I'm getting ready for the Rachel Carson Challenge, which is a 34 mile, one-day hike through trails across the northern part of Allegheny County, PA (Pittsburgh). Mary Reed in her article at getoutzine.com says:
I ask my fellow participants why they are doing this. The answers fall into three general categories: for the challenge; because I’m crazy and/or stupid; I was drunk when I signed up.
No points for guessng which category I fall into.
Last weekend was the last of the challenge training hikes. An ambitious 19.3 mile trek. And, in accordance to the plan for the actual challenge itself, I went in the slow group. With me were J (who I met on the last challenge training hike I did), S (friend of S. When S asked her to sign up for the challenge, it turned out that some details were left out. Like the actual challenge was 34 miles), and D (training hike organizer, and sweep, to make sure that no bodies were left on the trail when the training hike was over). (T, who is the guy who is getting me to do this thing, was a no show, some excuse about being out of the state) The plan was to start off of Bull Creek Road and Ridge Road by Tarantum (map link) and end up in Dorseyville (map link). And do this in 97F (!) heat.
Well, the most obvious thing about the day was, it was hot. D had made the comment that she has never seen it so hot on a challenge (or training hike) before. Along the way we made a stop at Sheetz, and I wolfed down a whole bottle of gatorade. The areas that were forested or in parks were nice. But things like Murray Hill (steepest hill on the Rachel Carson Trail) and the various power line cuts like the infamous Roller Coaster were out in the open, in the blazing sun. About four hours into the hike D started getting calls from people who were ahead, letting us know they were dropping out of the hike and were making pickup arrangements (because D was the organizer, just polite to let her know that your body is not on the trail somewhere needing to be picked up).
The heat was getting to us too. I was fighting off heat cramps (the gatorade I picked up at Sheets did wonders for that). And everyone was showing some signs of heat exaustion. At around 6 miles, one person was suffering from nausea, and on spotting a side trail that went to the road (we were on the Roller Coaster at the time), made the decision to quit while the getting was good. It turned out we were in Springdale, and close to the Rachel Carson Homestead. This made for a good pickup point and D's husband graciously came out to pick us up and bring us to our cars.
So, what did we get out of strenuous hiking in 97F weather for 6 hours. Well, there is definitely the workout. But these things are more then physical. There is the testing of mental preparation, both the amourphous mentally preparing oneself for a test, but also the practical aspects of being intelligent about doing something challenging. And the decision making. D had said she had never before bailed on a hike. But the mental capacity to recognize when a course of action should not be continued is vitally important, because it can mean the difference between an experience to remember, and a fatality. Because the backcountry (and nature) deals with physical realities, that do not bend to what you may want to believe, or what you wish was true, or mental will. And something like this, which is a test to the point of failure, makes you know exactly where you stand in the world.