Every January 1, we begin the year by making a resolution with an eye toward self-improvement. Each of us could do a little less of this or a bit more of that, but we rarely stick with it. Several weeks into the new year, we revert to our old ways.
Last January, a group of special people did more than make a resolution; local readers made a commitment that thrilled them a little and scared them a little. On a recent Saturday in July, 68 of your friends and neighbors fulfilled that commitment; they walked a 12 ½-mile round-trip that rose 2,100 feet to the top of Snow Valley Peak—a 9,214-foot summit with sweeping views of Lake Tahoe.
The Snow Valley Peak Challenge was the fifth summer challenge, and this peak was a bit different than prior objectives. The routes to every challenge summit ascends steep and rugged mountain terrain, but as we neared the summits of Clouds Rest, Mount Tallac, Mount Hoffman, and Round Top, the going shifted from hiking along well-marked trails to mountain scrambling. Whether it was the steep slope, the exposure, the sketchy footing or all of the above, it was enough to turn some people back.
That’s not fair. Challengers prepare throughout the winter and spring to reach the peak. They set aside vacation time, reserve accommodations and drive for hours. On the day of the challenge, they walk tough miles up a mountain slope fueled by air lacking 25 percent of the oxygen they are accustomed to breathing. After essentially fulfilling the challenge, the last little bit deprives them of that moment of glory on the summit. It isn’t right.
When I scouted Snow Valley Peak last year, I was delighted to see the trail to the summit was tough, but it was well-marked the entire way—anyone with the will and the strength would stand on the summit.
We gathered on Friday, the day before the challenge, at the visitor center atop Carson Pass on State Highway 88 for a warm-up hike to stretch our legs and breath some of that thin mountain air. From this spot on the Pacific Crest Trail, a day hiker can visit alpine scenery usually reserved for backpackers who have logged many miles. Southbound from the trailhead, the first mile travels through a forest of lodgepole and western white pines before popping out into a high and wide world. Straight ahead, a snowy Round Top rose 2,000 feet above Winnemucca Lake still rimmed with icebergs. To the west, the infinite blue view over Caples Lake marked the beginning of the Sierra’s descent to the Central Valley. Phlox, marsh marigolds, buckwheat, and paintbrush decorated the spaces between snowfields along the trail.
At Spooner Summit on State Highway 50 at the crest of the Carson Range, Saturday morning was beautiful—sunny and bright. The trailhead buzzed with lively chatter and equipment shuffling as people filled daypacks with the supplies they would need for the next six hours. We would need plenty of water since there were no streams along the way. One by one, people set out from the 7,146-foot trailhead toward Snow Valley Peak more than six miles and 2,100 vertical feet away.
The trail climbed gently through cool air and over soft footing; ideal walking to begin a long day. The special landscape of the Tahoe Basin is simply too perfect to be an accident of nature.
Beneath a forest of noticeably robust red fir and Jeffrey pines lay a picture perfect garden accented with granite boulders, manzanita ground cover and chinquapin shrubs that must surely be arranged according to the blueprints of a master gardener.
Hikers know that if the peak is 2,000 feet above the trailhead, there is heartache ahead. Somewhere there is a steep face with 20-some heartbreaking switchbacks. Not here. Steadily, but so slowly that we barely noticed, we rose. The forest began to thin exposing sliver views of Lake Tahoe. Finally, two miles from the top, we popped into a bright world of sagebrush and flowers dotted with a few wind-sculpted pines; the forest’s last gasp. With each step, the view of Lake Tahoe grew wider.
Snow Valley Peak is not a remote wilderness mountain. Antennae and various towers crowd the actual peak, but from a rocky promontory just below, the spectacle equals any in the world. As if through an airplane window, we enjoyed an unobstructed view of the full blue sweep of Lake Tahoe 3,000 feet below. Across the way, lingering snowpack clung to the peaks of the Crystal Range in Desolation Valley including impressive Mount Tallac, our challenge peak two years ago.
A bite to eat; summit photos; excited chatter; lingering and looking. Not a cloud in the sky. A perfect day. Time to head back.
To assure people who hike with me, I proudly proclaim my commitment to returning with at least 80 percent of the people I started with. Thankfully, I exceeded those standards. Sixty-eight came and 68 returned. The reason for tackling a challenge like Snow Valley Peak was written in the faces of all who came along and met the challenge. I salute you all.