Tuesday, 12 January 2010

On the Rituals of Trekking 2

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Hiking Rituals

How do you get through a five hour hike? Or for that matter a seven hour one and even once a nine hour marathon hike. I’ve noticed that I use rituals. The first of which is how your pack is packed. I mentioned this in a previous post on the rituals of trekking. The trick is to always pack the same way and to have everything you need most close to hand most of the time. It usually works and it usually avoids the frustration of rifling through your pack trying to find something. On this trip it spectacularly didn’t work for one object. A small knife. I’d put it somewhere safe before leaving home and on my six weeks away I couldn’t find it. Six weeks late at New Delhi airport as I was leaving it turned up in a scan in my hand luggage and was promptly confiscated. Great!

But after the pack comes the track.

I find myself counting the hours. It really helps if you have a rough idea of how long the day’s hike will be but it also helps if you don’t. My first milestone is to get through the first hour without taking a break. It’s dumb I know because you should take a break when you need one. When you need a drink of water or some nuts and raisins for a boost of energy it makes sense to stop. However a dumb obstinacy stops me stopping. As it were. I think the fear is that I may not make it through the day and getting past the first hour will get me into my stride. I’m often tired at first and weary too. I might have aches and pains from the previous day's exertions or the accumulated fatigue of a long trek.

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I also use other ways to break up the day. If the hike is a long ascent (or descent) then I sometimes use the altimeter on my watch to dictate the breaks. I wont stop until I reach 3500m or 400m or whatever. It sounds foolish written down and it sounds like I’m not paying attention to what’s around me. That can be true however if the weather is against you or if the terrain demands that you are watching every step for fear of slipping or tripping. Sometime it’s easier just to use geographical features to measure your progress. The next pass, the next ridge or the next hairpin in a long zigzagged climb. How much time have I spent thinking about the next comfortable place that I might sit down and take a break? A lot.

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When you are carrying a camera though you have a ready-made excuse to take a break. Every time I notice a butterfly or a dragonfly or an unusual flower it’s easy to slip you bag off and spend a few minutes chasing a shot. Every time the trail breaks out and reveals an amazing vista is another chance to take a break. Of course it is and this is one of the main reasons I’m here in the first place.

The best time for taking a break though is when you catch up to someone who is already taking a break. No excuse is need then for sitting down and sharing a few moments together. One of the pleasures of hiking in a small group is the way you seemed to be joined by a piece of elastic which stretches as you spread out on the trail alone and relaxes when you come together at various point and at various times along the way. That is the time for sharing the pleasures of the trails and for indulging in the necessary whinging about the trivial tribulations of the day.

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From time to time it is actually pain and tiredness that forces the pace. On high-altitude sections I’ve often been reduced to walking ten minute sections between gasps of breath. Once on a long 40km walk along the Brittany Coastal Path (GR3)4 I was reduced to alternate walking 15 minutes with resting 15 minutes as my feet were so painful.

It sounds like an ordeal but of course most of the time I’m skipping along as happy as a sandboy, with my head in the clouds and my mind as clear as a mountain stream. I think I am anyway and in retrospect I always am.

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I think I’ve lost my way here in trying to describe the mechanics of hiking. It takes some discipline to learn how to enjoy yourself and not treat the hike like an ordeal. It takes time to learn to slow down and enjoy the travelling as well as looking forward to the arrival. It can be a disappointment to arrive and then realise you could have dawdled more and enjoyed the things and places you’ve seen. The pressure to ‘keep up’ should be ignored as much as possible. Fortunately this is usually the way it pans out and everyone seems to meander along at their own pace. This is notwithstanding the fact that it can also be invigorating to step out and walk at a high pace and get your heart going that way. Not always though. Unless you’re James!