Tamarack Trail … Testing My Fears

Tamarack Trail Hiking South Lake Tahoe California Fallen Leaf

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Over the past month, the love of my life and I have begun training for the upcoming ski season. One of the goals we’ve set for ourselves is to get 10,000 vertical feet of climbing a week. While you would think that would be easy, most trails near town in South Lake Tahoe aren’t that steep. Trying to find one that climbs over 2,000 vertical feet in less than 3 miles is difficult. Little did I know, the one we picked last weekend would test my fears to the core yet again.

Path Is Chosen – Tamarack Trail

Tamarack Trail Hiking South Lake Tahoe California Fallen Leaf
The hidden sign 100 yards from the roadway

After going through a massive amount of books and perusing Alltrails.com, we settled on the Tamarack Trail near Fallen Leaf. Based on the reviews, it seemed challenging but doable. We had to be at the TEDx South Lake Tahoe event later that afternoon so we only had a few hours to kill. With our plan set, we headed out. Pulling up to the Glen Alpine Trailhead, we swung our packs over our shoulders and walked up to the trailhead map. While looking over the atlas, a volunteer forest service guide greeted us with a big howdy.

Slippery Rocks? Scrambling?

We told him we were looking for the Tamarack trailhead. With a big grin he responded, “Oh boy, that’s a doozy. We don’t maintain it, lots of scrambling, slippery rocks and most of all, there isn’t a formal trailhead marker. Oh yeah, I couldn’t even make it a ½ mile up because it’s so steep. Let me show you the trailhead because you won’t really find it on your own.”

The “TREE” Marks The Spot

Gingerly walking back down the road for about a quarter mile, he suddenly stops and points over to the left. “You see that fallen tree?” We nod. “That’s the only way you can tell that’s the entrance. It points across the road to it.” He wished us the best of luck and left. Standing there for a moment, we looked at each other wondering if this was still a good idea.

Jungles, Machetes & Rolling Stones

Tamarack Trail Hiking South Lake Tahoe California Fallen LeafBeing beginner hikers, this sounded a little above our heads. We made the decision that if it got a bit too hairy for our blood, we’d turn around immediately. Taking it slowly, we began our ascent through the wooded groves. The smell of fresh pine air and silence of nature was invigorating. After a few switchbacks, the vegetation transformed into a deep canopy of neon green foliage. The sinewy path became tighter and steeper. It was barely wide enough for one person. Lifting ourselves up large stones and grabbing onto roots, we felt like we were in the movie “Romancing the Stone”.

Hall Of The Gods!

Emerging out of the deep jungle-like flora, we’re greeted with the classic alpine environment. Large manzanita bushes, sagebrush, a dash of tall evergreens and of course large granite boulders. The warmth of the sunshine feels good on our faces as we look to the famous backcountry line called “Hall of the Gods” on Angora Peak. Considered by many as one of the crown jewels of backcountry lines in Tahoe, the thin couloir looks even more intimidating in the fall without its white winter coat.

Suddenly Big Blue Shows Up

Tamarack Trail Hiking South Lake Tahoe California Fallen Leaf
Lake Tahoe in the distance

Slowly slogging our way up the tight switchback path, we decided to stop and look around. There in front of us is “Big Blue”. Lake Tahoe looks even bigger from this height. It makes us pause for a moment and survey the scene. No man-made structures, no traffic noise and not a single hiker seen for hours. Pure serenity from today’s modern hustle & bustle. We continue onward and upward.

Acrophobia Sets In

Tamarack Trail Hiking South Lake Tahoe California Fallen Leaf
Cliff band in the distance

Growing up in the flatlands of the Midwest, the only thing that really tested my fears was of the man-made kind… tall structures in downtown Chicago. It wasn’t until our hike up Tallac for spring skiing did I realize how acrophobic I was. My fear of heights was real and strong. And here I was yet again making mountains out of molehills. My knees locked, my mind froze and most of all I stopped breathing. To my right was a cliff-face maybe 15 feet tall but looked more like 150 feet in my head. Jaime looked me in the eyes and calmly talks me through the segment. Frustrated and my confidence shattered, we checked our watches and noticed we had run out of time.

Everyone Faces Fears… It’s How You Handle Them

Mad at myself and feeling stupid, we carefully descended back down to the car. I felt crestfallen. Negative thoughts flooded my brain. “Why am I the only one that has these issues? Why can’t I just conquer it and move on with my life?”

Later that night at the TEDx event, I had an epiphany. There stood Emily Harrington speaking about fear… specifically about the fear of heights. Here was a true pioneer in the sport of rock climbing. She had climbed an infinite number of difficult rock faces and yet she had moments and still does of being terrified. My jaw dropped. Her words slammed into my soul like a jackhammer. “You are afraid because you’re human provided you give it purpose.” I stood back for a moment and absorbed those words. With a massive lump growing in my throat, I look over to Jaime and say, “We need to go back and finish that climb.”

What’s your fear?

3 thoughts on “Tamarack Trail … Testing My Fears

  1. Just came down Tamarack Trail from Lake Aloha today – unsuspecting, as we randomly picked a loop from a map without having read a description of it… Actually at Aloha, we chatted to a local who didn’t know about the loop and decided to take the same way down as us.

    Having just found my breath again, I’d like to tell you that there’s NOTHING to be ashamed of on that trail when it comes to fear. I’m Swiss and I’ve hiked extensively in the Alps and a bit in the Himalayas and Andes, and that Tarmack Trail was some crazy stuff. We went down the 3 miles of it, late in the afternoon, hoping it would stop soon. Between the sheer drops, the disappearing trail-con-canopy and the slippery “creek-trail” falling down the almost vertical rock face, the fear was real!

    When we finally made it to the bottom, the local we had met earlier was waiting for us, with ice and a compression bandage on his knee from a bad fall down the trail. He said that in his 30 years of hiking in the High Sierra, coming down the Tamarack Trail was single-handedly the sketchiest and scariest one he’s ever done.

    So it’s not you – it’s the Trail! It’s an amazingly technical and jaw-dropping trail, but it’s also sketchy as hell. Why not pick something nice next time so you’re not put off hiking for life? ? For example from the fallen leaf parking, hike up the main trail all the way to Aloha via Suzie and Helen lakes – and back the same way. 3 lakes, spectacular views, zero fear ? I wish we had stuck to that today!

    1. Wow! Well, thank you for sharing your story. It really highlights just how serious this trail is. I’m definitely going to try to conquer it sooner rather than later but it might have to wait until next summer.

    2. I fid that hike a couple of times, some years ago, and always enjoyed it. I have a healthy respect for heights also, but don’t remember any super scary parts. My biggest fear was not being able to find my way back down! That being said, it’s been probably 15 years since I was last up there, do maybe the trail is in worse shape than last time I was there.

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