Beginner Skills

What I Learned From Failure on the Tahoe Rim Trail

My first thru-hike attempt didn’t end the way I wanted. Here are the lessons I’ll bring to my next one.

The beginning months of quarantine left me with weaker muscles, a touch of couch-potato syndrome, and a lot of free time to plan my next adventure.  Fortunately, I live in the Lake Tahoe basin, so unlike most people in the United States, I can thru-hike a trail without ever getting too far from home. I chose to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail, which runs approximately 165 miles along the ridgeline of Lake Tahoe between California and Nevada, making a loop that brings hikers back to where they began. Before hitting the trail, my partner Isaac and I began going on 10-15 mile hikes during our free time, mapping out our days, looking for water sources on the trail, and prepping food.

We began our trek at the beginning of June to capitalize on early season water and cooler temperatures. Things began to go wrong almost immediately. On day one, Isaac’s backpack frame tore through a seam and began stabbing him in the side with every step. We tried several fixes, including securing pinecones between the hip belt and metal frame to reduce the pressure from the frame and secure the corner of it to the hip belt for additional padding, which subsequently did not work. After that he tried wearing it on his front with my pack on his back for even weight distribution. Later that day, we were finally able to swap it out with the help of a friend.     

On day two, we planned to cover 20 miles—longer than I had ever hiked in one go before. As a lifelong runner and occasional marathoner, I figured I’d blaze through it, no problem. However, by mile six, my feet had practically given out, and I didn’t know how I was going to finish out the rest of the day. We finished at around 9 P.M. after post-holing and sliding through snow on our way down to Gray Lake, then promptly fell asleep after cooking some pasta for dinner. 

Exhausted after our long push, we were looking forward to a relatively easy day; we planned to make about 11 miles. No such luck: as we began our push to Mount Rose we found ourselves post-holing through 2 ft. of snow. Maybe it was wishful thinking or the disdain for extra weight in our packs, but we had neglected to bring any kind of traction, leaving us to slip and slide our way up the trail. Every once in a while, I’d look up at the snow-capped peaks of the Desolation Wilderness that lay ahead and feel my gut twist. We have to cross that next? Over lunch, Isaac and I had a difficult conversation about how long this trek was really going to take at the glacial pace we were currently making. We decided that we would end our trip halfway, in South Lake, and come back more prepared the next year. 

That night, a friend met up with us at our camp near Mt. Rose to enjoy a few beverages. When he left the next day, we handed him our leftover trash before we headed back out on the trail. As we packed our campsite up after he left, I noticed that the plastic bag with our first aid kit was missing. After searching the campsite, we realized that we still had our trash—also sealed in a plastic bag. Our friend had mistakenly left with our medical supplies.

Later that day, while we were hiking down a steep decline, my knee gave out suddenly after taking an awkward step. With our bandage long gone, I had no way to support my injured joint; our trip was over. The next day, we made a makeshift compress out of my camp pillow and some paracord for my knee, then limped nine miles to Highway 50 on the Nevada side, where a friend picked us up. 

Once we made it home, I compressed and iced my knee every day; it took about two months to heal. My partner and I went over our ill-fated trip, dissecting what went wrong. Luckily, the trail is still in our backyard. Next time we head out on it, here’s what we’ll do differently:

Come prepared: A knee brace—or at least an elastic bandage, like the one that walked off with our first-aid kit—and some Yaktrax could have easily salvaged our trip.

Go on a test run: If we had tried our gear out ahead of time, we would have known that Isaac’s pack wasn’t up to our planned load. Next time, we’ll head on a couple of overnights to shake down our gear.

Bring easier meals: Ramen and mac and cheese might not be exciting, but we just didn’t have the energy to cook at the end of the day.