Spoiler alert; probably ego.
Charging up a muddy trail with icy raindrops pelting my face makes me feel like a hardened alpine explorer, pushing the boundaries of the human spirit. It makes even the easiest trail feel like I’m charging into uncharted territory. A literal walk in the park becomes an expedition – man vs. nature in a battle of wills and physical fortitude.
Of course I’m being a little hyperbolic. A gentle sprinkle of summer rain doesn’t actually make a hike any more difficult, but I think every outdoorsman (and woman) has a slight penchant for drama. And although a classic hike on a beautiful bluebird day is the gold standard, a bit of inclement weather makes for a much more exciting story.
It seems that every night in the backcountry ends with campfire stories of past excursions. Some are stories of incredible climbs to alpine summits, big fish, or brutal slips and falls. The most exciting stories, however, have an air of danger to them. A hint of what COULD have gone wrong.
Now obviously I don’t go outside looking for bragging rights and stories of harrowing survival. I go out because I genuinely love the outdoors. I love a beautiful sunny day on the trail, where miles and miles can pass under my boots without a care in the world. No timeline on reaching the summit, and no deadline for when we must be back to the car. The only challenge is the distance and the quality of the trail. No slippery rocks to contend with, no icy wind or snowblown blindness. It’s me versus myself, and on those days I truly get to push forward and reach heights I never thought were possible. The only obstacle to overcome is my own endurance, both physical and mental.
Lady Nature is still a harsh mistress, however. The perennial challenger to any plans made, willing to throw a wrench into your life at a moments notice. What could have been an easy out-and-back hike transforms into a laborious clash against the elements. The battle grows from purely physical exertion into a complex amalgam where both mental and spiritual fortitude are tested. This is where I truly find my stride.
And of course; Ego. Ego with a capital E. Sure, a 10 mile hike is fairly tough. But very few things make me feel more badass than crushing a 10 mile hike in a sideways blizzard. Reaching a summit in shorts and a t-shirt is a wonderful feeling, and physical comfort always a welcome companion. But when the elements are an equal (or greater) adversary than the hike itself…..that’s when I start to wish I could literally frame a hike on my wall.
But despite the obvious challenges there’s something beautiful about hiking in inclement weather. A sprinkle of afternoon rain can transform a hike that’s been repeated ad nauseum into a brand new adventure. Familiar, far away peaks become obscured, forcing one to appreciate the details underfoot. The reds and golds of summer wildflowers, once just another color in a world of vibrance, seem to glow exuberantly against a gray backdrop.
I refuse to call it “bad” weather because I truly believe there’s no such thing. Of course, some weather can literally kill you in a heartbeat, but I wouldn’t say in that case the weather is “bad,” as much as maybe being outside at that moment was a poor decision. If proper precautions are taken then nearly ALL weather is survivable.
And that’s perhaps my favorite aspect of inclement weather. Being prepared to handle it is half the struggle. The foresight to bring all the correct gear borders on omniscience, and makes me feel as though I’m not just suffering through a brutal deluge, but maybe I was meant to be here. The icy sting of raindrops against my cheek and and numb tingle in my fingertips don’t make me feel like I took a wrong turn, but in fact took a right turn. A thousand right turns. A lifetime of learning about nature and how to deal with Her immense variability. In that moment I feel truly connected to the wilderness.
I’m not just a city dweller on a weekend escape, trying my best to “deal” with the elements. I’m an integral part of the wild landscape, equally untamed yet resilient as a krummholz pine. Small and nearly meaningless in the grand-scheme, less of an individual invading the landscape, but rather part of it.
Hmm. Maybe it’s not ego after all.