Tough Hike Leaders

Tough Hike Leaders

Most of my hiking and back packing career I have been traveling under the influence of tough hike leaders. All persons are different in all kinds of ways. A hiking or backpacking group of two or more persons is going to have someone who is faster and stronger; and someone who is slower and weaker. A tough hike leader is one who is faster, and who won’t mitigate his or her pace to accommodate the slower ones. Of course, the same dichotomy applies to any group endeavor – biking, canoeing or whatever.

During my early years I was the tough hike leader. I can remember many persons commenting to me how hard a time they had keeping up with me, or how unsympathetic I was, or how much they were determined to be a strong hiker to keep me from denigrating them. [This last comment was from my first wife before we were engaged, which is what prompted me to start dating her.] Now that I am 66 years old, 50 pounds overweight and recuperating from hip surgery, I am usually watching the receding backside of the tough hike leader in my group.

Being fast or strong is not the problem. The problem is not communicating with the group and not connecting with all the members, particularly the slower ones, to keep the whole bunch together and cooperating on the trail. It is a kind of hubris which unconsciously forces the tough hike leader to forge ahead regardless of group dynamics. Once I was a backpacking trip leader in the high mountains of Southern Appalachia in the mid-winter with deep snow. Our group traveled a large number of trail miles on snow shoes. In my impatience I unfairly judged one of my partners as not being sufficiently committed to the endeavor and I thought he was hiking too slowly. Then during a steep downhill section he tripped on a log and fell over. In the deep snow, with a heavy pack on his back and ungainly snow shoes on his feet, he struggled repeatedly but could not stand up. He was stuck like an upside down turtle. I looked at him, but I did not offer to help. As I walked off I said “Hurry up.” Yes, I was the tough hike leader.

I was once on a backpacking with another tough hike leader who had planned a trip with me and a couple other guys in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park that was supposed to include the last lunch on the trail and end with the last supper Sunday evening in Gatlinburg. Come Sunday lunchtime we found a beautiful grassy knoll, under the shade of maple trees and sitting beside a babbling brook, perfect for soaking our hot, swollen, tired feet. I took off my pack and sat down. The tough hike leader demanded that we skip the grassy spot, skip a woodsy lunch and push on at a hard pace. His plan was to get to town faster and eat a steak for a late lunch. The other hikers voted with him and I was cheated out of the beautiful meadow for lunch and another half day in a wilderness.

I can remember another backpacking trip in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. The planned next-to-to last day was to end at a lake where we could camp the last night and fish. Then the last day was to be a hike out to the parked vehicle. We got the lake in early afternoon and the surface was dimpled with dozens of rings where wild trout were rising to eat surface flies. I took off my pack and sat down. The tough hike leader demanded that we skip the last night’s camp site and hike on, hard and fast, the next-to-last afternoon to the parking lot. His plan was to cut the trip short for no reason except to get home sooner. The other campers voted with him and I was cheated out of the evening’s fishing and another night and day in the wilderness.

Besides cutting trips short, a tough hike leader can make a trip miserable for the slower members who want to enjoy the wilderness. The Appalachian Trail is designed and built with hundreds of 3-sided wooden or rock shelters for cooking, sleeping, a nearby water spring and an outhouse, each shelter about a day’s hike from the last one and the next one. They average about 8 miles apart. Okay, fine with me. On another backpacking trip the tough hike leader demanded that we do double mileage each day and skip every other shelter. His goal was to cover the most mileage each day, so as to knock out the biggest possible section of the AT in the smallest time. It did not occur to him that the AT runs through beautiful wilderness settings so that nature can be enjoyed. If all he wanted to do was make mileage then he could have stayed in town and hiked on the Greenway. Each day as I jogged along to keep up with him, my feet and legs got sorer and sorer. By the end of each day I was too tired to enjoy where we were and was miserable.

My opinion is that if we venture into the wilderness and take trips, then we should be in some kind of harmony with our surroundings. At the end of the day, we do not say, “Wow, I took 10,000 breaths today!” Or say, “Wow, I took 10,000 steps today!” Those kinds of things are automatic and we don’t bother to count them. Similarly, we should not say, “Wow, I walked 19 miles today in 8 hours!” Counting miles and hours is not conducive to traveling happily in a beautiful area. Rather, we should come somewhere closer to integrating with our environment and say something like, “Wow, the view from that last peak was awesome!” Or, “Did you hear those two ruffed grouse?” Or, “That camp fire smoke smells delightful!”

If we are integrated into our environment then the miles and hours will take care of themselves and we can enjoy the present at each moment – where we are and what we are doing. This approach usually means having a Plan B. If we don’t slavishly stick to a schedule, and fall behind on the planned distance covered, or run out of daylight before reaching the intended camp site, then we should be well enough prepared and flexible enough to make other arrangements.

Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.