As I mentally prepare to set off for my Pennine Way hike on May 23rd I want to share with you some thoughts inspired, in part, by both my past 2 failed attempts to thru-hike this iconic trail and also by my good friend and hiking buddy Stuart Greig’s (aka @LoneWalkerUK) recent decision to stop doing long distance walks.
I first attempted to hike England’s first National Trail in 1982 aged just 15 and set off from Edale during the school summer holiday period with a school buddy Richard. It was a daring proposition back then… we were both very young with little experience of backpacking and, whilst we had the support of our parents and the innocence of youth, it was a bold undertaking. We reached Tan Hill, approximately half way of the trail, before calling it a day. It has taken us 9 days to reach that point and we were shattered – we were also camping along the way – so my friend’s father came to pick us up and take us home. Even then my feelings were mixed at not being able to complete my first long distance walk attempt. On the one hand it had been the grandest of adventures, real ‘Boy’s Own’ stuff that has lived with me ever since, but on the other hand I had failed to complete the trail and that sense of failure has haunted me ever since. However, my love of backpacking grew from that experience and planted the seed that has grown over the years into my passion for hiking and wild camping.
My second attempt at the Pennine Way was back in April 2013 when Dean Read and I set off with the somewhat ambitious task of completing this 270 mile journey in 14 days. Ambitious because it would be Dean’s first long distance hike and the time scale meant no rest days and some big mile days. This time it was at Thwaite, a day’s hike from Tan Hill, that we had to abandon the trail – this time through injuries. This second failed attempt meant that the Pennine Way had become my nemesis trail and one that I knew I must conquer if I was to exorcise the ‘failure’ demons that were now sitting more heavily on my shoulders than any backpack.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, along with these thoughts of failure are also feelings inspired by Stuart’s recent blog post on his decision to stop his own long distance walking. I have hiked with Stuart many times and consider him one of my very best friends and we often discuss our reasons for hiking whilst on a trail. As such, his reasons for concentrating on shorter hikes comes as no surprise to me, but the emotions his decision evoked in me were surprising. When solo hiking the longer trails there is always a time, usually 4 to 6 days in, when I doubt my reasons for hiking and feelings of wanting to go home almost overwhelm me. I don’t know if anyone else has these feelings when hiking, but I know that, for me, they can consume my thoughts for a couple of days and I have to force myself to continue hiking whilst my demons shout constantly at me to give up. During this time I don’t experience any joy in hiking and often think about giving up the trail, looking at exit strategies and finding ways to justify, to myself, reasons for quiting that I can live with. No matter how many times I hike, these thoughts kick in and even the knowledge that I know I will experience such feelings does little to calm the effects when I experience them again.
Funnily enough I experienced these feelings on my South Yorkshire Way hike in February this year and no sooner had I conquered them and was enjoying the hike again than I sustained an ankle injury 2 days before completing the trail. This was a huge psychological blow at the time – to overcome my hiking demons only to be beaten by, what is for me, the lesser problem of physical injury.
And so, at the beginning of this year, 2015, I determined once again to hike the Pennine Way – solo this time – and with 2015 being the 50th anniversary of the Way’s creation it seemed the ideal time to finally master my demons and conquer this personal pilgrimage. I love hiking. I love long distance hiking especially. I have plans to hike a truly great long distance trail in the future. The longer the trail the less i want to leave it. My demons are conquerable and are as much a part of my hiking experience as my backpack. Both weigh heavily at times, but both are necessary for me to truly experience all the joys that hiking offer me.