Overnight Trail Running Lake Tahoe – Across Desolation Wilderness

This post comes from Chris Cloyd, a TMS Ambassador and lover of endurance sports. When Chris isn’t training for his next big race or out exploring the Eastern Sierra on foot or bike, he’s managing the Performance Training Center by Julia Mancuso. Watch for more race reports, gear reviews and fun reading from Chris and other Ambassadors of Tahoe Mountain Sports.

As I touched on in “Philosophy and Preparation“, this was to be my most ambitious outing to date: a 29-35 mile run (depending on which map/GPS/hearsay you choose to believe), an overnight at Lake Aloha, a summit of two of the highest peaks in Desolation Wilderness (Mt. Price and Pyramid Peak), and an 18-22 mile run to return to the real world. Per usual, I sat down with my maps (the Lake Tahoe Basin Trail Map and the National Geographic 803) and plotted my days (and night), planning every step before I set out. As a good friend once detailed to me: failure to prepare is preparing to fail.

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Chris Cloyd, Trail Runner.

I chose to set out from the Meeks Bay Trailhead (the northernmost entry point into Desolation Wilderness), and was thrilled with the trail from the outset. The Meeks Bay Trailhead gains you access to the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail – a continuous single track from Meeks Bay to Yosemite National Park. Every bit living up to its billing, the trail was in immaculate condition. At the trailhead, you can procure a day permit into Desolation, but I had to obtain an overnight permit from their website (or I could have gone to the Meeks Bay campground). If I may stand on my pedestal for a moment and preach: obtain a permit before overnighting in Desolation. I’m sure you can avoid getting “caught” (you are meandering through the wilderness, after all), but the funds go to supporting trail stewardship and other amenities that we all enjoy, so swallow the $5. Our support goes a long way toward maintaining and providing access to the Wilderness that we all enjoy.

The Tahoe-Yosemite Trail progresses steeply beginning from close to the trailhead all the way up to Lake Genevieve, gaining almost 1,500 in those initial miles. Lake Genevieve is the first of no less than seven lakes that you’ll encounter in your first eight or so miles, and kicks off a beautiful section of scenic running. Of these lakes, I found Stony Ridge Lake to be the most engaging – I was very tempted to pull off the trail and dive in for a swim. That being said, I was on a mission, and had my sights set for Phipps Peak before I stopping for a break. The running continued along these alpine lakes before starting the ascent to Phipp’s Pass. In my planning, I noted that my first day included two very notable mountain passes – Phipp’s Pass and Dick’s Pass – and was prepared for a slog up a number of single track switchbacks. Although not too steep or unrelenting, Phipp’s Pass is indeed worthy of respect and is sure to sap the leg strength of all who choose to ascend it. Upon reaching the pass proper, it’s a short and quick scramble to the top of Phipp’s Peak, and is well worth the effort. I enjoyed some rest and a sandwich at the summit, and admired the expanse of Desolation in a stunning 360 degrees.

“I geared down and buried myself for what seemed like an hour – it was indeed much less, but time has teeth under such scenarios”

Continuing on, I was treated to a blissful descent from Phipp’s Pass toward Middle Velma Lake. I enjoyed this section of running very much, and found a comfortable tempo that helped quiet the mind and brought considerable joy. I chose to stay on the Pacific Crest Trail in order to catch a glimpse of Fontanillis Lake, and that decision was validated in spades. My overnight destination on this day wins the award for my “favorite” lake on this route, but Fontanillis Lake is gorgeous and has a very unique alpine feel to it, framed defiantly by Dick’s Peak and its equally proud neighbors. I stopped here to filter some water and take in the ambiance, gearing up for the next push. Fontanillis has earned an earmark for a future overnight destination, for sure.

Fontanillis precedes the second big climb of the day, Dick’s Lake to Dick’s Pass. Perhaps it was my tempo (maybe a bit too full of ambition for my legs to accommodate), or perhaps it was the miles themselves that preceded it, but this climb hurt my feelings. I geared down and buried myself for what seemed like an hour – it was indeed much less, but time has teeth under such scenarios – and with much labor and more than a little self-deprecation I took the pass with much relief. As though it was placed there with intention, a perfect sitting-stone is perched at the Pass and it concedes a spectacular panorama of much of the Wilderness.

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Chris didn’t take this photo of Desolation. His editor had to pull it from a free image site after accidentally using the original in Round 1.

Descending from Dick’s Pass requires technical running, and was a true test of my reflexes this deep into the day. Cascading down toward Gilmore Lake, I was treated to glimpses of Mt. Tallac and my day’s destination of Lake Aloha, and my spirits were buoyed. Nerves and light were fading, and a reassurance that I was nearing my “finish line” for the day was greatly appreciated. 

A right turn took me toward Susie Lake, and it was at this time that my daylight officially conceded its fight. I blame myself – I should have never started so late in the day, but logistics prevented this and I pushed on with my plan despite the late start. This was far from ideal, but I had faith in my skills should night fall and thought, at worst, I would use my headlamp and speed-hike to the best of my ability. To my surprise, my less-than-stellar decision making brought great reward. Saturday evening carried an early full moon, and I hardly noticed night had fallen when it did. I refrained from using my headlamp. The moonlight supported steady running, and I didn’t even take note of a decrease in pace. If anything, I sped up. The low light added a sense of speed (our perception of speed is directly linked to our ability to coordinate distance to stationary objects, which is largely dictated by ambient light/sunlight), and supported some of my most memorable running to date. I don’t think I would have put myself in this situation given the choice, but therein lies the appeal of adventures such as these. This time, my sense of exploration was rewarded.

Running alongside Heather Lake was technical, and harrowing in the moonlight. A few hundred feet past Heather Lake’s northwest shoreline, I had made it: Lake Aloha stretched before me, sparkling in the moonlight. I stopped to filter water and breathe it all in; my legs thanked me for the reprieve. A view like the one I found here is best earned, in my opinion, and I made sure to drink in every detail. I rushed nothing, and found real serenity.

I chose to follow the trail toward Mosquito Pass in search of an enclave of trees to support my hammock, and found a perfect option just up the trail with a view of the entire lake. Without hesitation, I committed to my overnight destination and set up camp. Once my hammock was set up and I had changed into my warmer layers, I sat and enjoyed some trail mix, jerky, and my hard-earned view. I stayed up and worked through a great many thoughts in the peace and quiet only the wilderness can provide, and am grateful for the opportunity to do so. It’s so hard to find the time and peace to sincerely think anymore, and this truism is not lost on me; it’s actually one of the most overreaching reasons I find solace in these runs.

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“I rushed nothing, and found real serenity.”

I’ll make no proclamations that sleeping in a hammock is the best sleep you’ll find anywhere, but a deep physical exhaustion and real quietness go a long way. I found surprising recuperative sleep on this night, and woke with the sun feeling rejuvenated and enthused. I enjoyed sunrise from my hammock and marveled at the lake once more before setting out for the mountaintops.

This would be my first attempt to combine scrambling/climbing with distance running, and I was curious to see how my body responded. I chose this specific undertaking, in part, due to the accessibility of these two peaks. Pyramid Peak can be attained, in the summer, by little more than a hands-in-pockets hike and some limited scrambling, and I felt comfortable with these demands even after a big day of running. Fortunately, the descriptions I had found of the approach and its demands proved fairly accurate, and the summit yielded itself without much resistance. The most challenging of the work came after taking the summit ridgeline, in the form of some very committing scrambling with serious exposure to either side. Movements that could have been made without any hesitation in less-demanding environments were trying and taxed my will.

I enjoyed a sandwich at the summit and looked down the ridge in the morning light toward Mt. Price, hoping to confirm that the ridgeline traverse to the day’s second summit was indeed manageable. This seemed to be the case, but I knew at first glance of Pyramid’s summit that the enchainment would be more challenging than expected. Some ridgelines here in the Tahoe Basin are easily runnable (PCT from Sugar Bowl to Squaw, Basin Peak to Castle Peak, etc.), but this ridge was all granite and all scrambling – no running was to be had. Still, it seemed like a better alternative than down climbing to the intermediate shelf below, traversing to Mt. Price, and climbing back up. Whether or not I made the right decision to stay on the ridge is debatable, but that decision indeed cost me almost double the time I anticipated when I planned this day. Moreover, it cost me significantly more energy than I had anticipated, which surely cost me later in the day. Lessons learned.

After an hour and a half of scrambling across the knife-edge granite rocks that defined the ridge, I arrived at Mt. Price’s summit. Success! I completed my goal of enchaining these two summits, and was thrilled with my accomplishment. Never before had I challenged myself like this, and I was elated to find that my body and mind were up to the task. I took the time to take a photo of the view, in hopes of bringing home a tangible reminder of my accomplishment:

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Does this summit shot look familiar? Well then, thanks for reading the last post! Once again, the silly editor admits fault ;)

Down-climbing from Mt. Price (like the ridgeline traverse) was significantly more demanding than I had anticipated. A maze of granite steps benched down from the summit to Mosquito Pass, and the progress was slow. With much effort I reached a small snow-melt pool just shy of the pass, and stopped to rest my head and filter some water before finally starting the day’s running. A few more minutes of trotting/rock-hopping brought me to the Pass, and I was back on the trail.

My maps led me to believe it was about 5.5 miles from Mosquito Pass to Camper Flat, but I will swear many times over that it was closer to eight. Maybe I was tired (yes), maybe I was at a glycogen deficit from the demanding climbing/scrambling (without a doubt), and maybe my ambition had outstripped my body’s capabilities (probably), but this section of running was as trying mentally as any run I can remember. I refused to believe that the trail could be so interminable, and I couldn’t comprehend how it was taking so long. My muscles cried in revolt with every step, and technical trail sections and creek crossings tested my reflexes and skills to the breaking point. Arriving at Camper Flat was a bittersweet moment – as I rested and drank I couldn’t help but notice the climbing that lie ahead on the Velma Lakes Trail toward Middle Velma Lake. My legs couldn’t comprehend that the trail possibly continued to pitch uphill. I steadied myself and, after a deep breath, began the trek. With my body and mind failing me, this section of trail proved no less challenging than its predecessor. The Velma Lakes Trail from Camper Flat to the PCT is a barely-marked collection of granite twists and turns, framed intermittently with makeshift cairns. At this point in my trip, my mind was not tuned in to the demands of this trail, and I lost the route on a number of occasions. My pace slowed to a shuffle and I second-guessed many of the turns on my way up to the lake. With much effort, I crested the climb and reached the PCT. I refused to stop here, as I wasn’t sure I had the resolve to restart. Desperation alone willed me forward. Desperation, and an ace up my sleeve.

When I was plotting this excursion, I recognized that my own ambition and my body’s limitations may not fall in line. The Wilderness leaves little room for error, and that makes for a challenging dynamic when trip-planning. Fortunately for me, my girlfriend Coral likes hiking. She volunteered to hike out to Fontanillis Lake with our friend Tim, and I knew if I could just reach her (and the sandwich she had promised to pack out to the lake) my spirits would lift and my struggle would be over. A walk through the woods defeated is an interminable and terrible fate, but a hike with friends or one’s significant other at a comfortable walking pace is a lovely afternoon, indeed. Without her (and Tim) I would have been resigned to a lonely and very slow five miles or more from Middle Velma to the Bayview trailhead (my planned destination). With them, I would be treated to a stroll in good company and real food. After pushing myself halfway down the shoreline of Fontanillis Lake, I came across them both. Elation overcame me – my work was behind me. We exchanged pleasantries, I embraced Coral, and we sat on the shores to enjoy a real lunch and a swim. My body forbade me from much more activity than a dip in the water, but the cold temperature and cleansing sensation changed my mindset completely. We dried off and began a very pleasant hike back to the trailhead. A few hills (Tim, you said it was all downhill from the Lake!) and a chance hailstorm did their best to dissuade us, but we made it back with hardly a complaint and in grand style. Celebration was had in the form of coffee and hot chocolate, and all was well.

The Lesson: Find someone who loves you very much, and send them into the woods with sandwiches. Just in case.

 

 

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