On Mount Washington, we learned some hard lessons about how slowly Team 2020 hikes. We knew already that we need to allow plenty of extra time for Randy and Quinn to work their way through difficult terrain, but the actual numbers that we put up on the Ammonoosuc Trail were a bit discouraging. We found ourselves losing time here, there, and everywhere.
Now, no one who’s hiked with me in the past – Mike, Karl, Dan, and all you others – will claim that I’m a speedy hiker! However, I’ve learned a few lessons over many years of hiking, climbing, and mountaineering. I’ve failed to summit mountains in about all the ways you can imagine, many of them time-related.
First lesson: Both “slow and heavy” and “fast and light” travel are dangerous in their own ways. Find your happy medium.
I started as a “slow and heavy” hiker. I would carry everything the AMC recommended in an enormous, heavy pack. However, I found that weight slows you down, throws off your balance, and makes you prone to injuries. And, if you go too slowly, you incur all kinds of costs, such as the following:
- long travel days
- mental fatigue
- frustration at unreached goals
- the need for more food and water, due to more on-trail time
- afternoon thunderstorms, common in the White Mountains in summer
- not being able to reach safety quickly when travel is dangerous
(In some conditions, like winter above tree line, or on multi-pitch rock climbs, these can cost you far more than just summits. Sharpens the mind, I tell you!)
On the other hand, I’ve traveled “fast and light” too. In winter, I’ve been caught shorthanded when I needed certain equipment that I hadn’t brought with me! Also, warm-up hikes for 2020VQ have seen participants running out of water on long days, and that’s never good. Fast hiking over rough terrain can cause injuries, too. People trip and fall, and fatigued hikers make mistakes when they down climb. I tried to keep up with my long-legged trekking companions for two days of downhill in the Himalayas, and my knees hurt for years afterward… ouch!
Therefore, here’s my advice for Team 2020 hikers – and other hikers too – on moving both quickly and safely through the wilderness:
- Move fast, but not too fast. Once you’re warmed up, get your body working at a level where you can still converse (between deep breaths), but where you can cover ground quickly and smoothly. Experience, fitness, and good technique help here. Everyone has a “sweet spot” – a speed at which they move most efficiently – and it’s okay for a varied group like 2020VQ to spread out a bit, up and down the trail. On Hale, the leader will go last, to make sure no one is left behind, and we’ll regroup as necessary.
- Minimize stop time. Sometimes we all need to rest, or eat, or pee, or adjust boots – but “short” group stops can easily stretch out into ten or fifteen minutes. That’s lost time, and lost momentum. Disciplined habits help here. Need to take your pack off? Do it as soon as you stop, finish what you need to do, and get the pack back on before the group gets ready to go. Can’t find something in your pack? Organize it carefully ahead of time, and memorize where everything goes. Need to “chase a rabbit” in the woods? Drop your pack and go; no need for a group stop. Randy and Quinn will need to stop at certain obstacles (e.g. stream crossings), and those are fine, but we don’t want to add to the total stop time with unnecessary stops. During the Mt. Hale hike, I want to work on shorter group stops, and I’ll be a stinker about it. Team 2020, you have been warned!
- Lighten your load. As I said above, a heavy pack is a safety risk. Go through your pack and see what everything weighs, if you’re curious. What can you honestly do without? Can you replace a critical piece of equipment (shell jacket, headlamp, etc.) with a lighter alternative? Can you reduce food weight by carrying dehydrated or dense foods, instead of water-heavy foods like fresh fruit? Of course, some things are necessary no matter what. Just before the Mt. Hale hike, I will see that certain items (Quinn’s gear, first-aid kit, etc.) are distributed fairly among participants, so that Randy, the most injury-prone of us all, gets a lighter load than he’s carried in the past.
- Stay fueled and stay cool. Thirst and low blood sugar make you ineffective in all kinds of ways, even before you notice it. I recommend never waiting until a stop to eat or drink, since it may be a while before the next convenient group stop. (Team 2020, we don’t really want to stop Randy and Quinn while they’re “in the zone,” right?) Make sure you have water and small amounts of food accessible to you while you walk, so you don’t even have to stop at all, let alone unpack. In the summer, keep cool to the extent you can. The mountain air is so much more invigorating when you’re not miserably hot!
Which brings me to my last point: a hike shouldn’t be a death march. It’s supposed to be fun! If you’re working yourself to exhaustion, you won’t enjoy it so much. Think, plan, pack, learn the techniques and systems, and stay disciplined, but once you’re out there, smile and enjoy the beautiful surroundings!