A tale of risk, adventure, and exhaustion April 22, 2012Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, memoir, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: hiking, hiking safety
One day, four people set out to reach a certain point in the Smokies. The group consisted of two guys relatively new to off-trail hiking but very fit, a fellow I’ve been hiking with over the past year, and me.
The hike was my idea, but our decisions were made jointly—except for one person’s decision when it grew dark.
The total elevation gain for the day was 4700′, most of it off-trail. We hiked four miles on a trail and climbed 1100 vertical feet, dropped off the trail via a manway and lost 1800′, climbed 2100 feet off trail, reached a point where the group decided it was dangerous to go higher, backtracked down 1000′, climbed 1100′ up a familiar route, dropped 100′ to a trail, climbed 400′, and finally descended 1200′ to our starting point.
Why did we backtrack so far? Because it looked easier than traversing directly over to the familiar route—a debatable point.
When we climbed up the familiar route to regain our elevation, I became exhausted. We had been on terrain that was incredibly steep, hanging onto roots, rocks, and branches, and I was simply worn out. Part of it was the upper body strength required—I just don’t have the arm muscle.
I can honestly say that I have never been so tired in my life, not after climbing Mt. Whitney as a day hike, not after doing the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains. After doing all kinds of hard hikes, I had finally reached my limit.
My pace slowed dramatically. I fell behind the group as we climbed up the familiar route. It was growing dark. I turned on my headlamp and proceeded as best I could through steep tangles of brush and blowdown. I knew which way to go, but it was hard negotiating the obstacles in the headlamp’s narrow beam.
I heard voices at the top of the ridge—they were calling me. It took me a long time to zero in on them. It was just the two guys new to bushwhacking, and neither one had a headlamp. The fourth person, who had one, had departed, concerned that his girlfriend was getting worried, and leaving the other two sitting in dense forest, off-trail, in the dark.
Using my compass, I navigated the way to the trail, with the two others following. We reached the trail and made our last climb of the day. I was so exhausted that my legs wobbled.
The two guys were good sports about my slow pace, and they kept up a cheerful conversation until we finally reached our destination. I am extremely grateful to them. I would have made it out without them, but it was much more pleasant to have their company.
The irony was that they were in much better shape at that point than I was, but they might not have made it out that night if I hadn’t had the headlamp and compass.
You might think I’d decide not to do this stuff any more, but no, I’ll keep doing it. These places are too valuable to me to give them up. And after all the adventures I’ve had out there, it was simply a statistical likelihood I’d have an experience like this at some point.
But I will try to keep it within my own personal limits.