Better living through backpacking, part 2: Nature, the great obstacle course

Aasgard Pass

Each time I bumped into something this past week with the massive bruise on my left palm it reminded me of the boulders that put it there last Sunday morning before dawn—slick with dew and moss-covered and massive, illuminated only by the light of our headlamps as three of us lost the trail and spent 45 glorious minutes clambering over rocks in the dark on a hike that marked the last day of one of the best summers of my life—and I smiled. I don’t get bruised often enough in my daily life, or come within inches of breaking a leg or tumbling headfirst down a boulder field based solely on how much I trust the placement of my left foot, and there’s something about the experience of it, the adrenaline boost that comes from knowing that you’re playing without a net and that nature doesn’t care whether you live or die, that feeds a part of me that spends the majority of my life in hibernation. It’s one of the reasons I like sales so much, I think—it’s more precarious and thrilling and in line with my basic animal nature than most other forms of work I’ve encountered.

In 2005 Backpacker magazine rated doing the Enchantments in a day the 8th hardest day hike in America—close behind going from the south rim to the north rim of the Grand Canyon—based largely on the difficulty of Aasgard Pass, a near-vertical scramble with 2200 feet of elevation gain in ¾ of a mile that serves as a gateway into the high alpine backcountry and the Enchanted Lakes that give the hike its name. Normally I’d say that naming a pass after the Norse equivalent of Mount Olympus would be a bit hyperbolic, but climbing up Aasgard was easily the most physically demanding ¾ of a mile that I’ve ever experienced in my life, and it served as a useful metaphor for pushing myself outside my comfort zone, something that I don’t do often enough these days. It wasn’t as dangerous or quite as much fun as our pre-dawn detour, but going up as fast as I could tested my physical endurance in a way that it hasn’t been tested in a long, long time, and it always feels good to push yourself to somewhere close to your limit and realize how far away from that peak you really are for the vast majority of your life.

I’ve always loved clambering around on rocks (climbing up the bigger ones is a lot of fun, too, but something I’ve only gotten into in the last few years), and in addition to gorgeous scenery the Enchantments had clambering in spades, from our off-trail pre-dawn adventures to the loose rocks that led up Aasgard and the marked-only-by-cairns routes over granite slabs that constituted the majority of the alpine portion of the hike. Most hikes are boring dirt trails through amazing scenery, but the trail here was the main attraction for me, technically interesting as well as physically challenging. The whole thing felt a lot like a competition against myself; I like that I didn’t escape from it unscathed, and it was the perfect way to transition formally from the playful outdoor energy of the summer to the more focused indoor energy of the fall. I’m thankful to the friends that organized it all (there were 11 of us all told, so the organizing was no easy feat)…and I’m already looking forward to doing it again next year.

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