Saturday, August 04, 2012

Wrap-up and final thoughts

Sorry for the delay. Saturday, the day after the last hiking day, I couldn't summon much more energy than that required to lounge in front of the television watching the Olympics. Sunday, Bea and Arnulf drove us back home to Bavaria (which took all day). Monday and Tuesday I was preparing for a presentation I gave Tuesday evening to about 50 people here (including the mayors of our village and the one next door) on why they should support a geothermal project that is about to begin in our area. And so it is only today that I have both the time and the energy to write this. <And now it is a few days later… blame the Olympics!>

So, overall, and I doubt that this will come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the blog, I'm very pleased with how the hike turned out. I walked the whole way as planned, the weather was improbably fine (we put on rain gear only three times… and it never rained hard), everybody showed up as they had said they would, everyone seemed to have a good time (within the limits of blisters, sore muscles, exhaustion, heat, long days, and snoring bunkroom mates!), the scenery was beautiful, most of the time we ate well, the accommodation was generally fine, there were no accidents or injuries (other than the aforementioned blisters), no-one got lost, no-one abandoned the hike, people got along well with one another… all in all, I think it went very well, and for my part it's an excellent sign that I finished up with the thought that I was actually already looking forward to the Part Two in two years time.

That being said, not everything was perfect, at least for me. There were the two toe "issues", and the near heatstroke on stages 2 and 3. The boot problem could have turned into a catastrophe (by the way, I don't think that I reported what happened with it -- not having good replacement possibilities (no wide-toed boots in Modane, no replacements in Provence for Lidia to bring), I decided to push on, adding glue from time to time when it looked necessary, and as it turned out the boots made it to Courmayeur… where they were unceremoniously dumped in the hotel rubbish bin!). But none of those things turned out to be major -- it may not have been perfect, but it wasn't too far off.

I was also pleased with a couple of the changes that I made from the H2H:

o Booking ahead worked well. I did have to make a couple of changes on the fly when people stayed longer or left a little earlier than expected, but my overall reservation workload while on the hike was dramatically reduced and I certainly didn't miss the ongoing uncertainty of whether or not I'd be able to find rooms at the places I wanted to hike to. Actually, given the numbers of people who came along on the hike (up to nine at one time), the time of year (summer vacation season), and the paucity of accommodation in some of the areas we hiked through, I think it would have been nigh on impossible to reserve on the fly. As it was, even when making reservations a few months before the hike there were a number of places that were already booked out, and in a couple of cases I had to change destinations as a result.

o Another thing that worked well was not having double rest days. I didn't feel like I suffered physically by only having single rest days… although having that week off after the first week of hiking was definitely helpful (and I intend to do a warmup hike of 3-4 days a couple of weeks before the start of Part Two). I also never felt bored, as I did on occasion (during the second of two rest days) on the H2H. The iPad was also excellent (even if I did stay up to 3AM one night reading Ender's Game on it, despite needing to hike the next day :-).

And now for a more controversial subject, one that came up several times in conversations with some of the other hikers: what kind of hike should the H3H be? Some people felt that some of the hikes were too long or too difficult. There were some comments made about people hiking ahead, rather than walking with the others. Some felt rushed, others commented that some hikers were slower and that as a result the days were longer and therefore more tiring than they could have / should have been. And sometimes contradictory comments were made by the same person on different days depending upon whether that day they were in front or behind! Add it all together and it seems a topic of general enough interest that some clarifications of principle are in order.

Length of hikes.

Much as I like hiking, I don't want to spend the rest of my life getting from Eygalières to Icking. That's an exaggeration, of course, but it does point to an underlying truth: at its heart, the H3H, like the H2H before it, is about getting somewhere. And so given a choice between two four hour days and one eight hour one, I'm generally going to choose to do the long day. That being said, even I don't want to spend every day hiking from dawn to dusk… my preference is to have a mixture of hike lengths: some longer ones mixed in with some shorter ones. But that isn't always possible… and in the high Alps, where it takes the whole day to go over a pass from one village to the next, it usually isn't possible.

There is another reason why sometimes the hikes are longer than they need to be: because the longer hike is more beautiful or interesting or challenging or avoids roads or is better for some other aesthetic reason. This was also a point of contention on the H2H, and I'll say the same thing now that I said then (even if it seems to contradict the previous paragraph!): the H3H is not only about getting from point A to point B. If I just wanted to do that, I'd walk along valleys! It's about enjoying the beauty of the Alps… and sometimes there is significantly more beauty if one takes the longer option. If they exist, I'll always list shorter options, and others are always welcome to take them (just as they are always welcome to take taxis or other transport, if available, at the beginning or the end of days that they find too long), and sometimes even I'll be taking the shorter option (bad weather, tiredness)… but I will continue planning and taking longer options when they are, in my very subjective opinion, "better".

Hiking together… or not.

This is a simple one: everyone should do as they wish. People have different hiking speeds and rhythms that they feel comfortable at, and of course different fitness levels. It isn't as if there isn't a lot of conversation that goes on (heck, Jorge even talks on vertical up-hill climbs :-). If someone wants to talk more, it is generally not difficult to find someone else to talk to. Most of the time an individual wasn't left to hike at the back alone… generally people watched out for one another and someone would drop back to accompany a trailer. But if someone feels like hiking out front, whether because that's what is natural for them, or because they want to push themselves, I don't see anything wrong with that. The only thing that is important is that whenever there is a possibility of error as regards the path, then those at the front should wait for those at the back to arrive to make sure that all are on the same trail. Other than that, I don't think that there should be any rules about this sort of thing… frankly, the fewer of those the better.

Rushing vs. waiting for slower hikers.

This is an interesting one, because it is so subjective, and because there was no consistency. As a general rule, those who felt that they were being rushed when they were the slowest in the group, had no qualms about hiking ahead when someone else was the slowest. And there was even a case of someone who normally hiked near or at the front having a weak day and then commenting that the one at the front that day clearly regarded hiking as a competitive sport. On the other hand, there were those who observed that they had to wait a lot for the slowest hikers, raising the risk of being caught in an end of the day thunderstorm and still being on the trails at the end of the day when they would have preferred to have been showered and putting their feet up with a beer. I'm not excluding myself here.

Long hikes can be pretty stressful, group dynamics are often difficult, and there is plenty of opportunity to stew over things while hiking and as a result to lose a sense of proportion and objectivity… it has happened to me many a time… but next time you find yourself thinking such thoughts, try and see things from the other person's or people's point of view. If you are at the back, imagine how it is for those at the front -- unless the weather is bad then generally they will just be hiking at the pace that is normal for them. They probably aren't rushing -- they actually have more time to look around because they will wait for you from time to time. And so when you arrive, they might be chilled and ready to move on, or just ready to move on because they've waited long enough… don't reproach them for it. And if you are one of those having to wait, chill out -- most of the time it will be a beautiful day and you will be in beautiful surroundings. So the day is a bit longer and you are a bit more tired at the end… big deal (not).

And that being said, there are three general principles that I believe that people should respect.

o First, not everyone is going to have the same fitness level, but every good person even if they hike somewhat slower than the rest contributes to the overall enjoyment of the hike. The social dimension of hiking is one of the nicest things about it -- both on and off the trail -- and up to a certain point, the more the merrier. So yes, if you are one of the faster hikers, you will have to wait, but the benefits of being able to talk and spend time with the one at the back should outweigh minor frustration.

o Second, if you are the slowest on any given day or at any point during a day, then I think that you have a responsibility to the rest of the group not to dawdle. Don't hike faster than you feel comfortable with, and by all means take a reasonable amount of time to look around, take pictures, and recover after hard climbs. But don't waste time unnecessarily or just decide to go slow for the hell of it -- the others are waiting for you, so respect their time too. And this counts double if the weather is unstable.

o Third, you really shouldn't show up without training or out of shape. You don't have to be able to run a marathon, but you should be fit. This is partly so that you don't get so tired or sore so that it isn't fun for you, but it is also a question of respect for others.

The last point led to an interesting conversation between Lidia and me. In the past Lidia has been remarkably fit without training much… but she has trained some. This time, for various reasons, she didn't train at all, and, let's face it, age catches up with us all… even those of us who grew up hiking every weekend in the Carpathian mountains. Astoundingly, Lidia was still remarkably fit even without training. She didn't develop incapacitating muscle aches after her first hard day, and the day we hiked by the Pierra Menta, when I sent everyone else on ahead, she was primarily slow because of a stomach upset -- when that had cleared up we actually caught up somewhat with the others on the downslope. But the fact remains that she was not as fit as she could have been with a little more training, and that as a result everyone had to wait for her more than they would have had to do otherwise.

So we talked about this, quite amicably, and Lidia decided that training isn't a high priority for her… if circumstances permit, she'll do some training hikes, but they might not permit. And so I suggested that I try to find a stretch of days, if possible, during the next part of the H3H, when the hikes will be shorter, not as difficult, and where the expectation from the beginning will be that we will walk fairly slowly. Actually I kind of like the idea, because it might make participation more attractive to some of our friends for whom the big hikes are too much. But I'm making no promises yet! I haven't plotted out the route, and since it is almost all in the high Alps, it simply might not be possible to find more than two or three short hikes in a row that nevertheless advance us towards home.

So, there you have it: that's my view of what sort of a hike the H3H should be. Not a competition, but more like an expedition than a casual stroll, strenuous and a challenge that demands a lot of effort from its participants, but is nevertheless doable by anyone who is reasonably fit and willing to do a few comparably long training hikes beforehand. Just as important, conversation and interaction with other hikers are one of the great joys of hiking, as is time to enjoy the beauty of the regions we walk through, and so those elements will never be sacrificed.

This was clearly a topic that needed clarification, but that is more than enough moralizing and high seriousness! I had a great time, those who came on the hike are great people, I really enjoyed the time we spent together, and I hope to see you all again on the next part of the H3H in a couple of years time. And now I'm going back to being an Olympic Couch Potato!