“Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain… Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall — it’s great when you stop”- Chris Darwin
I find myself romantisizing hiking a lot, and I’ve realized that while mountaineers always stress safety, we never really talk about the very real dangers of hiking, especially at high levels where the summits are higher and the trails are longer. Simply put, (mostly)extreme hiking is lethal. Injuries are 100% guaranteed, and death isn’t such a reach. Personally, I’ve never died, but I have a few battle scars and a pending knee injury diagnosis.
I have gotten lost in a forest and spent hours wrestling with fynbos and really dark thoughts at the same time. I’m already a compulsive worrier, and unfortunately my physique does not afford me the luxury of feeling truly safe anywhere. I also get paranoid about all elements of the woods; deadly animals, shifting rocks, poison ivy, landslides, trees that come to life, you name it! It’s a bit difficult to reconcile my deep appreciation for the mountains to help me cope with some of my anxieties about “real life”, and my fear of being in the woods.
The safest thing you can do is not go hiking alone incase you get injured or need help for whatever reason. Wearing reflective clothes, and knowing how to flag down help also increases your chances of survival. Extreme hikers are often not the most rational people who are disturbingly excited by exposed cliffs and ledges, but they’re super sensitive to the safety of others, so don’t be afraid to say when you don’t feel safe and they’ll gladly take the safer route or slow down. Altruism 101!
Mountain etiquette stresses the three crucial W’s; warmth, water, waste. Warmth and water have saved many lives, and they are often taken for granted. I don’t really let the weather dictate my hiking. As long as I can see where I’m going, I don’t care if it’s pouring or hot. All that really matters is bringing enough water and warm/rainproof clothes and sun protection.
It is recommended that you drink 1L of water for every two hours of hiking. However, I prefer hydrating with Game (an isotonic powdered sporting drink great for absorption of vitamins, minerals, salts and carbohydrates lost during physical exertion) because it cuts down bathroom breaks significantly. Avoiding salty snacks that make you thirsty is another way to retain fluids for longer.
Most people dress for the weather at the base of the mountain, not taking into account that pressure decreases with elevation, making it seem like there’s less oxygen, so it’s cooler the higher up you go. Also, the heat generated while in motion might create the illusion that you are warm… until you stop! The decrease in atmospheric pressure also makes it difficult to breathe.
The last ‘W’ stands for waste, and simply means take your shit off the mountain, Bruv! This does not mean literal shit (you’re welcome to take a dump in the mountains provided you bury it properly), rather trash. I’m sure this is the one universal policy applicable on all the mountains of the worlds, Leave No Trace (LNT). As a policy, LNT extends beyond just taking down the garbage you went up with and Hiking South Africa has quite cool guidelines!
I think being realistic enough to bring a charged cellphone and a first-aid kit is not anticipating tragedy, rather preparing for any unexpected unfortunate situations. I try to prepare hydrating solutions for longer hikes, but Game is always life. And any other aides (e.g asthma pumps, sunscreen, cap, buff, etc). Lastly, I never compromise on warmth because I’ve had frostbite and it was not fun, but also because I grew up in the African Alps where people are always all covered up.