Level II Fun (Part 1): The Pain Cave
I’m unaware if there is an established “dictionary-definition” of the “pain cave”, something that’s usually associated with runners, ultra-marathoners in particular. Runners speak of themselves being in or entering the pain cave at the point in their run where pain becomes so acute that they lose the ability to focus on anything other than putting one foot in front of the other. The phrase is not new. It’s been around for a while. In fact, its caught on well enough that outdoor companies are now using it to market gear and equipment to endurance athletes. It’s clear from the advert, though, that the pain cave applies to any type of endurance activity. Hiking is an endurance activity. I hesitate to use the term sport because it implies teamwork and competition against others. While that may be true, and while there are hiking competitions such as Seek the Peak in New England, the Barkley Marathon in Tennessee, the Leadville 100 in Colorado (actually called the Leadville 100 Trail Run), many endurance athletes—cyclists, runners, climbers—often battle themselves, rather than a field of other athletes. This is particularly true of hikers, and thru-hikers especially, even while society tends to think of hiking as a leisurely activity, something someone might do on vacation. Vacations are supposed to be relaxing, right? So why would someone go on a vacation to deliberately experience pain, suffering, privation? Because, level two fun; that’s why.
Planning makes all the difference; bad planning, even more so. For several months, my brother John and I had been planning a four-day backpacking trip to The Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There, we would hike into the forest, up to the Appalachian Trail to Clingman’s Dome, before coming back down to complete the loop late morning or early afternoon of day four—as the plan had it. So, about six to eight weeks before the trip, I started practice runs with the pack pretty close to what I thought would be my actual trail weight, about twenty-five pounds (minus the food). My brother had said that the ideal weight for the pack on such a trip was thirty pounds. However, and to my detriment which I learned later, REI’s Coop Journal suggests that a hiker’s pack weight could be up to, but not exceed, 20% of a hiker’s body weight: bigger guy, more gear, heavier pack. My actual pack weight on the trail was closer to forty pounds, perhaps a little over. (On a side note, I carry two 48-oz Nalgene bottles, which, when full, weigh roughly eight pounds. The final pack-weight, then, without water, would have been pretty close to thirty pounds.) I was well within the 20% recommendation, but I was under-preparing and under-training the entire time. I would learn what a difference an extra ten or fifteen pounds could make. Two days before my brother and I left for the Smoky Mountains, I put the full weight of my 65-litre pack, again, minus food, on my shoulders for a final training hike. This was the first and only time I had anywhere near the full forty pounds on my back working at any significant elevation whatsoever. It was enough to sew a seed of doubt in my mind.
I plan well when I need to, but
occasionally always make bad decisions by not sticking to the plan. I was up early and had a big breakfast, figuring I was going to need all that energy on the trail. My plan had me departing home around 9:30 or 10:00, arriving at Mt. Tom in Holyoke, MA sometime around 12:00-12:30 and getting on-trail no later than 1pm; I didn’t leave until nearly noon. Last minute gear checks, bringing the cat over to the neighbor’s for cat-sitting duty, procrastination, all held me back. With traffic, I didn’t start hiking until nearly 3pm. This meant that I ate lunch in the car, which consisted of a few handfuls of trail mix and a couple ounces of water; rather than hydrating on the way up, I was conserving my water because it didn’t cross my mind that I could simply stop and buy more if I needed it before hiking. Sometimes I’m such a bonehead. It’s amazing I’ve got this far. If I’m famous for anything, it’s bad decisions.
By the time I reached the trailhead I hadn’t had a proper meal in six to seven hours, and was almost certainly dehydrated; or, at least, not fully hydrated. If you’re thirsty on-trail it’s already too late. I wasn’t concerned, though. The “mountain” barely rose above 1,200 feet. My mistake was thinking that particular 1,200 feet would undulate, slope gently upward. It didn’t. The summit of Mt. Tom lies 4/10 of a mile from the trailhead. And it only climbs 700 feet. However, it’s roughly a 33% grade: it’s stairs: climbing Mt. Tom to the summit is walking up a 700-foot flight of stairs made of rocks, dirt, sand. It’s scree. Moreover, I had completely failed to take the weather into account. The mercury hit nearly 90°F that Friday and much of the ridge along the trail has 100% exposure facing west, north-west along a cliff. By the time I finished the first summit and completely descended down the north side to the quarry trail, I was nearly out of water, exhausted, sun burnt, hungry, and had nothing other than gel packets and gummies for sustenance. Worse yet was that I had to do it all over again to complete the out-and-back. For several minutes I lay down on the soft, leave-strewn earth, looking back and forth from the cut-off to the main road, back to the summit trail, then to my phone to check the time. I contemplated quitting. I simply could have walked over to Route 141, which parallels the trail the entire way and which would have taken me directly back to my vehicle without having to climb the mountain again. But how the hell was I going to survive four days in the Smokies, averaging ten miles per day carrying everything on my back while climbing to nearly 7,000 feet at Clingman’s Dome if I couldn’t finish a five-mile hike in the low-lying hills of western MA?
Earlier that day, near a ledge higher up, I met a sexagenarian who was training to climb the highest peak in Montana later in the summer; this would be the final peak on his mission to ascend the highest peak in each of the lower forty-eight. I saw him again in those moments I was deliberating walking off the trail. Looking back now, seeing him that second time, in that precise moment, I can’t help but think it was portentous. He was doing ten miles; I was doing five-plus. Here’s a guy, got at least twenty years on me, feeling and looking chipper, and here I am, leaving for a four-day adventure in the next twelve hours unable to get myself up a 1,200-foot peak more than once. We spoke only briefly that second encounter, but I’m glad for his “intercession”—though, he didn’t know that’s what it was. After a quiet reflection, I decided that it wasn’t the mountain or the trail or even this seasoned hiker that I had to overcome; it was self-doubt, my unwillingness to suffer or endure discomfort in the face of adversity, and the mindset that I would “cross that bridge when I get there”: well, here was that bridge, and the toll was due. I paid up.
This was going to hurt. I was going to hate myself for putting, er, myself through this. I did it anyway; because on the other side, hopefully, was some greater good. My water expired before the second summit of Mt. Tom, and I had been sipping conservatively before that. Symptoms of serious dehydration set in: with nearly every incline my calves cramped: on the declines my quads: I had a wicked headache: my entire body throbbed: nausea was soon to come: my joints were starting to ache. They say dying of dehydration feels somewhat like being hungover; if that’s the case, this would be the hangover that finally killed me. Then, things started to look up, or maybe down, depending on your point of view: I found water. I came across a little puddle of muck, filled with leaves, dirt, dead bugs, and I’m sure, parasites. THANK GOD I had my life-straw. I was still an hour from the car and there was no other water source available. I filled my 48oz Nalgene with puddle-water, watching as the dirt, debris, a couple dead mosquitos, and other particulates hung suspended in the mix. Then, I trusted that my Life Straw would do its job and drank copiously. It’s amazing how, when you’re that dehydrated, you can feel the water coursing through your veins. Or maybe I’m being dramatic, I don’t know. A hike that I thought might take two, maybe three hours, turned out taking five. As if that wasn’t enough, on the way back to the car I ended up walking the wrong trail and had to backtrack a wee bit. One thing was for sure: today was turning into a total shit-show.
In retrospect, I chalk this pathetic performance up to having no readily available calories for my body to burn, severe dehydration, and (almost certainly) heat stroke from being on an exposed ridge in 90°F heat. In that moment, though, I continued to experience self-doubt and low self-esteem, and decided that if my brother asked me how my hike went, I would say, “just fine”, or something to that affect. I was still afraid I would ruin things.
This sounds like I know nothing about hiking, or how to be safe or prepared. I’m not sure that’s true. I feel the need to say that none of this happened because I am inexperienced; I hike all the time; I carry plenty of water, bugspray, sunscreen, a first-aid kit, something to cover my head, sunglasses, a map (usually the Alltrails app), etc. Nothing went as planned today: I left late; I skipped lunch and didn’t drink enough before-hand; I underestimated the level of difficulty of the climb; also overestimated my ability to perform while carrying forty pounds of gear. The original plan had been to get to John’s house around suppertime, shower, eat, relax, get a good night’s rest. I arrived after nine p.m. I stopped for food along the way, forced down a meal my body didn’t want. Lack of hunger/inability to eat is a symptom of heat-stroke. Additionally, excessive exercise causes the body to produce a peptide known as YY, which suppresses the appetite. Add a dehydrated body to the equation and readers can perhaps empathize with the way I felt. There was no water in my system to transport nutrients and my body had diverted the blood from my intestines to the muscles that were being used on the hike. Once, on the highway, I got a cramp in my right adductor so severe that I was forced to pull over, exit the vehicle and try to stretch it out. It helped a little. Thoughts and feelings of inadequacy persisted. This wasn’t the White Mountains of New Hampshire or even the Smokies; this was the rolling hills of western Massachusetts! What the fuck was I going to do when we got to Tennessee?!
Find out next week in part two of Level II Fun. And remember to get out there.