Ah, hiking! It's great to get into the woods this time of year and trek along some old trail, or better yet, blaze your own trail. And all the better if the hike is uphill, say up a four-thousand footer if you're from the East or a 14,000 footer if you're from the West (and really in shape). Even those who live in between the coasts can find hills to scale, like those along the northwestern shore of Michigan's Lower Peninsula or the Border Route Trail in the northeast corner of Minnesota. So what if they don't touch the clouds. Higher isn't always more challenging. One of the toughest climbs in the East is an 800-ft hill in Rhode Island, the highest point in that state. Of course, the main reason it's so tough is that access to the hill is through private property that the owners reportedly protect with their fists, guns, and who knows what else. Even Hillary and Norgay might have thought twice about knocking that one off.
Hiking up a mountain is a metaphor for life. You're always trying to get to the top. But once you're there, then what? Unless you're planning on becoming a wise old philosophy-dispensing hermit—or a mountain goat—eventually you have to come down the mountain. That's the part of the trip I want to talk about.
Why is it that the great books on mountain climbing skimp on the details of descent? It's as if once you reach the top there are no more goals. Sorry, getting back down in one piece is a pretty worthy goal too. After all, it's at the bottom when you start bragging. And descending holds mental and physical challenges too. First, the mental part: Unless you find another way down, you're retracing ground you've already covered. You can get bored and lose focus. Just think of all the project meetings you've sat through while some jerk kept going over the same points continually. It's the same thing, except this time your feet are moving. (Come to think of it, they're moving in that meeting too, in a tapping rhythm that alternately keeps you awake and relieves tension so that you don't leap across the table and strangle the guy.)
Physically, the climb down is just as tough as the climb up. For one thing, you're doing it when you're already tired. You've got to work through the pain and fatigue. Footing can be sketchy. Dirt can slide under you. Rain-soaked rocks can be more treacherous on the way down than they were on the way up. And you're also using different muscle groups: your fingers to grab onto trees or anything else that will prevent free fall; your palms and buttocks to negotiate those rocks (Admit it: If you've done any climbing at all, you've joined the bum brigade at least once on the way down!) You think going down is easier than going up? Tell it to your knees.
Technology helps, of course. You've got to have the right boots to grip the ground and prevent your ankle from experiencing more degrees of freedom than it was designed for. And then there're those levers called trekking poles. You see many people using them as an extra set of legs. I used to think they were for sissies until I read an endorsement for them by "The Gear Guy" in Outside magazine. He said they reduce shock on hips and knees, and you can even use them to jab at a grizzly. Okay, but what do you do next? Tickle the bear with them?
Next time you hike up a mountain, remember that getting to the top is only half the fun. Coming down is just as exhilarating too. As for me, I'm taking the gondola.
Reach Teague at firstname.lastname@example.org.