Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe by Albert Bierstadt

Before I left for Lake Tahoe, I read that Mark Twain once wrote To obtain the air angels breathe, you must go to Tahoe. Until the first moment I set eyes on the Lake myself, I thought that maybe Twain spent part of his career supplementing his income with freelance gigs writing copy for tourism brochures. Who knew America's most famous humorist was also a romantic? The short of it is that Twain couldn't have been more precise. He said it perfectly when he continued on and described Tahoe as the fairest picture the whole earth affords.

Kunal and I arrived in Sacramento a few hours late after our flight made an unexpected stop in Salt Lake City because strong headwinds forced the plane to burn more fuel than usual. At 2am we begain our drive from Sacramento, a place as flat as Indiana, quickly upwards through the Sierra mountains. Every 10 miles, a new sign would crop up letting us know that we had climbed another 1,000 feet. Kunal dozed in and out as I weaved back and forth on roads snaking towards Nevada. I called my friend Paul, who, with another friend named Mirza, would be joining us the next day. Paul was in New York, where it was 7am, shaving and about to leave for his banking job downtown. I told him two things. One, that I had been stunned when I curved sharply around a bend to come face to face with the tallest, whitest mountain that I have ever seen in person, reflecting the fullest, biggest moon. And, that, two, I had forgotten what the sky looked like -- with its constellations, deep purple gradients, and all. I think he knew what I meant because he's lived in the City just as long as me.

We pulled into South Lake Tahoe, a tourist town straddling the California and Nevada border, which, despite its few high-rise casinos, manages to feel quaint. Much too early to check into our motel, I parked behind Harrah's and crawled into the back of our rental SUV. Kunal woke me up just before 9. We got sorted, took bites of granola and beef jerky, and walked to Heavenly's gondola. This would be my first time snowboarding on a West coast mountain. It felt huge, and wild, and intimidating! But, at the top, all of my apprehension churned into adrenaline. The sight of the lake below an expanse of poplar trees, perfect in their palette of rich brown bark, green pine, and snow-covered branches, was just overwhelming.

Unlike any place I have ever been in the East, the entire park was open, meaning you didn't have to stick to the trails. On our first run, Kunal and I took the 'Sky Trail' which was a slightly sloping path along the top edge of the mountain. Once, a few skiers ahead turned sharply left and just went overboard! Over the edge, down the sharp slope into the ungroomed forest. I didn't know you could just do that! "Holy Shit! This is great," I shouted to Kunal, drunk with thoughts of independence, like an excited 15-year-old who just earned his driver's permit and is sitting behind the wheel of his mom's minivan.

We spent the next three days ignoring trails, obsessed instead with the glades and backcountry, spending hours overworking our then hot and elastic bodies, carving through piles and piles of untouched powder laid out for us. We also fell quite a bit, too.

Paul and Mirza missed a day because both of their flights had been delayed or cancelled for the same heavy-wind issue that slowed our plane. They drove in with Paul's friend Patrick, a grad student at UC Davis near Sacramento, who also went to Wake Forest and is an excellent snowboarder. I was eager for them to arrive because the chemistry of the five us let loose amongst the snow and casinos and beer and girls would be a feat of friendship! Or just simply sinful to our delight. But, besides a few nights of Texas Hold 'Em and a case of Keystone Ice, we were tame, too tired and aching from the mountain -- and for Paul and me, because he got to town a day late, we only had one night left to take the challenge we posed ourselves: To sleep up on the mountain in a shelter we build ourselves.

Many weeks before the weekend, Paul and I planned to reserve a cheap room and use the money saved to buy equipment for serious winter camping. Most importantly, we both invested in an ultra-light, ultra-warm sleeping bag that would allow us to sleep outside without much other shelter.

On Paul's final full day, we stuffed our packs light, with only our sleeping bags, a canister of fuel, a burner, cookset, shovel, change of socks, handwarmers, headlamp, dry soup and oatmeal. We took the gondola up from the village (Elev: 6,000ft) to the base at (Elev: ~10,000ft), stashed our packs in lockers, and rode our snowboards for a full day with Kunal, Mirza, and Patrick. At 3pm, after 6 hours of riding, we walked back to the gondola, grabbed our packs, and explained the plan to our buddies. We would hike into the forest, out-of-bounds, to spend the night. They would return the next morning at 9am, at the top of the gondola, to meet us. If we weren't there, they should assume something went wrong and get help. They told us we were crazy, and made sure we knew just how much better a burrito and warm motel bed would be instead.

The gondola is the only reasonable way to get up and down the mountain. At 4:30pm, it shuts down, and the mountain is then not only dark and empty, but also filled with so much quiet, its deafening. It felt like my ears were so unaccustomed to the nothingness that they just rang out out of boredom, or fear that they were being replaced by a far more useful sense.

With no clear exit plan in case of an emergency, Paul and I determined that our only options would be to hike down the mountainside, or break into the gondola office and call for help. I am still unsure whether it was justified confidence or just foolishness, but were we comfortable with the conditions and decided to continue.

With less than two hours of daylight, we reached a small clearing with a fallen tree where we would build our shelter. Because the snow was over 10ft deep, we had decided to dig a pit next to the fallen tree, which we would lean our snowboards against to form braces for a roof of branches and chunks of snow. With only one shovel between the two of us, Paul begain to dig. I first set out to boil some snow to make tea, and in the meantime collect branches for the roof. After an hour, and a few design modifications, our pit had become a cave. With only 90 minutes of fuel remaining and night fast approaching, we moved all of our gear into the shelter and began to prepare dinner. As the sun fell and the cold came, our movements became slower and constricted as we added more layers. We needed something easy to make. We settled on the split pea soup.

As we waited for the snow to melt, to make for our broth, we draped our gloves over the pot lid in a vain attempt to dry them. Over the course of the long day of snowboarding, and then digging in the snow, our pants became damp and our gloves wet, if not already frozen solid. We sat, huddled, in the dark now, staring at the pot, waiting for it to bubble, keeping warm only by the steam that rushed out from underneath the lid and surrounded us for a few moments before it escaped outside.

The soup hit the spot. Rich and creamy and filled with tender cubed carrots.

We dipped little bowls into the simmering pot, and sipped scoop by scoop. It was now only 7pm, so I turned off the burner to save fuel in case we needed it for warmth later in the night. Soon after, we realized that we made too much soup because it got colder faster than we could drink it down. Drips of soup that had boiled over the side were now ever paler green and frozen.

After we finished, I gathered all traces of food, which I placed in the pot to bury in the snow 30 or 40 yards away. This way, I thought, we would be safe from unknown animals that might be attacted to the frosty little peas stuck to the bottom of our bowls. (Once when I went hiking in New Mexico, a guide warned me that even a granola bar wrapper in my pocket would be a enough to entice a bear to maul me in my sleep). I climbed out of the cave, gripping a light between my teeth, and stood up to march off to hide the cookset. And that's all it took -- a few seconds exposed to open air and I was shaking, even with all my layers, socks, and jackets. I scurried to bury the pot, maybe getting 10 yards, not 40, before I was too cold and had to doubleback to the shelter. There, Paul had already unrolled the sleeping bags, and was taking off his boots. I stood, shaking near seizure pace, waiting for Paul to get into his bag so that I could jump down and do the same.

It was only a few minutes before I realized how miserable of a situation we had put ourselves in. Despite being protected from the wind, Paul and I were freezing in our shelter. What's worse was that we had nearly 14 hours left before the gondola would start back up and we could return to the village below. All was not hopeless, though. Our bags were sturdy, but still a challenge to make warm inside despite wet clothes. I tossed my icey gloves aside and covered my hands with an extra pair of wool socks. We zipped ourselves entirely within our bags in hope trap our warm breath inside to create an oven that would hopefully dry us out. We gained a lot of experience through this process. For instance, we learned that no clothes are better than wet clothes. I removed my slighty damp socks, and afterwards my feet felt warm bare in the bag. Paul was forced to take off most but his long-johns before he could get warm.

Most excruciating was that time wouldn't seem to pass. We had nothing to do but lay in the dark and shiver. We continuously dipped above and below tolerable temperatures. I forcefully calmed my breathing and reached a point where I thought I could go to sleep and not fear hypothermia -- and Paul agreed it would be best if we just tried to sleep. It was 8pm.

We spent the next hour shifting positions, feeling our bags, sensing for wet spots, ensuring that we were in the driest position possible. At some point, I began to lose feeling in my feet, which I later realized was not because of cold, but because my double layer of pants was constricting blood flow below my knees, as I bent them to be in the warmest, fetal position. I would have to reach down and massage my feet ever so often through the night.

I don't remember when, but I fell asleep. It was very light -- the kind of sleep you have when you are in the backseat of a car, and your eyes are open just long enough to know you are still moving, but not long enough to know where you are or how far you've gone. A sleep that leaves you more tired with every moment.

I woke up wide-eyed to Paul repeating my name over and over. He was panicking. He was cold and wet, not getting any warmer, and still 12 hours off from any sure warmth or safety. I hadn't been scared until this point, until my friend -- a marathon-runner, whose endurance I admire -- whispered from inside his bag, "I'm getting nervous." At this moment, the options flooded through my delirious head ... Can we get cellphone reception? Could we build a fire? Would rescuers be able to locate us? Would they come with snowmobiles? Can we do this?

"Paul, what's wrong?"

I had never heard Paul like this before -- I know him as well-spoken, collected, strong, and employed on Wall Street. Now, he was confused, and mumbling while trying to describe the factors of his coldness. After one by one, we realized that most importantly he had to pee. Coldness and full bladders don't mix. Heat drains your body works to keep your urine warm. In hindsight, our dialogue seems funny -- but in the context of the situation, it was desperate. A grown man couldn't piece together how to go to the bathroom by himself. Paul had it in his head that he would have to get out of his sleeping bag and go outside. But, that would be disastrous because he would lose all the heat he saved up since he first got into his bag. I had to tell him to unzip his bag just enough to pee out the side onto the wall of the shelter.

Fear is crippling.

The night became calm, Paul became quiet and, now with an empty bladder, warm. For both of us, the stress finally seduced us to fall asleeep and stay asleep until morning. Of course, I stirred frequently to massage my feet and move out of a wet spot, but there was never conscious moment until 8am when Paul laughed with relief, "It's Morning!" I asked him to unzip my bag because I couldn't get my hands free from the tight shape of the bag. Paul did it with speed. He was new. He was as though he had just come out safely at the far end of an hallucinogenic drug trip -- humbled, thankful, and inspired. I recognized him again.

Once Paul had unzipped my bag just enough, I pushed my head through, followed by my hands stroking forward to crawl out. I wiped the frost from my eyes --- and it was! It was morning. The sky was blue. So blue. So great. And the trees stood so tall and white, high above and all around the gaping hole that led down into our subterranean shelter.

It was 8:30, and I was in a hurry to break camp and hike back to the gondola. I didn't want to be late because I thought it would scare our friends into thinking something was wrong. It took a considerable amount of time to work my feet back into my snowboarding boots, which were now frozen stiff. But right after, we rolled things up quickly, retrieved our buried pots, knocked down the shelter, and removed our traces.

Our hike back led to an anticlimactic ending. Our friends weren't there. So we waited. After 30 minutes, unable to reach them by any phone, we descended down the mountain in the gondola. Halfway down, we got a hold of them with Paul's cellphone. They told us they had been waiting for us to call. When we reminded them that they were supposed to meet up on top, in case something went wrong, they said plainly that they didn't remember that part of the plan. They hadn't remembered anything beyond the part about burritos.

At the motel, we found Patrick studying, Kunal booting up for skiing, and Mirza watching The Price is Right and aching with the dull pain of having lost $2500 in one hand after an all-night no-limit poker binge.

We left Tahoe after breakfast at a taqueria. I had three chicken tacos, and Paul a burrito and a beer. The Mexican man at the counter recognized Mirza from the poker room the night before. He told us that Mirza played well. Mirza told us the man left the room before he lost all his money.

Paul posted a couple of pictures: Our shelter in the morning. Me the night before.

During the 17 hours, I made a few video clips which I later put together in chronological order. Unfortunately, it was not possible, or at least I wasn't thinking, to record ourselves during the hellish moments. Still, the before and after moments are interesting. Watch it on Vimeo.
Posted at 8:26 PM.

James McDaniel said...
wow. Spring Break Skiing can't get here soon enough. How cold do you think it ended up getting during the night?
1:38 AM

Tina said...
zach, write a book
2:14 AM

meg said...
Zach, please take note for future sub-zero adventures: take a space blanket! Last summer Mattie and I froze every night in the mountains until we thought to take out our space blankets. We wrapped ourselves up like baked potatoes and went from shivering to literally sweating through the night. It was marvelous. Now I never leave home without one.
2:35 AM

Becky said...
I agree with Tin-man; you should write a book. I love your writing.
2:53 AM

patrick said...
thats incredible!
4:12 AM

Lou said...
That's an amazing story. Really.
6:40 AM

alexandra said...
Zach, what an incredible story! I am so glad you took the time to write it all down ... Never a dull moment in your life.
7:28 AM

Krissi said...
Nice...we used to go winter camping at donut falls, UT. One awkward but vialble option for surviving the freezing night temperatures is to get into the same sleeping bag.
9:59 AM

Brian Balfour said...
Hey Zach, how far out of bounds were you guys?

That was an amazing story. Definitely a "worth it" life experience.

11:23 AM

Nick said...
Das gut! Thanks for sharing - a great lunchtime read.
12:03 PM

Jeff Rubin Jeff Rubin said...
You have many crazy stupid ideas but this was easily the most dangerous
2:17 PM

rebecca said...
great story, it read so smooth, like jazz music- awesome, really!
the powder is pretty sick on the west coast, telluride is right up there with tahoe and whisper is a hike up north but i recommend both if you haven't been there already :)
thanks for sharing, it was very inspiring and i'm glad you're safe!

5:07 PM

Leigh Rowan said...
Zach, hell of a story man, and boy do you write well! Next time you come out here (or want to go to Tahoe) let me know - we have a nice, warm, beautiful house we can stay at (and go camping near) on the north shore. Bravo on the near-death-experience, however. :)
5:32 PM

Pavla! said...
Wow, what an intense, intense recollection. And how easy was it to fall in love with (northern)California?
9:34 PM

Pete said...
"Once when I went hiking in New Mexico, a guide warned me that even a granola bar wrapper in my pocket would be a enough to entice a bear to maul me in my sleep"

Where in New Mexico. Philmont by chance?

9:00 AM

Zach said...
Brian, about 2 or 300 hundred yards out of bounds.

Pete, yep, Philmont. Trail 13.

12:09 PM

sarah said...
Well that is quite a story.
My middle aged self is thinking "That is so stupid, what were youthinking? High Sierras, in the winter, overnight, with almost no equipment in wet clothes?"
Of course my 20 year old self had done almost the same sort of stuff, no sense at all. I have stories to tell, and you have a story to tell and remember for the rest...
Thanks for sharing..

12:18 PM

sarah said...
Oh and here I am last month breathing the air of the angels

12:22 PM

William said...
Are you sure you didn't leave out the part where you guys got naked and huddled together for warmth?
8:51 PM

Justin S. said...
Great trip Zach. I graduated from Luers in '03 and check your blog every once-in-a-while when I have free time. It's good to see someone from the Fort doing well in life.
10:38 AM

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Hi, I'm Zach. I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana and graduated from Wake Forest. After college, I moved to Manhattan to get serious about a company I ran with friends. We sold it to Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp in 2006. I just wrapped up with a project I co-founded called Vimeo and left CV to focus on being a twenty-five year old.

I have another blog called Copy and Taste, where I post about learning to cook.

I live in Brooklyn now.

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