LAKE TAHOE -- Hypoxic but happy, I ascended the final jagged rock-strewn ridge and, at last, stood atop Mount Tallac.
Time to drink in the views -- and goodly amounts of water.
As I unsheathed my smartphone and started snapping photos -- the shimmering, cobalt-blue splendor of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake, enhanced by vast stretches of coniferous forest, to the east; the sheer granite starkness of the Desolation Wilderness to the southwest -- I noticed two shadowy figures on an outcropping about 50 feet below.
It was a young man followed by an older one. They hopped from rock to jagged rock, waving and saying something inaudible. So much for being alone with my thoughts. But when they got close, I learned what they wanted.
"Hey," the younger one said, "can you take a picture of us, and we'll take one of you?"
Turns out, father and son Mike and Nicholas Vranes, from Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, respectively, had been waiting for another soul to summit so they could get their iPhone moment. They were smart and set off early, before the cloudless Tahoe sun reached full potency.
Down the mountain, other groups were tramping along moraine ridges, up granite-studded switchbacks, through brief bursts of forests abutting two small lakes, and over a headwall covered with quadriceps-crippling volcanic rock.
"I googled 'best trails in Tahoe' and this came up," Nicholas said.
What pops up are facts that leave you wanting both to climb Tallac and shy away.
Tallac isn't the highest peak in the area (Freel Peak is at 10,881 feet), but it is the highest peak rising from the shoreline. And it's the peak most Tahoe tourists first see in town.
"It was right," Mike added. "It's not easy, but it's just beautiful up here. Turn and look behind you."
The three of us had been transfixed by the big, blue expanse of Lake Tahoe. Doing a 180, we were struck by the moonscape of granite that is Desolation Wilderness, a view so encompassing we could see clear to Lake Aloha. You go from a palette of blues and greens to gray with mere daubs of blue.
"You've got those two contrasts and that's what's really impressive," Nicholas said.
Another great thing about ascending Mount Tallac is that you need no mountaineering skills. You need to be fit and not averse to climbing, no question. But it can be accomplished by most in time to grab a late lunch in town.
Those not living at a high altitude will need to prepare. The trailhead is at 6,440 feet. By Mile 2, it's 7,200, and 9,100 by Mile 4. So though the trek is only 9.5 miles, bring twice as much water as you think you'll need.
After signing in at the trailhead kiosk for a day pass, you start pleasantly enough along an old road partially shaded by Jeffrey pine and white fir trees.
A half mile in, the terrain changes and you climb a glacier-formed ridge that overlooks Fallen Leaf Lake. This is a prime sightseeing area, with unobstructed views of the lake and glimpses of Mount Tallac's jagged peaks through the trees on the right.
You shortly pass a more modest body of water -- Floating Island Lake. Less than a mile farther on you hit Cathedral Lake. The trail wends around the shore through shaded conifers. The trail gets rockier from here and at one point is one with the creek bed.
You need to save your energy because the headwall of the Cathedral Basin awaits. About a mile, it is arguably the toughest climb with its swooping switchbacks and scree slowing you.
You can catch your breath -- a little -- in a meadow sprinkled with wildflowers.
It's a steady, but not especially steep, climb to the junction with the Gilmore Lake Trail. Next are scores of jagged metamorphic rock until the peak. But it's just two-tenths of a mile, so you can put up with the trail petering out.
Linger a while at the summit, drink in those incredible views. Contemplate the meaning of life, but try not to contemplate that you now have to retrace your steps down the ankle-twisting path. Mount Tallac can be good for your soul, if not your soles.
Take a hike
MOUNT TALLAC, LAKE TAHOE
Directions from Fresno: Take Highway 99 north to Highway 50 east to South Lake Tahoe. Veer left onto Highway 89 north. Go 3.9 miles and turn left at a sign for the Mount Tallac Trailhead. (The turnoff for Baldwin Beach is on the right.) Go 1.1 miles to the trailhead.
Parking: Free at trailhead.
Distance: 9.5 miles
Elevation: 6,440 at trailhead, 9,735 at summit