There’s a scene in “The Social Network” where Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) is trying to convince Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to think big about the potential of their new invention, Facebook, and not settle for less. “When you go fishing, you can catch a lot of fish, or you can catch a big fish. You ever walk into a guy’s den and see a picture of him standing next to fourteen trout?”
The same concept applies to hiking. We all want that money shot of us in front of the Mt. Whitney summit lodge, sitting at the edge of Half Dome with our legs dangling over the abyss, holding the “W15” summit marker on Big Iron or relaxing in the turquoise pools below Mooney Falls. Just as Ted Turner supposedly said he didn’t want his obituary to read, “He never owned a network”, we don’t to be remembered for the summits we didn’t reach; to lie on our death beds mourning the ones that got away.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. Why wouldn’t we want to experience the best of nature and challenge ourselves in the process? Long after the aching muscles, altitude sickness and scratches from overgrown chaparral are forgotten we will remember the experience of the summit. Two fives aren’t the same as a ten. We don’t want 14 trout; we want the marlin.
It’s no secret, however, that the marquis hikes come at a cost. We know that they will be physically difficult, that we will have to spend money for permits and equipment and that administrative hurdles will need to be negotiated. No matter how much homework we do, though – and many people don’t do their homework when picking a hike – sometimes a higher price than expected is paid, by us as individuals, by the hiking community at large and by the lands themselves. Three Sisters Falls in eastern San Diego County may be the subject of many an inspirational Instagram photo, but it has also been proven to be hazardous for unprepared hikers, requiring numerous helicopter rescues over the years. Though it’s been dwarfed by 2020’s news stories, most Los Angeles and Inland Empire hikers remember last year’s Poppy Apocalypse and the effect it had on the ecology of Walker Canyon and the administrative resources of Lake Elsinore. Trails such as Eaton Canyon that already suffered from overcrowding before this year saw this problem get exacerbated by the pandemic and differing interpretations of the need for social distancing.
In an often-shared article for Outside Online, Megan Michelson describes how she and her brother in law aborted their Mt. Whitney hike so they could head back to civilization and call for help for injured hikers. She concludes, “I’m not sure I need to return to Mount Whitney. I’m enchanted by the Sierra, but after the day I had on Whitney, I no longer feel the need to top out on the highest point. It’s too crazy up there. I think I’ll go climb some lesser-known, lower-elevation peaks nearby instead.” Writing for the Trek, Rebecca Sperry echoes a similar sentiment regarding New Hampshire’s designer summits: “The increase in popularity of earning an ‘AMC 4000’ patch [climbing all 48 summits in the state that are over 4,000 feet] and the notoriety that comes with being part of this elite group of individuals has inadvertently added even more strain on the trails and surrounding ecosystem.”
In this article, author Dawn Hollis asks if we even need to bag peaks – well known or otherwise – to enjoy nature. “The drive to reach a summit has been wired into us over several hundred years of European history. It is hard to question this drive – but it may be necessary…I’d like to be able to record 2020 as the beginning of a gradual shift away from the assumption that every wild landscape and mountain summit needs a human to experience it.” She also asks, “If you love mountains, especially in the sense of wanting to place your own boots on their summits, what freedoms are you willing to give up to preserve them?”
None of this is to say that hikers shouldn’t continue to seek out once in a lifetime trails and visit them in a responsible manner. It’s simply to suggest that, should you be unable to do a long-anticipated hike due to overcrowding or other conditions, finding a less-known but equally fulfilling alternative may be easier than you think, especially if you keep an open mind about what makes a hike rewarding.
For my part, in 12 years of hiking in California, I was lucky to have claimed as many good memories in quiet, out of the way nooks as I did on name summits. I prefer not to mention specific places in this post, but I always took pleasure in discovering a new spot, especially in areas I thought I’d completely mined for trails. Many of these “Off-Off-Broadway” hikes became like favorite pubs to me: visiting them could turn a bad day around and bring me back to myself. Because these hikes were often short and easy, special preparation or seasonal considerations were rarely necessary. With a short drive, I could escape for a few hours in a way that I couldn’t on more difficult hikes that require navigational attention, traversing uneven terrain or keeping an eye out for inclement weather. I also felt as if I could better connect with nature by keeping my phone in the car on these hikes. Yes, it’s always a risk to hike without your phone, but most would agree that leaving it behind on a two mile suburban nature walk is different from doing so on Mt. Whitney.
Still want the marlin? I leave you with the words of Sky Above Us contributor Dan Harmon – as applicable to hiking as they are to fishing: “The purpose of fishing is enjoyment…not merely catching fish. If catching fish is all you want, go to the grocery store, jam a hook into one and drag it to the cashier. Lie about where you got it and no one will be the wiser.”
Copyright 2020 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.