The Difference Between Having Experience…and Being Experienced
If you’re reading this blog you probably take solace in knowing that you’re not “that guy” out on the mountains. You know which guy I’m talking about- That one wearing jeans, Nike Air sneakers and a cotton hoody, holding a Poland Spring bottle while he starts up Mt. Marcy at 12 noon….in winter. Everyone knows who “that guy” is, and once you realize you are that guy, you strive to get with the program and get it together. However, there is another “guy” that I would like to call out – Someone we also probably know, but rarely discuss. Now you may be asking yourself, what on Earth is he talking about? Well, if you have purchased all the appropriate gear, researched your hike or climb before every adventure, brushed up on your map and compass skills, and maybe even read a few chapters of Freedom of the Hills, you may just be “that other guy”. Now before you get out your pitch forks to burn me at the stake for being some kind of elitist jerk, let me tell you a story.
The story is about my very first hike of a High Peak. At the time I had visited the high peaks once or twice for some rock climbing and top roping ice climbs but never thought much about hiking the actual 46 peaks. I had been rock climbing for many years at this point, and ice climbing for much less but I got invited on a trip to climb the Trap Dyke on Mt Colden in winter, and a few pitches of ice in a steep gully sounded like just what I was looking for. Finally a real adventure! If you have read my Winter Hiking Guide you can probably figure out I am a bit of a gear nut. I was no different back then. I bought up every last piece of gear I could ever imagine needing and filled my back pack for the day with probably 30+ pounds of crap including climbing gear. Now being the strong cocky climber I was at the time I never thought much of it. It was just going to be a walk in the woods right? I researched the hiking route and bought my map of the area. I mean it was just about 14 miles round trip….I could run a 7 minute mile, no big deal we will be back by lunch. I am sure some of you reading this can already see the problem here waiting to happen.
For the first few miles towards Avalanche Lake I felt pretty good, but by the time we crossed the snow covered lake I was already hurting pretty good. My layering system was also in disarray and I managed to sweat through my clothes pretty good. I was thirstier than I can remember being any time at the crag in July. I drank what I could from my Nalgene, but because I had it dangling from my backpack it was mostly frozen solid. Luckily I could use my ice axe to break open a hole in the ice to drink from. Despite all of this I was able to regroup and prepare for the actually climbing section. Finally in this moment I felt more in my element and we tackled the technical sections in good time.
After the technical section we reached the snow covered slab at the top of the Trap Dyke. It was here that I truly began suffering. My legs were on fire with each step up the steep slab and I felt like I was practically crawling. I had gone too hard too fast out of the gate and now it was catching up with me. Dehydration was also starting to sink in and I could feel the cramps building up. By this point I had limited water left and the cold air blowing across the slab made it unpleasant to want to stop and take a drink. Despite all of that it was a truly beautiful spot, and that appreciation for where I was kept me moving. Besides I knew it had to be over soon right?
In what seemed like a lifetime later to me we finally reached the summit of Mt Colden and it was a great feeling of relief that the battle was finally over. In my mind I think I had given it all I had to reach the summit and I wasn’t sure I had much more to give. However, there were still many steep and challenging miles to go on the way back. At first the descent went well but after crossing over the false summit of Colden things began to go down hill. My legs were really aching now and I had run out of water so dehydration was starting to set in. I was forced to take a few steps and rest, and then take a few steps and rest, it was a nightmare coming to life. By the time I reached the home stretch from Marcy Dam back to the Loj I was a shadow of my former self limping my way back to the loj. I must have been a sorry sight to see because I elicited more than one “hey are you alright?” from passing hikers. I waved them on with what I hoped was a convincing and positive smile and nod. I am fairly certain it was neither. In the final mile to add official injury to insult I felt a sudden sharp pain in my leg and to my chagrin I pulled my hamstring making the last mile even more excruciating. I finally arrived in the parking lot roughly 12 hours after we started and probably over an hour after my partners. I shoved my sorry carcass into the car and immediately proceeded to fall asleep. I woke up only to stuff my face with water, cookies and hot dogs at Stewart’s before returning to our accommodations for the night. I crawled into my sleeping bag soon after and slept straight through to the next morning, only waking up a few times with horrendous cramps because I still hadn’t drank enough water to re-hydrate. The following day I was pretty much incapable of walking and declined joining the next days climb. Instead I enjoyed a fun 4 hour drive home with my manual transmission.
It was quite an introduction to the High Peaks and one I thought I would have been better prepared for. I had all of the right gear, knew my plan, and felt like I had experienced most of what was involved but in reality I only had some experience of the aspects, I was no where near experienced in putting it all together. After all of this I did think, well now I feel pretty experienced and it should go better now and that turned out to be true for the most part. However, all of those experiences didn’t stop me from getting caught in monsoon rains in Huntington Ravine on Mt Washington, not once, but twice and getting minor frost bite on Mt Marshall when we got caught in a wet October snow storm under prepared. There are a slew of other mishaps and debacles that have happened over the years and in all reality they will continue to happen until the body of all my work coalesces into something resembling being experienced.
The point is that having experiences with an activity or an environment does not necessarily make you experienced. Things can and will go wrong. Being prepared is important and you can’t let your experience get in the way of making good decisions. It is important we don’t get cocky and continue to take into account the many variables that go into a mountain adventure. Experience will get you up the mountain but being experienced will tell you when its time to cut your loses and turn around. I think this is an important distinction that not enough people talk about, because really this can be any of us. At different moments we can all be “that other guy”. My experience got me up and down Mt Colden that day, but had I been experienced or at least more aware, I would have known I was in over my head. Of course it is hard to become experienced without making mistakes and learning from them, but I think we can be aware enough to limit our experience to small mistakes instead of making bad choices that may bring serious consequences.Sudden storms can roll in, and sometimes despite how committed we are, a goal may just be out of reach without more training. The key to becoming experienced is being able to tell the difference between healthy challenges and dangerous risks, and this is a skill that can take a lifetime to master.