By Martin McClellan
We realized that this might be the day about 8 a.m. on June 29, 2002. It had been just over three-and-a-half years from project inception and now we were ready. The boat was anchored directly above the site; the dive station was in place and the safety team was ready. The deep tech divers were also ready. At approximately 10:20 a.m., a diverse team of dedicated divers known as New Millennium Dive Expeditions endeavored to accept the challenge and explore the mysteries that have lived on the lake’s floor for more than 60 years. Finally, a technical challenge that had taken every bit of three-and-a-half years to plan, practice and organize was about to materialize.

Located 6,229 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe holds a challenging adventure deep below the surface. Situated comfortably more than 400 feet deep lies the shipwreck of the Steamship Tahoe. Scuttled in 1940, the ship rests on a 30-degree slope. Her bow is at 365 feet and stern at 475 — all of which is protected by frigid 39-degree water. She beckons the technical diving enthusiast to explore her watery grave.

Prior to 1935, the only means to circumnavigate Tahoe’s 72 miles of shoreline was via boat. The lake’s maritime history began in 1864 with wooden steamships. The evolution of time brought the demand for the larger, modernized and faster iron/steel hulled vessels. The Meteor, Emerald, Nevada and the Tahoe were commissioned to service the Tahoe Basin’s growing economy. The SS Tahoe, launched in 1896, was 170 feet long and carried mail, freight and passengers in a most elegant manner. After the completion of the road around the lake in 1935, the ships were no longer economically viable. The Emerald was dry-docked, dismantled and cut-up for salvage, but the three remaining ships were towed out and given a proper burial in the lake that they so faithfully served. The Meteor and the Nevada were scuttled in the deepest reaches of the lake. The Bliss family, the commissioners of these great ships, had other plans for the Tahoe. On August 30, 1940, she was to be scuttled in 100 feet. However, due to not having modern day depth sounders, they scuttled her where they thought it was 100 feet, but it was deeper than they realized. Once the steel hull of the Tahoe hit the bottom, it slid down the steep, silt-covered canyon to where it presently rests.

The plan to visit the SS Tahoe, seemed, at the onset, to be fairly standard; but in fact, for this quest it turned out to be quite complex. Several issues needing solutions would determine if a dive of this magnitude could be done. They included finding and marking the site, the special adjustments altitude would impose (specifically, increased decompression), gas management, managing of the mountain of equipment needed, hypoxia and pre-dive off-gassing. This issue of finding and marking the site was often misunderstood by outsiders who didn’t understand its importance. Accomplishing a dive to these depths gave the deep tech divers no time to drop down and look. We needed to drop right onto the site ready to explore, video and document the area. This aspect of our planning that we termed “dive site infrastructure” took more than a year of our time, four boat charters, two “remote operated vehicle” operations, a specially-designed titanium hook and, last but not least, about $7,500.

Our first attempts to mark the site failed as the hooks were not sufficient and, being a non-profit outfit, we ran out of funding that forced us to wait. During the down time, a titanium hook was developed, funds were raised and a second attempt was organized and successfully accomplished. With the infrastructure in place, the plan understood and developed, we proceeded with our quest.

Right: Martin McClellan prepares for a dive on the SS Tahoe.

In conjunction with all the planning was training and knowledge development. Not only were we planning and organizing this adventure, but we were also seeking the advanced training trimix would require. We also traveled and sought out complimentary training in caves; an environment that would help us prepare for the artificial overhead environment we were planning to create. We exposed ourselves to different philosophies of training. Some we respected, and some we did not. What we grasped from this voyage was that without mentors we would make mistakes in exponential fashion that would ultimately alter our ability to develop conviction. We then took all these revelations, brought them back to “our house” to strategize and implement skill sets, policies and procedures that would be most efficient for our specific set of circumstances. Then we practiced and practiced some more. In so doing, we slowly worked our way to the SS Tahoe via a number of training activities that at times took on the face of “successful failures” and at times, “successful successes.” But during each exercise we learned; learning that took place exponentially. We began to believe that deep technical divers could pioneer the unexplored. We kept an open mind, smiled, kept our egoist tendencies in our back pocket, worked compassionately and respectfully with each other and finally on that day in June of 2002, we realized our goal.

What we came to appreciate is that in order to dive 400 feet in Lake Tahoe, we had to make a tremendous commitment to our diving in the form of equipment, education and training. This commitment was expensive and took tremendous time. It could not be rushed and, in fact, when we did try to rush, that is when we encountered our successful failures. We found that rushing is always wrong. Ultimately, the resulting mindset developed throughout all this provided us the confidence needed with our equipment, skills and knowledge. This confidence and commitment allowed us to gain the necessary competence required of a dive team that would push the edge of technical diving, but it also provided us the understanding of how important it was to consistently maintain a professional, responsible and safe representation throughout. To become competent it took this the 15-member team hours of practice, training, personal and financial sacrifice, thought and time to thoroughly learn, understand and accept all the fundamentals involved in the many differing aspects of a project of this nature.

The execution of a 400-foot dive to the SS Tahoe began at about 4 a.m, as the commute from Reno, elevation 4,400 feet, to South Lake Tahoe, elevation 6,230, took about one hour. In addition, loading the charter boat, Prophet of Tahoe Sportfishing, and reviewing all the loading checklists also took about one hour, and by 6 – 6:30 a.m. we began motoring out to the location of our marker buoy. At the same time, the deep tech divers surface breathed oxygen in order to compensate for the ascent in altitude prior to the dive. Keep in mind that living in Reno and ascending to Tahoe prior to a dive creates residual nitrogen equivalent to a saturation dive to two feet.

Once the marker buoy was retrieved and the line reeled in, a buoy was attached that floated at the surface and the dive station was then set-up and the boat anchored. That took another two hours and it was now between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Furthermore, it was important to keep in mind that the winds on Lake Tahoe usually arrive around 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., so we did not have much time to dally and knew we must get things set-up and the deep tech divers prepared. The goal was to have the deep tech divers descending before 10 a.m.
The SS Tahoe lies on Lake Tahoe’s sloped mud bottom. She sits upright with her bow at 365 feet and the stern at 475 feet.

Curt Bowen
With the deep tech divers ready and a few last minute checks complete, the Dive Equipment Coordinator gave an “okay,” the Expedition Dive Coordinator gave the final “okay” and the deep tech divers began their seven minute descent. The first two minutes were held at 20 feet, breathing surface supplied oxygen (a ppO2 of 1.38 at Tahoe’s altitude) and then once final underwater timer, bubble and ear checks were completed, they switched to their back-gas and began their five-minute journey to the bow of the SS Tahoe to 350 feet (448 feet sea level equivalent). Depending upon the dive, they planned to spend anywhere from seven to nine minutes on the bottom, approaching depths of 405 feet (519 feet sea level equivalent). They then ascended into a two-and-a-half to three-hour decompression profile utilizing two slung deco gasses, two staged deco gasses and completing the required stops at 20 and 15 feet on surface supplied oxygen.

When the divers returned to the surface, supported throughout the dive by 13 dive personnel and two boat crew members, the dive site equipment was taken down and loaded, anchors were pulled, the marker buoy was reset and boat motors were put in. The boat then had to be unloaded, vehicles loaded and equipment transported back to Reno and unloaded. Time: 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Everyone was ready for a nap! It was a long day, but highly rewarding and energizing! In about two weeks it would all be done again.

Technical diving is developing in many different venues. As intriguing and planning-intensive as ocean wreck exploration or cave diving, exploration at altitude also presents incredible adventure and challenge. However, the common denominators of all are training, knowledge and planning, which culminate in one word — preparation. This preparation is only achievable through commitment, confidence and competence. Whether a 100-foot dive within no-stop limits or a 400-foot dive in a lake over a mile high, planning dives with educated thoroughness is crucial to their success and safe completion. The SS Tahoe Expedition took New Millennium more than three years of planning in a highly flexible and creative environment. For an expedition to be successful it must create its own personality based upon the specific goals, objectives and risks as set forth by the complexity of the dive. Utilizing teamwork and readiness, created out of a commitment to do something no one else has done, allowed us to meet our challenge head on. The epiphany of all this…“The Journey has been the Adventure.”