Myrtle Huddleston's Swim from Deadman’s Point
Most visitors gape in awe at first sight of Lake Tahoe. It takes time for the mind to absorb the sheer size of this magnificent alpine lake. Suspended high in the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe is an aquatic jewel, 22 miles long and 12 miles wide.
In the late 1800s, tourists splashed and played in the Lake’s shallow waters, but no one strayed far from shore. It was commonly believed that the clear, cold water would not support a human body. Indeed, local Washoe Indians pointed out how logs quickly sank in the frigid water and that the bodies of drowned victims were rarely recovered. Deep water temperatures near freezing prevent tissue decomposition and the buildup of organic gases. Bodies in Lake Tahoe do not float back to the surface.
Decades passed before someone attempted to swim across Lake Tahoe. The first to try and succeed was Mrs. Myrtle Huddleston, a world-class swimmer and mother of a 15-year-old boy. She had previously set the women’s world endurance record by staying afloat 83.5 hours. Now she wanted to test her mettle against Lake Tahoe.
At 8 a.m., August 24, 1931, Mrs. Huddleston slipped into the chilly water near Deadman’s Point, Nevada, on Tahoe’s east shore. Her destination was Tahoe City, California, 13 miles away. Myrtle’s skin was coated with a thick layer of specially prepared grease to help ward off the effects of swimming in the sixty-degree water. In order to save her strength, Myrtle swam slowly, using no more than 20 strokes per minute.
The lake was calm for the first few hours, but during the afternoon, the prevailing southwest wind grew blustery. When white caps appeared, the crewmen in the three escort boats positioned their crafts to block the waves. Despite their efforts, Myrtle was blown seven miles off course. Hour after hour she battled the brutally cold waves that threatened to break her will. Late in the afternoon the wind subsided and Tahoe’s surface grew calm again. Myrtle Huddleston renewed her attack, but was so tired, she could not go faster than one mile per hour. Sometime around midnight, Myrtle increased her stroke and pulled away from her rowboat escort. Myrtle had no idea that she was swimming alone in water 1,000 feet deep.
For several hours the escort convoy could find no trace of her. Her trainer and manager, S.A. Yoho, was anxiously waiting for Myrtle at the Tahoe Tavern in Tahoe City. When Yoho heard of her disappearance, he jumped into a speedboat to search for the lost swimmer. Mrs. Huddleston was found just before dawn, feeling ill and discouraged. She had been swimming for more than twenty hours.
The high altitude was really taking its toll on Huddleston and the detour had added seven more miles to her grueling swim. She was ready to give up. At this point, her son Everett, rowed to her side and said, “Mother, hold fast. We are only two miles from shore.” His encouragement renewed her vigor and soon Myrtle could hear the cheers and laughter emanating from the large crowd assembled on the Tahoe Tavern pier.
At 7.a.m., Mrs. Huddleston emerged from the icy water. Myrtle laughed when she saw a stretcher waiting on the beach for her. “What’s the bier for?” she asked calmly as she walked into the hotel to claim her $700 in prize money. After the presentation, Myrtle said, “Catalina was easy compared to this!” Four years prior in 1927, Mrs. Huddleston had swum the thirty-six miles across that channel in twenty hours and forty-two minutes, despite a strong tide against her.
Myrtle’s 20-mile swim in Lake Tahoe took 22 hours and 53 minutes. She lost twelve pounds in the ordeal, but later said that despite the hardships of cold water, altitude and wind, she felt no ill effects from the swim. Despite subsequent attempts by determined men and women, Mrs. Huddleston’s impressive achievement stood for another 21 years.
The first man to successfully cross the width of Lake Tahoe was William Long, a 27-year-old long distance swimmer from Van Nuys, California, who pulled it off on August 16, 1952. Strong southwest winds carried him off course, too, but he managed to stroke the 17-mile swim in 12 hours. The record was set on August 8, 1955, when Fred Rogers, a 29-year-old bartender from San Francisco, swam from Cave Rock, Nevada, to Meeks Bay, California, a distance of nine miles, in just six hours and 46 minutes.
The current record holder for the fastest swim along Tahoe’s length is Dave Kenyon. He stroked from the Tahoe Keys Mariana at South Lake Tahoe to the Hyatt beach in Incline Village, Nevada, a distance of 20.81 miles in 9 hours and 20 minutes on September 12, 1987.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning author and professional speaker with five books and more than 500 articles in print. You can reach him at [email protected]