Often when getting gas at 3am, or stopping off at a coffee shop, I am asked by fellow patrons why I am up so early. With a big grin, I reply that I am going hiking. Blank stares return my comment; I may get a head shake, but typically people look at me like I am crazy. My friends and family ask me why I don’t climb as much in the summer as I do in the winter, and until this blog, I haven’t really answered them.
Winter time is cold, and is viewed as unfriendly, intrusive, maybe even inducing all of us to hibernate a bit until the days start getting longer again. For me, I like the isolation. I strongly dislike going to a trailhead or a mountain and having to battle my way around other hikers and searching for a parking spot. In the summer, I have been at trailheads that seem more like tailgate parties, with people drinking beer, having a fire, swimming in the rivers and listening to music loudly. This is fine and has its place, but when I hike, I try to make it intrinsically meaningful. The summertime hikes are steady, crowded and fun; many of my best memories come from summer hiking. The trail conditions are always known, and the element of surprise is limited. However, the winter time makes the weather, trails and roads unpredictable, and some days, I am all alone on a mountain. From sun-up to sun down, I may not see another human being, and that is what I crave.
Isolation and winter hiking puts me in touch with primitive instincts we long ago started ignoring. Listening to the crunch of snow and ice, testing durability of branches, trees and handholds, all of these things come instantly to me. The crisp, cool, winter air heightens my senses, I feel each breath, each step and every ache and pain I have experience in my life. My skin gets red with the cold, scars appear where I thought they had long since dissipated, yet, I never feel more alive than when I am hiking in the winter. The feeling I get from seeing the land below me and the landmarks hundreds of miles away is difficult to describe. It is the same primal feeling that led to exploration and expansion.
Winter hiking also allows me to glissade down the mountain at speeds I can’t naturally move. The rush, the euphoria that overwhelms by body from scenery and adrenaline, is addicting, and when I try to describe that to people, it typically falls on deaf ears. Adrenaline rushes are reserved for the X-games, for junkies and for athletes. I am none of the above, yet I crave the feeling. In fact, after last year’s glissade, I was shaking from excitement for 30 minutes after I stopped sliding. I searched for that rush all summer, never finding anything that could rival it.
Tomorrow I climb in the cold, without knowing the exact trail conditions, or even how the road to Mt. Ellinor may be. I have called the park service daily, but they don’t know anything, thanks to lack of federal, state and local funding. I won’t be alone tomorrow, but I know that the trail will be empty, the parking lot vacant, and I can be alone with my thoughts while staring into the vast and immense beauty of the Olympic National Park. I will be at one with the elements, at one with my body, and at one with the most beautiful area in the world, the Olympic Peninsula. Tomorrow, I will look out over the Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula and the South West of Washington State. Tomorrow I climb in the winter. Tomorrow, I remember what it means to be human.