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!