Favorite Gear: Black Diamond Trail Shock Trekking Poles
When it came to running Cross Country in high school, I was a scrub…a bottom of the barrel B-teamer…the guy who spent a decent amount of each practice and race walking instead of running. And I was totally fine with that. Several of my friends were really good runners, and our team competed for Conference championships each year. While I had absolutely no part in the contending for or winning of those championships I still ended up in the team pictures adorned with the words “Conference Champions,” looking every bit the part of a major contributor to success. My scrubness was so blatant that at one practice during my Senior year, our coach bypassed giving me and 2 other guys the time requirements for our 3 mile run, and instead turned to us and said, “Just finish the 3 miles.” Needless to say, “Just finish” became our rallying cry for the remainder of the season.
You see, my entire goal for running Cross Country was to get in shape for basketball season. I knew that the occasional open gym, and the once a week conditioning sessions hosted by the coaches wouldn’t be enough to prepare me for basketball tryouts and the ensuing season. What Cross Country offered wasn’t an opportunity to excel and compete for All-Conference honors, but instead it was a chance to build the conditioning necessary to finish the 408 down and back, full-court sprints that would happen in basketball tryouts without keeling over. What it also provided was a chance to develop tendinitis in both of my knees.
While I’ve never been limited by pain in my knees as a result of the pounding they took in my short-lived “distance” running career, my increasing love of hiking and backpacking would often raise an awareness of the fact that my knees (and ankles for that matter) are much less than superhuman. Some days would end with a bit of tightness that stretching or a few ibuprofen would alleviate, but in each case there was also that creeping realization that with increasing age comes these increasing aches and pains. After a backpacking trip a few years ago, I realized that the time had come to be proactive about the health of my knees and ankles. In my case, being proactive meant investigating these things called trekking poles.
One of the first times I saw someone hiking with trekking poles I remember asking myself, “Why are they using ski poles during the summer time?” My impression of trekking poles was that they were for older hikers, or those that like to have all kinds of shiny gear with them for appearance sake–they were an expensive alternative to just finding a big stick laying on the ground in the woods. The need for them, and their purpose in general, was completely lost on me. It goes without saying then that I didn’t have the slightest clue that good trekking poles are built around shock absorbing springs that can take a pretty serious amount of strain off of your hips, knees and ankles. When my investigation of trekking poles revealed this fact, it was a game changer.
Simply put: my trekking poles have been one of the best purchases I’ve made for backpacking. Since I’m able to absorb the pounding of walking downhill with a heavy pack while also alleviating the strain of pulling the extra weight uphill by redistributing some of that energy and effort to the poles and my upper body, I’ve found that I can carry heavier loads for further distances with far less tightness or pain. Additionally, their ability to provide stability on unstable ground, serve as tent poles in a pinch, be the stabilizing portion of a splint in a worst case scenario, help in creek crossings, and even be a holder of copious amounts of duct tape make them a very useful tool to have in the back-country. The main thing they’ve provided for me however, is a confidence that my knees, ankles, and hips are much more likely to hold up in the midst of any ascent or descent–a confidence that came in handy last summer when Becky and I hiked the Northern Loop Trail at Mt. Rainier.
The Northern Loop is a horseshoe shaped trail that connects with a portion of the 93 mile long Wonderland Trail, forming a 35 mile loop that begins and ends at the Sunrise Visitor Center. Hiking this trail to celebrate our 1st wedding anniversary won out over a couple of other options because of its close proximity to Seattle (which meant it would fit nicely into a small window of time), we knew it would offer incredible scenery, and the reviews of it on-line told us that it would probably be the most demanding trail we had ever done. What we failed to notice in our research is that you climb somewhere between 9,000 and 9,500 feet over the course of those 36 miles–which means that you also drop somewhere between 9,000 and 9,500 feet as well. When you combine those two numbers you end up with 36 miles of steep climbs and steep descents, and very little flat or moderate grade sections in between. In fact, over the entire 36 miles there were only 4 sections of trail that were flat for more than a few feet: one was when we cut through a small corner of an area called Grand Park–an expansive field that was at least 3-4 football fields wide and probably 8-10 football fields long (it literally looked like the entire top of a mountain had been sliced cleanly off); one was a wild flower meadow that stared directly at Mt. Rainier; one was the top of an absolutely beautiful mountain pass that required an absolutely brutal climb to reach; the final one was the walk through the parking lot. The rest of the trail alternated between a calf, lung, and thigh burning 1,500-2,000 foot ascent or descent.
But while our research failed to reveal the continual steepness of the trail, it also understated the sheer beauty of what we would find there. Over the 36 miles we waded through waist deep wildflowers, refreshed our legs and feet in snowmelt creeks and lakes, passed through pristine forests of towering old-growth trees, camped on a ridge above a massive glacier and fell asleep to the sound of the ice cracking and moving, and spent an entire morning following in the fresh tracks of a mountain goat. At the end of every steep climb we were rewarded with some kind of an astounding view: blown open views of Mt. Rainier, sheer rock cliffs that exploded with color in the last rays of the evening sun, or mountain lakes sitting at the top of remote mountain passes whose waters were as blue as the sky.
The beauty contained in those 5 days of hiking couldn’t be crammed into a year’s worth of blog post words, so I’m going to stop my meager attempts. Instead, I’m going to let pictures that we took during the trip do the talking. Usually these “Favorite Gear” posts contain a story of one event that happened while using whatever piece of gear is being highlighted. That isn’t possible this time. The one event that I will forever associate with these trekking poles is this 5 day trip spent celebrating a year of marriage, but also celebrating the very essence of beauty that can be found in Creation.