What I learned hiking in the White Mountains

Two weeks ago I hiked 17 miles in the White Mountains, on some of the steepest and rockiest trails in the country. Wearing minimalist shoes, and with no opportunity to hike a smaller mountain in preparation, I summitted Mt. Washington, picking my way along the cairns that were shrouded by a thick cloud.

Our body adapts to our environment and the tasks we give it. As a lifelong Illinoisan, my body is very well adapted to flat and level ground, hard clay soil, soft grass, and did I mention flatness? I knew this was going to be a challenge, but I planned to prepare.

And then life got in the way. I walked more often, and for longer distances, but I could only get to 5 or more miles one day a week. I tried to spend more time training on my bosu and getting my hips in shape (weak lateral hips are my biggest issue), but I rarely gave it the attention I felt it needed. I kept up with my normal foot mobility exercises, which at this point is just walking barefoot as much as possible and standing on a rock tray when I type.

Going into this, I felt underprepared and frankly unathletic. Everyone I hiked with had significantly more experience, and I was nervous that I was going to slow everyone down, or slip and twist my ankle, or frankly be too weak to make it to the top of Washington.

But I made it! Not only did I make it, I did it without any pain! No blisters or hot spots, no sore feet, no swollen ankles or knees, and my nagging hip pain never bothered me even once.

This hike made use of every single skill I’ve been practicing for the past 6 years. As I was climbing up a steep slab on the shoulder of Washington I could feel different parts of my feet turning on, gripping the rock THROUGH my shoes and pulling me up the mountain. That ability to bend and deform my feet made miles upon miles of hopping from wet rock to wet rock over 5 other peaks…not a big deal.

As one part of my body got tired, I found myself shifting my strategy almost without thinking about it. Sometimes I’d hop down from one rock to the other, sometimes I’d list, when the drop was too far I’d squat and take it carefully, and quite often I’d shamelessly slide down on my butt (and I was not the only one).

My biggest take away from my hike was that all of this, all the restorative exercise and natural movement, low furniture and long walks, changing your shoes and mobilizing your feet…it all really works.

Our bodies adapt to the environment we live in and the tasks we set for it. Gradual lifestyle changes, bits and pieces of strengthening or mobilizing exercises throughout the day, and a long practice of listening to my body and responding to its needs made me well-prepared to tackle one of the hardest trails in the country.

My body was strong enough, my joints supple enough. About the only thing I struggled with was cardio endurance. Now to find a cardio plan that I won’t hate. Because unfortunately, this flatlander can’t just climb mountains all the time.