What Endurance Hiking Taught Me

 

Yesterday I performed what has become a December tradition: attempting to finish a 50 kilometer hike through the mountains on Vancouver’s north shore.  “Why?” you may ask.  It’s a good question.  A non-stop march through rugged terrain that takes between 13 and 18 hours to complete is no laughing matter.  It helps to love mountains of course, but there is no denying the fact that such a trip will involve a certain degree of discomfort, and even grimness.  I find that these hikes teach me a lot about life.

I have attempted this hike 5 times, and completed it 3 times.  After all, if success were guaranteed, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge.  There is usually a point, somewhere along the journey, where I hit a physical wall and find it very hard to go on.

This time it was at the halfway point.  We had been hiking continuously for 8 hours in the rain.  It was seeping into all the layers of clothing, saturating gloves and boots, and creating a clammy, heat eating layer right next to my skin.  We had been hiking downhill for more than an hour toward the Cleveland Dam, so my body temperature had dropped because there was less exertion.  When we stopped at the dam to pull some food out of the backpack, I began to shiver, and my teeth chattered uncontrollably.  Basic motor functions like doing up a gaiter strap became very challenging.

Leaving the dry, heated bathroom in which I was shivering to head out into the pouring rain for another 8 hours of hiking seemed almost overwhelming.  However, I clenched my chattering teeth together and doggedly began walking uphill toward the next part of the trail.  How I was going to finish another eight hours of this I did not know.  There was some dry gear I could put on (replacement socks and another shirt) but even pausing long enough to attempt that seemed impossible.  Movement seemed to be my only hope of controlling the cold.

My hiking partner suggested we divert from the trail and duck into a nearby café to change out our gear and warm up.  I was simply focused on staying moving and getting to the end of this ordeal as quickly as possible, so I didn’t jump on the idea.  He prevailed though, and insisted that we stop.  I complied.

After 20 minutes inside with hot fluids, a change of socks, and a few extra layers, I was able to face the pouring rain outside without shivering.  This stop allowed me to gather myself and continue for another 4 hours.  I recovered my warmth and was able to actually enjoy trekking many more kilometers in the dark and the rain.

So what does all this have to do with life outside of mountains?  Well, any long journey will have its stunning vistas and its sloughs of despair.  There are moments of euphoria and moments of pain.  Your inner landscape changes as continuously as the terrain you are moving through.  The key is to keep going.  Sometimes all you can do is focus on putting one boot in front of the other.  Eventually, it gets better.

Grit will get you far, but sometimes you need more.  This trip I was reminded that we need other people.  People who will recognise when we need help (even if we aren’t asking for it) and drag us into warmer places full of light.

There may be times in your life when you feel that you can’t go on.  Times when you don’t know how you can possibly continue.  Moments when life seems completely overwhelming.  Those are the moments that you need to put yourself into the hands of people you trust.

Sometimes all you need is a bit of help, and then you can go back to facing the road ahead.

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