for a shower and my hands were caked in just about everything that I had touched during the past few days, which made eating feel less than ideal.
That evening, we finally set up camp around Mt. Rose Meadows, resting up for the next day. On day three we reached a summit just above Marlette Lake and had a full panoramic view of Lake Tahoe. We sat on the mountaintop for a while, gazing across the dramatic scenery in awe, before heading downhill to Marlette Camp for the night. On the way back down the hill, I was walking like a ragdoll — fatigued from the past few days and the lack of sleep. Just before we made it to camp, I took an awkward step and my knee blew out. I managed to limp a mile to camp and finally rested. We sat and considered our options while setting up to prepare for the snowstorm that was about to set in that night. I wasn’t going to make it to South Lake with my knee as I could barely walk. The following day, with me limping the rest of the way, we made the approximately 9-mile hike from Marlette to Spooner Summit Trailhead, where my friend picked us up.
In total, it was a rough 70 miles, and an incredible learning experience. 2020 had been one of the more difficult years of my life, and I like to think of the trail as an ode to that adversity. The greatest teacher is failure, so in the end I celebrated the culmination of both that trip and 2020, knowing that I would come out wiser and having a greater appreciation for my life and the humbleness that the mountains bring to it.