Almost every outdoor recreationist has endured a long, arduous hike at some point. Sometimes these difficult hikes take on an added sense of misery due to blistered and sore feet, heavy downpours or especially voracious mosquitoes. When each step becomes a struggle, the miles seem to drag on without end and the trail becomes the central focus of the universe then the hike becomes a bona fide “death march”.
A death march, although miserable, is much less severe than the portentous term implies. A slightly less ominous term used to describe this phenomenon is the forced march. By any name, it remains one of the worst hiking experiences, and one to avoid if possible.
A death march is an overly ambitious hike, in which the last few miles appear endless. The ambitiousness of the hike can be due to the number of miles involved, an overly aggressive terrain, unfriendly weather, hordes of angry biting insects, or if extremely unlucky, a combination of all of these factors. Typically, a death march is not identified until it is too late; miles after the last acceptable lean-to, campsite, lake, etc. has passed and still miles before the next one ahead.
A death march is not just a phenomenon of the body though; it has a mental component as well. The physical discomfort, combined with a seemingly ceaseless ribbon of trail ahead, leads to a state of mental dissociation. This dissociation creates the perception of time standing still, which perpetuates the feelings of the trail miles creeping by. Often, this sense of the trail’s endlessness is exponentially worse than the physical discomfort.
During my hiking career, I participated in many death marches. With my recent outdoor adventures consisting of an increasing number of bushwhacks, the opportunities for death marches are much less frequent. The lack of trail, the propensity of hiking fewer miles and the increased opportunity of breaking my neck, if not careful, seems to prevent the necessary conditions for a death march on a bushwhacking adventure.
I vividly remember one death march many years ago in the High Peaks. A friend and I planned a weeklong trip around the High Peaks, including climbing five peaks, four of which I still needed to summit as I was an aspiring Adirondack 46er at the time. In addition to climbing Marshall, Redfield, Cliff, Skylight and Haystack mountains, we planned to visit Flowed Lands, Panther Gorge, John Brooks Lodge, Adirondack Loj and Indian Pass.
Although many interesting events occurred on this trip (including a probable encounter with the legendary black bear named Tractor), the death march took place on the fifth day out, when we hiked from Panther Gorge to Klondike lean-to in the off and on rain. The long day included climbing Mt. Haystack in a downpour, searching for the new Slant Rock lean-to, being turned away at a completely jam-packed Bushnell Falls lean-to during a downpour and debating on whether taking the last two bunks at Johns Brook Lodge would ruin the wilderness nature of our trip.
Although the day was long and arduous, with plenty of misery heaped upon us by thunderstorms, downpours and biting insects, it was not until we passed on staying at Johns Brook Lodge that the hike took on the characteristics of a death march. Soon after passing on the two serendipitous bunks available at the Lodge, we became completely quiet with the last 2.7 miles seemly taking an eternity to hike.
Despite the misery of this death march, it could have been worse. Just moments after arriving at the Klondike Lean-to, a large group of children arrived to see two middle-aged men unpacking in their lean-to. If the death march had been any longer, we would have been the ones setting up our single tarp in the rain.
Death marches are an inevitable part of the hiking experience, and often provide some of the most vivid memories in the backcountry. Have you endured any particularly interesting death marches in your hiking career? If so, share them in the comments below, so the rest of us can poke fun at your expense. I mean, learn from your experience.
Photo: Ribbon of trail in Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.