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How I Survived the Highline Trail

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve put my body through something it wasn’t physically prepared to do, resulting in a painful learning experience. The most vivid memory I have of doing this happened four years ago in Glacier National Park on the Highline trail.

My wife and I, who frequently have differing ideas regarding outdoor activities, had very different expectations of what this hike was going to entail when we set out that morning. She was set on going in a mile or two and then turning back. However, I was set on doing the whole 12 miles.

Mistake #1: “What we have here is a failure to communicate!”

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We had a tight schedule to keep that morning in order to get home in time for work the next day. Because of that constraint, we set an unrealistic pace for finishing the hike given the physical condition we were in—or the lack of conditioning. Without shame, I can admit I was soft and had not hiked for some time leading up to this. We set out to do this six-hour hike in three hours.

Mistake #2: Asking way too much of my legs, feet, back, heart, and lungs.

Not surprisingly, when my wife realized I wasn’t turning back, her mood took a turn for somewhere south of pissed, but we soldiered on. Four miles in, it was all I could do to keep her sane and not breakdown in tears. My solution, pick huckleberries along the way and hand them off to her as some sort of peace offering.

Mistake #3: Not listening to my wife. When she’s right, she’s right. Don’t question it.

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At about a mile or two away from the chalet, we realized that our single bottle of water was not nearly enough for two people on a hike of this magnitude. That and we had no food, not even the obligatory trail snacks that any normal person would have. Our one saving grace was that the chalet carried sandwiches and Powerade. With what cash we had on us, we were able to scrape by.

Mistake #4: Really poor planning. Like the worst. Ever. Oh, and probably overconfidence.

As we left the chalet and began the four mile descent to the shuttle pickup point, I quickly realized that my body wasn’t going to hold out for much longer. My amazing wife had caught her second wind and was very nearly jogging down the steep decline as I hobbled along behind like an old three-legged dog.

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With each switchback down the mountain, I tried to tell myself that our goal was going to be visible around the next bend for sure. But time and time again, I was wrong. Soon my spirit began to break along with my body.

I had blisters the size of quarters in half a dozen different places and each one felt like stepping on a nail. My breaks became more and more frequent. Older people I had passed earlier on the trail began to overtake me. I knew I couldn’t resort to being life-flighted out of there, so I just kept getting back up and pushing on until finally the road became visible.

I wanted to quit long before I finished the hike, but it was a wakeup call for me to get back into shape. It was also a reminder that even if I’ve had a lot of outdoor experience, I can’t just wing it and not pay a price for that.

As my wife and I rode the shuttle down Going to the Sun Road, I had to carefully prop my feet up on their heels to relieve the pressure off my huge blisters. That pain is still there in my head when I journey back in my mind to that day. It was a crazy painful day, and this may not seem like a good message to end on, but I love that memory. It’s one of my wife’s favorite stories to share with people. My hope is that someone is going to learn from one of my many mistakes and not repeat them, even if that someone is me!

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