The shuttle driver’s words echoed through my mind as we rested trailside before beginning our hike up the mountain. “Kelly Knob has 13 false summits,” he had said with a wry, almost maniacal smile.
I rubbed my aching knees as I thought about his words and the climb ahead. The kinesiology tape or “KT tape” for short seemed to be helping, but that help notwithstanding, I was hurting.
We were on the last leg of our hike and Kelly Knob was all that stood between us and our destination for the evening, the Deep Gap Shelter. “How bad can it be?” I said as we stood and shouldered our backpacks. My son, Dan, and our hiking partner Jared Hertel responded in agreement, “Yeah, how bad could it be?” What is it they say about famous last words?
As we headed up the trail that morning, I had reasoned that something called a “knob” would surely be less intense than a mountain, however, within a few minutes of starting up Kelly Knob, I realized just how wrong I had been. As I leaned into the climb, I began to feel as if I were walking up a wall – with a large pack on my back!
Physically, I was pulling on most of the reserves I had, but it was the mental aspect that I knew would ultimately get me to the top. It also made me feel a bit better that my companions, who were half my age and then some, also had the same pained expression on their faces as we climbed. As we stopped at one of the many false summits to catch our breath before beginning the next ascent, I thought about two things – mantras and sleeping bags.
I had come across the concept of mantras for endurance sports during my trail running and ultramarathon days. Eric Orton, the world renowned coach from the Christopher McDougall book “Born to Run,” had mentioned the power of employing mantras in a post on his website. After reading the post, I developed my own for an upcoming 25K that I was preparing to run.
Going into the last few miles of that race at Lake Lurleen State Park, I began to repeat the mantra, “I have never not made my miles,” in my mind. The power of the double negative paid off in that race and, back on Kelly Knob, I reasoned it was time to create another mantra.
There is a beautiful, simplistic, and, sometimes, painful rhythm that exists when hiking. For me, that rhythm plays out step by step, trekking pole by trekking pole, as each footfall and trekking pole touching the earth almost creates a melody. Lumbering up Kelly Knob, I added words to that melody: “Grace, Strength, Mercy, Mental Toughness.” Each time my foot or pole touched the ground, I repeated one of those words in my mind.
My mantra that day had both a spiritual (as in, “Dear Lord, please let me make it to the top of this mountain!”) and psychological (as in, “Come on Brad, you can do this!”) component.
The mantra did the trick, especially during the toughest parts of the climb and as we arrived at each of the false summits we had been warned about, I dangled another mental “carrot” in the forefront of my mind as I began to envision stretching out on the floor of the Deep Gap Shelter at the end of our day and being engulfed by my sleeping bag.
To me, one of the most beautiful things about backpacking is the experience of simple comforts and the elevation of their importance. The hierarchy of needs, your food, water, clothing, and shelter, the things you need for your survival, are either on your body or in your backpack and there is something both freeing and comforting about that.
At the top of the list of those simple comforts for me is my sleeping bag and sleeping pad. As we paused at each of the summits to catch our breath and hydrate, I pictured myself rolling out both onto the floor as I claimed my spot in the shelter before sitting down to dinner with Dan and Jared and the other hikers gathered there.
Eventually, we made it over Kelly Knob and I say made it over rather than summited because, in spite of all the false summits on the way up, the trail skirts the actual summit. With the tough climb behind us, we celebrated the fact that our home for the evening was less than a mile away and it was downhill.
We had hiked a half-marathon that day on the Appalachian Trail and survived. As I sat down at the table in front of the shelter to enjoy a meal of summer sausage and cheese with the boys, I thought about my mantra coming up and as I glanced back into the shelter at my sleeping bag unfurled on the floor in all its glory, I couldn’t help but smile.
Until next time, take time to enjoy the simple pleasures and I look forward to seeing you out there in our great outdoors.
Email outdoors columnist Brad Dye at email@example.com.