Tag Archives: hiking

Sometimes You Chase False Summits

I’d climbed many mountains before, but not ones out West where you cross the tree line with miles remaining to hike.

At Humphrey’s Peak, my goal was to reach the summit. Humphrey’s Peak, in Flagstaff, Arizona, served as a critical scene in a story I’d written. I needed to know what I conceived was accurate. I needed to make it to the peak.

Days before, I’d hiked in the nearby Grand Canyon, down Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point. It’s a 12-mile trail that starts at 7,000 feet of elevation and descends to 3,500 feet at Plateau Point.

After some less rigorous sightseeing, I drove to Flagstaff and carb loaded for the Humphrey’s Peak hike. At sunrise, I was at the trailhead, situated at 9,000 feet. The trail climbs over five miles to 12,700 feet at the peak. It was mid-November, the end of hiking season for a peak that could then just as easily be encased in snow and ice.

While there was ice on the trails at higher elevations, particularly in shaded areas below the tree line, it wasn’t the footing that made this hike difficult. I’d been in the Chicago area only a few days before. My only incline work had been at lower elevations in the Grand Canyon. I was far from altitude-adjusted. This became abundantly clear once I passed the tree line, trudging through the lunar landscape covering the last 1-1/2 miles to the summit.

The trail up to one of three false summits on Humphrey’s Peak.

Even more clear then was that I hadn’t trained enough. I was forced to stop frequently, to rest my legs and to keep my heart and lungs from bursting through my ribs.

As I approached what looked like the summit, I was relieved as much as delighted. I’d made it. The descent would be far easier.

I hadn’t made it though.

I’d been chasing a false summit. I had further to go.

Humphrey’s Peak has three false summits. They give you hope that you’re almost to your goal, only to crush your spirit as you take what you think are the final incline steps. When you look up, though, the trail continues over the ridge.

When I hit these false summits, in hiking and in life, I have to take a break, gather my thoughts and admit I’d been fooled. Hardest of all, I need to keep going. My goal hadn’t been to get to something that seemed like the summit. It had been to get to the top, even if that meant enduring 20-mile-per-hour winds aggravating nearly freezing temperatures.

On Humphrey’s Peak, as in life, my goals kept moving from what I had been envisioning, feeling at times nearly impossible to achieve. Several times during my career, I was told I needed just one more achievement or to wait to get past the current hiring freeze. A promotion was no more than months away. But something else would intervene. A bad quarter. New leadership. Different priorities. Internal politics.

The goal moved.

The disappointment of thinking I’d made it, only to find out that there more struggle to endure, could be debilitating. But I believed I could still make it. It was worth working toward that goal. It might have been further away than I thought, but I couldn’t give up.

Life is full of times we discover that it’s a far longer path to what we want to achieve than we can possibly see—or even imagine.

Those disappointments can either be roadblocks or hurdles, depending on how we face them. Often, I had to fight off my gut reactions—depleted energy and altered attitude.

When I hit those false summits on Humphrey’s Peak, I knew that if I ever wanted to reach the true summit, it was better to keep going than to climb down and start again another day on another mountain.

That meant shaking off my frustration, and trudging on.

NEXT WEEK: Sometimes You Are So Depleted, You Need Other People.

A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain

Building a career sometimes takes fighting through dreary days in an unfulfilling job. You might face a manager determined to impede your progress, at least until you identify and secure an alternative path.

Fighting back from a mental health challenge—or any other life struggle—can feel the same. You have to face obstacles and take steps even when the benefits of your struggle seem so incremental as to be initially invisible.

Still, as I’ve found with hiking, having a goal you’re striving to achieve makes enduring the suck factor on difficult days far more bearable.

Reaching the summit of Pikes Peak was the goal that motivated me through tedious training.

Chicago’s western suburbs aren’t ideal training grounds for mountain hikes. Yet that’s where I spend most of my time. On good days, outdoor training seems at least connected to nature even if flat surfaces here constrict my enjoyment. On bad weather days, incline treadmills and stair climbers are my best options.

I’d much rather work out in actual mountains, taking on longer, steeper trails and higher elevations as my abilities expand. Conducting a mountain workout surrounded by thick oaks, tall pines and tiny squirrel feet scampering on matted leaves would turn training into its own goal. I don’t have that option.

When weather cooperates, two outdoor locations draw most of my incline workouts.

At Blackwell Forest Preserve, the wishfully named Mount Hoy is best known as a tubing slope developed on an old landfill. Hiking here provides 100 feet of elevation gain in a short distance, nothing compared to challenges in the Appalachians, Smokies, Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Before I depart for a steeper challenge, I make sure I can go up and down the hill continuously for a few hours carrying a full pack.

On rare clear days, Chicago’s visible skyline is worth a view, even from 30 miles away. From the top of Mount Hoy, Blackwell’s treetops and surrounding lakes also provide welcome distraction. These are pretty views. However, by the time I’m into my 18th trip up the same hill, the setting loses its motivational lure.

The same can be said of Swallow Cliffs. It’s a Cook County toboggan run surrounded by two sets of stairs that provide less elevation change though steeper climbing than at Blackwell. A couple of hours going up and down stairs with full pack helps build muscle strength for more vertically challenging hikes.

When I don’t have a tough hike coming up, I have a hard time sustaining interest in the repetitive hiking at Blackwell or Swallow Cliffs. I often return to more leisurely and nature-infused walks at the Morton Arboretum.

Even when I distract myself by marveling at the diversity of people climbing stairs at Swallow Cliffs or the peacefulness of the far less frequently used Mount Hoy, it’s easy to let the pains and soreness that come with incline workouts deter me from continuing.

With a tough goal ahead, like a recent trip scripted to culminate on Pikes Peak’s Barr Trail, I can better muster the energy to fight through tired, pained exhaustion.

If I didn’t push while training, it would dramatically reduce the odds I’d achieve my real goal. I couldn’t expect to make the 26-mile, 7,000-foot-plus elevation gain Barr Trail hike if I couldn’t make the third hour at Swallow Cliffs or at Blackwell. So, rather than stop when my legs ached, I stretched out walking flat sections for a few extra minutes before returning to the hill or stairs.

Having a clear goal, something imaginable and at least potentially achievable, enabled me to put in work my body and mind were telling me I was too tired to accomplish.

The concept applies to every aspect of life. I sucked up a significant number of difficult workdays during my corporate career. I was determined to retire early to avoid my Dad’s fate of going straight from desk to casket. He never felt the freedom to pursue passions outside of his family.

Goals have also been essential to my mental health battle. Whenever I complete a goal, I figure out what I want to focus on next. There was a time in my life when that goal needed to be measured in hours and days. But having a longer-term goal, something I can be sure I don’t want to miss, provides the motivation I need now to fight through darker days.

A foreseeable, achievable future helps me take that next step when my mind and body conspire to tell me I’ve had enough.