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Lessons from Two Miles (and Higher) Up



Let me begin this article by saying that hiking is nothing new to me. I know, I know, as The Bard himself so eloquently put it: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" (Queen Gertrude in Act III, Scene II of Hamlet, for the unaware). But it's true. I was somewhat forcibly enrolled into a program in high school that included two intense camping/bonding experiences per year that always involved serious treks. And then there are the four years I spent in the Marines that involved a wide array of what might be considered "camping" by those with no better word to define trying to find a place to go "number two" in the middle of the Mojave Desert after wearing body armor for a week straight with four more to go.

With all of that said, a recent hiking trip (I hesitate to say “vacation” as there were remarkably few things that would indicate “relaxation” on this journey) through Peru was a new experience in a number of ways beyond the fact that I'd never previously been to South America. Of course, much of it was quite similar to other backcountry adventures I've been on. But taking part in such an intense endeavor years after it was government mandated part of my everyday life gave me some solid perspective. And, as with all the anecdotes we tend to tell here, they're lessons that are worth noting because they can be as useful in regular life as atop a mountain.

  • Be prepared, and don't skimp. Before I left, I scoffed at the idea of using a pair of hiking poles on a trek. Once I was in the Andes, I was more than glad I’d begrudgingly listened and brought them along. If you have the chance, be over-prepared without being too overburdened. Finding that line between what you'll ultimately need and what's just plain too much to carry/deal with is the line you should try to hit when you get set for any difficult endeavor. From prior experience, for example, I'd learned to always bring twice as much toilet paper as you think you'll need when you know you'll be away from places that supply it for a while. The same goes for printed notes for a big presentation or calendar reminders for major meetings. You may not end up using it, but it's always better to have it.

  • Be ready for those who are not prepared. Just because you're one hundred percent packed, prepped, and ready to go doesn't guarantee success, particularly if you're part of a team. Whatever you've done doesn't mean all your other companions will be as fit, knowledgeable, capable, or otherwise able to get through the obstacles ahead as well as you. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, as the old saying goes, so prepare yourself (and your group, if you have any kind of collective say over it) for what may be the lowest common denominator in ability and readiness. Write emails. Have handouts. Bring extra water. Whatever needs to happen, be the bigger person and pitch in for the time being to get everyone through the hurdles. This will save frustration for everyone involved, and make it more of a team effort.

  • You can often do more than you expect. Despite all of my physical and mental preparations, I was more than a little doubtful that I'd be up to some of the challenges on this trip. After all, it's been a few years (and far too many pounds) since my military days. No one was more surprised than I to find that, even after days on the mountains carrying gear up and down the slopes, my bum knee felt fresh enough to keep on hiking and my back – a notorious enemy – felt strong enough to carry my pack from the first day to the last. If you’ve prepared appropriately, you should have confidence in your approach. You can surprise yourself in pleasant ways, even under the toughest conditions.

  • The unexpected can still be a problem. Don't let that last section lull you into the sense that my recent trek was in any way easy, or that preparation will conquer all. Yes, my muscles may have been up to the task, but there were unexpected hurdles that made it incredibly difficult. In particular, the altitude. I'd expected it to be an adjustment, but finding myself utterly breathless with the world around me spinning so much as to render me practically blind was not a situation I thought I'd find myself in. Finding myself in an inescapable swoon at 4000 meters up and facing even more of a climb, I realized that all the preparation and good packing in the world could only go so far when facing what you don't know. I relied upon the experience of others in my team at this point, one or two of whom who trek at these altitudes with more regularity. When they told me to slow down, accept help, and share the load, I listened even when I thought I didn’t need it. In my case, it may have been life-saving. Back closer to sea level, proper use of a team can save projects and sanity by helping overcome the unexpected.

Overall, my trip down south and through the mountains was a worthwhile and enjoyable one. It's not often you get to see the mists break over Machu Picchu or feel the unfathomable relaxation of a natural hot springs after three days on the trail. On top of the more pleasurable, expected joys of such an adventure there were definitely some worthy lessons to be learned from such a trying experience as useful to keep in mind when filling a pack as when managing a major project.

Just still be sure to bring extra toilet paper.

Paul Mooney is a contributing writer to Present Tense LLC. With a background of film, screenwriting, advertising, and a healthy dose of the Marine Corps he has many stories to share. He is a freelance writer and producer living in New York City. Follow some of his writing on Task & Purpose as well as some of his antics on Brocast News. Paul is also the writer and director for Vetted, a television comedy highlighting the follies of veterans transitioning in NYC, and edited the first Present Tense ebook.

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