Hiking, Life and Mental Health

During prolonged day hikes that challenge my ability to keep going when every twitch in my body begs for an end, the parallels between hiking and life twist into sharp focus.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m ascending to a pristine mountain lake surrounded by white-capped, sheer cliffs or plodding through a wildflower field salvaged to add a small dose of serenity to suburbia’s concrete chasms and rigid rules.

Hiking, for me, is an escape from the struggles of daily life, one that somehow reenergizes me mentally and physically even while demanding so much during the act itself. It’s my go-to coping mechanism.

The parallels between winning my mental health battle and succeeding on a trail are countless. Each week until I run out a few months from now, I’ll post the concepts I considered while miles from civilization—and remembered enough to write down later.

1) It’s irritating to descend when the goal is a mountain summit

This is among my most recurring trail thoughts. Nearly every mountain hike has downhill sections along the path to the top. At first, these sections are irritating. I don’t need descents adding to the agony of a day hike that takes me up 3,000 or 4,000 feet in elevation. It’s irritating to know I’m trying to head up, but have to traverse a downhill section to get there.

I’ve learned that descents have value. They use different muscles than I use hiking inclines. My quads, hamstrings, glutes and abs benefit from a little rest. The muscle stretching on a trail decline can be valuable, along with the ability to reduce oxygen demand on the body for a time.

Heading downhill into Paintbrush Canyon in the Grand Tetons.

While on one downhill section in the Grand Tetons, thinking about how I really needed the change of pace and path to keep going, I realized that this lesson applied to my life. It was frustrating when my career seemed to plateau at various points, particularly when I didn’t recognize how beautiful the view was from where I stood.

In hindsight, I realized that those plateaus and descents gave me the chance to strengthen my skills and refresh my energy for the next climb. Many of the most successful people I know stumbled along the way, went the wrong direction for a while, even descended against their will. Rather than turn around completely, they gathered strength by reengaging and learning new skills before tackling their next objective.

Now, when I encounter drops on a steep hike, I think of all my “failures” in life, how I learned from them, how I fought through them, and how I ultimately made my way to destinations I could enjoy. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.

Next Up: A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain




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