The Road Less Traveled: Solo Hiking
The Cascade Range, located just east of Seattle, where I live, has enchanted me since I first moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2013. Chockablock with craggy peaks and magical alpine meadows, the place casts a new spell every time I return. It energizes me—makes me feel elated to be alive.
That experience was especially true a few years ago, when I trekked up to the edge of Sahale Glacier (elevation 7,600 feet) in North Cascades National Park. As I set up camp in the protective arm of a rock wall that would shield me from the wind, the sun scampered away and the stars descended in a display of color, light, and radiance that I’ve rarely seen. What’s more, I was lucky enough to have arrived in time to capture the vanishing moments of the day with my camera.
That trip, like roughly a third of all my hikes, was a solo trek.
I enjoy hiking with others and have benefited enormously from the hours I’ve spent on the trail with friends and family. (Sometimes being in the great outdoors inspires great conversation!) But I’ve also come to appreciate the value of a solo voyage.
Why go solo? Every hiker has his or her own reasons, of course, but I’d count these as my top three:
1. You can travel—and think—at your own pace.
Trail talk with sure-footed partners can be a great thing. But some days I simply need to clear my head—undistracted by conversations, digital displays, or even roadside billboards that can highjack my train of thought. Being alone outdoors allows me to focus. Small irritations evaporate and worries seem to dissolve with each passing step. A partridge flushed out of underbrush startles me and reminds me that, with the right mindset, some problems will disappear as quickly as a winged bird. With nothing but pine boughs and puffy clouds above me, I’m reminded that the sky’s the limit. The world is a vastly bigger space than the inside of my head.
2. You listen more carefully in the silence.
When I hike alone, there is no sound beyond the thud of my boots and the clank of the gear in my pack. The farther I go, the less likely I am to hear cars or trains. Instead, as silence fills my ears, I become more attuned to my environment and begin to notice things that I rarely notice in my day-to-day city life. Wind whispers in the treetops. Woodpeckers jackhammer away. Marmots squeak. Solo hiking conditions me to listen more acutely—I can hear the echo of my steps on a canyon wall or the murmur of some backpackers around a bend. For several hours after I return home, I find myself hearing things I never noticed before, until, alas, the white noise of modern life returns.
3. You perceive the rewards and risks of self-reliance.
Traveling alone is not without dangers. On one solo trip a few years ago, I slipped while descending a gully and a rock edge sliced into my hand as I tried to cushion my fall. The bleeding was profuse, but I managed to stop the flow with pressure and hiked the remaining eight miles back to my car, stopping only to wash the cut in an icy stream.
Things could have turned out much worse, of course, and having a partner along for the hike might have changed the scenario. Still, there’s part of me that tells the story with a small bit of pride. Despite the seriousness of the injury, I didn’t panic. And on subsequent solo hikes, I’ve used that experience to guide my judgement, take precautions, and avoid unnecessary risks. (I also carry a Personal Locator Beacon that I use in case of emergencies, sending out a distress signal if I find myself in grave or imminent danger.) The idea that I can fend for myself in the wildness gives me a sense of satisfaction that I believe many hikers—perhaps even you—share. There’s a thrill that comes with going solo.
POSTED: MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2018
RETURN TO ALPINE JOURNAL'S HOME PAGE