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Call of the wild is sometimes a solitary song

Sometimes the best way to experience the outdoors is alone. That's why I continually choose to overlook the many warnings against solo hiking.

Whether it's the official website of a national park, a sign at the trailhead or a word from a friend, the message is always the same: Don't hike alone. But as an adventurous individual seeking solitude, what am I to do? To me, the freedom found in solo hiking is worth the risk.

I solo summited South Sister in Bend last summer when none of my friends were available to accompany me. I’ve frequently hiked alone on Roxy Ann Peak, the Jacksonville Woodlands, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Toothpick Trail above Ashland. And a Mount McLoughlin summit last year turned into a solo trek when the slower hikers in our group urged me to hike at my own pace.

So when I found myself spending Christmas in Albuquerque at the base of the Sandia Mountains, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to explore the Southwestern wilderness. Family members were unwilling to brave the cold and too busy with holiday plans to join me. So the day before Christmas I found myself trudging alone through unanticipated snow in the New Mexico mountains.

I had planned for a moderate 8-mile hike that would take me up the mountain and then north on the crest trail to a tram that would take me down the mountain. However, at the top I discovered the crest was covered in knee-deep snow. Because the west-side cliffs of the Sandias transition into a smooth eastern slope, the snow I encountered was not visible from the trail head at the base of the mountain.

Although I was unprepared — I would have done anything for snowshoes, crampons or skis — I was reluctant to turn around. The canyon I had come from was a forest of dead, diseased trees that were falling down in dangerous numbers. Forest Service warnings were posted at the trailhead and online, and even more convincing were the constant creaking sounds and freshly fallen trees blocking the path. In that first moment on the crest trail, I weighed the risks and decided I'd rather tromp through snow. About half an hour later, that decision began to look like a bad one when the trail became indistinguishable, and I began second-guessing my instincts.

Being alone might seem to have made my situation worse, but instead, being alone provided an opportunity to put my training and common sense to the test. I was forced to talk myself through momentary panic and fine-tune my sense of direction. I looked for details to identify the trail: blades of otherwise randomly strewn tall grass leaning inward, down trees that had been sawed versus those that broke naturally, and carved initials on trees. I encountered a single set of crampon tracks that at times were extremely helpful.

After several hours of directional and physical struggle, I heard the welcome sound of the tram in the distance. I exited the forest with one last sinking step, exhausted yet relieved.

A few hours later, the distress I had felt was long forgotten. All I could think of was how exciting and satisfying the trek had been.

Adventuring alone involves risk. But that does not mean I have to forgo the peace and pleasure of being alone in nature, although it does require me to be aware of the risks and be prepared for them. Not all outdoor danger is avoidable, but a well-prepared person has more control over what happens in the wilderness.

To be prepared for a hike, the 10 Essentials list created by The Mountaineers (www.mountaineers.org) is a good place to start. However, a sound mind, sufficient knowledge and good navigation skills are essentials that can save you from ending up in a situation where fire, emergency shelter and extra food and water are necessary.

Hiking solo is not for everyone, but for those thirsty souls seeking a quiet place to drink in nature’s glory and process life, wandering alone in the wilderness may be a destination in and of itself.

Medford native Sophie Stiles is a student at Seattle Pacific University.

Photo courtesy of Sophie Stiles.