Bike Rides & Hikes

August 2, 2012

This scenic Tahoe run (or hike) can be a gut-churner

By most measurements, the elevation of Sacramento is all of 25 feet above sea level, though some give it a more generous 47. Point is, we're flatlanders, total basin dwellers.

LAKE TAHOE – By most measurements, the elevation of Sacramento is all of 25 feet above sea level, though some give it a more generous 47. Point is, we're flatlanders, total basin dwellers.

But, it might be argued, we do have high opinions of ourselves.

Going for a trail run or hike at Lake Tahoe, then, can be seen as a high-altitude adventure. We're not talking Mount Everest – or even Mount Shasta – high, but nearly 9,000 elevation is nothing to sneeze (or wheeze) at.

Most people will deal just fine with the elevation gain and direct a dismissive snort at anyone who might succumb to even the first stages of acute altitude sickness (nausea, headache, dizziness) at such piddling heights.

OK, so go ahead and snort at me.

After completing the gorgeous 11-mile trek – including a hand-by-foot mountain summit – from Barker Pass to Twin Peaks along the Pacific Crest and Tahoe Rim trails, I found myself back at the trailhead, hands on knees, trying to make it to the pit toilet to get sick but settling instead on some scruffy tobacco brush.

Half an hour later, I felt well enough to reach the car.

I know. Too much information.

But I share my shame in hopes others might learn from my experience. First, I cannot be entirely certain that my nausea was from altitude sickness or simple dehydration – or, possibly, a combination. It was hot for Tahoe (80 degrees) on the day I ran and, though I carried 40 ounces of electrolyte replacement drink with me, I drank only 25 ounces.

Another factor: I ran.

I did not run fast, but a nine- to 11-minute high-altitude pace on a trail that features 1,228 feet in elevation gain over 5.5 miles (one way) can tax the system of a budding geezer with a desk job.

It would have been wiser (and certainly less effort) to hike the distance, but who can deny a guy his right to foolish pastimes? Plus, the great thing about running a trail is, you can cover more ground in a shorter period while still going slow enough to soak in Tahoe's famous sights.

All of this is to say that you might want to keep altitude in mind whether you are going for a Tahoe Rim Trail speed record or just taking a leisurely stroll.

Sickness can happen. Researchers at the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine report that 20 percent to 30 percent of people will experience altitude sickness at 7,000 feet. That number rises to 50 percent at 10,000 feet.

Even if you don't experience nausea or headache, high altitude can negatively affect performance. Exercise physiologist and coach Jack Daniels has found that non-acclimated runners lose as much as 15 percent of their VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake) above 7,500 feet. University of Montreal researchers found that elite marathoners lose 10 minutes when races are held above 7,500 feet.

But we're not talking elite training here. We just wanted to get in a nice trail run without losing our lunch.

Expert advice? They say to ascend gradually, drink more fluids than usual because of a higher rate of absorption and, if feasible, acclimate to the elevation for at least 24 hours before starting the trek.

None of which, of course, I did.

You, however, will read this and take all necessary precautions before embarking on a trek that affords memorable views, takes you through meadows and pine forests, follows scree-covered ridgelines that seem like the world's end and, as a payoff, a three-tenths of a mile climb to the east summit of the peaks.

Barker Pass is one of the more accessible trails during prime Tahoe trekking season – roughly June through October. You drive seven miles on a winding road (starting 4.3 miles south of Tahoe City), the last half- mile being a dirt road. The parking lot is mere steps from the signed trailhead. You literally can get out of your car and go.

One beguiling feature of the trail is its diversity of flora.

That's evident in the first mile, as you make your way around the slopes of Barker Peak. You start amid a grove of pines, then quickly climb to a field of mule's ear – a sea of floppy green leaves waving at you in a light breeze. Adding dabs of color are yellow of the mule's ear flower and the purple shoots of silver bush lupine, which apparently can grow in the least-enriched soil anywhere.

After leaving the mule's ear, you will cross a logging road. Stay straight through some more pines. After a stream crossing, look east at the expanse of Blackwood Canyon below you. It's the first inkling of just how high above the lake you've traveled.

At this point, you hit your first batch of scree – the granite slabs that tumble down from on high and settle on the ridges. Get used to traversing it, slowly, with measured footsteps lest you turn an ankle, because you're going to be seeing a lot of scree.

The first true vantage point comes at 1.5 miles, when you've finally leveled off from that first climb (about 900 feet). It's near a large wooden post in a saddle between the scree you just passed and a jutting, volcanic-looking rock to your right. If you take the side trail up and around the rock, you can get an even better view of Lake Tahoe below.

Once you retrace your steps and are back on the main (Pacific Coast) trail, you now enjoy a 1.7-mile descent down switchbacks that puts you temporarily below 8,000 feet. There are several stream crossings in which to splash about and enough granite slabs to make you fantasize you're working on a rock pile as part of a chain gang.

The descent is a welcome respite, a way to regroup and recharge for what promises to be the second-toughest part of the trek. It's a 2.4-mile ascent via switchbacks. I was told there are six switchbacks to traverse, but, frankly, I lost count.

Offsetting the aerobic challenge of the ascent are the views from the trail, which include more azure sights of the lake. It helps, too, that you weave in and out of stands of pines, which afford blessed shade from the exposed ridge.

When the scree changes to loamy soil at about 4.5 miles, you know you've conquered the switchbacks. Another mild surprise: snow along the trail, yes, in July. Remember, you're at 8,400 feet.

The best part of the run comes next. It's a short, too short, flat trek across the signed boundary for the Granite Chief Wilderness. This is a place to pause – and not just to catch your breath. To your right is your first clear sighting of the Twin Peaks; to the left is the vast expanse of the wilderness below.

At 4.8 miles, you reach the first trail junction. The sign makes it clear: Either go straight on the Pacific Crest Trail or right on the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Tempted as you might be to stay on the PCT (because it looks flatter), make the right through another patch of mule's ear and go uphill (yes, another rise) on the TRT.

A half-mile later, after slip-sliding through more scree, you reach the second trail junction. This one is unsigned but unmistakable. After crossing two large trees that serve as sentinels, make a sharp left at the three-foot boulder and follow a barely detectable trail going up to first a meadow and later the summit. (If you keep going straight at this unsigned junction, you'll soon be descending on switchbacks on the TRT, and you'll know you're on the wrong path.)

Actually, the trail soon peters out after one-tenth of a mile through scruffy tobacco brush. From there, you are no longer running or even walking briskly. You are climbing over large, sharp boulders, step by step, hand by foot, to the 8,887-foot summit.

Your reward is a 360- degree view most never get to see – Lake Tahoe, the Desolation Wilderness, miles of meadows.

Easing your way back down, you console yourself with the knowledge that there's more downhill than uphill on the five-mile return trip. But the sun seems to burn brighter, the scree seems sharper, the roots more apt to trip you up on the return.

You drink in the views once more, but maybe forget to drink enough fluids. Still, you couldn't have predicted the bout of nausea that will greet you at the finish. But by the time you're back on Interstate 80 at, say, Auburn, where a roadside sign reads "Elevation: 1,000 feet," you're feeling hale and ready for a return trip to the mountain top.

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