Getting a Grip on the Tahoe Rim Trail by Suzanne Roberts

View from Dick's Pass

View from Dick’s Pass

Like too many young women, my standards for dating in my twenties were not exceptionally high. I wanted a date who could ski and hike and who liked my naughty husky-wolf dog Dylan. That’s about it. I dated men with no job and no aspirations for one. I dated men missing teeth, men who were stoned every waking hour. So when I met Jack, I thought I’d hit the dating lottery. He liked to hike and ski; he loved my dog Dylan even after he ate one of his ski boots. He even worked both summer and winter jobs—building hiking trails and teaching skiing.

But.

Jack had a speech impediment that made him sound stoned. Finally one of our friends asked him about it, and Jack said, “Once when I was working on an Indian Reservation digging a water line, I took peyote every day for six weeks. It sorta messed with my speech.”

Jack and I lived together in a single-wide trailer in Edwards, Colorado with our dogs and a roommate I peed in a bag for so he could pass his drug test and get a job. I worked during the day teaching toddlers how to ski and at night serving cocktails in a sports bar called Champions—a life every bit as glamorous as it sounds.

But.

Jack and I liked to ski and hike together, which is a lot if you think about it. We liked to go to a fancy restaurant in Vail, where we would order the onion soup with extra bread and share a glass of wine because that’s what we could afford. It didn’t occur to me to want anything more, not even my own glass of syrah.

I will tell you when that changed.

My college friend Jason invited us to hike in Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness. We travelled from Colorado to California to meet Jason and go backpacking—the plan was to hike from Emerald Bay to Echo Lakes, along the Tahoe Rim Trail.

After camping at Middle Velma Lake and then Dick’s Lake, we planned to camp one more night on the other side of Dick’s Pass at either Aloha Lakes or Lake of the Woods. When we reached the top of Dick’s Pass, the landscape unfolded before us, with dark blue lakes scattered across the granite. The mountains notched the sky, and we could see all the way to Carson Pass and beyond. As we started down, Jason noticed a faint trail up Dick’s Peak. “How about we drop our packs here and climb the peak?” he asked.

I felt a little nervous because of the snow, but Jason said, “We’ll follow the rocks on the ridgeline. We can mostly avoid the snow that way.”

We dropped our packs, pulling out water, the food we had left, and our rain gear—you never know what will happen in the Sierra—to bring with us, and then started up the boulders. Jason went first, testing each rock for stability, calling to Jack and me if anything seemed wonky. Though climbing up the ridge proved slow going, we reached the peak in about an hour. After admiring the view—one that stretched across the whole of Desolation wilderness—and taking pictures, we decided we’d better head down because clouds were building on the horizon.

Velma Lake at Dusk

Velma Lake at Dusk

But.

“Hiking the ridgeline was too slow,” Jack told us. “Way too slow. Let’s go down the rocks here.” He pointed to the north side.

“But there’s snow,” I said. “And lots of it.”

“We should stick to the rocks on this side,” Jason said, pointing the ridge we had just hiked up.

“I’m going to slide down,” Jack said. “It’ll be way faster. And fun.”

“I wouldn’t,” Jason said.

“It’s really steep,” I added. “And it looks icy.”

“It’ll be fun. You’ll see and then you’ll wanna do it too.”

Even though we were hiking in July, the winter before received record snow, so a white swath clung to the rocks. The sun-cupped snow field smeared with a light pink algae. It fanned out into a huge pile of sharp boulders. And it was steep, so steep that Dylan whined at the top. Dylan was the type of dog who takes risks, yet he wasn’t stupid—he stuck to the rocks.

“Dylan won’t even step onto the snow,” I said. “It’s probably not such a good idea.” At that time in my life, I often used my dog—a crazed half breed of wolf and husky—as my compass. Strange as it sounds—even to me—it mostly worked.

“It’ll be fine,” Jack said.

“I wouldn’t do it,” said Jason. “The snow is still pretty frozen.” He kicked at the snow with his boot.
“Nah. You’ll see, and then you guys will want to do it,” Jack repeated. Then he pulled his rain gear out of his day pack and put it on so he would slide faster. He crawled sideways onto the snowfield. Dylan whined and stomped his paws, but nothing would stop Jack.

Jack sat on the snow but quickly lost his grip and started sliding sideways down the slope. Dylan barked. And then he howled. Jack fell like a rag doll, his arms and legs thrashing. He gripped at the snow but his flailing body tumbled down. His bare hands left scraped blood on the snow. He screamed as he slid down the icy slope. I stood there watching, with my hands over my mouth. Luckily before Jack crashed into the rocks, he had gotten himself belly down on the snow, feet facing downhill. Otherwise, he probably would have broken his back. He tumbled over the rocks and lay between two boulders. Jason and I made our way down the rocks as quickly as we could, as Jack lay unmoving. I hoped he hadn’t been seriously injured, but I was also mad at him for doing something so stupid. And for ruining our trip.

We finally reached Jack, and he was moaning. Aside from being scraped up and bloody, he had hurt his knee, and Jason, who was studying to be a doctor, thought Jack was going into shock. Jason put his jacket over Jack and raised his legs. I stood there amazed that Jack hadn’t killed himself and that Jason could be so calm and so efficient. I tried to act sympathetic, but once I saw he wasn’t dead or even seriously injured, I felt more angry than concerned.

“Try to walk,” Jason said. “See if you can.”

Finally, Jack could limp a little. I thought one of us should hike out to get help, but Jack insisted on walking out. I imagined the helicopter swooping down to get us. It seemed exciting to me, and I wanted to be rid of him right then and there, but Jack didn’t have health insurance, and we all knew how much a medical evacuation cost.

With Jack staggering along, we headed down the ridgeline. “Why didn’t you tell me not to do that?’ Jack asked me.

“Jason and I both warned you. Even Dylan tried to warn you.”

“But you should have stopped me. Why didn’t you stop me?” he said.

“I’m not your mother, that’s why.”

But.

To get back to the ridge, we had to re-cross a snow patch, which now after witnessing Jack’s snowslide, terrified me. Heights in general tend to terrify me, and the slide exaggerated this fear.

Dicks Pass

Dicks Pass

Because of what happened to Jack, or rather what Jack did, I was doubly afraid of slipping and ending up on the rocks below. Jason went first, kicking out each step carefully, and then Jack, in a daze, somehow made it across. I started, following the steps Jason made. But in the middle of the snow field, I made the mistake of looking down. I dug my fingers into the grainy snow, and I started to cry. Jack was in no shape to come rescue me, and Jason knew that if he came back down across, we would both be in danger. At first, Jason encouraged me, shouting, “Almost there. You can do it!” When he saw that I wasn’t going anywhere, he realized he should perhaps take a different approach. While Jack sat there in a post-traumatic daze, Jason yelled at me: “You need to take one step after the other.” And, “Now would be good.” And then, “Get a grip, Suzanne. Really. You need to.” I wasn’t moving, just crying.

Finally Jason shouted, “Get a fucking grip.” That got me going, and somehow I made it to the rocks and then back down to our packs.

After redistributing the weight so that Jason and I were carrying the majority of Jack’s stuff, we made it down to the closer Gilmore Lake and settled in for the night. “Aren’t you going to sleep in the tent with me?” Jack asked when he saw that I threw my bag down onto Jason’s tarp.

“No,” I said. “I think I’ll sleep out with Jason.”

At this point, I hope that it’s clear that Jason is my gay boyfriend and that “Get a fucking grip” was not a love song. Or maybe it was, but not in the way you might think.

Jack sulked around that night, and the next day, he limped out to the Echo Lakes Ferry, carrying his near-empty pack. We hadn’t originally planned to take the boat the last few miles of our hike, but Jack’s injuries changed that. And other things too.

I hiked ahead, waited, and then when Jack came hobbling down the trail, I would took off again. We hiked past the most stunning scenery yet—past Susie, Heather, and the island-scattered Aloha Lakes—but I was more concerned with getting Jack out. With getting out.

“Are you mad?” Jack asked.

“Not mad,” I said, which was both true and not true. I was done being mad at Jack, but I was mad at myself. Did I think I didn’t deserve someone with common sense? Why hadn’t that made it on the list with the hiking and the skiing and the dog loving? I realized on that long, slow hike out that I ought to add a few other requirements to my short dating list. It wasn’t Jack’s fault that my standards had been so low, that I constantly chose the wrong man rather than just being alone. But with each step, I started listening to myself—a tedious but necessary listening. I’d been stuck—it was both too true and too hard to see.

But.

There is nothing like moving your body across a landscape, a mountainscape, to get unstuck, to figure things out, to get a fucking grip. We would finally make it to the trailhead and return to Colorado, where Jack would need knee surgery. Dylan and I would move out of our trailer, and before moving to the Sierra, I would visit that fancy restaurant in Vail and have my very own glass of syrah.

Author Suzanne Roberts

Author Suzanne Roberts

About Suzanne Roberts

Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poetry, including Three Hours to Burn a Body: Poems on Travel and Plotting Temporality. Suzanne was named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, and her work has been published widely in journals and anthologies, including The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader and Best Women’s Travel Writing 2013. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA program in creative writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information may be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net

This article was sponsored by RailRiders Adventure Clothing, The Toughest Clothes on the Planet. Hikers, backpackers, and professional guides swear by their adventure apparel because it is lightweight, super-tough, fast-drying and ventilated. For more information or to sign up for a free catalog, visit RailRiders.com.

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17 Responses to Getting a Grip on the Tahoe Rim Trail by Suzanne Roberts

  1. Ben Simon May 20, 2013 at 6:02 am #

    Wow, powerful story. Thanks for sharing.

  2. David May 20, 2013 at 7:14 am #

    I sent this to one of my daughters.

  3. Captainmouse May 20, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Took my breath away. (And the pictures were lovely too.)

    • Suzanne Roberts May 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words. The pictures are from my last trip on the TRT, so the dog here is Ely, not Dylan, though they have a similar spirit.

  4. Keith Foskett (Fozzie) May 20, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    Looking for potential partners on the basis of whether they like hiking, ski-ing and your dog is fine in my book, and I don’t even have a dog.
    Great post. We’ve all been there, tethered to the slippery slope, knuckles white as finger tips try and gain purchase and remember, never, ever look down.
    Thanks.

    • Suzanne Roberts May 20, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

      I guess it IS a place to start, but the list, I have learned, should be a bit longer. Thanks for your comments.

  5. Sean May 20, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Yeah, that was intense. Good life lesson.

  6. Tim May 20, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    As always a good job Suzanne. Hey, you made it to the top of Dick’s Peak. This fellow height challenged hiker tends to hang out at Dicks Pass instead. You’ve come a long way:From Jack to a guy that would let you poop in his hat.

  7. Gail Storey May 20, 2013 at 2:56 pm #

    Suzanne! I LOVE your book ALMOST SOMEWHERE–it’s in my study on a special shelf of favorite books I like to be reminded of. You’re a kindred spirit, and I’m especially thrilled to read your post here. You write so well, with a gorgeous mix of adventure and personal detail about the deepening effects of hiking the JMT. Huge congratulations on all your awards and the success your book is having reaching a wide audience. I hope to meet you in person someday, maybe our book tours will cross!

    • Suzanne Roberts May 20, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

      Thanks, Gail. I am so glad you enjoyed Almost Somewhere. I am happy to have found out about your book here and am looking forward to reading it. Here’s to our paths, or trails, crossing soon!

  8. hans honegger May 20, 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    Terrific Suzanne. I appreciate how generous you are in revealing your humanity.
    The common sense requirement is familiar to many of us. White water canoeing is also an excellent partnership test. XOXO HH

  9. Karen Berger May 20, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    Loved the story and the writing — and I swear I’ve been out there with a few of those “it’ll be quicker if we head straight down off the ridge” guys. Also liked revisiting some familiar and beautiful places on/near the PCT But the powerful lesson you learned hit home — I’m a slow learner. It took me a lot longer.

  10. kelly May 23, 2013 at 8:45 pm #

    Your story brought back a few memories that I probably would have preferred not to revive about some of the blokes I have had the dubious pleasure of spending time in the bush with. I guess that if you keep looking long enough you will eventually bump into the right type as I have now and as we keep on travelling the great Australian bush it just gets better and better.

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