In all of the years that I’ve been hiking, I’ve learned a great deal of things about what it takes to succeed in being able to accomplish the mountain shape goals that I set out on. There are a lot of directions that this could go, but I would say though that it’s true that everything begins with a combination of preparation and having the right attitude. Anything less than having these things intertwined is a nightmare waiting to happen.
Attitude is sort of kind of everything. It is true that the wrong one is a recipe for disaster, but having the “right one,” especially when it isn’t backed up by the brutal truths of our individual realities, can be just as bad. The key is to understand that you or I may believe that you or I can do it, and you or I may have purchased all of the right equipment to help you or I do it, but the harsh reality is that you or I and this goal that we have for ourselves may not be simpatico – at least in the way that we enter into the training.
In this, I am in here too since I can and did fail to achieve many things that I wanted to do simply because I just didn’t get the intensity and planning of it. Thus, it’s not just me speaking all high and mighty about you; no, I’m speaking about making me a better hiker by learning from my own mistakes.
So in thinking about the words of Admiral Jim Stockdale and the mantra that got him through the Hanoi Hilton, I have proposed my thoughts for confronting my own brutal truths when it comes to being out and about on the trails and mountains of the wilderness / forested areas that I go wandering in when I look to escape from civilization. I hope that you can get something out of this, too.
First and foremost, I need to ask myself what my history is. My history will truly influence my present. There are no magic hopes that I can double or triple my output based solely on the fact that I want to do something – especially if I’ve never done it before. Sure, it is true that adrenaline and drive could push me a couple miles further than I am used to going or a few hundred vertical feet higher, but there is going to come a time when these dogs are going to bark, and when they do, the rest of my body is going to join my feet in hitting the wall.
When that happens, as it will at some point in an intense hike, I will have to ask myself if I have enough to get back to the car or to keep going tomorrow and the day afterward. If best comes to best when worst comes to worst, it’s important to have a failsafe plan to get out of there or deal with things while I’m in there. By asking myself the question, “Can I even get myself out if something breaks,” I arrive at the moment where this Choose Your Own Adventure novel reader decides if I am going to limp and struggle down a rocky Pennsylvania mountain or if I am going to hunker down and wait for help.
It was once said of Aron Ralston that he could have crawled out if he broke a leg, but what good was that when his arm was pinned to the wall by an 800-pound boulder? I have a wife and parents who can come if they know relatively where I’m at, but who’s going to haul 220 pounds of me off a path if my leg breaks?
I’m not saying to expect the worst, but it’s important to consider all of the scenarios that might happen. Besides, unlike Jodie Foster in Contact, you and I aren’t being issued a cyanide pill for the possibilities that we can’t imagine. Besides, nobody travels this far to shuffle off this mortal coil… except in the case of a surprise 3am bear attack, but I digress.
Thus, when contemplating getting friendlies into an unfriendly situation, it’s important for me to know where I can be extracted from the trail if the poop hits the fan. Do the people in my life have the ability to find me on outback dirt roads that truly are in the middle of nowhere? This is something that I really have to think about when it comes to the fair to non-existent cellphone coverage that blankets many areas that are away from civilization. When the phone is snap, crackle, pop, and all of those other sounds that don’t sound like a voice that people who speak English speak, it’s important to direct things to simple and to the point directions.
“I’ll meet you at specific point X” sure beats “the dirt road to the right before you come upon town A.” There’s a lot of extra driving on top of the driving already done when it comes to instructions like that. Besides, a lot of side dirt roads aren’t too wide, and their entrances are often concealed in overgrown weeds on the side that make them impossible to spot until the last possible minute. This makes extraction from the trail something like pulling Beck Weathers off the upper reaches of Mount Everest in a helicopter.
If things need to go from a day hike to an overnight camping trip, do I have the right gear with me? What are the essentials that I need? Do I need a tent to stay warm and dry, or is a ground cloth rigged over a string and tied down sufficient enough? Should I have a sleeping bag, or am I OK with a little blanket to keep me warm? Do I have the rope to tie my food up high above the ground to keep it away from critters and creatures, or do I not even need to worry about Yogi and Boo Boo in this specific location?
And for that matter, when it comes to Yogi and Boo Boo, I’d rather carry a $50 can of whoop-ass than wonder how fast I can run down the hill or if I’m at least someone other than the slowest in the group of hikers that are going to get chased off into the wild blue yonder by Mr. or Mrs. Bear.
Nevertheless, when it comes to getting down to the nitty gritty of truly essential supplies, I would have to ask myself, “Do I have enough water with me?” There are a lot of wise sages on the trail who will talk about keeping weight down to almost nothing above absolutely essential. They will pay big bucks to shed ounces, and for this, they have the right idea – if you can afford it (and for that matter, it’s very important to be able to afford the best level of gear that you will absolutely need for the trip). Their gear will be around 25 pounds, including food, and they will preach how everyone can do this, but on a hot day, I have to say that 10 pounds, which is equivalent to 160 ounces of water, isn’t a lot of liquid rehydration when it comes to pushing 23 miles in 80° and humid heat. I could have used 250 ounces the last time that I did this length (and that wasn’t over big mountains – rather, it was around lakeside hills and exposed fields), alas, being that short on water and having to conserve what I did have wasn’t fun. In addition, going in with frozen water bottles that weren’t melting fast enough meant that I only had an extra mouthful of water every mile as I waited for more water to drip off of the ice. It made it easier to conserve things, but it also made me feel the dryness inside my chest.
That leaves us with 3 options if we decide to go with the idea that conserving water is not a problem (I’ll argue that it is a problem for me, but you’re an adult, and it’s your choice so do what you feel is right – just don’t ask me to save your sorry butt if you fall down and go bonk). The first of these is to consider the water filter ahead of time, which is a reasonable choice. So OK, I’ve made the decision to get a water filter. That’s a good choice, but is the water in the area safe for filtering? How far apart are the sources of water that I’ll be filtering? How long will it take to filter said water? Have I ever hiked while drinking filtered water? Can I depend on the creek not being dry? Do I need iodine tablets just in case? Do I have a masking agent to kill the iodine taste? Skilled hikers know the answer to these questions, and when it comes time for me to make the purchase plunge, I’m going to have to know the answer as well.
And remember, buying quality items might cost more, but it’s better than paying extra for quality doctor care after the fact.
The final option is carry what I’m going to drink, which means that I have to bring more water in, and that means that I have to haul it on my back. If I go with 250 ounces, that’s 16 pounds and 4 ounces. These things go in a backpack, and that also weighs something. So does my food, my first aid kit, any replacement clothes that I choose to bring, as well as any of the other important things that I deem necessary to the hike at hand.
If we go back to the people who are ultra-light hikers, I’ll respect them enough to say that if they can do it, so be it. Let them be camels or frequent filterers or however they do it. I’m not opposed to joining their ranks, but I’m not there yet. That said, I’m also not ready for multiple overnights quite yet, so it’s not like I have to make the decision today. Thus, in the meantime, with where I am, I need to make sure that I train, train, train before I go. I need to wear the backpack and experience the weight over multiple “real deal” trail miles. In Pennsylvania, that’s multiple 1,000 foot vertical climbs that are rocky. Many are manicured, but some are overgrown and filled with logs and other debris. They can be steep or gradual, but it’s necessary that I wear my backpack while traveling on these trails so that I can be ready for extended stays on the real deal trail in questions.
What’s more, I have to remember that even with a good hip and chest belt, I’m going to feel the weight after a while. Gone are the days of external hard frame packs with crappy belts like I wore in Boy Scouts. Here are the days of really expensive REI and Eastern Mountain Sports sold packs that are big and sturdy and expensive, but by having the right one, all things are possible. Possible is a good thing.
That brings me to how many pounds can I carry for how many hours? How many days can I do this without a proper bed? How long can I handle walking around in the same sweaty, nasty clothes that are going to stick to and stink up my body but good? We often think about how many people can’t handle our trail stench, but how long can we last with our own stench?
How long can we be out in the intense heat of the sun? Things like suntan lotion and Tylenol are indispensable for these situations as is bug repellant for the ticks, mosquitos, and other flying insects that make life going through a forest a formula to attract every single bug in a ten-mile radius.
Speaking of medicine, it was told to me that having a nighttime sleeping aid is a good thing, too. This bit of wisdom is derived from being forced to listen to every single chirping creature that is creating a soundtrack of nature that plays on repeat all night long. If that’s not enough, you and I will hear every twig snap and envision 400 pound black bears, knife wielding serial killers, and the aliens that landed over the hill with the intention of abducting us before we can get back to hiking in the morning.
I for one would like a good night of sleep after all of those hours of exertion.
All of that brings us back to this: trail activities mean getting in shape. We are participating in a physical activity. We need to be in shape for the activity that we choose to complete. There are many exercises that prepare us for this, but at the end of the day, we need to have a good set of legs and a sense of aerobic ability as well as a sturdy back.
For this, I have decided to get myself in mountain shape. I’ve been working on this for a while (about a year and a quarter), but I am now in the intense part of the training (crunch time before vacation). I have 33 days until I leave for Oregon, and with that, I need to be able to hike 6 full days in a row and the half of the day that is coming after we get off the plane. I want to see the redwoods, the ocean, waterfalls, and mountains. I want to see them in local state parks, and I want to see them at Crater Lake National Park and Redwood National Park. I want to drive east along the Columbia River Gorge and take it all in. I want to see Mount Hood, and I want to see the other mega-peaks of northeastern Oregon, but most importantly, I want to challenge 4,960 foot tall (above sea level) Mount Defiance. Of this, there is 4,840 feet of elevation gain to attain the peak and the views of all that I will survey.
As a result, it’s important for me to be in shape for this, so I am considering all of the things above and challenging myself to 200 miles in 33 days. This will mean long hike days. It will mean that I’ll have to do repetitive loops of mountains over and over to practice the vertical ascent and descent. If the biggest mountain that I’ve done is 1,600 feet (Jack’s Mountain at the Thousand Steps), then I have to find a way to get 3 times that. Through no fault of my own, I’m without bigger mountains in this state, so I have to improvise to make up for the failure of my state’s geography. If that means I challenge Spruce Knob (1,400 feet) + back-door the Throne Room to Butler Knob (a good 1,000 feet) + Jack’s Mountain (1,600 feet), then at least I’m getting steepness and elevation as well as distance despite being about 800 feet short of the hike of 1 single mountain with what I will achieve on that day of practice.
If I want to hit the Appalachian Trail at Port Clinton, I can get 1,300 vertical feet, so if I’m up and down the mountain 4 times, then I’m plus 500 feet on Mount Defiance after 4 ups and 4 down, which is good practice for elevation though not for the 11 miles of distance that I will have to get myself to. If I hike Sullivan Run and the surrounding waterfalls, I don’t get a lot of elevation, but I get resistance training since I’m creek walking and waterfall climbing. If I can’t get out and I instead do the treadmill, I get an hour here or there, and I get miles, which means I’m getting aerobic, but treadmills are boring. There’s no daytime shows on at my gym that make 1 hour go by quickly, let alone the 6-10 hours that I’ve heard this will take (nor is there a consistent set of free times to do these things except some Fridays and either a Saturday here or a Sunday there.
I can do long treks like the 23 mile Blue Marsh journey that I accomplished before this endurance march of July 2014 by going out on the Appalachian Trail or the Horseshoe Trail. These are close to home trails, and they invite options for a car to car walk since they just mean calling in my wife or parents since they live close to the trail.
In the end, the math is up to me. Either I will or I won’t be able to hike this trail. I’m not going to get another shot at it. Oregon and Pennsylvania aren’t a stroll apart. I have to get in there and kick at it and push it when the time comes. I have to be Larry Holmes against Randall “Tex” Cobb. He’s going to go 15 rounds with me. He might get knocked down, but he’ll get back up. He’s going to swing back hard. He’s going to be there at the end. Either I’m going to get the decision, or I’m not. It’s all in what I push and give. I don’t have to be “pretty.” I just have to be. That’s where I have to drop the calories now as I burn them off. Slim and trim, and strong and confident are the things that will get me there. Anything less is me on my back with a ten-count signaling my demise.
And so it’s just that; I have to get strong. I’m on Day 2 now. These next 31 days have a lot of room for me to improve myself, but I have to take the opportunity.
In the end, it’s sacrifice and effort. The pictures will be worth it.