There was a time that I actually liked physical fitness. Between six years of football (before numerous injuries stopped me) and seven years as a nationally ranked fencer, I got in quite a bit of exercise in my younger years. Then, I went to liberal arts college, and instead of the freshman fifteen, I went a step further and put on the freshman twenty five. Since then, it’s more or less been a constant struggle to find an activity that I liked and reliably keep off the pounds. The college weight gain caused some serious male body image issues, and although being in a relationship helps, I’ve never quite gotten back to where I want to be. That’s why for me, getting into hiking has been a revelation.
The truth is, up until recently, I never liked the outdoors. My first hike as an adult was approximately two years ago; it was probably the worst hike I’ve ever done. My girlfriend, not realizing how grueling it would be, signed us up to hike a volcano in Guatemala. She thought this would be a great way for me to start getting into hiking. Boy, was she wrong. The hike she had in mind required immense physical fitness. It was an eight hour slog up an active volcano, which we then camped on. Even though seeing an active volcano was exciting, I wasn’t ready for it, so the trip wasn’t really worth it for me.
In fact, as you can see above, I wasn’t really all that thrilled with the experience. We were hiking with a small group that was much more experienced than I was. They kept going too fast, and wouldn’t stop when I needed rest. Eventually, our guide left us behind, more concerned with spending time with his Swedish girlfriend than helping me along. While my girlfriend is an experienced hiker, I was not, and only her and the porter carrying my bag saw me through.
This was, of course, the totally wrong way of getting into hiking. It made me hate the idea, and as a result, I didn’t hike at all for another year. It wasn’t until we went to Seoul for a month that I started to become interested in hiking again. While it wasn’t exactly my idea, my girlfriend encouraged us to climb Bukhansan, a large mountain outside of Seoul. While I was reluctant at first, I decided to give it a shot, and it was a pretty eye-opening experience for me.
The hike itself was about six hours up, but we got a late start because we both like to sleep in late. The hike itself started more relaxed at first, but as it went on, it got more intense, and almost made me regret getting into hiking. There was some scrambling involved, and not enough water was packed. At the end, we had to careen ourselves up the peak using unstable steel cables. It didn’t exactly feel safe, but once we got to the top, I experienced something that I never had hiking before.
The mountains looked fake, almost like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Not only had I climbed up here, despite being afraid of heights, but I did it on my terms. I allowed myself to experience the mountains, soak them in without dreading the climb back down. I took it a step further and scaled to the top of the peak, the highest point within Seoul
For me, this is what getting into hiking was all about. It was the moment that I felt a sense of confidence that I hadn’t felt in years. My body wasn’t a total failure, and if I allowed it to be, was capable of doing great things. It might not have been easy, and we may have had to climb down in the dark, but we were able to do it, and even go out to bowl with friends afterwards. I was capable, more than really, and even if it was challenging, it was still doable.
Since the hike to Bukhansan, I’ve done hikes in Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Montana, and Canada. I’d like to think I’m not a beginner anymore. I’m nowhere near an advanced level of hiking, and likely never will be. But I am planning on doing the hike to the Everest Base Camp in the next month, the ultimate culmination of getting into hiking.
These days, doing any serious athletics are over for me. This is due to spinal fusion surgery and chronic sciatica radiating down my right leg. My surgeon recommended I don’t ever lift more than fifty pounds, a good excuse to get out of helping anyone to move. But getting into hiking has taught me that physical fitness can be enjoyable, and even beautiful, without feeling competitive. With hiking, it’s just a race against yourself. You’re not exactly conquering the mountain, but at the minimum, you’re not letting it conquer you.
Just finishing is enough.