I must have been crazy to even think about it. I have early onset chronic ankle osteoarthritis and use an Arizona brace for walking support, and yet there I was, planning a 10-day, 75-mile backpacking trek on the High Sierra Trail through the Sierra Mountains in eastern California by myself.
I’ve been backpacking for less than five years and this was going to be my first — and my last — long ambitious hike. Thanks to my OA, I’m a few years or less away from an ankle fusion. And I’m only 38.
The thought of doing a trek through the Sierra Mountains had been in the back of my mind since 2015, so the fact that it was actually going to become a reality made me pay particular attention to the process of making it successful.
With careful planning, realistic goals, and a little stubbornness, I was confident I could see this hike through. It wasn’t easy, but along the way I was not only laying the groundwork for the hike itself, but also learning to accept that the end of the hike wouldn’t be the ending of all adventures in my life, but rather the pathway to new beginnings and unknown adventures.
The Process of Preparing for a Successful Hike
Even with the excitement building each day, I couldn’t afford to skip out on any of the planning details. Preparing for a 75-mile hike is a lot of work for a healthy individual, but when you add in the extra layer of having to care for an arthritic ankle, the planning is taken to a whole new level. My process had to be methodical, and I needed to anticipate each day as best I could.
If I’d approached the trip in terms of mileage alone, and my only concern was to reach a specific number of miles each day, I would have been setting myself up for failure — and probably a painful one. So I decided to focus on small, easily achievable accomplishments that were part of a much larger goal, and I broke my prep work into two areas: physical and mental.
The Physical Preparation
While I’ve always been fairly active, it was important to get in better shape in order to hike 75 miles. I would be carrying a backpack that weighed 40-plus pounds, hiking up to eight miles each day up, down and around mountains. Yet I couldn’t put too much stress on my ankle during training and wear it out before I even started. So my physical training mainly consisted of light jogging on an elliptical machine to increase my cardiovascular endurance. My ankle also needed to be physically prepared for the rigors of the trail. Either at home or the gym, just about every day of the week, and many times twice a day, I went through a physical therapy program designed to get my ankle ready for the hike. This program helped with the stability, strength and flexibility needed to walk along a trail that occasionally looked like this:
I intended to wear my Arizona brace, which I knew would help a lot, but any added strength and stability would only increase my chances of completing each day’s mileage goal as well as the entire hike.
The final piece of getting physically ready was to get a cortisone shot. Without this, there was no way I would be able to finish the trip. During the doctor’s appointment, I had a good conversation with my surgeon about the practicality of the hike and what the short- and long-term ramifications might be for the health of my ankle. We were on the same page about what could happen, but we also felt that because this was my last big hike, it was worth doing. He gave me the strongest cortisone injection available.
The Mental Preparation
The mental preparation might have been the most difficult part for me. Months before my hike, I had to begin the process of accepting that this would be my last great backpacking trip.
My mental preparation included talking with others who had also done the hike and repeatedly reviewing the trip plans. Gathering as many details as I could and getting physically ready helped me feel more comfortable about my preparation and gave me additional confidence that I could succeed.
I also had to be mentally prepared to fail. Failure meant anything from having to turn back to requiring emergency medical help and helicopter evacuation. Not finishing was a real possibility. I had to accept that going in. But if I did fail, at least I knew I had prepared as best I could.
When taking into account everything I had to prepare for while planning the hike, I was confident that my processes had set me up for success. That, in and of itself, was a big weight lifted off my shoulders.
The preparation ends; learning to accept continues.
While the preparation, planning and physical conditioning all ended when the hike began, the process of accepting that this was going to be my last hike was just getting started. And I was put to the test within the first mile of the hike. I had barely broken a sweat and it felt like all the preparation and planning was all for nothing. I already wanted to give up and go home.
This is the first in a series of three articles written by Ryan Rankin about his 10-day solo hike through the Sierra Mountains. The second installment will be published next week.
To learn more about Ryan, visit his personal blog.