October 31, 2011

Catch Up: Adventures in Hiking

It’s been almost two weeks since I last posted! Last Monday morning, I started writing my usual weekend recap – but then with my busy week, it got totally stalled. Part of me feels like I should apologize for the lack of updates, but the other part of me is proud that I’ve been living instead of blogging. Sometimes I read blogs that seem like the activities they do are purely to have something to write about on their blog – and I hate those blogs and stop reading them immediately (note that those are not any of the blogs that are in my reading list on the sidebar). So, in the spirit of looking on the bright side, I’ll call my little gap just another thing that makes me honest and who I am 🙂

Last weekend was another jam-packed weekend warrior session for me! I had originally considered a trip to Boston to watch Cute New Guy (row with the other alumni from his college rowing team in the “Head of the Charles” competition, but when that fell through, I had a completely free Saturday until a birthday dinner for one of my friends. What to do, what to do… be active! Go hiking!

My friend Alex and I signed up for a trip with Outdoor Bound to go hiking at Schunemunk Mountain. While my last hiking excursion had been more of a nature walk, this one promised a moderate difficulty level, so I figured it should get my heart beating fast and blood pumping. As it turned out, it did and then some besides!

The night before, I headed out to go buy some hiking boots so I’d be even more prepared than the last time around. Yeah, yeah, so you’re supposed to break them in before you actually go hiking – but what better way to break them in than to actually hike in them? Besides, my feet are pretty tough (true story: I have run marathons in brand new sneakers with no problems). I planned to slather Aquaphor all over my feet beforehand, and also pack a pair of sneakers in my backpack to change into when my feet inevitably did get sore from the hiking boots. (Aha – I finally figured out what to fill my backpack with!)

Our meeting time on Saturday was later than with the last hiking trip I had done. And even better than that – it was at a Starbucks. Genius! I got there extra early to buy an everything bagel and make some “protein coffee” (coffee + unflavored whey protein powder – perfect for when I’m somewhere that only has carby breakfast options that won’t fill me up without a protein component). The number of people wearing hiking boots and carrying backpacks grew and grew, until finally I broke the ice and introduced myself to some of the people around me. Clearly we were all going to the same place!

On the drive to the base of the mountain, I further broke the ice by diving right into a description for Alex of Cute New Guy and our first few dates. What better way to introduce yourself to strangers than to share the details of your current love life? (I kept it totally G-rated and also tried to keep my voice down, but there’s only so private you can be in a 14 passenger van). The drive went by quickly and we soon arrived at a parking lot next to a meadow. Shedding my warm up fleece sweatpants (but putting them into my trusty pink backpack just in case), we trekked off through the nettles and tall grasses. Woo, nature!

And for extra excitement: a giant wasps’ nest to point the way. I steered clear!

When we started actually hiking up the mountain, I realized that this hiking trip was going to be very different than my last one. We were going up and up, and we were going fast! While my last trip had been more of a nature walk, this was definitely a hike. There were a few rocky sections where I needed to use my hands to pull myself up – which wasn’t difficult, but just took more energy than I had to do both that and talk. I was working up a really strong sweat and I was pumped – what a great way to get a long and challenging workout in without being stuck in a gym. I will admit, though, the top couldn’t come soon enough… I wanted my yummy lunch! Unable to wait for lunch I ended up having a mini Larabar on one particular overlook as I enjoyed a sweeping view of the Hudson Valley. I couldn’t believe how high up we were!

But that wasn’t the top just yet – we were still only at about 900 feet of elevation. When we finally summited, our guide told us that we had hiked up about 1600 feet of elevation. Woo! We arrived at the “monoliths” – some flat rock formations atop which we were supposed to perch to eat our lunch. I’m not going to lie – I was a wee bit freaked out by those rocks. The edges of the mountain we had previously been on didn’t scare me, in part because there was tons of vegetation to make it feel like we were just on some kind of big hill. But on the monoliths, they were flat as… well, rocks. They were slanted and some were mossy/lichen covered – but there were no other plants or vegetation to provide a gripping surface. I couldn’t help feeling like one slip and I’d be sliding all the way down them and then going over the edge and falling down into whatever awaited below. To complete the picture, there were even two vulture perched on a rock across the way – just waiting for fresh meat!

I was relieved when our guide Ben announced that we’d eat lunch down off the monoliths – on this crisp fall day, it was just too windy to comfortably eat up top. Even down below, it was a bit brisk, and I ended up pulling my fleece pants back on and throwing all my extra layers on top. I happily ate my chickpea salad for lunch, but found myself still wanting more. This had been more strenuous/calorie-burning than I thought! I ended up eating a PowerBar for some extra energy – though I hoped the descent would be faster and easier than the ascent.

As it turned out, the descent was pretty darn hairy. We headed down a very steep and technical section where we had to grab skinny trees and do a few 2-3 foot jumps in order to make our way down. Ben explained that we were going from the top of one ridge down into a valley, and then up to the top of another – which we’d then follow almost back to where we started, and then completely descend to get back down to the van. As we headed down the trail, we got into a discussion of what would happen if someone got injured. We were on a pretty narrow and remote trail, and I for one was wondering how on earth you could help someone who got stuck in such a place. Ben said that this was why it was good we were in a group – he would leave all of us together with the injured person, then he would head back up to the monoliths and down the way we had originally come. Because it was less technical than the way we were going, he said he could actually run back to the van (!) in order to get help, and would probably be back with a ranger or other emergency personnel within an hour. Wow! I fervently hoped we wouldn’t have to see that plan in action though.

At the bottom of the valley, we found a swampland where the trail should have been. This seemed to be a regular occurrence, as there were thick sticks laid across the trail to create kind of a raised surface to walk on. However, there were not enough sticks to create an actual path, and the ones that were there were not necessarily all that steady. And so commenced a balancing act of jumping from stick to stick and rolling around at the top trying to stay upright. I envied the one uber-prepared and experienced member of our group who had brought trekking poles with her, which gave her an extra source of support. As for me? I fell into the muck a few times, soaking my sneakers through (darn, I missed my waterproof hiking boots, which I had swapped out for my sneakers during lunch). Not terribly comfortable anymore!

We continued up to the next ridge and then all along the top, seeing some gorgeous views in the other direction as we circled back around to where we had started. Arriving at another overlook, we stopped for pictures and I dutifully took a few of what was a lovely late afternoon panorama. But then the break went on… and on… and I just wanted to get going! We weren’t working up nearly as much of a sweat heading down instead of up, and the day was cooling off besides. Guess I should’ve packed more layers!

The temperature, however, soon became the least of my worries. We got to a stream crossing where we needed to step from rock to rock to make it safely across. We had already been through several of them, and I loved them – it always reminded me of Oregon Trail and “fording the stream,” though in actuality I was always the risk averse player who chose to “caulk the wagon and float it.”

This time, though disaster struck – Alex slipped on a mossy rock and went down, landing face first on the rock. I had been right in front of her, and turned around to her cry to see her sitting in the stream with blood everywhere. Yikes! Though it had been a very short fall, she had bit through her lip when she landed, and since there is a large supply of blood to the head, it just kept gushing out like crazy. Ben gave her a waterbottle to try to rinse her mouth out, but after she drank from it, there was blood pouring down the sides of the bottle, and it looked like something out of a horror film!

Other than the mouth injury and now being pretty wet, Alex was okay, so she bravely chose to just keep going. Fearing that she might need stitches, we wanted to get to an emergency room as soon as possible, so we hastened along the trail at a much faster clip than before. It still took us almost another hour to get back to the van, and then we had an hour’s drive to get back to NYC (by then, the bleeding had gone down, and Alex preferred to go to a hospital at home than one in Westchester). I accompanied her to the ER, but she insisted that I not stay – which I reluctantly agreed to only because her cousin had met us and promised to take care of her.

Though I continued on with my night (going to a friend’s birthday dinner at a German bierhaus), I was worried until I heard from Alex that she hadn’t needed stitches and would soon recover. What a scare! While I had gone on the hike thinking that maybe this would be the last time I’d go hiking with a guide and that perhaps next time I’d organize friends to go on our own, seeing how one little slip can cause a whole mess of trouble was scary. Ben hadn’t really done anything that my friends and I wouldn’t have thought to do on our own, but in a real emergency, I clearly saw the huge value in having someone experienced and trained to deal with these kinds of situations. I think I will stick with a guide for a while longer 🙂 But yes, there will be a next time for hiking – can’t scare me away that easily!


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