British Mentality Or- How I learned to stop worrying and love the hiking poles

 

Any British hiker will tell you a bit of rain doesn’t stop the day hike. Driving rain is character building and other nations’ hikers that say otherwise are soft. Its true I guess, we will go out in all weather, pigheadedly pretending to enjoy ourselves when you cant feel your hands on a autumn day and its just plain miserable, with sideways rain scouring the hillside. You see a determined father out in front, then 30ft behind is a wife dragging the complaining child. I used to figure that big mountains abroad had much worse weather so we should at least be comfortable in our lot. This mentality carries though on a few points. Another being everyone needs a good sturdy pair of hiking boots if your going for a day hike, because that’s what sensible people do. To be seen out in a pair of trainers on a mountain is just plain dangerous, folly, laughable. They should also be gortex also because it’s a word we associate with quality products.

These thoughts are for the main part wrong, but forgivable. Brits seem to specialise in this kind of thinking, the traditional hard man thoughts on matters. Now, early on i switched to lighter footwear and this was good in my eyes, but, one thing I have personally come to realise, is how wrong I was about hiking poles.

And as the hardier hikers push past on such days, they often scoff anyone bearing a pole in hand. The belief that hiking poles belong in the grasp of the old and unsteady, the slow and those caught out by the salesman in the shop. Any Europeans spotted hiking with them must be idiots, and a few years ago I would have shared the sentiment and mocked anybody bumbling up a path with these unnatural extensions to the arms.

Now, I used to be fast going up hills, for a hiker anyway. Pushing hard, reaching the summit and thinking I was Boss. But I always knew I had a limit. With heavy boots on feet, for me a couple of 3000ft ascents in a day would be that limit. At which point my legs would begin to cramp up, and the pace would slow. I would be beat.

Then I bought a set of hiking poles. I was embarrassed wielding them at the foot of the first hill. Trying to hide them from view to other hikers, Not quite sure where I was going to place them. I spent more time looking at the ground than the scenery around me. But soon enough it clicked. I climbed to the summit of the first peak…..

I felt fresh, fast, like I was just warmed up. So I descended the other side of the mountain into a valley I hadn’t been in before. That was easy, so a paced back up. Striking hard with the poles propelling myself at a hill running pace. I was back at the summit (this day was Scafell Pike). More to the point, I still felt fresh. I descended quite bemused. Had my fitness increased dramatically overnight? I flew up and down the mountain twice and swore I could do it again. ….

So I started using them.  Never too sure if it was the hiking poles propelling me or just the mental drive. I went hiking in the states but left the poles at home. For a few hundred miles hiking I felt great, but slower on the uphills. Then an opportunity for some testing came. By the will of Zeus I kind family in Montana out of the blue donated a set to me. I carried on hiking, and a couple of weeks later met another hiker who was going fast. I would hike on and off with him over the next few weeks.

The first time was on a ridgeline on the montana/Idaho borderline. Full of PUDS(pointless ups and downs). I had my hiking poles, my friend Tim didn’t. I was fast, climbing the hills with ease. Hiking Ahead, but not separated from Tim. The next time met him was just south of Yellowstone park. Another half day hiking with Tim, he had his poles, and he was more than a match for me, quicker with every stride.  I was slightly injured so I disallowed the result (honest). But then came the perfect test

120 Miles across the Great Divide Basin.

A perfect arena to test hiking speed with and without trekking poles. 120 mind numbing dull hot, dry miles across an arid pan. We set off, and the pace was as fast as I could comfortably go. Every time I stopped using the poles to propel myself, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep to Tims pace with poles. When I resumed using them, it was no effort. I never told him, but a lot of that time in the big dusty pan crossing I spent testing with and without poles.  By the end of the basin we averaged about 4-4.4mph over the 120miles through baking heat. (only counting the hiking time, we did also sleep). The point is Tim was a faster hiker than me, but with poles I could match him (just).

To understand the difference the poles make I want you to imagine (or do if you can be bothered)-loading a backpack with say …… 10 litres of water, put it on your back, and start doing squats. When you get close to your limit and your legs start to cramp, Take the pack off. I’ll bet you can now do considerably more, and, you will fly doing them. Now imagine that weight is your arms, how much easier would it be to march up a hill if that weight wasn’t there. That’s what the trekking poles do for you, if you push down on them, you can take considerable bodyweight off yourself. Less weight is less effort for your legs. So you can go further. The same applies walking across flat ground. With poles properly adjusted, and pointed backwards slightly, you can propel yourself forwards far quicker.

In summary, I now love Hiking Poles, they make Hiking easier,  they rock.

(bonus point- It is possible to buy a tent or tarp that utilises you trekking poles , eliminating tent poles, making you pack ever lighter than before. Which would you rather carry- a 400gram hiking pole tent or a +1kg regular tent, in some cases more than 3kg)

Where art thou, Giardia?

wp_20150904_19_26_47_proWhen the Poop hits your pants! A.K.A. Giardia

So last year I hiked 2300miles of the CDT in the states. Before going on this trip a lot of things crossed my mind. It was my first time in bear country, and there are a lot of savage stories (and now films) that shed light on just how frail a person can be and how much damage a bear can do. I read about the daily lightning storms all along the Rockies that would strike like clockwork when your high on a 14,000 ridge line mid afternoon. I read about the river crossings, the wild cats, the moose, the hitch hiking murders, river crossings, being lost in the middle of nowhere, breaking legs (you get the picture)…. But the one thing that did not cross my mind was Giardia. To anyone that has experienced it the word alone puts the fear of god in you. I didn’t even know what it was till I hit the states.

Now, before setting off I made the first mistake- I went too light, I stripped my pack down to bare bones. Including my water filter. I brought with me a delightful in its own right; ‘Sawyer Mini’ which weighs a few grams, screws onto any bottle and gives you clean water from cow muck. ‘Brilliant!!’ I said to myself. And for the first couple of weeks hiking it was, never carrying more than a litre of water. It didn’t last, as the miles ticked on the already low flow of water slowed to barely a drip and back washing the filter barely worked. So, I went onto plan 2, the childhood lesson. In the lake district of Old England, you are taught the old idea that fell top water is pretty safe to drink if you can see the source and there are no dead animal in it, besides, all the cool hikers on trail were just walking up to dirty rivers and drinking straight out of them.

I applied my childhood drinking habit. And started bottling water from springs or high up streams. I felt EPIC!!!! Nothing could stop me from tearing along those trails, covering 30miles a day without problem. But it soon changed. The springs became less and less frequent, some of them were boxed springs revealing dead squirrels and birds, some were overrun by cattle. Sometime the only water was a dirty puddle. I regretted not buying a filter from one of the many outfitters along the way.

As I entered Colorado, I slowed, I started losing weight, and fast. I went from 13.5st down to nearly 11 in a couple of weeks. I dumbly blamed the altitude, and the fact I was going to around 14000 nearly daily. I was getting light headed during the day, and had the worst stomach cramps of my life every night.I also woke up with a rather bad breath but blamed that on the poor quality food I was eating. There was one day I told a friend I would meet him in a couple of miles ready to climb another peak. It took me most the afternoon to cover the distance. I had to sit down, I was near collapse.  By evening (we camped a mile further on) I couldn’t face my food, the smell of it repulsed me. The friends I was with were concerned and so was I.

We decided to have a Zero day off trail and hitch hiked to the town of Salida were Mumford and Sons were playing a big gig (we planned on sitting outside the gig on a hillside and having a few drinks). In the morning we were sat around our tents talking about my symptoms. The others concluded it was probably Giardia.  A trail Angel who had hiked the trail a few years previous happened to have half a course of 4 year old Metronizadole (one of the most effective antibiotics against Giardia). Being the cheap hiker I was I gladly took the out of date meds with the theory It can’t get much worse.

I gave myself till the next morning and woke up, I felt great , and started hiking again telling myself I would go slow. The next few days I felt fresh like I Hadn’t been for a month. I started hammering in the miles. I finished the 3 day; half course of old Antibiotics and thought it was over. My friends finished their trail and I kept hiking alone. I hiked into new Mexico and the feeling returned. 16miles south of a town called Cuba, I sat on the edge of a Messa, looking out. I was £2000 in debt, I had hiked further that I thought I could at a brilliant pace; and Giardia had returned. This time instead of hiking alone and getting into trouble, I cut across country to the highway, and called it quits quite content. It was time for a trip to the docs.

My experience of Giardia was very tame. For Most people it is a concern of carrying enough toilet paper and having explosive diarrhoea and vomiting with painful cramps. Hence Why it took so long for figure it out.

Giardia basics-

For hikers, you get it from contaminated water supplies both around livestock and in the wild from animals messing up the streams(especially beavers I’m told lol).

It is a water borne Parasite and once in you lives in your intestines and caused carnage.

Symptoms-

Diarrhoea, vomiting, light headedness, loss of appetite, going to the toilet a lot, losing weight, bad breath like sulphur (im told the smell is the lining of your intestines eroding away, which can become serious if left unchecked)

lesson- Always filter your water kids, and don’t cheap out on the filter. Look after it, don’t let it freeze, If it breaks while your out in the wild, boil your water, carry a few iodine tablets for emergency use.

The end

Bear Country

Your first time alone in bear country is a bit like driving on a steep and icy road. You know the traction will go at some point and you will slide, hopefully regaining traction or coming to a gentle stop. But you know there is danger and a potential killer around every corner. And so you venture forth, timidly.

The previous day you were sat in a visitor centre watching a video about Black Bears and grizzly Bears, telling you what to do in an encounter. Most of the video survival tutorial will go straight over your head.

As you hike its running through your mind. Singing, shouting ‘Hey Bear!’ and clapping happily to let the monsters know your on the way. You feel safe. No bears, it must be working, and so it goes….for about the first hour. Till the vocal chords need a break, and the hands are sore. Then the clapping becomes infrequent, maybe once as you leave a clearing. The day burns on, and the sun begins to lower, and you become aware your not at the camp yet, its still miles away. Another of the video lessons plays on your mind- Do not hike at night, bears are more active and much more easily startled.

I vaguely remember the part of the safety video saying something about don’t run in bear country , but when there is less than a hour of light and the dying sun in on the horizon with 3 miles to go, i decided to flex the rules a little. This worked brilliantly and i commending myself for a good first hike solo when i arrived at a clearing about a mile before the camp.

Less than 100 yards away right on the middle of the trail was one of these colossal beasts i had spent the day fearing. The educational video lessons completely drained from my mind. I froze up. This hike was a bad idea. Tomorrow nights news was going to be about a lone British Hiker killed by a Grizzly Bear. I’ve seen videos of them charging and i wouldn’t stand a chance. This was it, the end, 700 pounds of death dealing machine had me in its gaze.i held my bear spray in front of me, thinking how can this possibly stop that death machine?! And then…..it happened.

With one almighty look….it turned away, walked over a stream and was gone. I was bemused. It looked right at me… But didn’t try to tear me apart for its evening meal.

It had no interest in me. I’M ALIVE!!!!!!!!! This was the best thing all day, i carried on the the campground , with the occasional glance over my shoulder. It was dark when i arrived, but was greeted by a few friendly hikers. ‘Theres a Big Bear a mile that way!!! Big Grizzly!!!’. A few smiles back at me, ‘First bear encounter Ay?’.

 

 

 

Time is running out

My friends are all growing up, they have partners, cars on finance, mortgages and bills. I don’t think many of them intended it, but life caught them and suddenly they became sensible.  Which is a problem for me. Because I am not sensible.  Each time I have had enough money saved to grow up and get a house; a little voice opens up in my head (figuratively speaking of course).

This voice is one of defiance; resistance to 9-5 life; disgust that this might be it. Its the voice that tells me chase one more childhood dream before you can’t, before I’m imprisoned with commitments, loans, limits, ageing body and health . I try to reason with it ‘i need to invest in my future, I have no pension, I’ll have nothing!!!!’. But this voice doesn’t listen, it pushes me.It drives me every waking moment.

 

It needs feeding. It needs experiences! Highs,lows, fear, tears, pain, overwhelming joy, space, mountains, rivers, hot and cold, culture, art, and maybe if the Beatles were right a little love.  I’ve been travelling a few times now, here and there. Each place I have been I see more things I need to do,  Its exponential. I don’t have enough years left to cover it all. But ill try. This time I’m write about some of it too.

The pic at the top was taken in 2015 on the approach to the Wind River Range on the CDT. My feet were battered and blistered and i couldn’t have been happier.