When my good friend first invited me for a moonlight hike up Mt. Tallac, I thought she was crazy. Then I realized that I had lived in South Lake Tahoe for over two years and had yet to take on the simple, yet challenging adventure of hiking the local mountain. The invite included a small group of ladies with two dogs, so it couldn’t be that difficult, right?
I agreed to the challenge and we started the climb at the early hour of 2:20 AM. Scheduled on a full moon, the goal was to start early in order to reach the summit by 6:00 AM and watch the sunrise. I assumed Mt. Tallac wasn’t a hard mountain to climb since it’s a popular hike for the locals, but it wasn’t until we headed up that I realized my general fitness from mountain biking wasn’t quite a match for the hiking legs required on this trek.
As we eagerly set out on the single-track path, the bright moon guided our way in between the shadows of trees. It shone down above rocks and crevices and you could see far off into the distance with stars in the sky. I started to take it in, along with a surreal feeling to be trekking in the dark, late at night, when most others were either sleeping or just getting out of the bars.
We were hiking with nothing but our red-light headlamps, light backpacks, two dogs, and our own two feet. We chatted excitedly about what it would look like from the top once the sun came up and unveiled our scenery.
Soon the small pebble path gave way to chunky rock, then jagged rocks, then gaps and hard rock slaps. Lifting each foot over the next reminded me that with every step, the terrain would likely change. After about 1.5 hours or half-way up, the path opened to a large moonlit field of nothing but rock slabs and pieces. You could barely see the path. Following the slight depression of a trail outline amongst winding rock, there was suddenly a large round boulder to our left the size of a VW bug. Sitting on its own among the broken rock field, we took it in with a sense of awe. Not only were we hiking in the middle of the night, but this terrain was so extreme. I felt like we were on another planet.
With legs starting to tire, we continued to make our way up toward the top. Just when I thought we were close, my girlfriend shouted that another mile was left. “Push on,” I told myself, “You got this” as I took a few deep breaths and swigs of water from my pack.
Finally, once we rounded the last tree scattered corner, the path opened up and I could see the top. Rocks upon rocks, they weren’t kidding about the jagged landscape on the crest. The path had all but disappeared, but I saw a few of our group ahead clambering randomly over shale slabs and split rock. I just have to climb up to the top I told myself, “we’re almost there!” And that’s about the time I realized my legs were shot. Not only were the muscles exhausted, but there was a swollen pain in both of my knees.
Using my arms and legs, I hoisted myself through the slabs one by one, picking a path among the random shale, I finally made my way over to my friends at the top. They were already settling in for the sunrise spectacle, “Pick a spot! – here is a flat one”. A few others and a couple were close by, snuggling in a sleeping bag from the frigid wind that had picked up at the top.
“Take a look!” I didn’t even have to turn around and saw an awe-inspiring scene. Standing on the front side of the mountain, you could see the lake stretched out for miles beneath. Split rock slabs stretched from our feet to the edges of the cliff, and an intense orange glow was peeking over the distant range as the sun was starting to rise. Peering over the backside, you could see the moon still hanging high over a small glassy lake surrounded by snow scattered mountain peaks. Surreal was the only term that could come to mind.
Slowly, purples in the sky turned to pinks, then the horizon was hit with intense orange and the sun crested in our view. We sat there in silence as we took in the moment and watched the sunrise above the distant mountain range.
After taking more than a few pictures and adjusting our hiking layers, I heard “...all right, let’s head down!”
“Already?!”, I thought. My legs needed time to recover. But the group was ready and the last thing I wanted was to be the last one left on the top of a mountain, so we started our descent.
As we started down the steep part of the top, we had to grab onto to each chuck of rock slab before jumping down to a gap below. “Ouch!” my knees started to cry out in pain. The impact was rough on my legs, and I started to feel it. Even when the path opened back up to a regular gradient, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about the throbbing pain. It bummed me out as it started to detract from my pleasure of taking in the hike including the now exposed scenery.
After about two miles of trekking, I decided to give up my pride and tell my new hiking partner about my dilemma. As we lagged behind and joked about how much slower we must be, I confided in how my knees were going to explode and how sore my legs and feet felt. To my luck, or perhaps just to make me feel better, she said she felt the same way.
Just about when we were wondering if we lost the crew up ahead, we rounded a corner and came to a small lake hidden within the trees. We took a break to let the dogs jump in the lake and we joked about how slow we were. “You guys OK??” our team lead asked. “Yeah, I’m fine…” I told her, “I’m just in pain.” Then, thankfully, she dug into her bag and handed me a blue and white tube. “Here – this stuff works, rub it on and you’ll be OK”.
“Pain relief gel?” I said reading the bottle, “Like a Bengay?”
“Yeah” she replied, “But without the stink!”
And that’s when I was introduced to Neptune Ice. I rolled up my pants, applied it to the front and back of my knees and all over my legs. I started to feel the cooling sensation kick in soon after, and then we were on our way.
I’m not exactly sure when it happened, but I realized when I was trekking along that I suddenly felt no pain. It just went away. “This stuff is amazing!” I exclaimed. “I can hike now!” followed by delirious laughter and “now just get me down this mountain!”
My hiking partner had used a little as well and was feeling better. Faster than before, we hiked down the rest of the trail in an uneventful parade. Since it was now morning, we started to see a lot more hikers heading up. I was tired, but I still smiled as I considered the accomplishment of the miles behind us.
We landed back at the cars at about 9:30 AM and I realized we had done a total of 7 hours of hiking. That’s a lot of hours and a lot of miles, especially for someone who doesn’t normally hike! And while I know it was the scenery along with the encouragement from my friends that kept me going, I considered that it really was the Neptune Ice that helped. The stuff really does work.
After chatting over giddy delirium about what we were going to eat for breakfast, I took a second to reflect on the experience to myself. While it was a great adventure, with amazing views and a time to remember, I think I’ll likely stick to mountain biking vs. hiking mountains. I learned that high impact action is probably fun for the athletes who are a little more conditioned for it, but if you’re not, there’s always Neptune Ice!