I’m almost three weeks into this trip, and today I feel much more hardened than I did when I landed pre-dawn in Kotzebue 500 miles ago. The process of morphing from just an aspiring adventurer into a lean, mean adventuring machine has three components: physical, mechanical, and mental.
The body must become acclimated to the local conditions—in my case butt-cold temperatures, but altitude might apply in other situations. The body also must go through a period of “break-in” aches and pains, some of which need to be managed.
I’ve had hipbelt-caused chaffing (covered with Luekotape), a toenail blister (lanced and drained; in a few weeks I’ll remove the nail), extreme soreness in my triceps and upper back from my poles (helped by regular doses of Ibuprofen), and some boot-caused bruising of my ankle bones (solved with foam padding cut from my water bottle insulators).
About two weeks into a trip I usually notice a spike in metabolism. It’s both a blessing and a curse until I finish—I can eat anything (and then some) but I’m always hungry and always thinking about food.
Finally, some would assume that facial hair growth must be part of this physical morphing, but not so with yours truly. I tend to grow a patchy neck beard of coarse, curly hair that would elicit laughter from any true mountain man, so instead I try to shave about once a week.
It’s important to have efficient routines and systems out here—otherwise time and energy is wasted on unimportant stuff. Two weeks in, I notice that I’m much better at things like pitching my shelter, melting snow for water, packing my pack and breaking camp, making micro adjustments to my clothing, choosing the right wax for my skis, sorting through a maildrop, and even taking off my shell pants in such a way that they don’t get caught on my boots. If I can quickly and somewhat mindlessly handle the mechanics of a long-distance trip, I can spend more time covering miles, can focus more on demanding tasks like route-finding, and can absorb and analyze more of my surroundings.
I expect during this trip to encounter a level of adversity that will force me to dig deeper than I’ve ever had to, or go home. That moment has not happened yet–it’s been challenging, but I’ve yet to have a truly epic stretch. After one of these periods of “bleeding,” when I’m having to put a bunch of skin in the game, I notice I come out of it with a stronger sense of purpose, a deeper commitment, than I had before. My prediction: my first test is going to happen between Nikolai and Cantwell, when I’m attempting to ski across the western Alaska Range in variable spring conditions.
The morphing process can be eased by “pre-trip trips,” i.e. practice what you’re going to be doing before you actually do it. But I find that planning for a trip such as this requires extensive facetime with Excel, Google Earth, and National Geographic TOPO! so I can’t say I necessarily practice what I preach (though I’ll point out that this isn’t the first time I’ve done something like this). Regardless of one’s pre-hike activities though, the mental edge will not develop until you get out here and put yourself on the line.