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Lose Your Baggage, Pal


by Ryan Jordan | 2001-06-25 03:00:00-06

Last year, my hiking partner Lee Richards and I planned a difficult high mountain traverse through a remote col in Montana's Beartooth Mountains. That is, Lee, myself, and Parker, the four-month old multi thousand dollar yellow labrador retriever with a lineage as impressive as Secretariat. It was Parker's first hike.

The traverse was to occur during a backpacking adventure with the primary objective of fishing some of the Beartooth's most remote mountain lakes inaccessible by trail. We awoke that morning and began our hike immediately with a difficult crossing of a foot-numbing, swift river and proceeded via bushwack into the darkness of a thick forest with suffocating undergrowth, which was to be only a precursor of the pain and suffering to come.

Hours later, we emerged victoriously into an alpine zone, only to be slammed back down by a non-intuitive serpentine path through Volkswagen-sized boulders at the toe of a glacial moraine. Poor Lee had to carry the navigationally-challenged lab through most of this terrain. Several more hours of rockhopping brought us high into the glaciated domain of some of the Beartooth's lesser-known peaks. Late afternoon brought a waning sun, high winds, and impending thunderstorms, quickly making us realize that we were walking astride a very fine line between sheer stupidity and well, sheer stupidity (I won't say which side of the line, because my mom might be reading this). In fact, we were attempting a traverse so remote that it sees less than half a dozen visitors per decade, so the concept of being rescued by passersby was a ludicrous one. We did, however, see some mountain goats at around 11,000 feet.

It wasn't until we reached a steep snowfield that I realized that I was wearing sneakers and carrying less weight in my backpack for eight days than I normally carried in my briefcase for a day of work. Dark clouds above made me think of my emergency firestarting kit, 1.3 oz, neatly wrapped in waterproof plastic, but I had to laugh at myself because there wasn't a stick, let alone a tree, for miles. I began to wonder what the BTU output of goat hair would be. We finished the traverse late in the day, in a small cirque occupied by an alpine lake with eager trout that made for a peaceful closure to one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging days of hiking I've ever had in my life. This was day two of an eight day trip.

I reread Karen Berger's Advanced Backpacking after I returned from my trip, hoping to learn a lesson I might have missed on my first time through the book. Nope, nothing there. Back issues of Backpacker? Forget it. And what about the lightweight bible, Ray Jardine's Beyond Backpacking? Jardine includes a chapter called the "Avalanche of Adversity," using examples like rain, mosquitoes, and Heaven forbid, wet bushes across the trail. Is he serious? A mudslide maybe, but an avalanche of adversity, I think not.

And then I found Mark Twight's Extreme Alpinism. In the forward, Michael Kennedy writes, "There is no shortcut to experience and hard lessons that only come from making your own mistakes." I realized then that no amount of "how-to" information will ever provide me with the mental fortitude required to truly discover my own limits. Bingo. This is what it's all about.

Thus, I'm urging you to step out of your comfort zone a bit and explore the limits of your personal character by seeking nature's greatest challenges. By adhering to a lightweight philosophy of backcountry travel, you strip away all that is unnecessary in your pack and your mind--which includes the voice that says "I can't do that". Suddenly, you realize that your personal limits are no longer visible and tangible but rather, in the distance, below a far horizon. Go seek that horizon.

So, beware of books or articles or Web sites having the words "Advanced" and "Backpacking" in their title. They may contain useful nuggets of information, but they do little to truly "advance" the "sport" of backpacking or actually address in any measurable detail, "advanced" techniques for backpacking. You want to become "advanced"? Get your nose out of the book, disconnect your modem, pack up and take a hike where the expectations are so impossible to guess that you live every second in nervous apprehension--where you must live in the moment and make the hard decisions every hour, rather than having them been made for you during your pre-hike logistical plans.

Finally, don't "hike your own hike." This ridiculous phrase indicates that you have your own preconceived notions about how to approach a backcountry walk, and "it works for you." Explore your limits and you'll leave "your" hike back home soon enough, and begin to hike the hike that God and nature (and their weather and brambles and grizzly bears and glacial moraines) decides you're going to hike.

The minute you find yourself saying, "I can't do that," prove the voice wrong. If you succeed, good. If you fail, better. You'll learn a lot more about yourself and your limits.

Learn to respond to the challenges. Don't try to avoid them. Just ask Parker the lab. And the guy who carried him across the glacial moraine.


"Lose Your Baggage, Pal," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2001-06-25 03:00:00-06.