How to Hike and Climb More

With the weather starting to warm up, hockey playoffs and the regular baseball season underway, it means it’s almost time to get out more and hike and climb. For some people getting out more is easy, they just drop everything and go on a whim. But for you and me, with strong work and family commitments, it takes a little bit more contemplation and a plan. Here’s one that works:

  1. Mark it on your calendar. If you’re leaving early for work or coming in late mark it, make it well known and be unapologetic. Work is important, but hiking or climbing is probably also important for you to be happy and continue doing a good job.
  2. Enlist your buddy or significant other in your plans.
  3. Set money aside regularly from each pay check to cover trip expenses (gas, airfare, lodging if necessary, etc.) so this way when the time is right, you’re don’t have any financial excuses.
  4. Don’t discourage day hikes. Even a short trail is better than no trails at all.
  5. Join an outdoors group and commit to one of their trips, even if it’s just to the local state forest.
  6. If you travel for work, find hikes or crags at those destinations and go!
  7. Hike with family and friends and call it “quality time.”
  8. Invite a business contact for a hike and call it “networking” or “bonding.” It probably will be better than the round of golf you normally play with him or her.
  9. Be an trail opportunist! When there is free time, work, chores and family are tended to, just go!
  10. Follow the Suburban Mountaineer for inspiration… duh.

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Dolly Sods: The Mid-Atlantic’s Tundra

Yesterday almost felt like summer around here. If my wife didn’t expect me to go to work every day, I might have called in and took a “golf” day. Only it wouldn’t be golf. But the experience made me think of possibilities and one geographically curious region.

While most of West Virginia’s Monongehela National Forest is tree covered, there is a region known as the Dolly Sods that are a left over from the ice age. It’s a region elevated away from most the region’s typical heat and humidity and has a landscape with more in common with northern Canada than Washington, DC, which is just 170 miles east.

The terrain is technically not exotic in the scope of earth, but its terrain combined with its unique qualities for the region make it interesting. It includes northern hardwoods and laurel thickets at the lower areas of the Dolly Sods Wilderness, while smaller red spruce and heath barrens are higher up, and stereotypical rocky-barren areas are throughout the preserve.

I visited several times around 2003 and 2004 and sometimes camped around the 80-foot cliffs that are typical in some portions. I can’t recall whether that was officially condoned or not, but it gave me a great position to watch the birds and contemplate a rock climb.

If you visit, keep in mind winter lasts a little longer there than the surrounding region and roads may remain closed, so access will be left to hoofing it. In addition, I should point out, that Dolly Sods is the more popular region, but the other tundra-like wilderness of the Monongahela is Flatrock and Roaring Plains just to the south of Dolly Sods Wilderness. In fact, the National Forest Service has said that its designation of Dolly Sods as Wilderness may actually detracted from it by attracting more visitors. That cannot be said about Flatrock and Roaring Plains, which is designated as Backcountry.

Both are great destinations for hikers — and some climbers — in the Mid-Atlantic region. Bring the Ten Essentials and some gaiters, and enjoy the great north closer to home.

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Adventure’s Purpose

Alpinist Willi Unsoeld was a great mountaineer, best known for being among the first Americans to summit Mount Everest and also for the tragic story of losing his daughter, Nanda Devi, on her namesake mountain.  He was also a professor or religion and philosophy (but I’ve heard different explanations of what he actually taught.) 

Here is one quote from Unsoeld that struck a cord with me about hiking and climbing.  I always had this thought whenever I was going back and forth to the Adirondacks in high school and in college.  I think it may be even more resonating now:

” …Why not stay out there in the wilderness the rest of your days? Because that’s not where men are. The final test for me of the legitimacy of the experience is ‘How well does your experience of the sacred in nature enable you to cope more effectively with the problems of mankind when you come back to the city?'”

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Guideless in the Backcountry: First-Time Hikers

When I started travelling in the backcountry I was fortunate to have my uncle, the original Suburban Mountaineer, be my mentor when I was only eleven.  Having a mentor like my uncle was an advantage because of all the trails he’d covered and his talent for sharing lessons like I was a buddy rather than a nephew. 

As I have noticed from ads at the local outfitter around here in Peaklessburg, a lot of people new to hiking learn how to be prepared for a day hike or an overnight trip through instruction at an Eastern Mountain Sports, REI or Erehwon, for example.  Despite the way I learned, a lot of people don’t just go hiking.  They prepare — as they ought to. 

While we all need to know the Ten Essentials, how to navigate, how to tend to blisters, and how to keep our food and ourselves safe, which can be taught in the classroom, getting the feel of a hike — especially a long one — can only be gained truly by experience.  I always recommend new hikers read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  His thoughts and reactions of the trail are true.  I also recommend Jeff Alt’s A Walk for Sunshine.  Both are about hiking the Appalachian Trail.  Regardless of whether a new hiker plans to do a through hike, the lessons and experiences from a long hike can be analogous to our shorter hikes. 

Author and Thru-Hiker Jeff Alt has done a number of slide shows, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, where he shares pictures and his stories from his hike. He has also come out with a DVD of the slide shows, A Walk for Sunshine Appalachian Trail Show.  It is definitely something I would have enjoyed watching when I was just getting into hiking; maybe I would have shared something with my uncle. 

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Walk and Relieve the Stress

If you’re living in Colorado or Washington you might disagree, but from my position here in Peaklessburg, I think the Mountaineering Council of Scotland in Big Issues Scotland has it right: “[T]he hills are alive with the sound of over-stressed, under-funded, debt-burdened solace-seekers, tramping towards tranquility amid the peaks and valleys.” 

The council believes that more people in Scotland and the U.K. need to get out more and walk to relieve the pressures of daily life.  The organization is also promoting an election agenda for the candidates to support more maintained trails in the north country. 

While I am uncertain whether more trails are a solution to stress (and the limited wilderness there) I wholeheartedly agree that walking and hiking does a world of good in for workers and professionals today.  We are inundated with information and asked to make decisions quickly and frequently.  These things build tension even when you don’t notice. 

Simplifying things on the trail so that your priorities are realigned is refreshing.  Thinking more about packing enough food and water and bringing a good rain jacket or wind breaker will be like a change of scenery on a much longer vacation.  Then add the walk itself and you’re set! 

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Analogue Altimeters Promote Better Mountain Skills

ADC Ridge analogue/aneroid altimeter (Szalay 2010).

There are a number of devices on the market that can determine your elevation, or to use a cooler mountaineering term: altitude.  While pilots may use any type of altimeter, such as radar altimeters, alpinists only use aneroid altimeters.  Aneroid altimeters measure the barometric pressure, or the air’s weight, to correspond to the altitude.

Digital altimeters, like the watches from Suunto or Casio or a GPS device with elevation output, and analogue altimeters, like my ADC Ridge shown in the picture above all have pros and cons.  Digital altimeters are also aneroid devices, which use a barometric scale that corresponds to altitude, but the output of data is presented digitally instead of on a pressure gauge.  The biggest advantage of a digital device is that it distinguishes barometric pressure changes from weather system from real elevation changes; analogue altimeters require the user to make the adjustments manually.  The downside is that digital devices are electronic and dependent on batteries though both are equally susceptible to moisture.

The analogue altimeter requires a bit of work to operate.  To properly determine your elevation with an analogue instrument you must adjust the dial to place the known elevation at the appropriate altitude.  However, the device requires the user to confirm higher elevations on its gauge at known points, to counter for non-climbing changes to the detected barometric pressure.   This requires the user to be using their navigation skills.  In this way, the altimeter compliments a hiker’s or climber’s information about his or her location, but it doesn’t replace map and compass skills.

In fact, if used properly, the analogue altimeter can help the hiker or climber be more aware of his or her terrain.  The compass determines bearings, the map can identify topography, and an altimeter can help confirm both.  By comparison, a digital altimeter provides the same output, but an analogue instrument encourages the user to actively think about the clues of the landscape.

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