Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Tyranny of Trekking Poles

A couple years ago, I was with a group ascending Sarrail Ridge in Kananaskis. About halfway up, I heard a loud snap behind me. When I turned around, a somewhat heavy-set hiker was holding half a trekking pole. He'd been leaning heavily on the $200-plus carbon fibre pole when it snapped under his weight. The look on his face was one of shock and, dare I say, horror.

"I have to turn back," he said.

"Why? What happened? Are you hurt."

"My hiking pole broke," he said, looking at me like I was an idiot. "I can't go up a hill this steep without it. How would I get down? I wouldn't be able to balance."

I looked down at my hands, which were conspicuously sans poles. I thought about saying something witty like, "I'm doing okay without them," or "The same way you'll get down from here without it" or even "Huh?" Instead, I held my tongue. After all, how can you argue with someone who has bought into the tyranny of the trekking pole? And, I have to admit, the sight of him virtually crawling down the slope in the new, pole-less world he found himself was quite entertaining.

Since this incident, I've taken note of the many forms that the tyranny of trekking poles can take. I've seen hikers on a flat trail dutifully swing their arms forward and back, focusing on their poling form so much that they repeatedly plant their poles where they get stuck under dead fall and in shrubs, almost yanking their arms out of their sockets. I've seen scramblers concentrating so hard on where they're planting their poles on rocks that they lose track of where they're putting their feet, stumble and tumble down the slope. And I've seen other scramblers reaching to the sky in order to plant poles that are adjusted far too long for the angle of the slope, pulling themselves up the mountain with the small muscles of their arms instead of pushing with the larger muscles of their legs.

For the record, I own trekking poles. Sometimes on a steep slope I'll use both, but I'm much more likely to use one extended to the length of an ice axe for balance. I've also seen others use them effectively on the descent to take some of the load off of their knees and hips. But for the most part, I see people using them not because poles make hiking or scrambling easier, but because they think they have to use them, even if somewhere in their minds they know they don't.

The same can be said for countless other gadgets that too many hikers think they need: GPS, water filers, Spot SOS devices, altimeters, and on and on. When used correctly, all of these can be helpful and even provide a higher level of safety. But when leaned on like a crutch, they actually put you in more danger. What happens when the pole snaps on rocky slope and you don't know how to get down without them? Or the GPS fails and you didn't take enough note of the trail to find your way back? Or the water filter doesn't work and you don't know how to tell safe water from bad?

Worse, for me anyways, is that these devices all too often distract from the experience instead of adding to them. For me, going to the mountains is all about getting away from our reliance on technology and gadgets, and pursuing something more natural. Wandering through the wilderness as humans have for millenia and as I did as a child, engaging all of my senses, heightening my awareness of my surroundings, feeling fear and bliss every now and then, and truly experiencing the moment I'm in.
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