trail tales: there and (almost immediately) back again

It’s alright to “fail”.

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“I don’t think I can go on any further.”

We had paused to catch breath on a wooden bridge swung high over a gully. Ancient limestone cliffs dropped away beneath us and far below, the river swirled past on its path from summit to sea, carving and smoothing the rock that flanked it. We were half a day into our four-day hike.

“What’s up?”

I turned to my partner. We’d passed the previous hour in comfortable silence, walking together but apart. I’d been slightly ahead, and lost in my own thoughts. Not having noticed that anything was wrong was more of a comment on my own lack of presence than anything else. I certainly hadn’t noticed Jon fall slightly behind, his slight frown of thoughtful concentration turning slowly into a grimace, and his usually sure-footed stride becoming more and more of a limp.

I rummaged in my pack for some painkillers, platitudes slipping easily off my tongue as we convinced each other that nothing had gone wrong. Nothing could possibly go wrong, after all, only ten kilometres into the sixty-plus we’d planned excitedly over the previous days. We were laden with sleeping bags, the tent, cooking equipment and other miscellaneous must-haves for long hiking trips. We had a weather window that promised calm winds and blue skies. And we were in one of the most beautiful national parks in the entire world, surrounded by mountains. Things were simply going to work themselves out. There was no other option.

“It’ll probably be okay – take some of these and see how it goes.”

“Let’s try the next hour and then see how it is.”

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Agreed in our determination to push on, we left the bridge and the crashing chaos of the river and pushed on up, out of the alpine beech forest into a huge plain of long grass. The light shone golden across the glacial valley, mountains rising up on either side, the hidden secrets and viewpoints of their peaks to remain unknown to us as we continued on the path that would take us up the valley and skirt, late the next day, over a pass far into the distance. The familiar joy I always feel when I’m in the mountains and far from roads was, however, tempered by a growing nervousness. Romantic thoughts of mountain peaks and eagles couldn’t sustain themselves as I watched Jon’s walking grow slower and more lopsided out of the corner of my eye.

After only half of the hour’s test section we had agreed on, Jon stopped.

“It’s really bad. I can’t do this.”

After over a year as partners, and four months into a travelling adventure together on the other side of the world, I had come to know that Jon was not the sort of person who easily gave up, or easily admitted physical limitations – in fact, he was so rarely injured in any way that I had begun to find it frustrating the previous year as I battled a serious of minor complaints that kept me away from my beloved running trails and rocks to climb. It was surprising to hear him admit that something was wrong, and I knew enough to take it seriously when he did.

We sat down slightly away from the path, swatting away sandflies as we considered our options. It was clear that completing the remainder of the track, or even finishing our planned twenty kilometres for the day, was out of the question. Some of the options we discussed – that I would carry on alone with the tent and food, and Jon would go back and wait in the car for three days until I returned – were quite obviously ridiculous. We were left with the only option that seemed sensible: stay where we were for the night, let Jon’s leg rest, and most likely return the way we came the next morning. Which is what we did.

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Turning back from a planned adventure is always hard. It’s always heartbreaking. I collected water for tea from the stream nearby, and hiked on a little beyond it, just to see what was around the corner. To drink in the potential of where we would have placed our feet. To witness the new landscapes that would have unfolded themselves before us over the days to come. It was heartbreakingly beautiful – glass-clear river cutting through a golden valley flanked by bush that rose to rocky peaks. Birdsong was everywhere.

It didn’t help that I wasn’t suffering physically at all: I was more than capable of completing the trek if I had been alone. But that is not what adventuring with a partner (romantic or otherwise) is about.

With a partner, you function as a unit. This is most obvious when camp gets pitched for the night. Short conversations – not curt, but matter-of-fact. Decide who will pitch the tent, who makes dinner, what needs doing. After a while of travelling together living in a tent becomes a normality, and the unit functions slickly. We had tent-pitching and camp stove-cooking down to a well-oiled machine.

So what happens when part of that unit ceases to function at its best? It would be preposterous to suggest that (unless in very extreme cases) one half of the partnership should continue unthinkingly without the other, especially if the other is in physical trouble of some sort. It’s a fact we associate almost subconsciously with hardcore mountaineering and we have all heard tales of alpine climbers saving each other’s lives and being the anchor for each other when the going gets tough. But you hear it less so from what are perhaps seen by the general population as tamer pursuits.

It should not be understated that it is just as easy to get into serious physical trouble on an easygoing hike (it doesn’t even have to be an overnighter) as it is when doing more extreme sports. It’s a matter of chance – and the outcome of the trouble depends entirely on how sensible, knowledgeable and quick your reactions are.

In the end, we pitched our tent where we’d shuddered to a halt. The next morning it was clear that to turn back was the only option we truly had. The night had been a cold one – we were far above sea level – and when we awoke, frost lined the inside of our tent, and one of my boots had become frozen solid with ice. The freezing temperatures had given Jon’s knee no chance to recover; joints simply do not respond well to being cold. As we packed down, I took some of the weight from Jon’s pack to take the pressure off the knee, and we turned around and headed for home.

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It was hard. I might have cried.

When you build up an adventure so much in your head, when you plan and prepare and excite yourself, to turn around and admit that it simply isn’t going to happen is one of the hardest things to do. It’s difficult not to feel as though you’ve failed in some way – especially when what has let you down is not a lack of physical fitness or technical knowledge, but something unforeseen and unprepared for. It feels unfair.

But to dwell too much on what doesn’t work out, and things that don’t come to fruition, detracts from the glory of those that do. To dismiss our hike as a failure because we hadn’t completed the planned route would have been to ignore the beauty and privilege of the experience we did get to undertake. In the end, anything that happens is an adventure in itself if you make it so, and if you want to carry on having adventures throughout your life, you need to be savvy about when to call it a day and how much risk is actually worth taking. Learning to look after yourself and each other in the mountains is one of the most important things you can ever learn – and you can’t learn it out of a book or by going on guided trips forever. You learn how to survive, how to look after each other and how to thrive by taking the plunge. And you need trips that don’t turn out so smoothly in order to develop the skills and capabilities to return with more confidence each time you head to the hills.

Turning back sucks, but the most important thing is that you set out in the first place.

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