The last journey

It’s not about being first…It’s about being last, and seeing these places before they’re forever changed.”                        -polar explorer  Eric Larsen

Smoke-filled sky on the Great Divide Trail in Canada.

 

How climate change impacts outdoor pursuits is a topic I’ve discussed before over the years. Hotter and drier climate overall with unstable weather patterns means outdoor recreation becomes impacted. The overall impact ends up as much larger overall, of course, by far.  But that’s outside the scope of this website. Or my ability to talk about it in a meaningful way.

But I can recognize climate change and meaningfully discuss the impact on how we enjoy the outdoors.

But a confession to make – I understood the changes intellectually.  But only this past year did I know it on a more emotional level.

Having the mountains five miles from where I’m typing go up in flames and then followed the second punch of floods twice this week with a warning again tonight as I am writing certainly drives that point home for me this past year.

And in my recent past, too. Boulder floods, 2013.

I talked about the future of the outdoors with climate change. But that future is here.

I think of shrinking glaciers, burnt forests, trails flooded out or no longer accessible, and magnificent seasons becoming a part of the past remembered by fewer and fewer people as the years march on.

In my native New England, will the brilliant red maples, bright oranges, and the yellows of the birches become a muted display?  I’ve had a New England walk planned for about two years now, and I selfishly do not want to put it off too much longer. I want to see the New England autumn from my memories before it is no longer an option.

Treeline creeps up, and even the alpine terrain becomes a hotter and drier area with the snowpack conditions an iffy prospect in many years.

But while that is the near future, I’ve seen more immediate impacts beyond the fires and floods in my desert home.

As I mentioned, we already grapple with seeing melting glaciers and burnt-over woods for weekends. But many people now consider the fire, smoke, and flood season as part of their itinerary. And the resulting fires and floods could close the area for an indefinite time.

Joan planned to finish up her PCT section hike this past year. But the fires near Hart’s Pass ended her hike for this year. The idea of walking in rapidly changing conditions, with a worrisome AQI, did not make for the best conditions. 

Joan’s a practical person. Walking roads and inhaling smoke for the sake of completing a trail did not appeal to her.  She and a friend are now hitting up national parks, nearby places to backpack, and essentially on a Washington state road trip mixed in with hiking and backpacking. Though I miss Joan quite a bit, I’m delighted she’s able to make the best of her planned trip. And maybe a tad jealous. 🙂

But Joan’s fortunate that she had a friend nearby and could easily make alternate plans. More and more people on a traditional thru-hike realize that a “thru-hike” concept is very fluid. Even a corridor approach such as the Continental Divide Trail or something even less defined such as the Hayduke route faces these questions. 

Is it worth hiking 75+ miles on a busy highway just to have continuous footsteps?  For me, a full day of walking on pavement, along a busy road vs. a backcountry road no less, makes for a barely tolerable experience and,  depending on the road, a potentially unsafe walk.   I can’t imagine three, four, or more days.  But that’s my choice, and one I made myself for a shorter stretch on Canada’s Great Divide Trail (GDT) in 2018.  

But what if Waterton closed a few days earlier vs. the few days AFTER I completed the trail?  Part of my desired experience on the GDT was hiking along the iconic Waterton Lake, where I started a similar journey over a decade prior. 

I could have ended along the road, perhaps at Chief Mountain or similar.  Similarly, what if I did not find alternate single-track trails to hike or even jeep roads for similar closures?  I’ve never been a purist with my hiking routes and gladly swap in alternate routes, especially at this point in my hiking career.  But if I hiked 150km on the road along the mountains to avoid fires, did I walk the route?   Is it the experience I’d consider part of the GDT?   

Swapping in single-track alternates felt as if I hiked the GDT, even if I had to hitch around a fire.  Just to say I did the GDT, walking roads would not feel in the spirit of why I want to hike. And, I’ll be the first to admit that the last few days or so, my journey did not feel as if it did the GDT justice overall other than the classic ending at Waterton.

I ask these questions not as judgment but more from the philosophical standpoint. Meaning I am not the only person grappling with these questions.

And it makes me wonder if we are in the waning days of thru-hiking some of the established trails in the traditional sense. Even section hiking, where you can take an ala carte hike along a path during standard good weather windows, seems an iffy prospect in some years. Just as Joan discovered for herself on the PCT, the Pacific Northwest faced hotter and drier conditions this summer far beyond the historical records.

Wildfires in Oregon. Newsweek.

In the more contentious, or at least more codified, world of Fastest Known Times (FKTs), a recently declared FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail caused more than the usual “spirited discussion” from many in the ultra running community.

The discussion summary is that many feel the decision to substitute out-and-backs, alternative trails, and (critically) to use a vehicle to avoid a re-route that “was not practical; it consists of long, unpleasant road miles” seemed to many to go against the grain of the spirit of the FKT attempts.  FKTs tend to have more stringent racing standards vs. a more loosely defined hike despite what commonality the two might have on the same route.

I half-joking told Joan that she could now claim she hiked the PCT if she had a corporate sponsor, a visible media campaign, and a higher social profile. After all, she too drove around, hiked different trails with more miles, and did out-and-backs. 😉 

On a more serious note, as someone on the thread quoted from past views during previous record attempts:

“My feeling is that if he took fire detours, it’s not really the PCT,” says Peter Bakwin, who tracks trail records on the Fastest Known Time website and is arguably the trail-running world’s de-facto authority on the subject…“I’d rather they wait for a low fire year with insignificant reroutes. It’s part of the game.” 

Are FKTs a viable concept when the route significantly changes from year to year and, more importantly, a person can choose the racecourse that fits their record-setting goals?

I have no thoughts on this record-setting attempt other than that I find the controversies around FKTs an interesting reflection of a more significant discussion.

In other words, beyond the FKT controversy itself, I find more interesting another group questioning if we are in the final stages of a different type of the last journey. A journey of athletic achievement, discipline, and high standards. But what if those standards get relaxed? Is it an FKT or more what runners call a “Personal Record?”

In my article linked above about polar exploration, Eric Larsen briefly alludes to the challenges of polar exploration in the era of climate change. There’s the real danger of unstable conditions causing potential death beyond the traditional challenges such as cold and exposure. And in the even more contentious world of polar records, if standard starting or ending points are no longer stable or safe to use, is it possible to set records or recreate voyages of the past?

Things aren’t going to be “doom and gloom” only, of course. For those who enjoy the wild places, we may lament what we lost but recognize there’s still beauty to find. While understandably concerned about the health of these wild places. And the potential turmoil that can happen in the years ahead beyond our outdoor recreation bubble.

In the shorter term, I think we are in the days of the last journeys. Or at least the journeys as traditionally defined.

Wise outdoor users will accept the journeys for what they are and not what they want to be, even if it means more enjoying the journey of the wild places than checking a box for an accomplishment.

EDIT: Further reading I brought up both recently and in the past is the CliFi story “Victor and the Fish.”  Taking place in Montanna, the story seems less like science fiction and more like reality.  The climate fiction anthology “Everything Change” includes this story. You can download all three parts of this collection for free.  Download – VOLUME ONE  – VOLUME TWO VOLUME THREE 

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Travis Briles
1 month ago

Thanks Paul. This resonates. A month ago, I started packing a KN95 mask in a ziploc at the bottom of my cook pot. My thought was it would be used just in case I encountered wildfire smoke.

I’ve used it on 2/4 weekend trips so far when I sleep. It still leaves a weird taste on my teeth.

Welcome to the anthropocene everyone!

Stephan
Stephan
1 month ago

I agree. People that find out I love the mountains always ask how many fourteeners I’ve climbed. (only three in the U.S.) I’d rather climb a no name thirteener with no crowds. No need to check a box, just enjoy being out there.

Scott
Scott
1 month ago

I can sympathize with you Paul, I live in northern Colorado not far from your old home and have watched the flames glowing on our horizon, I have seen the canyons to both the north and south of our home ravaged by flooding that washed homes and roads away twice in the last 9 years. I have seen 75 days straight of smoke filled days and one day that the street lights stayed on all day from the darkness. Checking the air quality before planning an outing is now the new norm. I fear that the escalation of these events… Read more »

Ellie Thomas
1 month ago

Good post. These questions float through my thoughts almost daily now.

I paused on the BMT due to brutal Spring storms and tornadoes, finally finishing up in July.

The Northville-Placid will be my Fall hike and I’m watching the weather more closely than I have on prior hikes.

Next year may be some more western hikes but fire seasons are making windows smaller than ever before.

PS – thanks for the references