Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches:
Safety, Comfort and Back Country Attitude

Last week I began a short series of Dispatches about safety in the back country.  I suggested that safety depended upon taking three things into the woods, the right experience, the right attitude and essential gear.  I wrote a little bit about experience first.

This week I’d like to focus on attitude, which is all too often overlooked in safety guides.  It is likely the most important factor: a strong attitude in a dangerous situation can prevail over a lack of experience and/or poor or missing gear, but all the experience and gear in the world cannot overcome a destructive attitude.   After all, attitude is about human psychology.  There is nothing more debilitating than personal psychology gone wrong and the Adirondack wilderness has an uncanny knack for accomplishing that.

There are some obvious elements to a proper attitude toward back country expeditions, like having respect for the wilderness or focusing on the journey instead of the destination.  One would think they hardly need mentioning yet it is surprising how often they are at the core of a safety problem.   This can be an issue for novice hikers or experienced back country enthusiasts alike.

As always, a story will make a good illustration.

A year ago I set out upon an ambitious hike.  I had decided to “celebrate” turning fifty by getting in the best shape of my life and attempting a winter climb of twenty-three of the 46 High Peaks in five days.  This kind of goal-centered challenge is not my usual modus operandi: it was a complete artifice, concocted to fight-off growing old with some sort of symbolism and sense of accomplishment.

As fate would have it, my work schedule determined that I could not do the trip until mid-May.  I’m sure you all remember last May, so it will come as no surprise to you that despite the fact that it was no longer winter I encountered by far the worst conditions I have ever experienced in the Adirondacks.   Given my goal I had gone light: no tent, no snowshoes.   This turned out to be interesting, with a record snow pack still largely intact and heavy rain every day and night.  There were scant back country reports in the days before I started and the one trip report I had read was, in hindsight, unrealistically rosy.

I had no idea what I was getting into but it didn’t take long to find out.  Early during my first ascent, which was Phelps, I discovered that I was in for a potentially transcendental challenge.  Day one’s agenda was to continue on to Tabletop, Marcy and Haystack before overnighting near Slant Rock.  I felt strong; all the training had paid off.  But by the time I was moving up from Indian Falls I was more than a little concerned.  The snow pack was much deeper than I had expected, at least four feet at that point, and I had to stay on the spine to keep from post-holing every step.  The going was slow, the mist became a drizzle, then a downpour.

It got much worse from there.

The next day, on the section beyond Marcy, I nearly gave up.  Coming up to Basin from my overnight was an utterly exhausting slog through six to seven feet of waterlogged, unstable snow (at Slant Rock the night before I had come upon a pile of bloody bandages, discarded first aid items and an emergency blanket; I only learned after I came out that someone had been rescued just two days before when he became exhausted and hypothermic while trying roughly the same route).   My schedule required me to do the entirety of the Great Range this day, followed by Nippletop, Dial and the Lesser Range- Colvin, Blake and Pinnacle – on day three.  It seemed a futile pace under the conditions.

I was tremendously disheartened.  I had just spent months getting into excellent condition; now all my acquired endurance seemed beside the point.  I had a private few minutes on the shoulder of Haystack where, overcome with frustration and emotion, I stood in snow nearly up to my waist frozen with indecision, unable to move forward and unwilling to turn back.   I was pretty thoroughly soaked from the constant rain and the wet snow; I felt cold, clammy and miserable.

I was too experienced to have been in real danger at that moment; nonetheless, looking back I can tell you that the kind of psychology that can bring on serious jeopardy in no time flat was in full thrall.

Then I had the closest thing to an epiphany I have experienced in years.   In a sudden flash of clarity I understood why I was out there and nowhere else, how deeply I loved these mountains.  I dropped the attitude that the important thing was to make the schedule, master the challenge.  I remembered the only thing that really mattered to me was to be in the woods, to be immersed in Nature ascendant, to take matters as they came.  To hell with the agenda: I would continue on, do what I could and cherish every part of it.  If discomfort was part of the game, so be it… why should that matter?  If I was only to summit a dozen peaks… well that would be plenty good in these conditions.

This simple change in attitude instantly altered my situation.  I found myself moving forward again in a rhythm dictated by the conditions, savoring the solitude, the cold, the summit winds, the mist – in short the wilderness on its terms.  It made all the difference.  The next thing I knew it was night and I was under my tarp on the shoulder of Lower Wolfjaw with a tremendous rainstorm splattering the foot of my bag, the Great Range in my rear view mirror.

Two days later, on the tail end of my loop through the heart of the High Peaks I did the hardest mile-and-a-half of my life: the ascent from Panther Gorge to the Four Corners.  Conditions, with an unstable snow pack on top of a literal roar of runoff below, were simply appalling.  The surface of the snow was pristine – not a single sign anyone had been that way in a long time.  No spine, no packed snow, just winter’s blanket fiercely fragmenting and washing away.   Those of you who know both that particular trail and the general challenge of backpacking in spring conditions will appreciate that the climb to the Four Corners took more than three hours.  It was agony.  It was also fantastic.

The next day, exhausted and happy, I commenced my hike out to Adirondack Loj.  Since my attitude shift on the way to Basin I had remained in wonderful spirits, thrilled to be in such primeval conditions and so beautifully alone (I saw only two people in forty miles of hiking: one unprepared hiker turning back from Marcy on the first day and one Forest Ranger clearing blowdown on the trail to Colvin).

My hike-out day happened to be the Friday of Victoria Day weekend, the first big influx of the season into the High Peaks being that Victoria Day is a big Canadian holiday.  Trailheads are often packed and back country camping areas fill rapidly.  That morning I rendezvoused with my son Zach at Lake Colden.  There was one party at a lean-to down the way and not another soul anywhere else.  I’ll never see Lake Colden like that for the rest of my life.

Having received word of a gravely ill family member I scrapped my plan to hike out over the McIntyre Range and Zach and I took the usual way out, via Avalanche Pass (I’ll admit I did not regret the missed opportunity to ascend Cold Brook Pass and bushwhack to Shepard’s Tooth in such lovely conditions).  As we approached Marcy Dam we finally began to encounter the second example of attitude issues I will be offering out of this story:  pretty hikers.

At first it was a trickle, but by mid-morning things were rolling.  As Zach and I continued the last two miles from Marcy Dam to the Loj we were greeted by a steady stream of hikers headed the other way, many of them quite pretty.  Let me offer an example of “pretty,” one woman in particular who made quite an impression.  She appeared to be in her early twenties, tall and lean, so perhaps reasonably fit.   She had drawn attention to herself long before we passed, not because of her beauty but because of the interesting and rhythmically complex way in which she was making her way up the trail, a non-linear weaving pattern best described in polar coordinates, interrupted every other step by an abrupt hitch and change of course.  Ah, the mysterious art of trail erosion.

Her hair was the first thing I noticed: it was perfect, coiffed and done up with a handful of colorful doodads and gee-gaws.  Her outfit was very nice.  Unlike many of the other parties we passed on the way out she did not look like she had just stepped off the set of an L. L. Bean Catalog photo shoot.  Rather, she looked like she had just come out of an upscale mall.  I braced myself and lowered my gaze to her footwear, even as the redolent odor of cedar and damp earth was overtaken by the fruity miasma of whatever she had doused herself with.  There they were: a pair of those closed-toe sandal thingies with little heels.  To her infinite credit they were nearly spotless, this more than a mile in.  What care she must have exercised.

This young lady was in the company of three impressive and manly companions, purposeful and athletic.  They wore tennis shoes and those shorts everybody wears these days.  Thankfully their underwear was not visible.  We conversed, briefly.

“Were you overnight?”

“Yup” (honest to god you can imagine what I looked like at this point in the festivities).

“Where’d you go?”

“Oh, around.  Where are you headed?”

“Marcy… that’s the big one, right?”

“Uh… well be careful.” (then futilely, as they marched on) “There’s a lot of snow up there.”

When we got to the parking lot we came upon the sight of a man standing motionless by the trail register.  And what a sight he was!  Here was someone who looked more weary than I did, more beaten down, more burdened by existential futility than such a five day grind as I had endured could ever cause.  Yet he held his post, Ranger Jim Giglinto, greeting every single party and gainfully attempting to tell them what they were headed into.  What a man of courage!  I would lose my sanity after a morning of that.  We had a brief conversation, I updated him on conditions as best I could, we commiserated over Panther Gorge and I wished him luck over the coming weekend.

I returned to civilization to thankfully discover that my relative was out of danger.  Zach and I went to our usual motel and – in a measure of a successful trip of rare duration and content – I stripped out of my clothing and threw most of it away.

The moral of this story?  Oh goodness, there are so many.

I suppose before closing I should actually offer some constructive comments about proper back country attitude, most of them hopefully reflected in the above story.  First and foremost, respect the wilderness.  You are going to have to deal with it on its terms and those terms are unrelenting.  Beginners can be excused for footwear and perfume; it is we experienced folks who need a reminder to be on our guard and not take Adirondacks for granted.  Second, don’t treat the woods as a competition.  This attitude can manifest itself in a plethora of ways, from setting artificial challenges to obsessing over some magical threshold of pack weight, which can be very counter-productive (more on that one next week).  Third, focus on the journey, not the destination.  If you hike in the Adirondacks a dozen times you are guaranteed not to make your destination at least a few of them.  Don’t freak out about it.  Fourth, have a realistic attitude about your fitness.  I am a firm believer that people of any fitness level can enjoy the Adirondack back country, but not everyone I know is good for the north face of Gothics.   Fifth, practice an attitude of self-reliance.  This is partly a matter of experience but it is more a matter of trusting your intuition and common sense rather than your equipment.  An overwrought focus on gear gets in the way of a self-reliant attitude; be careful about that.

Finally, there is a crucial matter that I think gets confused all too frequently: one’s attitude toward comfort.  Many hard core backpackers act as though comfort is not very important.  Lots of people focus on pack weight at the expense of comfort.  Bringing the “comforts of home” is typically a notion that invites derision.  What gets lost in this Spartan disposition is an important distinction.

My opinion, honed from decades of experience, is that comfort it a critical asset to safety.  But the attitudinal distinction that makes it work is this: comfort should not be considered as something that accompanies you; comfort should only be considered as something attainable, something that you can achieve when you need to, no matter what.

If you are backpacking ten miles in a downpour you are not going to be comfortable.  If you are hiking from Colvin to Pinnacle you are not in any conceivable context going to be comfortable.  Jettison any idea of comfort while you do the miles, for on the trail a Spartan attitude is a plus.  However as you do your thing make sure you carry whatever you need so that no matter what has happened during the day you can attain comfort at the end of it.  If you cannot sleep well in a cramped tent bring a 4-person tent.  If you can’t feel perfectly comfortable without a pillow then a pillow just got promoted to an item of critical safety equipment.

The human capacity to endure discomfort when work is being done, when activity underway, is remarkably high.  One of the joys of being a back country type is in rediscovering this.  But discomfort without end, an easy thing to experience backpacking in the Adirondacks, is utterly debilitating.  The psychology of “no end in sight to this” has robbed people of their will throughout history.    The difference between that and “it sucks now but at 4 PM I’m going make the most lovely camp and be cozy” is a game changer and is what I think the proper attitude toward comfort is all about.  Seriously, a change of dry undergarments can be the greatest experience on the world.

All this has clear implications for what goes in the pack.  On the one hand it is easy to go overboard on safety gear; self-reliance, experience and attitude are far more important. Furthermore, bringing a lot of gear to keep one’s self comfortable while hiking is, in my view, fairly useless.  These things point to a comparatively empty pack.  On the other hand, my view that it is vital to be able to achieve perfect comfort at the end of the day means the pack starts filling again, albeit with different things.

Next week I’ll invite the slings and arrows of fellow equipment gurus by covering the essential gear in my ideal back country pack.

Photo Caption:  The North Face of Gothics, not the best choice for a first hike

Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

11 Responses

  1. Jeff Calderone says:

    “There is nothing more debilitating than personal psychology gone wrong and the Adirondack wilderness has an uncanny knack for accomplishing that.” SO TRUE!!!

    Amazing how calimity follows the unprepaired and how the woods can get the best of your mind when allowed to run rampant. This should be required reading for all wilderness enthusiast. Your experiance and knowlege shines through your writing…
    Looking forward to next weeks article!

  2. Jack Rupp says:

    This has to be one of the most enlightening articles I’ve read about the ADK’s! Bravo! I live in Cincinnati OH, roughly 800 miles away from Keene. I try to make it frequent the high peaks region 4 – 5 times a year to become a 46’r. I’ve been pretty fortunate to have had decent weather for the 28 peaks I’ve summited. However, I had to turn around due to deep snow on Giant (5/2008) and the Santa’s just last month. Since I live a days drive away, every moment spent in the Dak’s is precious to me. I totally agree with you when you say, “screw the agenda; soak-in and enjoy the journey.”

  3. Brian Whittemore says:

    Pete, Excellent article…yet again. Thanks and keep ’em coming. I recall that in the 70s around Lake Tear while descending the back side of Marcy, our party ran into a solo male hiker heading toward the summit wearing dress shoes and carrying a suitcase.

  4. Paul says:

    Brian, that sounds like something from the Twilight Zone.

    Your comments on comfort are true. As long as I am comfortable I don’t care how long it takes me to get out of the woods. That goes for attitude as well. You are not lost, you are where you are. As long as you have a compass you will get home eventually. If you don’t panic! Not really. There you just need to look up as you are walking out. The sun rises in the east. We all know where the north star is right?

  5. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


    I am just out of the woods, a visit that included a climb to the summit of Big Slide. You think you’ve seen everything… And then… I just saw a group of young men who acscended Big Slide with a mortar shelll, a good two feet long. Why, you ask? Good question.

  6. Paul says:

    Pete, remember to report any suspicious activity to homeland security!

  7. Paul says:

    Pete, you must have bridged the subject, or did you not talk to them?

    It would sound kind of like this:

    “what a beautiful day. the summit view is great toady. I notice you are carrying a mortar shell, I assume it is not a live shell? Why are you carrying a mortar shell?”

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      I did, close to your imagination of it. The answer was – I’m reporting this verbatim – “Oh I dunno, just something, you know.”

      • Paul says:

        Classic. Thanks for the reply. I am not sure which picture I find more amusing the kids with the shell or the guy with the suitcase! One of my favorites are the guys wearing just a pair of running shorts and maybe they have a water bottle but nothing else. They are pretty common.

  8. Hey, awesome website but there is a issue whereby on occassion I am redirected to the root page whenever I view other pages in this blog.

    • John Warren John Warren says:

      Thanks Oliva, we’ll look into it.

      If you can provide an example that would be very helpful.


      John Warren