One of the things I’ve always loved about the wilderness is that everything is what it is. No masks, no motives, no hidden agendas. Mother Nature can be the hardest of taskmasters, but I’ve never found her to be disingenuous or unfair. And on the very rare occasions that I thought that was the case, I realised later on that it was my own ego that was speaking.
I may be stuck on an exposed ridge when an unexpected thunderstorm comes rolling through; that’s on me. I may fall ass over teakettle while trying to ford a fast flowing glacial river; that’s on me. I may reach a remote desert water source that others had told me was viable, only to find it drier than a popcorn fart. And you know what, that’s on me as well.
When you get right down to it, once I have made the decision to head out into the boonies, everything that happens after that is a byproduct of my original choice. It’s all on me. The process of accepting full responsibility for all of your choices is the first step in what I refer to as the “Three A’s” – Accept, Adapt and Appreciate – of wilderness travel, a set of principles that have collectively represented one of the cornerstones of all my backcountry trips since 1996:
Once Upon a Time
It was during a five day trek in Bolivia’s remote Cordillera Apolobomba in the summer of 1996 that I first came up with the idea of the Three A’s.
To be more specific, I was riding out the mother of all storms in a dilapidated mining cabin at 4600 m (15,091 ft). I was stuck in that dank and dark shithole for a full day. During this period there wasn’t much to do except think, eat, write, take the occasional pee and peek outside, and then think, eat and write some more. And as I listened to the sound of Mother Nature’s fury as I scribbled away in my mini Spiral notepad, my thoughts ran along the following lines……………
Accept the environment on its own terms. The natural world is inherently fluid. Conditions can vary dramatically from day to day, let alone from one season to the next. Hikers who head into the wilderness with an itinerary that’s set in stone and a mindset to match often find themselves in trouble when Mother Nature does an about-face, as she is sometimes wont to do.
Adapt accordingly. Once you have made an objective assessment and accepted a situation for what it is – rather than what you thought it might or should be – theory must then be translated into action. Decisions in the wilderness should be based upon two overriding considerations; 1. The conditions you are facing, and 2. Do you have the ability, skill, equipment and experience with which to safely negotiate those conditions?
The decision is made; action has been taken. Now it comes down to perspective. Whether the challenge you are facing is simple or difficult in the extreme, nothing will ever be gained by moaning, blaming and second-guessing. By choosing – and it is a choice – to view the tough moments as opportunities to learn rather than obstacles to endure, you give yourself the gift of appreciation.
Think about it. What are the times you have learnt the most from out in the wilderness? Is it when the sun is shining, the temps are in the low 20’s C (70’s F), and you are bopping along on a clear path with pretty scenery all around? Or is it when Mother Nature is flexing her meteorological and/or topographical muscles (e.g. extreme heat, white-out, heavy rain & high winds, tougher than anticipated terrain) and you have no choice but to embrace the suck, focus, and do everything in your power to deal with what is being thrown your way?
Mother Nature’s Boot
When I think back over the course of my hiking life, I have been kicked up the bum by Mother Nature more times than I can remember. In fact if you look hard enough – not necessarily recommended – I’m pretty sure you will see the imprint of her foot permanently tattooed across my backside. That said, if you spend enough time in the boonies a certain amount of bum kickings are a given. What is not a given is how you react to them.
The Three A’s are all about learning to view challenging situations as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks. Whether it be in the wilderness or your everyday life, nothing builds strength and character like overcoming difficulties. That doesn’t mean you should necessarily go out looking for shitty conditions (eventually they will find you), what it does mean is that when are faced with a testing examination, you will be able to recognise and embrace its value, and subsequently not only survive, but also thrive as a result of how you deal with it.
Case Study: The Pacific Crest Trail, 2012
The Pacific Crest Trail was the 10th thru-hike in the 12 Long Walks series of 2011/12. Due to an unusually cool spring and an early season arrival time, I ended up hiking approximately 750 (1207 km) of the final 1000 miles (1609 km) through Oregon and Washington in snowbound terrain. This was the one period during the entire 14,432 mile (23,081 km) journey that I was dealing with a potentially significant injury – a nagging case of patellar tendonitis in my left knee.
Putting into practice the principles of the Three A’s, I cut down the amount of hours I hiked each day, took a couple of ibuprofen most mornings and evenings to help with inflammation, increased my stretching regimen, and took extra “nero” and “zero” days in towns in order to rest and rehab. As a result of my actions, although the pain didn’t go away during the last 1000 miles of the PCT, it didn’t get progressively worse either.
Upon reaching Canada, I took four days off to completely rest my knee, after which I began the penultimate hike of the 12 Long Walks, the Continental Divide Trail. During the initial weeks of the CDT I continued to manage my daily mileage along with practicing the other measures described above. When combined with a much easier snow-free trail (I started on August 3), my knee slowly began to improve as I headed south through Montana. By the time I reached Wyoming, I had stopped taking anti-inflammatories altogether, lifted my self-imposed daily time/mileage restrictions, and was able to hike pain-free the rest of the way, eventually reaching the New Mexico/Mexico border on October 15.
Postscript – To this day, the final thousand miles on the PCT in 2012 remains one of my favourite memories from the 12 Long Walks trip. The beauty and solitude of the snowbound landscapes was amazing, but just as important to me personally was the fact that I accepted, adapted and remained positive. Not a single time did I entertain the thought of giving up, which was confirmation not only of The Three A’s principles, but also of the fact that when you have a strong will and an unconditional love of spending time out in the wilderness (no ifs or buts), you can usually find a way to make things work.