What went right, what went wrong: Five lessons learned on the trail

All revved up and ready to go.

Experience can teach you a lot about hiking, and as the years go by, understanding yourself, your skills and your limitations goes a long way to being a safer hiker. Mistakes often turn into lasting lessons that make future outings much more enjoyable. And while that newbie phase can be fun and exciting, it can also put you in a world of hurt.

It’s one thing to use those lessons to help yourself. But what about the people you’re with? I hike solo from time to time, but many times I’m with other people, with varying levels of experience, ability and ambition. Mix a bunch of these folks into one outing, and you can have a comprehensive, positive experience, or you can have a hot mess.

Those years on the trail have given me a mix of both. I’ll summarize a few scenarios and go over what went right, and what went wrong.

BACKPACKING TRIP

View hiking up Wheeler Peak, NM.

Books, movies and tales told face-to-face can make outdoor adventures appealing to a wide group of people, and my own stories of hiking New Mexico’s highest mountain, Wheeler Peak, drew some interest. I took my wife, Bec, her sister, and two friends and we hauled our gear to the trailhead of the Middle Fork Trail. It is a 16-mile round-trip hike.

Our plan: Hike five miles to Lost Lake, camp there, summit the next morning and then head back down for steaks and high-fives in nearby Red River.

In terms of, well, everything, this group was all over the map. My friends had done plenty of backpacking in the western U.S. and in China, but were a little light on their fitness. The same could be said for Bec, who was also new to backpacking. Her sister, Liz, was also a relative noob in backpacking, but was in marathon-ready shape. People’s gear was anything from high-end to inadvisable.

In terms of our objective, all of us summited the peak and made it back to Red River safely. Success! Right? Well, sort of. My friends had their moments of altitude sickness. Liz did great. Bec’s boots lacked proper support and her socks gave her blisters early on in the hike. By the time it was over, her feet were wrecked and the back side of her foot was shredded. What should have been a tired but happy scene at the trailhead was really some dazed folks and no shortage of tears.

What went right: We got most of the gear right, and the scope of the trip was (barely) within the level of everyone’s abilities. We reached our objectives, and got back safe.

What went wrong: Plenty. Only two of us were really in shape for this effort, and it’s asking a lot of new hikers to embark on a higher-altitude backpacking trip in the Rockies. Footwear was obviously an issue. I’d say we got away with a lot of mistakes, and this easily could have bred more serious situations.

Being the leader of this group, a lot of that is on me. I could have easily picked a different objective more within the group’s collective abilities, and a pre-trip gear check would have saved my poor spouse a lot of grief. As for the others, they are responsible for their own conditioning, and to a degree, everyone is accountable to do the proper research on gear. We all learned from this one.

WEATHER ON THE MOUNTAIN

Marching up toward the Keyhole on Longs Peak, CO.

As you grow in your outdoor experience, bigger and tougher goals become more appealing. Easier walk-ups give way to scrambles, which often lead to exposed, airy climbs. Before you know it, the newbie hiker of years past is boasting summits of big Latin American volcanoes, or Rainier, or maybe Grand Teton while eyeing Denali.

That’s not me, but the progression is similar. I went with some friends to tackle Longs Peak, Colorado, a couple of years ago, hoping to knock off a tougher peak.

Longs Peak is a lengthy route. Alpine starts often have you hitting the trail at 2 a.m., with thoughts of beating the weather around this notoriously unpredictable mountain. It has a big stretch near the top where you don’t want to be when the weather goes south.

We set off at 2:15 a.m., and made OK time to the Boulder Field, a bumpy section just before the standard route’s famous Keyhole. The Keyhole is where hiking gives way to scrambling, climbing and exposure en route to the summit.

But we’d heard from others that a previous day’s storms had dumped some wet, sloppy snow over the upper portions of the mountains. Clouds were swirling around the summit. Winds were up. A couple of us (me, for one) were dragging a bit. When we got to the Keyhole, we took a peek around the corner and saw, with dismay, that the reports we heard were true. The route conditions looked bad, especially since some of us weren’t as salty as the rest.

The de facto leader of the group, a fella named Dillon, saw it right away. And he’s the one who called it. We munched our summit food at the rock shelter by the Keyhole, packed up and headed down the mountain, stopped well short of our objective.

What went right: We listened to the voice of experience. Dillon has it in bucketloads. Even though we were equipped for the task, those of us on the lower level of experience might not have been ready for the route conditions. And the weather’s unpredictability made it an obvious no-go. Any protests were weak and short-lived. We knew the truth.

What went wrong: Nothing for anyone else. I’d criticize my level of fitness for that one. I know better now. Aside from that, I have memories of a big, burly mountain, Chasm Lake, and sunrise over one of the nation’s iconic national parks.

PACING A NEWCOMER

Hiking down Mount LeConte.

A couple of years ago, my sister-in-law Jen wanted to go with me to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike Mount LeConte. While not the Rockies, the bigger mountains of eastern Tennessee can have long routes with plenty of elevation gain. LeConte was no different, with the route we chose being the Alum Cave Bluff Trail: 11 miles with nearly 3,000 feet of gain to its summit.

Jen’s a gamer, but she’s also new to this. We took off on the lower part of the trail, and I set my usual pace.

Not long after you hit Arch Rock, the route steepens. We live around 800 feet above sea level, and by this time we were getting into the upper 4,000-foot level. It was right about there that I figured it was wise to slow things down.

Once we got to Alum Cave Bluff, we took a break. I wasn’t sure how much further Jen wanted to go, but after catching her breath, we decided to keep going. With a more measured pace and breaks every 20 to 30 minutes, we topped out on one of Tennessee’s highest peaks. It turned into a spectacular day that lit a fire under her for more adventures.

What went right: Recognizing that our early pace was too fast, and breaking the hike down into more manageable chunks. This is what I have to do in the Rockies, and it would make sense to do that here where the elevation was significantly higher than at home. It was also important to “read” my hiking partner: She’s got a lot of heart and a true competitor’s spirit, so her capacity to endure some physical hardship was going to be greater than others. That, combined with the right pace, got us to the top and back safely.

What went wrong: Really, it went about as well as I could have imagined. Had I insisted on keeping a faster pace, our trip likely would have ended sooner, and might have led to some hard feelings. I can’t emphasize how important it is to observe your partners. Glad we nipped that in the bud early.

NOT FEELING RIGHT

Late light at Hobbs State Park, AR.

I’m going to rat on Bec again with this one.

We were out in Arkansas recently, having a very chill few days in the hills and woods near Bentonville. We wanted to spend one day hiking some trails, and I found some good ones at Hobbs State Park.

But Bec was suffering from allergies, which led to some allergy medicine being taken the night before our planned hike. It did great in helping her sleep. But it left her in a fog the next day.

My plan was to get out there and hike as long as she saw fit, then turn around and head back. In more recent months, she’s gone on day hikes with me that went anywhere from two to five miles, with our most recent outing in New Mexico. She handled five miles at 8,600+ feet just fine, so I had no real worries.

I wanted her to lead for a few reasons. First, I figured it would be more fun for her if she had something to look at other than my backside. Second, it would allow us (force us) to go at her pace. And third, she wouldn’t be pressured to keep going if I was plowing away in the lead.

But dang, that medicine. It left her groggy and her head was swimming. She was kicking rocks the whole way, just short of tripping on, well, everything. It was a gorgeous day with good temperatures, and the forest in this park is a fantastic mix of hardwoods and pines. No matter. The medicine’s after-effects were making this outing a big case of “nope.” A mile in, we turned around, headed back to the car and hunted down some dinner.

What went right: Making her lead was the right decision. I wanted this to be fun for both of us, and crashing down the trail as fast as I can wasn’t going to do anything for me. I was just happy to be out there, regardless of how far we went. Having her set the pace and lead the way gave us the best chance of both of us enjoying it. When that became impossible, it made sense to pack it in when she was ready.

What went wrong: Really, nothing. We missed out on the overlooks further up the trail, but had we pushed through and done the whole four-mile loop, would it have been any fun at all? Nope.

SICK AS A DOG AT 14,000 FEET

I wish I could say I was feeling great about this summit in this pic. I wasn’t.

Now I’m going to tattle on myself. Back in 2008, a group of us decided to take a shot at Mount Yale in Colorado, a 14,000-foot peak near Buena Vista.

I’d been battling respiratory issues in the weeks leading up to the trip. A hacking cough pestered me to no end. But I figured I could give it a go.

We backpacked in a mile, set up camp and set out for Yale’s summit the next morning.

Early on, things seemed fine. I started slowing down more around 12,000 feet. Nothing unusual there. But at 13,000 feet, I started feeling side cramps. Normally, cramps like that occur when you’re running or sprinting, not when you’re hiking. Leg cramps? Sure. A side-stitch? No. But that’s what I was feeling. With no real idea what was going on, I pushed on.

The cramps got worse, and by the time I topped out, I was gassed. Here’s where things got weird.

Those side cramps, which came with the expected heart/lung stress of going uphill at altitude, didn’t go away. Anytime I got moving, the cramps would take hold. When I stopped, I was getting strangely cold. Soon, symptoms of altitude sickness were taking hold. I was moving slowly down the mountain, and weather was moving in. Treeline seemed incredibly far off. My declining physical state, and the conditions moving in, got me worried.

I knew if I got to treeline, I’d be OK. But I also knew I needed to eat something. I did, though I almost barfed it up. Having been on the mountain much longer than I thought, I was running low on water.

Eventually I got to treeline. I ran into a group of hikers, swallowed my pride, and asked if they had anything they could spare to drink.

When I got back to camp, my condition only worsened. Back at home, a hospital visit revealed a severe case of pneumonia, pleurisy and fluid around my heart. Recovery from this mess took a couple of months.

What went right: Well, I did summit! In all seriousness, though, not much. It was good that I recognized my predicament, kept heading downhill and, when available, asked for help. I ate when I needed to. I put myself in a position to get home safely, see a doctor and get treatment.

What went wrong: Almost everything else. This trip is a laundry list of avoidable errors. For starters, I should never have gone. The hacking cough was a good sign that whatever was ailing me wasn’t done. Those weird side cramps should have been a big enough red flag to turn me around. The two liters of water wasn’t enough. Pneumonia is a serious condition anywhere, and downright dangerous at altitude (that’s what prompted the altitude sickness). Fluid around my heart and my right lung could have been lethal. Mount Yale is a beautiful mountain, but it’s not worth my life. It was good that I humbled myself and asked for help when I saw those other hikers. But that humility would have been better served by staying home.

I could go on, but that’s a good sampling of scenarios I’ve faced, along with the good and bad about the decisions that were made. Experience is a great teacher, and hopefully it’s made me a better – and safer – hiker.

Bob Doucette

2 thoughts on “What went right, what went wrong: Five lessons learned on the trail

  1. Thank you for your post. Your humility and experience is inspiring.

    I am always thinking about safety when I go out. I really should write that I am always thinking about how unsafe I am when I go out. The biggest thing is that I usually hike alone. After that I hedge my bets as best I can.

    I like to climb the 14ers in Colorado. I only did one 14er this season, Little Bear – southwest ridge. It took me four attempts. The last one was successful but it came at a cost. rolled ankle, near miss in a lightening strike, and a punctured eardrum. I made it to the top at what I thought was a respectable hour (9 am) but not respectable enough Beautiful clear morning at around 8:30 (no clouds anywhere) by 9:30 the clouds started rolling in and as 10:00 full thunderstorms formed (only over the Blanca group) San Luis Valley and the plains to the east were still clear.

    It took me until the next morning to make it back to the car. As I was bush whacking to cross the creek about 2 miles from the car at around 2:30 in the am I moved my head sideways into a small branch of a pinion tree. The branch went right into the ear drum and punctured it slightly. It has taken me about two months to heal from all that. (I am 53)

    On the attempt prior to this one I did go with someone else. However, the someone else wasn’t that serious about making the summit.

    I said all that to tell you that I really appreciate you copping to your humanity. I think every time I go out I end up doing something that is not in my best interest. Never-the-less that, unfortunately, is one of the strongest ways of learning..

    If you read all this, Thanks

    Andy

    • Little Bear is no joke! Glad everything ended up OK. It’s rare for me to do 13ers and 14ers solo, mostly because I like the company, and the safety factor. Tackling Little Bear via the SW ridge is an accomplishment.

      Had similar experiences on Crestone Peak. Decent enough weather window early, but it turned in a hurry. No summit that day. In any case, you got the summit AND some good lessons, and got back home in one piece. You can be grateful for that! Thanks for sharing your story.

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