How NOT To Climb A Volcano
Making mistakes can add spice to life. Especially when those mistakes happen someplace interesting—like on a volcano. I mean, when you learn a lesson the hard way climbing a volcano, you really learn it.
After years of experience hiking, climbing, and mountaineering, I can comfortably look back at my first volcano climb up Central Oregon’s South Sister (10,358 ft.) and reminisce on the poor decisions and embarrassing choices that led to a grueling all-day ascent that left my legs and lungs screaming for days. It turns out that practice really does make perfect—or, at least progress. Here are five mistakes I made on my first volcano climb, so you don’t have to repeat them.
Heading out without any training.
I read somewhere that hiking is the only sport you can fake. You can simply show up and just start walking, right? Not quite. Part of the minimal preparation I did for this climb included elliptical work where I was more absorbed by my iPad than my workout. I remember doing a series of squats and wall sits in the morning to make myself feel better about skipping run, after run, after run. I was hopelessly out of shape when I showed up at the trailhead, and I paid for it in the end.
Ignore the altitude issue.
Up until about halfway through this climb, the highest elevation I’d ever been at was between 7,000 and 8,000 feet on a ski lift. Climbing thousands of feet above that proved more difficult than I could have imagined. The shortness of breath, the constant nausea, and the slow, steady pounding I felt in my skull? Classic Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms like these are incredibly common, but not always dangerous if recognized and treated early on. Had I been better prepared, I would have understood the need to hike slowly, hydrate often, and fuel with easily-absorbed nutrients like simple sugars and carbs. The thing is, you’ve got to know these details before you venture to 10k above sea level.
Pack way too much.
We convinced ourselves that our 40-pound packs meant that we were “prepared for anything.” You know what we weren’t prepared for? The suffocating effect of a heavy pack at high altitude.
I started out the day with five liters of water, half of which I ended up dumping on the way down. I also packed enough food to feed a four-person family, and a first aid kit the size of a football. While I’d much rather bring along extra essentials than find myself without a key piece of gear high on a mountain, there’s a smarter way to pack for an all-day adventure. Half of that means taking a look at the physical efficiency of your gear, but oftentimes going ultralight means winning a mental game.
Spend all your energy just getting to the top.
By the time we reached the top, I was wrecked. I’d used up every ounce of energy I had pushing myself to the crater rim. I didn’t follow the most important rule of mountaineering: The summit is only the halfway point.
We had a long way to go from the top, being as out of shape as we were. Exhausted and lazy, we nearly lost our balance and rolled our ankles as we let gravity guide us down the trail. Hot and slowly burning in the sun, we fought to stay awake and find the energy to complete the last few forest miles back to the car. Our early morning eagerness ended up making us miserable.
Go for thrifty gear instead of functional gear.
My gear was in complete shambles, pieced together from borrowed pieces and bits from the bottom of the REI clearance bins. I used a monstrously heavy walking stick instead of trekking poles. My pack had zero hip support and left my back aching with weight. The shoes I chose were 10-year-old hiking boots that did anything but the job they were supposed to—I descended with an aching arch, cramped toes, and socks filled with volcanic rocks.
Part of building up your dream gear closet comes from the process of elimination you experience on hikes like this. Without going through these awful gear failures, I never would have known that crew socks can’t replace gaiters, or that a soft shell jacket doesn’t come close to providing the weather protection a hard shell can.
At the end of the day, I wouldn’t have traded these mistakes for the world. I reached my goal, I made it back safely, and I learned a few lessons that you can profit from, too.