Steve Andersen adeptly sweeps through the rugged peaks of the Carson Range, leading 17 trail-beaten hikers to their third camp in a series of many.
Andersen is one of two brave leaders on a 164.6 mile trek around the entire Tahoe Rim Trail. Dubbed the “Celebration Hike-Thru,” the 15-day trip will culminate on Saturday, Sept. 22 with a grand opening ribbon-cutting ceremony just below Martis Peak, where the hike began Sept. 8.
After 20 years of volunteer trail building, the hike-thru marks the first organized group completion of the entire loop around the lake – a feat that less than 40 people have accomplished thus far.
The group, which began with 19 strangers, has now narrowed to just 18, thanks to an Achille’s tendon injury on day two that forced the retirement of one hiker.
This was a sobering reminder of the stresses and challenges of hiking a trail that gains and loses more than 32,000 feet of elevation over 164 miles. Split into 15 sections of trail, each day’s hike ranges in length from eight to 15 miles per day.
Stretches of flat, shaded areas give birth to constant chatter along the line of hikers weighed down with their backpacks; jokes and riddles help to make the miles pass effortlessly.
Along an exposed ridge from Spooner Summit to Kingsbury Grade, Bob Bankhead, who is known to the Oregon hiking community as “Wandering Bob” for his habit of missing trail crossings while walking with his head down, demonstrates an unusual backpacking contraption.
Fitted snugly into the back of his pack sits a full-size umbrella, to protect his face and neck from the unforgiving late-day sun.
“Men have hiked through the Sahara Desert with these,” says Wandering Bob. “The added coverage cuts your water consumption in half.”
This statement pricks the ears of every hiker along the ridge, as water is a valuable commodity along the Rim Trail. Drought conditions have dried many water sources along the now-extremely dusty trail, and opportunities to filter natural water only present themselves every third or fourth day.
One such spot, just eight miles from Kingsbury Grade, is Star Lake. Lined with hemlock trees and towering rock sculptures, the alpine lake could be mistaken by parched hikers for a desert mirage.
Camping on a perch just above the icy waters, Patty Robbins attaches a homemade flag to the trees outside of her tent.
A picture of her son, Bryan Paul Richmond, graces the middle above an epitaph that honors his love for the snow and oneness with the mountains.
Richmond was a senior at Tahoe-Truckee High School when he died in a Feb. 21 avalanche with his friend Brendan Allen between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. Her son’s memory travels with Robbins along every inch of the trail.
“The last thing I’m thinking about is how many miles we have gone or how many more we have to go,” says Robbins.
“I’m out here doing what I love for myself and for Bryan.”
Losing count of miles and days is an ailment that every member of the group suffers from, though they do not forget what they have learned about their partners.
For the purposes of eating and sleeping, the large group has been broken down into smaller troops to divide gear and chores along the trail. These associations have become essential to survival, as well as overall well-being after long days of steep climbs.
Each night as the sun slowly retires, dirty figures can be seen hunched over small tin camping pots, waiting in eager anticipation for the evening’s dehydrated special.
As the water slowly boils, 69-year-old Dan Power, a retired contractor from Sunnyvale, Calif., talks about purchasing his home in 1960 for the price of an average mid-sized vehicle today.
He notes the changes in the Sierra over the last 50 years and recounts days on the TRT long before trail signs and maintenance crews.
He pours a precious cup of boiling water for Roberta Martinoni, who is enjoying instant Cream of Chicken soup for the sixth straight day.
Martinoni, known to the group as “Roe,” is a self-described Carson City bureaucrat and weekend river rat, taking on the West’s most ferocious rivers. She is guaranteed to be the first one to light the stove in the morning to wake up with a fresh cup of coffee.
Each day on the trail begins with breakfast of oatmeal or granola, and ends with sore muscles, a new layer of dirt and a head full of stories and sights to share about the miles of paths that make up the Tahoe Rim Trail.
Art Presser, a pharmacist from La Selva Beach, is Steve Andersen’s partner throughout the Sierra. Presser and Andersen were the first two hikers to complete the TRT and are reliving their inaugural trip with each trailhead passed.
Their two-man tent shakes nightly with the laughter of old friends relishing sunrises and sunsets in their favorite spot in the world.
Presser makes his nightly rounds around the campsite, inspecting blisters and assorted ailments before the next day’s hike begins.
Despite one torn muscle, rapidly-decreasing supplies of duct tape and wet wipes (the perfect shower for hikers), overwhelming urges for pizza, sushi and anything not dehydrated, the group continues down the trail.
As mile 164 looms ever closer, dreams of showers and warm beds are mixed with emotions of leaving a group that has become family, and returning to the frantic pace of daily life.
After John Muir spent several summers in the Sierra during the 1800s, he came to the conclusion that “all who live below are sick.”
For 18 hikers along the Tahoe Rim Trail, that statement makes more and more sense with each sunrise and morning spent amongst the sound of birds and carefree laughter.