Tahoe to TruckeeĀ 

The next section of northbound trail would take me through the Tahoe National Forest (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tahoe_National_Forest) and Granite Chief Wilderness (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granite_Chief_Wilderness)  toward Sierra City (oddly named, for it is about as far removed from being a city as you could imagine: a handful of buildings clustered together around a church and single store way off the main highway in the hills!), then Belden and Chester on my way north toward the stateline and on into Oregon. However, for the time being my thoughts didn’t go far beyond the next 60 miles to Donner Pass and highway 40.

South Lake Tahoe had been a great place to take a ‘zero’, the term used by thru-hikers for a day off the trail, although it is really a bit of misnomer as while no trail miles are achieved, it is rarely a restful day with chores such as laundry, repairs, kit changes, post and resupply all to be done, alongside finding a WiFi connection to deal with email, news and anything going on in the part of life that remains at home or otherwise away from the trail. For me, not only had I been able to catch up with several people in town that I’d met while hiking, I’d also had the news I’d been waiting for, confirmation from home that Lisa, my wife and best friend, would be rejoining me once again on the trail. Her foot was much better after nearly four weeks of rest and she was ready and keen to get back on the trail. She would be flying into Reno airport late on Saturday and I was determined to get out there to meet her.The section from Echo Lake to Donner Pass I’d been reliably informed was made up of rolling hills, clear vista’s, good smooth trail and we were definitely away from the mosquitoes by this stage! Over the weeks I’d learned to maintain a healthy cynicism regarding other’s predictions of trail conditions, however all started well. 

After a somewhat indulgent breakfast and two hot chocolates at Ernie’s Cafe, I got a ride out of town to Echo Lake trailhead where a small resort with some cabins and boats nestles quietly on the southern shore of what is really two adjoining lakes, connected by a narrow waterway. It is an idyllic destination for the hardworking citizens (or perhaps more accurately, just the well-heeled few) of Sacramento and San Francisco to get away from it all and relax in nature. It was certainly a beautiful spot, surrounded by craggy peaks and aspen forest the turquoise blue water, adorned with kayaks and small fishing boats, was crystal clear in the way that only a mountain lake can be. 

Realising that the resort ran an on-demand boat service across the lake, I quickly persuaded John, a fellow hiker I’d been hiking with over the last few days, (and without much resistance I should add) that we should take the opportunity to experience the lake from the water, support the local economy, (a justification used for almost any small luxury desired) and least of all, start the day’s hiking on our bums with a coke and ice-cream, enjoying the scenery! It was a beautiful way to experience the lake and we talked to, and shared the ride over with a family taking their youngest son out for his first back-packing trip. What a place to start, he could hardly be anything but inspired!The trail, as we climbed up away from the lake, was rocky and hard-going. Deep bruises and old blisters on my feet reminded me of their presence until the trail levelled and pine needles softened my steps (Ibuprofen did it’s bit for me too)! The numerous lakes in this area were dotted with little rocky islands that looked inviting as camp spots, but I doubted they’d be free of the mosquitoes that came with this beautiful lakeland scenery. 

I’d thought we’d seen the worst of them in the high Sierra but they still had some surprises in store for us and that night was almost comical watching hikers ‘do the dance’, the frantic waving, swatting and jumping around that is intended to minimise bites while hunting out extra clothes and a headnet as limited protection against the incessant attack of these miniature warriors. It was great to camp near a water source and to not need to haul a couple of litres of water into camp for cooking and drinking, however there were certainly times when that was preferable to the slow torture of the little biters. 

The next couple days saw us hiking the high ridges along the west of Lake Tahoe, part of the Tahoe Rim Trail. Much of this was forested, but on the ridge tops the view, always of the lake, made it impossible not to be reminded of the enormous scale of Lake Tahoe.  At around forty miles across, it is one of the largest, and also one of the deepest lakes in the United States. This section included less elevation gain and fall than in recent weeks, but was challenging nonetheless. Psychologically many of the hikers I had spoken to were having a hard time and I later learned that this was a common time for thru-hikers to call it quits and drop out. We had successfully completed what we had initially considered to be the two hardest obstacles, the Mojave Desert and the High Sierra, and now we should be cruising through an ‘easy’ section. However, it was not so, and that realisation took its toll on many hikers especially those for whom the Sierra’s had been particularly tough. 

In terms of distance we were still, depending on pace, a week or two short of half way, the magical number of 1330 miles. However in getting this far we had consumed over half of the time available to us in a normal season for thru-hiking. Those of us that had travelled from overseas to attempt this had the artificial constraint of US visa entry limitations. Despite that we were in barely any worse situation than US-based hikers as the real limiting factor was the changing season and the very real possibility of being caught in autumn storms in the mountains in the north of Washington State. Despite everything we had done, this could in many ways still be the toughest section ahead of us and indeed the remotest, and we would enter it not knowing whether we had three weeks or perhaps six before the first big snows arrived. Everyone we had spoken to had warned us that getting caught in the Washington mountains at the onset of winter would be foolhardy at best.

For some, at this point the combination of the discovery that despite leaving the highest mountains behind, the PCT in North California still held some real challenges, and the need to increase the daily miles, in most cases to at least over twenty each day, was too much. 

Budgets were an issue for some I spoke to as well. For most of us the cost so far had been well in excess of what we had expected; it’s easy to say you’ll camp in town and not get a hotel while you still have a bathroom, bed and refrigerator at hand in the planning stages! Indeed, some towns we had passed through simply had no camping option available. Much equipment and clothing was also now in need of replacement. The environment, climate and in some cases the wildlife had taken a serious toll on packs and clothing in particular. I knew hikers who were patching shirts, had holes in packs and had no choice but to replace items such as broken hiking poles. Most were already on their second or even third pair of shoes or boots too.

Food was also an issue. From the earliest stages I had heard about ‘hiker hunger’, a concept I had largely dismissed as being other’s excuse overdoing it in town. By this stage I understood it well. I’d been hiking almost every day for over three months now and my metabolism must have upped it’s game to try and keep pace. I was hungry almost every waking hour. Most hikers I knew were now eating at least double what they’d have eaten at the beginning of the hike. In many cases this was literal. They would cook and eat dinner, and then start over to cook and eat a second one, doing the same at each meal and supplementing between meals with every kind of snack bar you can imagine. This had a budgetary implication too. Grocery bills for resupply every five to seven days were becoming a significant drain on resources, not to mention the additional cost of feeding up at every town, resort or other source of food that didn’t need to be carried. For those readers from outside the US it’s worth me mentioning at this point that groceries in the US were expensive, and in California especially expensive, typically double what we would pay in the UK, both item for item and overall.

So budgets, available time, motivation and moral were all causing previously committed hikers to pull-out. By this stage it was estimated that at least half of those hikers who had started in any given year would have dropped out.

However I was still going and soon to be rejoined by Lisa so my hike was going well even if the budget had taken a pounding. Keen to get to Truckee from where I would rent a car and drive out to Reno and the airport, I put in a 27 mile day along the ridgetops that parallel the lake. With a strong breeze for much of the day the path weaved left and right of the line of small summits and in and out of the tree line. Eventually reaching a broad summit littered with ski infrastructure, we began to descend to what became once again, a mosquito-infested camp! So much for leaving them behind! The final day into Donner Pass and Truckee was a tough one. 

There was a steep descent to overcome that was particularly hard on my already very bruised feet. Rumours had been circulating on the trail about the possibility of free beer being offered to hikers at a nearby ski resort. To be honest, this was a common rumour and easily dismissed as being the somewhat optimistic wishes of tired and thirsty hikers. However I had met up with several hikers I knew from earlier days and they too seemed to be aware of the ‘free beer’ rumour. We set off down the hill ever more hopeful that there may be some truth in this. We’d spotted a large grey building that distinctly resembled an out of season ski resort just up from a car park. We burst across this, full of anticipation as we emerged from the hard and rocky final descent. Our hopes were immediately dashed and a mood of depression beset the group as it was found to be closed and deserted. After a slow and quiet walk back across the car park we bumped into another hiker and relayed our sad tale of disappointment to him only to be told, ‘no, you’re looking for Donner ski resort, that’s point three of a mile down the road’. Almost unwilling to raise our hopes again we trudged tiredly down the deserted road without a car passing us. A glimmer of hope emerged as we spotted the resort across the road, but all looked quiet. We crossed over and climbed the steps to the outside deck. There behind the window was a lone barman tending an otherwise completely deserted bar. He looked up in response to the sound of us dumping our packs and sure enough immediately reached for the chiller, took out and lined up five beers on the bar. Surely the rumours couldn’t be true this time?! We hurried inside and sure enough we were being offered our first beer for free, just for being PCT hikers. It couldn’t have come at a better time. We were all tired, low, hungry and very ready for a beer! After several beers, sodas, burgers, fries, apple pie and ice-cream we were all feeling a little better. We’d originally expected to camp just before coming off the trail at Interstate 80. However we were advised that it would be much easier to hitch into Truckee from highway 40, so we needn’t go any further that night. Our day got even better when our kind barman informed us that we could take beds in the otherwise empty ski hostel for just $30 each. We jumped at the chance even before we knew that this included a full kitchen, showers, laundry a sofa and a TV. We spent the most civilised night we’d known in weeks, actually months, and left for Truckee in the morning feeling almost part of the civilised world again rather than grubby, tired and smelly hikers!

A Changing Landscape

The last days have seen, subtle changes starting to occur around me. The towering peaks and craggy cliffs have given way gradually to a more gentle, if still wild, landscape of meadows, woods, lakes and hills. The Sierra’s don’t just end abruptly, but concede their heights over a hundred miles or so, to become the rolling hills and valleys of North California. The white tops have become green, but the run-off from all that melting snow is still very evident in the creeks and rivers. Beautiful, but it has led to some challenging river crossings.

It will be interesting to see how the wildlife I encounter changes going forward. It has been entertaining to watch the antics of the lively marmots that have accompanied me through the Sierra’s. They are a creature of the mountains and I don’t expect to see much more of them until I hit Washington state. 

The chipmunks however I’m sure will continue to delight with their inquisitive nature. This fellow below was at Carson Pass trailhead and we played a long game of hide and seek: each time I looked away he would creep closer to my pack and each time I looked around he would freeze innocuously looking innocent. I knew however the damage he could do in just five minutes at my pack. I’d seen others with holes chewed through pockets or pack bases because they’d left a snickers bar lurking in the bottom of their pack. 

Other creatures I’ve yet to clearly identify include:

This snake was easily two feet long and found next to a river in a swampy, low-lying section between mountain passes. 

The antennae on this flying beetle were impressive, but despite tuning couldn’t pick up BBC1.

Easily missed, this colourful character was only about 1cm in length and was lurking in amongst the granite outcrops in the high mountains.

I don’t know how well this photo will view on a large screen but I hope it will reasonably show the small, tailless rodent on the centre rock. It took me some days to trace the source of the early morning chirping that echoed around the high passes. At first I had believed it to be a bird that had remained out of sight, until one morning a slight movement caught my eye and I spotted him sitting up on a prominent rock calling out to his fellow rodents. I subsequently became aware that they did this every morning, but I only ever saw them above about 10,000ft.

If anyone can shed light on the identity of any if these mountain residents, do please leave a comment and let me know what I’m seeing. 

I should mention that a couple of days ago I reached a significant milestone; one thousand miles hiked! I had been anticipating it for some days yet when it came it was an anti-climax. I suspect that was partly down to the absence of my hiking partner and best friend who’d hiked most of those miles with me, but also the realisation that if the goal of Canada was to be realised then there was still a long way to go.

Any melancholy I may have felt however was shortlived. There’s always a surprise around the corner while hiking and the unknown is the beauty of the adventure. Carson Pass trailhead rewarded me with an unexpected small gathering of hikers and the gift of free sodas, cookies and apples. The unexpected company and kindness was welcome toward the end of one of my longest and more tiring days at 27 miles hiked in a single day. I broke that immediately the following day finishing a fantastic day at Showers Lake after 29 miles and arrived at dusk after 14 hours hiking to be rewarded with the most spectacular sunset. The clouds had been racing across the sky all day as I’d been battered with winds up on the high ridges of over 100 miles an hour. In gusts I’d been forced to cling on in the exposed sections just to remain on the mountain. That evening the, still racing, clouds were lit up by the setting sun with an intensity that looked almost as though the hillside was on fire. Reflected in the lake it was a beautiful encore to what had been a battle with the rawest of elements all day.

Hiking solo

Getting back to the trailhead wasn’t easy. There was no consistent bus route to get me back to Independence, the nearest town to where we came off the trail, so I had to hitch. Almost 80 miles from Mammoth Lakes where I’d had to return the hire car. We’d made the difficult decision for Lisa to go home, at least for now, and I was returning to the trail alone. Her foot was getting worse and we were worried it could be a stress fracture. To be honest she was a pretty pitiful sight just limping across the airport check in hall. However she’d hiked almost 800 miles including the Mojave Desert and the highest trail point in the Sierra’s so she had lots to feel proud of. I’m very proud of her anyway. Who would have thought that posh city girl I met 11.5 years ago would be skipping around rattlesnakes and wading through rivers with me!

For me, the long climb back up the Kearsage Pass beckoned. I’d been worried that I would have lost my acclimatisation to the altitude. I needn’t have worried. I was so keen to get back on trail and make up some miles that I shot up the 2500ft climb from the trailhead to the pass at 11,800ft in just 2 hrs without stopping. I went on to tackle Glenn Pass too at 12,000ft before descending to around 10,000ft to camp at Rae Lakes.

It is hard to describe the colours here without resorting to superlatives, but they really are vivid from the blue of the sky, the yellows and purples of meadow flowers, the spruce green pines and crystal clear turquoise lakes that look so inviting (apart from the odd iceberg still floating around).

I had a series of big passes to tackle over the coming days, most topping out at around 12,000ft. Between these I would plunge back into the depths of the valleys. The air at the higher alpine elevations was so clear and fresh. The colour pallette reduced to the colours of the rocks the snow and the sky with little else intruding in this simple purity. Descending was another matter however. Below 11,000 the sweet aroma of the pine resin crept in, followed by the scent of shrubs and grass. The air started to thicken, rich with oxygen after the thin air of the summits. Humidity and a generous richness of smells flooded the senses. Once 9000 was reached the woods thickened too with deciduous and pine species, thickets of scrub, humid dark, damp earth and with it came the mosquitoes! There was no escaping them. Repellent reduced the attack but only to a level that could tolerated with grim determination. I travelled the valleys through the days and endeavoured to plan my arrival at a summit at the end of each day, camping in the frigid, clean air. The Sierra’s were a section I had looked forward to throughout the planning and dreaming period. There are few places where the natural world is so breathtaking and has influenced so many. One of the greatest of those was the conservationist and writer John Muir, after whom a protected wilderness area, pass and summit Hut are now named. It was a privilege to end one of my best days at the summit of Muir Pass and share a night in the Hut after a spectacular sunset.

The snowfields beyond Muir Hut were still deep and an early start meant they could be crossed on crisp, firm snow without postholing. It also meant that numerous creeks and streams could also be crossed on thinning but firm snow bridges which would become dangerous later in the day when the sun had been on them. The fitness that comes with climbing these passes daily was now starting to really consolidate and despite the challenges of the landscape I achieved 27 miles that day from Muir Summit to Selden Pass.