Advice to “Strider,” aspiring NCT thru-hiker, overwhelmed and beaten down by the Spring melt

Postholing in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, a common Springtime experience -- there's no longer enough snow to justify skis or snowshoes, but there are still stretches where you wish you had them. Photo credit: Michael Brown, National Geographic Society

Postholing in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, a common Springtime experience — there’s no longer enough snow to justify skis or snowshoes, but there are still stretches where you wish you had them. Photo credit: Michael Brown, National Geographic Society

Earlier this week I received an email from Bruce Matthews, Executive Director of the North Country Trail Association, asking a small favor to place an encouraging phone call to Luke Jordan (a.k.a. “Strider”), who is currently attempting a thru-hike of the NCT. Luke started his trip on March 27 at the NCT’s western terminus, Lake Sakakawea, and in a month he’s made it just beyond Itasca State Park, which according to the data from my Sea-to-Sea Route Databook means that he’s gone about 575 miles in 29 days, or about 20 miles per day — a very solid pace for the start of a thru-hike, especially since this is his first one and since he’s often been having to use snowshoes.

Luke’s journal entry from April 24 admits that he was in a tough place:

The past four days have been extremely challenging. The huge amount of snow and relentless winter conditions have caused so many problems and I am getting overwhelmed. I’ve had to use snowshoes off and on the entire trek so far, almost a month. The continuous use of them the past four days has caused my feet to swell up and the skin on my toes to be scraped off. I’m tired of being wet, being cold, being so exhausted at the end of the day because of using twice the energy to go only half the normal distance. I feel betrayed, defeated, lost, alone.

I know I could find some entries in my own journals that sound exactly like this — overwhelmed and, at least for the moment, beaten. In my experience this feeling does not come from one or two bad days. No, it comes from a long series of bad days, to the point where you don’t remember the last good day and where you wonder if bad is just the new normal.

Not coincidentally, most of these breakdowns have happened during the Spring melt, when the snowpack loses its Winter consistency and Summer conditions do not yet prevail. It’s incredibly mentally taxing to optimize, or to just emotionally prepare oneself for, the snow conditions that vary with elevation, slope aspect, vegetation cover, time of day, and current weather. Cold rain and cold, wet feet don’t help either. The National Geographic story about my Alaska-Yukon Expedition leads with the challenges I encountered during the Spring melt while skiing across the Alaska Range:

Andrew Skurka was demoralized, and it was a new feeling. Since 2002, logging more than 25,000 miles on foot, the 29-year-old adventurer had become one of the best traveled and fastest hikers on the planet. But now, sitting in front of the post office in the tiny hamlet of Slana, Alaska, ripping open his resupply packages…he struggled to recapture his enthusiasm. It was May, and he was less than a third of the way into his 4,679-mile circumnavigation of Alaska by foot, raft, and ski. With months to go, he couldn’t afford to lose heart.

The problem was the rotten snow—crusted chunks that couldn’t support a skier’s weight. In the Alaska Range, Skurka had struggled, sinking deep. He’d tried to gain altitude. Maybe the springtime snow would be colder and firmer higher up. It wasn’t. So Skurka walked. He spent most of one day “postholing,” every step plunging him knee-deep in the snow, and bushwhacking through dense willow and alder brush. He managed a scant 12 miles before darkness fell.

So what advice did I give Luke?

Our phone call only lasted 15 minutes — he has miles to hike and can’t afford to talk at length with every desk-bound person who is envious of what he’s doing. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but my advice to him boiled down to this:

1. Be patient. The situation can’t always get worse, and sometimes it’s necessary to slug along until it improves — until your head bounces back, your health recovers, or the conditions return to what they should be. Once the situation becomes more conducive, you’ll have the opportunity to make up whatever days you lost.

2. Distance = Rate * Time. This simple formula that I learned in high school physics has comforted me on many days. Thru-hikes, especially in the beginning, are overwhelming — from a macro level, they seem impossible. To wrap one’s head around it, the task must be broken into smaller goals: steps, miles, days, weeks. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite, and the Chinese wall wasn’t built in a day. So, too, a thru-hike is completed only by hiking at a certain rate of speed for a certain number of days. The math doesn’t lie — eventually you’ll finish.

I regret not telling him another thing he needs to know: a thru-hike is partly about exploring new landscapes and/or meeting new people, but it’s as much an extended experience outside of one’s comfort zone, mentally and physically. In hindsight, the sections where I was most challenged but did not cave are those of which I’m always most proud.

9 Responses to Advice to “Strider,” aspiring NCT thru-hiker, overwhelmed and beaten down by the Spring melt

  1. Bruce Matthews April 26, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Andrew–thanks for being there when we needed you! Your willingness to drop what you were doing and give Luke a call just re-affirms what we already know about your heart. Thank you!

  2. Keith Foskett (Fozzie) April 26, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    It seems the late Spring is wreaking havoc everywhere in the northern hemisphere this year. We’ve all been there, the small proportion of days where nothing seems to go right and we question our decision to be where we are doing what we are doing.
    It’s those tough situations that separate a true long distance thru-hiker from the rest of the pack. Head down, grind it out and focus on the reward when it gets better.
    Never, ever, ever give up.

  3. Cody June 11, 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    Andrew, I first read about this on Luke’s website. What a kind thing to do. We are a community and we all need to help each other out!

  4. Lorana Jinkeson June 20, 2013 at 10:37 am #

    Andrew,

    Luke, aka Strider, just spent 3 nights (Mon, Tues and Wed) here at my house resting, picking up his resupply box, meeting some of my chapter members at dinner and breakfast, etc. His stay coincided with Chris Hillier, aka Wolverine, who is hiking the proposed Governor Snyder’s new trail from Belle Isle in Detroit to Ironwood which utilizes the NCT across the UP. Chris is going west and, of course, Luke is going east so their meeting here in Marquette was a big event. Don’t know that we’ve ever had two long distance hikers crossing paths on the NCT ever.

    I dropped both of them back on the trail this morning to continue their treks. Two really great young men who seem totally taken by the NCT and want to help us get the attention we deserve.

    And, I must tell you that Luke really appreciated your calling him back in April when he was struggling. Unfortunately he had another struggle on the west end of the UP coming out of the Porkies. He lost the trail, it essentially disappeared on him and he ended up bushwhacking for 13 miles and coming out on M-64 about 5 miles south of the trail head. He got lost a total of about 3 times in a couple of days and really considered quitting. I am so glad he stuck to it as when he crossed M-64 the rest of the way here to Marquette was great for him.

    If you get a chance to give him another call sometime, I know he will be thrilled. He even slept in the same bed you did when you were here and also Nimblewill Nomad. He looks up to both of you immensely.

    Hope all is going well with you, and you now have another brother as I am calling Luke my 5th son, you are my 4th, Andrew Bashaw in Ohio is my 3rd and then, of course, I have my own, Ben and Matt.

    Take care, from your “other” mother,
    Lorana

  5. Lauren McLain July 11, 2013 at 1:21 am #

    It was incredibly thoughtful and kind of you to call him – I’m sure hearing from you, someone he looks up to, meant a great deal. The advice you gave him is absolutely essential for any time spent on or off trail. There are moments in our lives when all roads seem to lead nowhere pleasant and sometimes just making it through the day is the best we can do.

  6. James Moomey July 28, 2013 at 7:53 am #

    Saw Luke one week ago today in my town of Marshall, MI. It was a moment I will NEVER forget. He indicated he felt good. What an inspiration this young man. My NEW hero for such an incredible endeavor!

    Best of luck Luke!!

    Jim Moomey
    campmoomoo@ hotmail.com

  7. David Turner August 7, 2013 at 6:39 pm #

    Recently I was able to interview Strider right around the 2600 mile mark. Looks like your advice paid off. :-) Here’s a video of the interview in case you are interested: http://youtu.be/hkKg_5mMeKM

  8. Daniel Eatmon November 24, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    No one is familiar with hiking.

    When I go out I have the best knowledge of natural resources around.

    No one wants to work with basic outdoor skills.

    I would like to meet other people that share my passion about outdoor adventure.

  9. Dogwood November 26, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

    1. Be patient. The situation can’t always get worse, and sometimes it’s necessary to slug along until it improves — until your head bounces back, your health recovers, or the conditions return to what they should be. Once the situation becomes more conducive, you’ll have the opportunity to make up whatever days you lost.

    2. Distance = Rate * Time. This simple formula that I learned in high school physics has comforted me on many days. Thru-hikes, especially in the beginning, are overwhelming — from a macro level, they seem impossible. To wrap one’s head around it, the task must be broken into smaller goals: steps, miles, days, weeks. You can’t eat an elephant in one bite, and the Chinese wall wasn’t built in a day. So, too, a thru-hike is completed only by hiking at a certain rate of speed for a certain number of days. The math doesn’t lie — eventually you’ll finish.

    I regret not telling him another thing he needs to know: a thru-hike is partly about exploring new landscapes and/or meeting new people, but it’s as much an extended experience outside of one’s comfort zone, mentally and physically. In hindsight, the sections where I was most challenged but did not cave are those of which I’m always most proud.

    These are things every aspiring long distance hiker has to get into their soul.

    Chunking the hike down into more easily digestible pieces and the realization that hiking, any kind of hiking, is not always just about hiking are keys to maintaining a long term non overly stressed positive outlook.

    This is quite an impressive of a hike to take on as Luke’s first thru-hike.

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