Training Tuesdays: almost forgotten joys of winter hiking

I have not hiked a single trail this winter. Contrast this with the last few years when I had an almost weekly track record, if not more frequently. Last year, for instance, when I was temporarily (and by choice) out of work, I was winter hiking at least a couple days a week. I couldn’t get enough of it, and I thought for sure that the same would be true this year.

Instead, I’ve found myself in this reality:  I’ve been working in a role that leaves me feeling exhausted and unmotivated. While winter hiking could very well have been my reprieve,  I found myself unwilling to spend my precious weekends driving to trails, dealing with crowds at our local ski/winter sport hills, and putting up with the heavy, wet, clumpy west coast snow.   As a result, and despite invitations to join others on the snowy trails, I’ve not ventured out even once.

Until this weekend.

We were blessed with the warmest of rocky mountain weather this weekend (i.e. temperatures just slightly below 0). When you are near the rockies and are greeted with semi-clear skies coupled with temperatures that warm, there is only one thing to do: hit the trails. And so we did.  And from the second we stepped into closed forest, surrounded by nothing but lightly falling snow, snow-capped trees, and the gentle crunch of snow beneath our feet, my love for the winter hike came flooding back.

There is something about winter hiking that is even more magical than summer hiking. There air is crisp and fresh. There is a deep silence that only snow can bring. Snow evens out the trail surface, making snow hiking far more leisurely and less technical than summer hiking.  In the rockies at least, there tends to be fewer people on trails than here in Vancouver, giving the experience an air of solitude.  It’s also amazing what a blanket of pristine snow can do for normally dull terrain. Even forest-enclosed trails become portrait worthy. I had somehow forgotten all of this and it took only two hours on trail to remind me.

If there’s snow and trails to be found where you are, I strongly encourage you to bundle up and head to the mountains, find a suitable trail (i.e. a trail that’s meant to be hiked or snowshoed in the winter), put one foot in front of the other, breathe deep and find the peace and solitude you didn’t even know you were missing. I just might do the same again very soon in my neck of the woods (despite the heavy, wet snow, neverending cloud cover and hordes of hikers).


Trail Tuesdays: I watched an outdoor survival movie and I’m never hiking again

Recently I wrote about watching too many murder mysteries. Well, in an effort to diversify my viewing habits, I unwittingly surfaced an even scarier breed of entertainment: outdoor survival movies.  It shouldn’t be surprising for me. After all, watching 127 Hours and Into the Wild weren’t just cautionary tales for me, they were horror stories pure and simple. As it turns out, as much as I am afraid of murderers and rapists like the vast majority of the population, my biggest fear is actually dying alone in nature. It may seem irrational, but given how much time I used to spend in the great outdoors, it is actually far more statistically probable than my being murdered.

This weekend, we watched a little-known Canadian movie called Backcountry. Years ago I watched a really bad made-for-tv horror movie about an insane predatory bear in the woods, so bad in fact that even a thorough Google search didn’t surface its name, and I expected Backcountry to be similarly kitschy, unrealistic and full of over-the-top bad special effects.  Well, Backcountry was kitschy for sure, but it was also more terrifying than I expected. Long story short, a couple gets hopelessly lost in the Northern Ontario wilderness and then gets attacked by a really unusually pissed off black bear. I’ll spare you the spoilers but suffice it to say that there were many, many a scene that I actually couldn’t watch because it was too graphically awful and horrifying. And when someone wasn’t in the midst of a vicious bear attack, I was experiencing deeply unsettling discomfort at the thought of being so very lost in such a vast wilderness.

Perhaps the fear of being lost in nature comes naturally to me, care of many of my own near-getting-lost experiences, one of which actually occurred in Ontario’s wilderness. That was the near-getting-lost event that sticks with me the most because in the depths of Ontario’s forests there are no directional markers. Out West, I would be more likely to identify mountain ranges that would give me a sense of direction and, because the West is so mountainous, it always feels at least a relatively safe bet to just walk downhill. In Ontario, however, there are no peaks and valleys and I can personally attest to the fact that every “viewpoint” from escarpments in the forest looks identical, to the point that even within a two hour hike I convinced myself that my brother and I were walking in an endless circle, destined to die from hypothermia on an unseasonably cold day in October.

Alas, we clearly survived, but that experience has stuck with me.  What made Backcountry even more terrifying was the added element of bear attack. I can think of nothing worse than being near death from a bear attack and also having no idea if you are heading towards safety or further into danger. To say watching this film was a bad way to spend a Saturday night is an understatement. Not only was I left emotionally scarred, albeit temporarily, but it also made me solemnly vow that:

  • I will never hike in Ontario again. Ever. Apparently, bears be crazy out there.
  • I will never go deep into any nature by myself again.*
  • I am done with outdoor survival films as a genre. My naturally anxious self does not need reminders of human vulnerability to the elements…and sadistic wildlife.
*I reserve the right to revoke this second statement at such time that the shock value from watching this film wears off, which is not quite yet, but hopefully soon.

TWIR #75: still fighting the SI battle

Another week has passed and the SI is still not stable enough for me to run. If I’m truly honest, I don’t miss running. I’ve never loved running.  But I do miss the ability to run, and the fitness that comes with it, and not being able to run makes me fear I’ll never be fit again. Of course, I understand that this isn’t actually true, yet it’s how my glass-half-empty little brain works sometimes. With that whining out of the way, here’s what the week’s workouts held:

Activity: planned rest day
Relevant Stats: poolside cider consumption: 3
Observations: Ahhhhh, rest days are glorious when they are spent basking under the searing sun, shellacked in layers of sunscreen, and holding a cold cider in your hand (or two…or maybe three…but not all at once, because I’m somewhat civilized). We made it the campground mid-afternoon and proceeded immediately to the pool for lounging and I accomplished no activity except hoisting a drink to my mouth occasionally and then consuming grilled meats and birthday cake before falling asleep at the ungodly hour of 8:30 pm.

Activity: hike!
Relevant Stats: 6.5-7 km return
Observations: I haven’t been to Mount Baker in two years and, the second we arrived, I wondered how I’d managed to stay away for so long. It is truly one of my favourite places in the coastal mountains. We hiked a short but ultra scenic trail (also in the blazing sunshine) and enjoyed epic, sweeping views before the smoke rolled in. Also, man am I out of hiking shape!

Activity: golf!
Relevant Stats: 9-holes, all poorly played
Observations: Okay, okay, I know golf isn’t a workout, but carrying your own golf bag in the blazing heat does make you hot and sweaty as hell. Plus walking uphill with that thing is no joke. My game sucked. It all fell apart when some chick on the second hole totally stole my ball. Granted, my ball had rolled from my fairway into hers, but still I know she just wanted its hot pick-ness. I was not impressed and I swear it’s why the rest of my game suffered, and not at all because I suck.

Activity: golf!
Relevant Stats: a full 18 holes!!!!!
Observations: Somehow it was determined (not by me, I assure you), that I was “ready” to play a full 18-hole course, first thing in the morning and on a weekday when we could be relatively sure we wouldn’t be paired up with actual golfers. I picked up my ball on a few holes so as not to hold up the group behind us, but I consider it a major accomplishment to have been 3-4 shots over par on the holes I actually did play start to finish. It was tiring playing a full round, but my boyfriend bought me a cookie halfway through and I always respond well to treat bribes.

Activity: personal training session
Relevant Stats: 60 min.
Observations: I sometimes wonder if my trainer will ever have me stop towing things like a work horse. Seriously, every week she seems to add yet another exercise in which I have a bunch of weight chained to me while I walk, run, lunge or crawl. It’s beginning to be a bit much. On the plus side, and despite my SI being a giant pain in my ass (well, tailbone actually), she assures me my mobility and form look great.  The best part of my session, though, was the very end when she told me we’d done a lot of loading and not to run the next day. I had no intention of running but being ordered not to run feels good.

Activity: spin
Relevant Stats: 30 min.
Observations: I really wanted to have a good workout, but I slept terribly the night before and then decided to get up super early to fit in a good gym workout. Instead, I managed a half hour then got to work ridiculously early. Also, I was asleep before 9 pm. Early mornings are so not my thing. I am sort of used to them by now, but I still despise them.

Activity: strength training
Relevant Stats: 40 min.
Observations: Much like last Friday’s solo strength training session, I know this looks like a short workout but I promise you it was brutally tough. I forced myself to use the prowler again, even the heinous arm-only pushes which left my arms feeling like jello. There was also a lot of single leg step ups and squats that will likely leave me with tender glutes tomorrow. It felt good and I quit just as my SI was starting to send me its telltale warning signals.

Now, it is Friday yet again and I have to say I like this three-day work week thing. If only my employer would go for that deal…Happy weekend to all and to all a good night.

Trail Tuesdays: Hiking Humble Pie

Ever wonder where the expression “humble pie” comes from? I did. So I looked it up.

Sounds delightful, doesn’t it? With that little learning moment out of the way, let’s get on to the real heart of this post.

On Saturday, I went on my second trail adventure of the entire summer.  It was a 12 km out-and-back with a measly 261 m of elevation gain. It nearly killed me. I’m not joking. My entire lower back and gluteal region seized up like nobody’s business and rendered me couch-bound for the entire night. The only positive to this was that it got me out of packing boxes. Other than that, not only did it suck but it was humbling.

I’ve said this before about chronic injuries, and I’ll say it again: they are some of the most humbling experiences a formerly obsessive athlete can face. I expected that I would be exhausted, huffing and puffing, and sore from a hike with substantial elevation gain. I was mentally prepared for that, which is precisely why I chose a trail without crazy elevation gain.  I was not, however, prepared for experiencing such severe post-hike stiffness and pain from such a relatively easy hike. I had been overly confident. I had been sure that I could just dive right back into trail life even though I’ve done virtually nothing on the trails in well over two months. It was precisely this false confidence, perhaps you could even call it cockiness, that had me eating humble pie Saturday night as I lay there in pain.

If I were talking to a first-time hiker who experienced a depressing experience like mine on Saturday, I’d give the following advice: pick your early trails wisely, start slow, gradually build your endurance and fitness, and don’t get discouraged when it’s hard (it will get easier). Somehow, though, it’s so much harder to heed this advice when you’re coming back from an injury. As a returning hiker, I’m fighting against my own expectations. And I tell ya, those expectations are stealth and silent little buzzkills. Expectations will whisper in your ear “This won’t be so bad. Nay, you should be able to do this!”  Reality sees things differently. That abyss between expectations and reality is what I like to call a nice slice of humble pie. I’ve now tasted it and it is every bit as unpleasant as its definition sounds.

Trail Tuesdays: Hiking in Herds & Finding Trail Joy Anyway

Many of us hit the trails because they offer reprieve from the noise and stress and busyness of daily life.  In nature, we find quiet, often solitude, and the ability to hear nothing but our own breath and footsteps.  The calming effect cannot be denied.  Research has shown that being in nature can lower blood pressure, stress hormones, heart rate and muscle tension. In other words, nature for the win!

Sometimes, though, we don’t find quiet and solitude on the trails. As an example, this weekend we tried to take my mom into Kananaskis to get her nature on. What we encountered en route was a highway jammed with traffic care of long weekends, and three accidents in a 50 kilometre stretch. A plan B was in order but, unfortunately, that plan B involved swarms of other nature seekers.

Instead of tranquility and solitude and the peaceful hush of nature, we found:

-a crowded parking with illegal parkers blocking valuable driving territory and hikers wandering aimlessly mid-road

-the constant drone of loud conversations

-trail “traffic jams” (i.e. getting stuck behind large groups and a steady stream of slow walkers)

-a canyon floor full of hikers milling about like cattle on the range, rendering humanless picture-taking a near impossible task

Sounds awful doesn’t it? It’s certainly not my ideal. The reality is that more of us are trying to escape to nature and you don’t always have the time nor energy (nor fitness level, in my case!) to seek out the more remote and lesser known trails. Never fear, though, for you can still enjoy the well-travelled trails even when they’re crowded. Here’s how:

1. Shift your mindset: When we arrived and I saw herd upon herd of hikers swarming the parking lot, my first thought was ‘get me out of here.’ But then I realized that we were out for a family day of fun, a little bit of fresh (albeit slightly smokey) air, and to celebrate my mom’s birthday. All she wanted was to be outdoors with her family. This trail met all those criteria. I had to get over my attitude.

2. Enjoy the company: If everyone else around you is going to be talking and yelling and laughing and hollering, join in the fun. Talk and laugh and drown out everyone’s noise with your own.

3. Whenever possible, choose the lesser-travelled path: Along the route there were numerous places where the path split and rejoined later. We always choose the lesser travelled trail and, in those moments, you could almost forget that there were upwards of a hundred other hikers within a kilometre of you.

4. Look up (waaaaaaay up…okay, that reference will be lost on anyone who isn’t a Canadian child of the 80s who watched the CBC classic the Friendly Giant):  It was next to impossible to take a picture without people in it, unless I looked up. But there was so much to see that I would have missed otherwise: canyon walls (even some hieroglyphics!), blue skies, spired peaks, and even the odd hoodoo.  Looking at things from a new perspective really can make all the difference.

And so, even if you’re forced to hike with the masses, you can still connect with the joy of nature. Get out there!

Looking up and finding a peak peeking out (see what I did there?)

Mid-Week Tangent: the bitter truth about trail tuesdays

Every week when I sit down to write posts, I am reminded of the fact that my Trail Tuesday posts have all but disappeared. Why? Because I haven’t hiked a single damn trail the entire month of July. That’s right, me, the so-called hiker, hasn’t hiked a single step for an entire month. I am as surprised as anyone. This kind of hiking hiatus hasn’t happened since my pre-Banff days, which was a whopping 8 years ago. Even last year when my sacroiliac was barely holding it together, I managed to hit the trails at least weekly.

I had all sorts of plans for getting back to trail shape in time for summer, for hitting the trails regularly. The weather’s been gorgeous. I live closer to some of my favourite local mountains. My nagging injuries have been staying (relatively) at bay. All the necessary ingredients were there for the taking, and I partook not even once.  I can rattle off a list of excuses a mile long, many of which are totally legit. I was away house-hunting two weekends of the month. I had my birthday weekend. We had a community garage sale. All of this is true. But the real bitter truth, the toughest pill to swallow is the actual truth: I haven’t felt like hiking this month, nor this season in general.

When the thought of hiking crosses my mind, instead of being excited, instead of madly researching what trail to explore next, I quickly squash the thought altogether. I’m tired from starting a new job.  I don’t feel fit enough to navigate the types of trails I love. I don’t feel like getting in my car and driving after dealing with rush-hour commutes Monday-Friday. It feels like there’s a million things to do related to moving. The allure of fresh air, epic scenery, unobscured vistas, none of these currently competes with my desire to be still, to relax, to be totally and completely sloth-like lazy.

I don’t know if my hiking mojo will return this summer. Maybe once the chaos of new job, house sale, finding a temporary home and finalizing all the small details for our new home dies down things will change. I still have a couple of months to seize the hiking season. But if I don’t, if my mind and body continue to tell me to chill out, I’m going to try not to beat myself up every Tuesday when I have no trail stories to tell.

Trail Tuesdays: sun safety

Sometimes my trail Tuesday posts start to feel like a steady string of PSAs. Perhaps I’m just becoming a worrier as I age. No matter, today I have yet another trail safety post, this time about staying sun safe in the mountains.

Being a ginger, I am no stranger to sunburns. Being a sissy when it comes to heat, I am also no stranger to minor heat stroke. In other words, sunshine and heat are no joke, and their effects are only amplified when hiking in the mountains. At altitude, less UV rays are blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere, something to the tune of 4% for every 1000 feet of elevation! Combine this with exertion, sweating and heat and you have a recipe for heat stroke and/or sunburn. Yikes!

sun safety for sunshiney trail days

1. Carry extra water: I used to carry tiny ass bottles of water for full day hikes. I never got thirsty. I have no idea why. That changed suddenly and inexplicably a few years ago when I started to experience dehydration in a big way and needed to carry tons of water.  I have never experienced such a feeling of mental anguish and physical defeat as when i dropped my last water bottle off the side of the mountain at the tail end of a 32 km day hike in 30+ degree weather.  I had to hike out the last 2.5 km, which doesn’t sound like much but it feels long when you’re thirsty, and then had to drive another half hour to get to any form of beverage-selling civilization. Even though I had consumed a full 2 L of water on the hike (before I dropped the last bottle), I was still kicking myself for not having more. Carry a lot of water. A lot.

2. Cover yourself: Wearing a hat, light-weight long-sleeved shirt and pants keeps the rays off your skin, meaning no unsightly sunburns.  I used to think it was way hotter to hike in pants, but I’ve found as long as they’re loose fitting and light-weight fabric, they actually feel cooler than shorts. Plus, no one has to suffer the sight of my alarmingly pasty white legs. And don’t forget your sunglasses, particularly if you’re hiking anywhere with snow.  Sunshine + snow = hella glare that you don’t want to deal with for hours on end without the benefit of sunglasses. Even if you’re not near snow, the effects of sunshine on your eyes can be quite damaging without UV-blocking sunglasses. If you’re like me and enjoy the wonder of sight, you do not want to mess with your eyes.

3. Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen: I know, I know, sunscreen’s not actually good for you either. At least there are more and more natural sunblocks available on the market so you don’t have to fear that you’re trading off a sunburn in exchange for toxic chemicals.  As I mentioned, hiking at high altitudes will make the sun’s rays even more damaging to your flesh, even if you think you don’t burn. One summer years ago, I had been hiking so regularly that my legs were beyond needing sunscreen for the average hiking excursion–or so I thought. Then one day I spent 2.5 hours on a ridge top in unobstructed sunshine and it proved to be too much for my delicate flesh. Between the length of time and higher elevation than my typical hikes, the backs of my legs were done like dinner. I have never had such a defined sunburn line nor a stark contrast between burned and normal flesh. In fact, the line of the sunburn was visible for months. Months.  So yeah, wear your sunscreen (see also: cover yourself).

4. Watch for signs of heat stroke: Sometimes heat and exertion will just get the better of you. Pay attention to your body when you’re hiking in the sunshine. Yes, you’re going to get warm hiking in the summer sunshine, but there’s a difference between being hot and heat stroke. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms: headache, dizzyness or light-headedness, rapid heartbeat, nausea, weakness or lack of sweating despite heat.  I’ve had mild heatstroke only a couple of times and it was noticeably different than just being hot and tired and, in my case, was definitely due to pushing the limits of distance and elevation gain in high temperatures without sufficient food and water. I’ve learned my lesson. If you see early signs, pay attention and act accordingly (i.e. do something to try to cool yourself down and avoid further overheating), instead of stubbornly continuing to climb upward as I did. That expression do as I say and not as I do is meant for people like me.

Okay, now I promise (I think) to avoid PSAing you to death. From now on in, you can just enjoy your hiking season.