Swimming the length of Lake Tahoe remains a rarefied aquatic testpiece

By Seth Lightcap

Photo: Dan Rogers

Tahoe’s Karen Rogers out for a multi-mile swim in glassy Tahoe conditions. Rogers plans on swimming the length of Lake Tahoe in August 2009 after three years of training.

At 6225 feet and holding a colossal 122 million acre feet of sapphire blue water, Lake Tahoe is not only the crown jewel of the Sierra but also the largest alpine lake in North America and the eighth deepest in the world.

While the biggest, tallest, or longest alpine anything usually attracts quest-driven endurance athletes like powder junkies to first chairs, surprisingly few marathon swimmers have swam the 22-mile length of Big Blue. To date, only 12 warm-blooded souls have succeeded, although at least one more has it in her sights this summer.

Understanding why just a dozen swimmers have completed the challenge is a no-brainer for Dean Moser, the unofficial record keeper of Tahoe marathon swimming and crew captain for two successful Tahoe length swimmers. “Swimming the length of Lake Tahoe is akin to climbing Mt. Everest,” he says. “It’s a huge feat.”

“A swimmer can get really beat up by the elements,” adds Moser. “All of the finishers have been very strong swimmers with significant cold water experience. It takes an incredible athlete to overcome the altitude and frigid fresh water for that length of time. That’s why so few people have ever done it.”

The first swimmer to meet the challenge was a 29-year-old South San Francisco bartender named Fred Rogers who took off from Kings Beach on the morning of Aug. 28, 1955, and arrived on the South Shore 19 hours later. However, the distance of his route, measured at 19.96 miles, came up a little short. Though Moser gives credit to Rogers as the first successful swimmer, he no longer considers Rogers’ 19.96-mile route an official Tahoe length swim.

“A full-length Tahoe swim must be between the extreme south and north shores – say Tahoe Keys or Camp Richardson in the south to Incline Beach or Hyatt Beach in the north. The route should be around 21 miles.” The third person to complete the swim (and youngest ever), 13-year-old Lenore Modell, swam nearly that long of a route in 1963. But it was Dave Kenyon who first knocked out the true long course when he swam 20.81 miles from Tahoe Keys to Hyatt Beach in 1989. Blazing the swim in 9 hours and 20 minutes, Kenyon also holds the speed record.

Every successful swimmer has had a boat to accompany them as they swam but most of those who have swum in the last two decades have obeyed the “English Channel rules” of no physical contact with the boat nor any other person aside from receiving food. Having an attentive boat crew feeding him consistent and ample calories was vital for Santa Cruz-based marathon swimmer Bruckner Chase in 2005.

“Swimming in the cold temperatures nutrition is absolutely critical,” Chase says. “During my Tahoe swim I drank 8 ounces of a carbohydrate, protein, and fat mix every 20 minutes and then ate a GU packet at the top of every hour.” Chase battled rough waters for the last third of his swim. His rigorous training was the only thing that kept him churning, he says.

“Having completed several Ironman events I knew what it was like to race for 9 to 10 hours. Aspiring swimmers should log as many as 6-to-9-hour training swims as they can. You need to know the energy costs of long hours in the water and how your body will react to it … And if you can’t tolerate cold water, don’t bother. Not everyone is wired to do high altitude cold-water swimming but I think more people are capable of it than they think. I’m surprised more folks haven’t swam the length. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had in the water – an amazing swim in an amazing place.”

This summer, at least two more brave athletes plan to make an attempt: Lafayette’s Tom Linthicum, 51, hopes to be the first to swim the length twice (he successfully crossed in 2006), while Tahoe’s own Karen Rogers looks to be the sixth ever female finisher. Rogers, 41, has been training for the last three years in anticipation of the attempt and dreams of a glassy day on the lake when she pushes off from Camp Richardson in early August. “The perfect day would be to not battle any chop. My hope is that when I enter the water it is absolutely and perfectly still. Any sound of water lapping on the shore at 3 a.m. will be a sign that the winds will pick up throughout the day.”

Calm waters would be an energy saver for Rogers, but she knows she cannot count on 10 tranquil hours so her immediate training focus has been on increasing her endurance and perfecting her calorie intake. “My feeding regiment is still a work in progress. We’re experimenting with adding protein, fat, and maybe even a little caffeine to the mix. The caffeine would only be for the last hour or two as it can cause hypothermia.”

Every month leading up to her August attempt Rogers will be adding an hour to an epic training swim. In May, she’ll try a seven-hour swim in San Francisco Bay; in June, an eight-hour swim. Rogers hopes the long hours in the water will help her learn to overcome the “swimmer’s depression” that she has fought on previous mega-swims. “During some of my longer swims I’ve gone through periods of serious depression. At about the four or five hour mark I just feel terrible … I get angry. Battling through that anguish and regaining my confidence will be the biggest challenge I will face swimming the length of Tahoe.”

If and when she does stand on Hyatt Beach triumphant, it will fulfill an aspiration much older than even her three years of intense training suggests. “When I was seven years old my dad took me for a bike ride at Camp Richardson. Looking out on the lake I told my father that someday I would swim across. Hearing that, he said to me, ‘There is no doubt in my mind that you’ll do that.’ It’s been on my life list ever since.” To read more about Karen Roger’s preparations for her length of Tahoe swim, visit her blog at swimtahoe.blogspot.com