Thoughts On Risk

By David Metsky

I was on a solo hike recently, coming down from the summit of North Kinsman occasionally postholing in the softening waist-deep snow. The thunderclouds had been gathering for some time, and I saw the flash of light that let me know that in a matter of seconds I would be much wetter. Sure enough, the thunder and lightening crashed above my head, and the rain fell, and I continued to posthole, feeling a bit too rushed and tired to put my snowshoes on, just to take them off in 100 yards when I hit a stretch of dry ground. Just then I noticed that there were other tracks in the snow that I was following, headed down. Since I was the only one who summited from that side this day I knew it was someone who hiked up behind me, but turned around in the deepening snow. This immediately cheered me up, thinking that there was at least someone else on the trail that afternoon if anything went wrong. At that point, I began pondering how much risk was willing to take.

Spring hiking in the Whites is an iffy proposition. In a year like this past one, snow hangs on late into the spring, with a ridge of compressed snow running down the middle of the trail, sloping to mush on the sides. Snowshoes don't always help, and postholing to your waist is common, with your feet ending up in the flowing streams underneath. As the afternoon warms up, the snow that held your body weight in the morning drops you down into the unfriendly floods, and streams rise enough to make what was a simple task in the morning into a dangerous concern. Knowing this, I headed up the Mt Kinsman trail with snowshoes, ski poles, gaiters, Gore-Tex jacket and pants, and my first aid kit. At the start I was in shorts and t-shirt, and had a fine walk in the muddy woods. I met up with three people who turned around due to the snow, and they eyed my snowshoes with a bit of envy. I felt a little superior in my planning and caution, but quickly realized that could get me into trouble very quickly. Since those people represented the two cars at the trailhead, I assumed that no one else was above me on the trail.

Solo hiking tends to concentrate the mind on risk. While I'm an experienced hiker, and solo a lot, I usually stay on fairly well traveled trails and don't like winter travel by myself. I have a healthy fear of twisting a knee or ankle, getting stung by a bee (I'm allergic and can go into shock), or even losing my glasses and getting lost. Still, I solo hike and I take care to carry extra gear to be self-sufficient. But I was getting some anxious feelings on this hike that made me re-evaluate what is acceptable to me. At various points during the hike I felt myself thinking about turning around because I was getting, frankly wigged out. Alone, I had no one to bounce thoughts off so the worries were allowed to grow and blossom out of proportion. I was actually picturing myself breaking a leg on the way down, tired, wet, and nearly out of food. It's a sobering thought, and it's also one of the great things about hiking solo; where else do you get to confront the realities of life and death in a concrete manner?

So, I paused. Often when hiking alone I just pick a goal, usually the summit or a series of summits, and hike until I get there. For me, that's usually one of the advantages of hiking alone, I set the pace with as many or few stops as I like. I usually have a time in mind for reaching the top, and never really relax until I'm on the way done, goal accomplished, and the end of the trail beckoning. On this hike, though, I felt very inclined to explore a bit more. I'd only been up this trail once before, and didn't take the side trips to the Flume and Bald Knob because we were pushing for the summit in the deep snow and I didn't want to waste the 30 minutes the side trips would take. Side trips often seem like a distraction from the goal of the hike. This time, however, I really felt that I was missing out on the adventure by not taking the side trips.

And the side trips were wonderful! The Flume was a perfect little version of the big Flume in Franconia Notch, and I had it all to myself. The water was flowing fast and furious, and there was a hint of danger about being so close to the wet edge that made it pretty exhilarating. Then, only a tenth of a mile further up the trail, the path to Bald Knob branched off and I soon found myself alone on a wonderful open spot with the Kinsmans above me and nothing else to trouble my soul. It was a perfect place to grab a snack and remember why I was out hiking that day. After a few minutes when I put my pack on and headed back to the trail, I was feeling much better about the hike. Then I got to the snow.

Postholing is about the most exhausting mode of travel there is, especially if you are short (like me) and out of shape (alas, also like me). Underneath the snow was cold running water that eventually soaked through my boots. Very quickly I was feeling tired, beat up, and alone. By now I figured no one else was coming up behind me, and there were no tracks in the snow so no one was above me. I had an idea of how far I had to go, but wasn't sure of the trail, and started checking my watch. Setting a 2:00 PM turnaround time made me feel a little better, but really didn't do anything to alleviate my fear of injury and exhaustion. After a few particularly nasty postholes (up to my waist with my feet in running water) I decided to put on the snowshoes, which didn't really calm my nerves much. I was then worried about the snowshoe bindings failing and postholing with the snowshoes, which is possible in the severely undermined snow. After all that, I made it about 100 yards before hitting bare ground and having to take them off again. Another .2 miles and it was time to put them back on; exhausting, exhausting. This was the low point of the trip, but the allure of the summit, of reaching the ridge, of getting the view, of meeting other hikers who climbed up the other side, all these things were clearly winning out.

Finally, the trees shrank around me, the trail flattened out a bit, and I could see over to the Franconia Ridge. I had made it, at least to the ridge, but I knew the rest of the trail very well and was still 20 minutes short of my turnaround time so I knew that wasn't going to be an issue. There were fresh footprints in the snow, heading up, so I assumed I'd meet people up top. Having not seen anyone for three hours, this was really important to me; I wanted some human contact. Hearing the voices from the summit ledges as I approached was welcome relief, both from knowing that I was done with the climbing and that I was going to get a chance to talk to people. From that point, until I turned off the Kinsman Ridge trail to head back down alone, I was palpably calmer, much less rushed, and having a great time. Once I left them to head back down, the same fears crept back in, although less intensely until I saw the footprints in the snow. When my feet hit the snow free ground about halfway down, I was finally free of worry and anxiety for the hike and went back to enjoying the hike in the woods.

Risk is good. Risk is healthy. I felt a great deal of satisfaction when I completed my hike, a sense of completing a difficult and rewarding challenge. Did I take too much risk? In retrospect, I think I did push things a bit further than I was completely comfortable with. But dealing with the fears and learning something from them heightened the sense of satisfaction I got from the hike. In the past I might have brushed off the fear, either choosing to place artificial limits on my activities or by blindly pushing through, not willing to acknowledge what it meant to me. Lessons like that are applicable well beyond the woods. Lately I've been pondering why I hike and what I get from it. This trip gave me some new insights into what hiking gives to me; it makes me think.