Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hiking: The Agony of the ‘Death March’

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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

8 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    The “death march” is all part of the fun! I think it helps to be a bit masochistic in some circumstances when hiking. Look at mountaineering in the big mountains if you look at it the wrong way it all looks like a “death march”.

  2. Karen Smith says:

    I moved to New York State in 1978 (i think) and took on a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps operating out of Newcomb NY. In short, we did trail maintenance in the High Peaks from the Tahawus side. I was a city girl and not in great shape. We hauled our personal gear and tools and stayed in the woods for a week. On one of our trips, we head over Indian Pass. It was my turn to carry the two burner stove. I don’t know, maybe it was the size or just too much weight for me. I dropped a saw between two huge rocks and when I went to retrieve it, my pack had wedged itself between the two rocks. My feet were hanging in the air and I was screaming for someone to come and help me. By the time someone walked back, I was delerious and quit right then and there. Of course you can’t just quit something in the middle of the High Peaks, and of course I didn’t quit. It was probably the only time I was ever delirious in my life. Death March? That whole Indian Pass was a death march. It never ended, it never became fun, did I mention that it never ended? Looking back on it now, gee, I haven’t revisited this story in my life for years, I do remember hiking so far down that there was snow in July under the rocks, and getting into the areas where the hurricanes of the 1950’s hit were so much harder to hike than Indian Pass. It’s all good and eventually lead me down a path were I met some good people and became a licensed Guide for New York State for 15 years.

    • Dan Crane says:


      That is an awesome story! Thank you so much for sharing it with everyone.

      During the same trip, I described in my article, my friend and I ended the trip by hiking from Rocky Falls all the way to Tahawus right through Indian Pass. I remember it being quite arduous, but the weather was nice, warm and our packs were so very light. That is an amazing area, but I have never gotten back since then. I might need to make a point to revisit it soon.

      I am just starting my journey to becoming a licensed Guide last weekend with the taking of the Wilderness First Aid class. Hopefully, I will be taking the exam next month.

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    I’m with Paul. I love the rhythm of hard work and toil, and whether a hike is pushed by circumstances past plans or plans change or weight is more than anticipated or the route is worse… whatever the issues they have become barely relevant to me. I take what the woods gives me and savor it all.

    However with that said some things still reach a “death march” threshold. Last May I did a hike to “celebrate” turning fifty. I have described some of this hike in my Dispatch on Back Country Safety and Attitude, but it was an attempt to climb 23 High Peaks in 5 days. I commenced the hike in the worst conditions I have ever experienced in the Adirondacks, courtesy of a near-record snowpack which was being besieged by the legendary rains we all remember from last May. With incredibly treacherous footing I fell behind on the first day and barely held my own through the second day, which was the Great Range traverse. But on the third day – Dial, Nippletop. Colvin and Blake – I ran our out of daylight on the tail end of the Lesser Range and had to stop in darkness partway down Pinnacle.

    I was supposed have reached Panther Gorge so that the fourth day would begin with an ascent to the Four Corners, then Skylight, Gray, Redfield, Cliff and Colden before collapsing for the night somewhere near the Opalescent. But here I was still on the shoulder of Pinnacle with Panther Gorge yet many miles away. I started at 6 AM in the murky dawn and promptly took the wrong trail, a private AMR trail that took me to the camps at the end of Upper Ausable. Tired and disoriented as I was I went most of the way up to Otis’ Ledge before I figured out my mistake. That cost 2 hours and hard work. Then I had to get to Panther Gorge via a submerged, slushy, snowy trail through the Marcy Stillwater area. Early on in that part of the festivities I got sick to my stomach. The death march was on in earnest!

    I got to Panther Gorge around eleven-thirty AM feeling horrible and nauseous. But I’d gone this far so up I went. The 1 1/2 mile ascent to the Four Corners was the hardest hike I’ve ever done. Executed through 4-5 feet of pristine, never-broken-in snow laden with moisture and being eaten-away from below by runoff, it was just appalling. The ascent took me three hours.

    Now it was two-thirty PM with only 5 High Peaks to go. Needless to say I had to scale-back plans, giving up Gray and Colden, but even so the hike down to Lake Colden made the wonderful stretch along the Opalescent seem as though it were 50 miles of dredging swamp.

    I’m not sure what things I proved that day but my own brilliance was not one of them. I still can feel the exhaustion.

    • Paul says:

      Yes, there is a deep satisfaction that comes from having accomplished something that has been difficult. These are the kinds of things you can learn in the woods and carry back with you to town, or city, or wherever.

      With that said, Pete it sound like this trip you describe may have not ended so much with satisfaction but with relief!

      What were you thinking!

  4. Jack says:

    I’ve been on a few death marches and like Paul I take satisfaction from the sense of accomplishment. A couple of things come to mind from reading your piece Dan and they are the roles of leadership and pre-trip planning.
    1. What is a death march to some may be a stroll in the park to others. If I had to chose I’d lean towards the easier trip and disappoint the “in shape” group member rather than the “out of shape” group member.
    2. As I got better in planning trips I took pride in planning trips that avoid the death march feel. Avoiding blisters is relatively easy. (Care for the hot spots before the become blisters.) Avoiding downpours and bugs not so easy. Avoiding long distances can usually be planned for. (Plan short distances per day.) Pre-trip conditioning and taking breaks frequently so as to keep group members from getting exhausted can always be done.
    My mentor, Paul Petzoldt, said that the success of a trip is largely determined before you leave home. Good planning eliminates most death march experiences. I’m not sure we want to eliminate all of them. 🙂

  5. Gillian says:

    My death marches are not too exciting… as Jack says, what are death marches to some are strolls in the park to others. I did some of the harder High Peaks with my husband as day trips as he was finishing up his 46. The last few miles out of Allen I remember as being particularly difficult – my feet start to hurt around 12 miles and got worse with every agonizing step. There was also the slog out from Sawteeth (normally a nice, easy walk along the Ausable Club road) that was made difficult by pouring rain and a knee injury. Ditto Dix, but this time a hamstring injury, no rain. I had more fun and suffered less when we started backpacking – despite the heavy pack, the lower mileage made a big difference for me mentally. I really can’t say I got a whole lot of satisfaction out of the death march experiences… they were bad enough that I was talking about giving up on my own quest for the 46. It was only the knowledge that not every trip had to be so awful that kept me going back.

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