Knowing When to Turn Back or When Backpacking Makes You Cry


It’s crazy how timing works out in life sometimes.  We recently had our first unsuccessful hike and it was very hard to handle.  When you are planning to hike for 6 months the idea of not being able to achieve any goal makes you wonder if you should reconsider your strategy.  If we can’t make it 4 miles in soupy, Maryland summer heat how the hell are we going to do it Maine in July?  I will get to the details shortly but it was about the time I was pondering these questions that three blogs posts popped up.

Brian’s Backpacking Blog’s “Hikes Rarely Go Exactly as Planned”

JERMM’s Outside’s “When a Good Plan Goes Awry”

Stick’s “The Key to a Successful Hike: Have Them”

this after I had read these earlier this summer

The Good Badger’s Summit Attempt on Mt. Whitney

Section Hiker’s Rain-Soaked Group Hike

It really hit home to hear these trip reports.  Each one of these writers are people I follow every day- Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, etc.  As a novice coming into the backpacking scene I try to absorb everything I can from them.  I’ve always been that way when learning to do new things– find the best person at a given discipline and copy them.

To my mind these guys set out for an overnight hike and are able to be packed and ready to go in 30 min, on the trail to hike 20 miles before sunset and after a full day’s work.  Once there they hang their bear bags in one go in a tree that meets every bear-bagging requirement.  They start fires by putting wet leaves in a pile and thinking about combustion.  In fact they probably don’t even make fires because they have found a way to cook the Beef Wellington they dehydrated the night before using naught but their own sweat they rang out from their ultralight sweatband.  You remember when you first started learning cursive, how every letter looked like you had a Big Gulp of espresso?  Later you had it all figured out but in the beginning… woah.  I am that awkward shaky baby giraffe, these guys are mountain lions.

Still they have failures too.  Big ones.  On really big important trips.  So maybe if we fail it doesn’t mean that our whole future on the AT isn’t in jeopardy?  See for yourself…

“Picture the scene, the other… week there.  I was down at Weverton Cliffs with Liz hiking hills.  I’m hikin’ like Andrew-[freaking]-Skurka by the way.  Givin’ those hills the tannin’ of a lifetime.  So it comes to there, during the last incline, the final steep of the whole climb.  I’m pushing hard and she’s sittin’ at the switchback looking all [freaking] biscuit-arsed.  When this hard section comes in.  Obviously [freaking] fancied itself, like.  Starts staring at us.  Lookin’ at us, right [freaking] at us, as if to say, “Come ahead, square go”.  You ken me, I’m not the type of [guy] that goes looking for [freaking] bother, like, but at the end of the day I’m the [guy] with trekking poles and this hill can get the fat end in his [switchback] any time he [freaking] wanted like.  So I squares up, casual like.  What does a hard [hill] do?  Or the so-called hard [hill]?  Shites it.  Puts down his grade, turns, and gets the [heck] out of there.  And after that, well, the summit was mine.”

Okay sorry for the soliloquy.  I’ve always wanted to do that.  In seriousness it wasn’t far from the truth.  We had hiked Weverton Cliffs last fall just as we were getting into backpacking.  It OWNED us.  I remember “my muscles burned and my veins pumped battery acid.”  I wanted to quit with every step.  On reaching the top we both were in a state.  Light headed.  Stitches (I HATE stitches).  Breathing too hard to drink.  This had kicked our butts.  However this time around it wasn’t hard.  It was… easy… really easy.  Was it the same trail?  Did we miss a section of hand-over-hand deathmarching?  Then I looked back.

A few switchbacks behind me, Liz was coming up much slower.  She was at her limit.  This was our first time hiking after a day of work.  I knew she needed to make it up this hill and feel it was easier than last time just like I did.  She needed to see progression in her ability to give her that extra motivation to keep pushing for more training hikes.  If she got to the top and bonked again, what would that mean for our AT future?

When she came to the top I was pleasantly surprised.  Despite my assessment of her being completely gassed she was fine.  It was hard, but she didn’t bonk.  She wasn’t light headed.  Sure she needed to drink about a half a liter of water, but most of that was because we were swimming in atmosphere.  Near 100% humidity and no breeze.  You know the days.  Alright, we are set, we can do this.

“This” was to hike the 3 next three miles to Ed Garvey Shelter, make a quick dinner, go to bed, and do about 5 hours of hiking in the morning.  It was a big step for us.  Not so much the miles, that was the easy part.  It was the schedule.  Ever since we began backpacking in the fall shoulder season we had dreamed about what the summers would bring.  Sunlight until 9pm meant the promise of getting in a good days hike on Friday’s after work to kick off multi-day hikes.  In the winter we were struggling to get 8 miles in a day.  That’s what happens when you leave the house at 10am and are crap at setting camp in the dark thereby necessitating a good 2 hours window of daylight for set up.  So this was it, finally a summer after-work, multi-day hike.  This was one of those hikes I like to use as a reference– “if I can do X now, surely I will be able to do Y when on the trail”.

Success here would also open up a wide array of other training hike options.  Now we would know we can hike into dusk and set up camp without an option.  Now we know we can efficiently pack the night before and just leave from work.  We would know these things if we succeeded.

The trail from Weverton Cliffs to Ed Garvey is the definition of easy.  Minor grade uphill IF that.  Minimal rocks which for this section of the trail is a godsend.  It is even along a single ridge line offering occasional peeks at what might be a view.  It’s pretty, it’s outdoors, and its barely an hour from our home.  I’m painting a picture of ease here.

This would then be my surprise when I looked back and saw Liz stopped in the middle of the trail leaning on her poles.  She had her head hung below here shoulders.  Something was up.  I’m not sure why I even stopped to look back at this moment.  I try not to because she doesn’t like it; thinks I’m looking to say she needs to speed up.  But this time I looked back and she was in it.  It was so obvious I didn’t even say anything, I just turned around and went back to her.

When I got back to her my suspicions were correct.  She was dizzy, nauseous, and irritable.  Friends if you have not yet visited this lovely place it is called Bonktown, USA.  I recognized it’s foul stench when I was brought on board.  We found a set of boulders and had a seat.  The best part about bonking… you aren’t hungry, you don’t want anything, everything tastes bad, everything feels bad.  So my prodding to eat some fats and proteins were not well received.  Luckily a Pro Bar seemed to have some appeal.  Water, not so much.  That’s the other great part about Maryland, sitting doesn’t help you cool down because you aren’t evaporating at all.  You are melting.  Eventually her core temp started to drop and she did get about a half-liter of water in.  Now was decision time.

By my watch we had been hiking about 45 minutes.  At our best pace together ever we maybe did 2.5mph.  We had not been at our best pace thus far today.  I was guessing closer to 1.5mph.  That meant we had MAYBE covered a miles thus far.  It was about 730pm at this point as well.  Sunset was set for 845ish.  If we pushed faster than we had pushed thus far we could get to the shelter just before sunset.  We had set camp by headlamp before. We had never night-hiked though.  If we turned around we likely would make it back to the car before sundown.  So which do you choose?

For me the answer was clear.  Part of medical training involves learning how to make decisions in high pressure situations.  I don’t know that I’m any better than anyone else in this regard but I do have experience with it.  My preference is to identify the worst case scenarios for both options you have available.  If you have identified those scenarios and figured out how you will handle them, everything else in between will be a piece of cake.  So here’s how I break it down:

Option #1:  Let Liz rest enough to right herself and push on to Ed Garvey Shelter

Worst Case Scenario:  an already depleted Liz cannot regain her composure and we spend the next 2-3 miles plugging along at a 1mph pace with breaks every quarter mile.

Benefits:  no tricky descents, flat trail, potential rendezvous with other hikers if we need help (though EGS is unique in that few thru-hikers stay there due to its proximity to Harpers Ferry)

Solution:  This option doesn’t sound too bad.  We are completely green when it comes to night-hiking so I’m not thrilled about the idea but we know this section of the trail and we know its easy.  Even if we have to take it slow at least slow is safe and that is all that matter.  It would likely mean setting up camp at the shelter in the dark.  We were not prepared to sleep in a shelter so we would have to pitch the tent.  We’ve done that before, I’ve done it myself.  That I know we could handle.

The real trick is the EGS does not have an immediate water source.  It is about a quarter to half mile hike down a fairly steep grade from what I’m told.  As far as I’m concerned that means we would not be getting any more water tonight.  Too risky.  Yes I recognize if you need water you need it and you should do whatever it takes.  But I can’t look at the grey area at this moment, black and white.  So if we push on to EGS it is with the knowledge that we will not have any more water.  At that moment I knew I was about 1/2 done with my 3L bladder, I could predict Liz was about 1/4 done with hers.  We also had two gatorade bottles of on our packs.

At this point EGS was off the table.  This violates one of my 4 W’s of Safety (water, wound, warmth, and walking-ability).  In my mind these are the most realistic things that can kill you on the trail (dehydration, infection, hypothermia, and immobility).  I will do a full post on this at some point.  Like I said I have to get black and white on things so for me I cannot make a decision that knowingly puts one of these in jeopardy if I have an alternative.

The reality is that we probably would be okay.  If Liz can recover and we can do a decent pace we will make it to the shelter with plenty of supplies, water, and time to be okay.  If we do not take too long in doing so.  But again, the worst case scenario dictates that we could be out here for hours.  In 100% humidity and an already dehydrated Liz this is a bad combo.  It is possible that an extended trip to EGS could require us to use all our water.

Now I know what you’re saying, “you basically have nearly 4L of water, you’ll be fine”.  I totally agree.  But because the worst case scenario violates those 4 W’s I need to take the other option unless it has a really high chance of death or violates a W.

Option #2:  Turn around and return to the car via the descent from Weverton Cliffs

Worst Case Scenario:  already unsteady on her feet, Liz takes a bad fall and we are stuck

Benefits:  we already know exactly what we are up against, we just hiked it.  It is the answer with the shortest mileage.  The end result is a car and guaranteed access to safety.

Solution:  This one is really hard.  In the end I’m basically weighing my feeling on whether a catastrophe will happen.  I know for sure I can lessen the risk- take the descent down Mt Everest style, one step at a time.  I also know that the whole time I’m making this decision that I’m losing light and the descent is on the East side of the ridge.  We will be doing the descent in darkness under headlamps.  I briefly weigh the difference in emergency evacuation access but that’s a bit over the top for me.

As you can see there are a lot of factors going into this decision.  It can be overwhelming.  Another thing I picked up at some point is how to distill down decisions.  For me I have to break this whole scenario down into a very basic, black-and-white choice– which am I more concerned with, dehydration or the potential of a fall.

Now hearing the breakdown which would you choose?

For me it came down to where the IF’s lie.  In Option 1 success depends on the IF’s happening.  We are already dehydrated.  We have already bonked.  IF we can overcome that we will be fine.  In Option 2 I need the IF’s to occur to fail.  IF she falls we will be in trouble.

I know every thru-hiker right now is finding jest in the fact that I am considering life and death scenarios for Weverton Cliffs.  It’s not that bad.  In fact the whole state is regarded as one of the easiest on the AT.  So much so people include it in the 4-State Challenge and plow through 40+ miles in one day.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that we were in our first moment of deciding continue or turn back.  Yes it is a major over-dramatization to say that we were in any risk of death.  But again, for me, you identify the worst and work backward.

I had my answer.  I turned to Liz and explained to her the situation.  We both looked and saw the sun exploding behind the hills in the distance and sunset was upon us.  She knew the answer too.  That is when the tears came.

She didn’t want to turn back.  She knew I didn’t want to turn back.  This would be our first failure.  The first time we set out to accomplish and didn’t.  She knew how much this event- an afterwork, short-planning hike- meant to me.  She knew how much we both needed this hike- life has been stressful lately.  She also knew she was bonking.  She knew I had told her to drink extra water earlier today. She knew I told her to eat a big meal this afternoon.  She knew she had done neither.  She was embarrassed and disappointed.  I can’t imagine what it felt like.  The tears kept coming.

We turned around and headed back down.  Not 20 yards into the descent she was able to recover.  We turned our headlamps on right then and descended in almost total darkness.  Our only concern was the reality of how fast spiders are able to build webs.  Those bastards had laid down their thing in less than an hour and we walked right through every one of them.  We got to car without issue and drove home.

As we started driving I was pretty down.  We had failed.  What did this mean for our future on the AT.  If we couldn’t handle X how the hell would we handle Y.  But then it hit me.  This was probably our most successful hike.

The reality is there will be a day on the AT where we will need to trust each other.  This day showed both of us that we are willing to turn back.  If I’m in a spot of trouble, Liz needs to be able to trust that I will tell her.  Knowing that she can continue at all times not worrying how I’m doing because she knows I will say something.  And vice versa.  We now set the benchmark.  We know its okay to say something so if nothing is being said we probably are both okay.  Trust is something I never would have thought to be important on a thru-hike as a couple.  Now I’m starting to think it may be one of the most important.  This hike sucked but it brought us closer together.

On the way home we stopped treated ourselves to Chipotle and an Anchor Brewing Company Liberty Ale– the best way to replenish calories.  It was a great day, because we learned when to turn around.

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3 Responses to Knowing When to Turn Back or When Backpacking Makes You Cry

  1. Leah says:

    Definitely sounds like a tough day. While it is hard to push through, it is even harder to know when to quit. Serious kudos to both of you for playing it smart and making the difficult choice!

    • atkory says:

      I’m sure the whole ordeal will seem minute in 12 months but that day it was big. Thanks for reading! Looking forward to some more zane from your next post. Is that the noun form of zaney?

  2. Pingback: Father-Son Overnight Hike Day 1 | Off the Couch and On the Trail

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