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Saturday, October 8, 2016

The discreet hiker: Grand Canyon 1997, North Wales 2002

Some travels are business trips or visits to family and friends. Some travels are to see new places and spend time abroad. The best are combinations of these.

But a special kind of travel, which may be included in the former, is the adventure. The adventure is an activity, generally outdoors and physically demanding. For me this is usually some form of hiking. Of course, I can and do hike in places close  to where I currently live, and that can be an adventure. The two most adventurous hikes of my life, though, were in locations unfamiliar to me. They were exhilarating, and I'm proud that I managed them. Particularly because, looking back, I could have prepared so much better if I'd just known a little bit more.

It seems odd now that I'm writing this blog, but in 1997 when I hiked the Grand Canyon, and even 2002 when I attempted all the over-3,000-feet mountains in Wales, I wasn't getting much information from the internet. The extent of my preparation for hiking from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back, on a single hot day in July, was to take a lot of water, sunscreen, a hat, and the walking boots that I wore more or less every day. We saw signs at Grand Canyon National Park warning us not to attempt rim-to-river-and-back in one day, and chose to disregard them.

We were fine because we took the attempt seriously, stuck together, and carried a lot of water. But not in the efficient way we would today. I'd never heard of a "hydration system" (Camelbak is one brand name), where you carry a load of water in your backpack and can drink from a tube as you hike along. These are great, but we just had water bottles. In fact, my brother was carrying a gallon jug in his hand!

Now, I think about the amount of effort involved in carrying water this way (no free hand for hiking poles--we didn't have those either). We probably expended a lot of energy that we could have used on our ascent back out of the Canyon, when we were tired. Nonetheless, we planned in the most important ways. We had water and took time to rest in the shade. One group of guys we passed were sitting in the hot sun, drinking Pepsi, which is more dehydrating than the opposite.

In the afternoon, when we'd already been down to the river and partway back up to Indian Gardens, we took a rest spell in the hottest part of the day. For about four hours we stayed in picnic shelters and lay down, while the thermometer stuck at 125 degrees Fahrenheit--the highest it would display (it might have been hotter). It was not an advisable time of the year to hike in the Canyon, which gets so much hotter inside than it does on the rim. But--that was the month we were there. We wanted to do it, and we did manage. Took plenty of snacks--again, not clever, hiker-marketed snacks like energy bars or gels. My mom had provided us with, among other things, a box of crackers and Cheez Whiz.

The lesson from this is that although we looked like amateurs and we were, being sensible got us to the river and back to the rim without injury. The signs warn people against attempting to do what we did because many people aren't sensible. They walk into the Grand Canyon, one of the truly spectacular features of Earth, on a whim and are never heard from again. They have nothing to protect their skin, eyes, or head; they don't carry enough water; they have only an apple or a candy bar. We may have had crackers and Cheez Whiz, but we ate them, and they got us through. When you need energy for hiking, most foods taste remarkably good!

My walking boots* may have gotten me out of the Grand Canyon, but when I got to North Wales our guide informed me that these were not hiking boots and would not be sufficient. To this day I'm not sure that was the right decision. One thing everyone should know is that there are no shortcuts on footwear. Whatever your boots, you had better be comfortable in them and that means having worn them before--"broken them in" is the classic expression about leather boots.

I will admit, though, that I seriously underestimated Wales. I'd hiked a mountain close to home that was 6,000 feet and you can just walk up it no problem, so how hard could 3,000 feet be? What I didn't count on was "scrambling," which is this British expression for using hand- and foot-holds to go up boulders. It may not be climbing--climbing technically requires ropes, crampons, equipment like that--but it was not like any hiking I'd ever undertaken, either. There was part of one mountain that probably only lasted a short time, but which I will remember for the rest of my life. I woke up that night clutching at handholds. Our guide in some cases had to show me them individually, so I would literally be able to take the next step.
Photographs by P. J. Radley
Why didn't I know about this? Would I have undertaken this multiday hike if I'd known more about the geography of these "little" mountains and what ascending them would involve? Maybe not, and that would have been a shame. All I knew was we needed to be reasonably fit, which I was. And I had my trusty boots, various incarnations of which I'd been wearing for years. I had hiked the Grand Canyon in them. Why should Wales have demanded any different?

In any case, the guide lent me a pair of boots that he thought would be better for ascending the mountains of Wales. Maybe he was right, but I'd never worn these boots before I spent a day hiking in them, and boy, did I suffer. My feet were so blistered by the end of the first day that I could not take a step in the boots the next morning. He had to lend me yet another pair--what looked a lot like running shoes but were actually low-cut hikers, with good soles.

They were comfortable enough that I could hike in them, but unlike my original pair, they had no Gore-Tex lining. (I know that there are other brands of waterproofing; I can only say that no boots I've worn with Gore-Tex waterproofing have ever let me down, even stepping in puddles or walking in driving rain.) It was June, a month I thought was summer in the northern hemisphere, but once again Wales had other ideas. The heavens opened and cold rain poured down.

At one point--the hand- and foothold scrambling period mentioned earlier--I felt like I was climbing straight up, and in a flowing streambed to boot. I did have gloves on; someone must have told us in advance to pack these, but they had no water resistance whatsoever and were soaked. So were my borrowed shoes and single pair of socks. All of this could have been avoided.

I managed twelve of the fifteen mountains we had aimed to climb in three days. At the end of the second day, my partner was injured, and we could not manage the third day. It was on the descent where she injured herself that I learned descent can be harder than ascent. Sure, going up is harder physical work. This was especially true at the Grand Canyon, where you hike down into the inner canyon first, then back up along switchback after switchback, when you're already tired.

But descent is harder on your knees, and you notice this more when your legs are tired (from hiking or age). Someone had hiking poles and lent my partner one, to aid her descent. Once again, why had I never heard of these poles? They are fantastic, and can be collapsed for packing or adjusted to the appropriate length. Not only could they have helped with balance and taking pressure off my knees as I descended; if I'd been able to use them earlier in the hike, my legs would not have gotten so tired and jellylike. They help spread the energy better, once you're used to using them.

The other thing I learned on the descent was another lovely word, almost as terrifying to me as scrambling. That word is scree. Scree is kind of like fine gravel, and it is what is at the tops of mountains once you get past boulders and bigger rocks. I managed to get down through the scree without falling, though more slowly than I'm sure my hiking companions would have liked. But I would have felt quicker and more confident with trekking poles.

As I mentioned, I had at least heard of packing layers in my backpack, and taking them off/putting them back on to maintain body temperature. It would not have been a successful or even safe hike without those. But as with the Grand Canyon in 1997, we didn't know anything about the best materials, such as not wearing cotton (it gets wet with sweat, which is not good for keeping the body warm, especially with cold wind and rain like we had in Wales). On top of my regular--not wicking--shirt, I had a fleece vest (good), a hooded sweatshirt (would substitute it with another fleece if I were packing today), an Aran sweater (heavy wool--more about that in a second), and an outer windbreaker jacket that I'd gotten for free from my parents' health insurance (don't ask). The windbreaker had a hood and could easily be taken off and tied around my waist if I didn't want to stop and put it in my daypack.

At one point, I was wearing all of these, plus my single layer of pants (again nothing special--no fleece lining or waterproof outside) and a beret which was the hat I'd thought to bring. I had the hood tied over the top of my beret, my wet gloves, and five layers on my upper body, including the sleeveless fleece vest. I was cold, especially when still, but I was not hypothermic or growing numb. Remember that this was supposedly a summer month.

I mentioned the Aran sweater. Along with the fleece, it was the one item of clothing that was exactly what I should have been wearing up there (the outer jacket was essential, but a truly waterproof one, with Gore-Tex or similar lining, would have been better protection). Sure, it was too bulky--most hikers who wear wool nowadays choose merino wool garments. These are made from a particular breed of sheep's very fine wool, which does not get stinky and stays warm even when wet. You can get merino wool hiking socks too, which I very much recommend for repeated wearings.

But as old-fashioned as it was, my wool sweater was very warm and did as good a job as an expensive down jacket would have, and better than a fleece. Now I know why all the sheep wandering around on the mountains of Wales seemed to be fine! I inherited that sweater, which was originally knitted in Ireland, and it kept me warm for decades. In fact, the lightest packing I ever did was an overnight trip to visit the inauguration of President Obama in 2009, and that Aran sweater was in a plastic bag. (Packing so light, and buying a last-minute overnight plane ticket, probably explain why I was detained in secondary on my way to the United States, though there is still no excuse for it because I am a U.S. citizen with a right to be there.) You can see me wearing it here.

Of the twelve mountains, the one I will always remember is named Tryfan (pronounced tre-VAN in Welsh). I am not sure if these pictures do justice to how imposing its rocky heights were, or how hard it was to get up them. Because of the extreme heat in the Grand Canyon I had thought that was the most physically demanding experience of my life, but I think the second day in Wales, ascending Tryfan in the pouring rain, might have taken its place.

What did I learn from these adventures? Respect the environment (3,000 feet didn't sound like a tall mountain to me at the time, but I didn't know Wales). Take layers. Wear your own boots!

And--food will taste awfully good out there. We were signed up for vegetarian meals and on Tryfan day, the packed lunch included an olive-paste sandwich. I had never eaten olive paste before and probably never will again, plus I don't like the British habit of always buttering the bread in sandwiches. But do you know how much I appreciated a butter and olive paste sandwich when I had made it up Tryfan?
These two big rocks at the top of Tryfan are called Adam and Eve. Some people jump from one to the other. But at this point, I had learned my limits.

Know yours, and have a great time!

*Summary of things I got right/things I should have packed:

  • Ecco boots. This is probably the only brand of anything I will ever endorse, and it's an individual thing. I have narrow feet and a lot of footwear does not fit me right in the relatively small size I need. Ecco makes a lot of fashion types of shoes, but a few of their models are great for walking and the boots have ankle support. I have always found them comfortable (i.e., blister free) the moment I put them on, and I've never gotten my feet wet in Gore-Tex, unless I plunged into deep water past the ankle!
  • Blister plasters. These are like Band-Aids that you slap on a blister and leave it on till the blister goes away. If you are unfortunate enough to get blisters (don't borrow boots like I did!), these could make the difference to you walking the next day.
  • Water. Water water everywhere. In Wales I felt there was nothing but water ("ddim yn door" is what it sounds like in Welsh); in the Grand Canyon you'll die without it. If you don't have one of those hydration systems, Nalgene-type wide mouth bottles that can carabiner on to your backpack are the way to go.
  • Layers. Base layer should be a wicking material (not cotton) so your skin doesn't get wet. Mid layers for warmth (fleece, down jacket in winter weather, or wool if you have a more compact sweater than mine!) The outer layer should be waterproof (not resistant), windproof, and have a hood that can tie on.
  • Hat. Collapsible, so you can stuff it in your backpack with everything else. In sunny weather, like the Grand Canyon, this is to keep off the sun, but the same hat can also keep off rain if it's a good one. In cold weather you need something fleecey or woolly to cover your ears. I know, I refused to wear one too. Either the hat or outer hood should tie on to keep from blowing off in the wind.
  • Except in the hottest weather, always have gloves. Even in mildly cool or windy weather, you will appreciate having thin or liner gloves, especially if you're holding on to hiking poles for hours. Because you'll have them, won't you?
  • Remember that any outer layer that isn't waterproof is basically not protecting you at all. This also means a pair of rain pants you can stuff into your backpack and snap on quickly if needed. Layers layers layers!
  • Food. Just as you want to drink water continually, you want to eat regularly. The adage about eating when you are hungry does not work while on a demanding hike. Take lots of snacks that are easy to eat "on the go" and contain energy. Keep them in your pockets so you can get at them easily. 
  • Zipping pockets are the best!
  • Oh, and a bandanna is the single most versatile item you will ever pack. You can dip it in the Colorado River to cool off, wrap it around your neck against dust or sun, tie it on your head in a pinch, even use it as a sleep mask. I have two: one a souvenir from the Basque Country, and one so old it has "MADE IN U.S.A." on it. Surely my oldest and most useful piece of cloth.
  • I'll say this again, but just because you're in a foreign country there is no reason to carry your passport around with you. All I got for having my passport in my backpack in Wales was water damage to a brand new passport. For the next ten years, the corner peeled, it wasn't machine readable, and every immigration officer had to fiddle with it. Maybe that was the reason I got stuck in secondary at the U.S. border!

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