Recently I went on a backpacking trip with some friends. Some of those who went had never been backpacking before, others had some experience and a few were very experienced. All involved were rock climbers though, so it was decided by the group we would take a spin on a little path in Arkansas called Eagle Rock Loop.
Eagle Rock Loop is billed as the toughest hike in Arkansas. All Trails states it is only recommended for "..very experienced adventurers". The trip has some advanced route finding on it, and the site also states it is 25.2 miles long 4,783 ft of elevation gain. Most of that is in one 10 mile stretch in which you cover 6 small mountains, the final (when done clockwise) 2 being among the steepest. On day 2 we planned on going through a flood plain that took the lives of 16 people back in 2010 and sleep high above the river. Day three was intended to be a quick stroll back to the cars then off to get a meal. In trying to help plan the trip I lobbied multiple times to try an easier loop so our first time backpackers wouldn't burn out. Apparently we are climbers... we can handle it.
The week before, there was some weather. We were checking water levels and forecasts daily. With a final check the morning of departure, we determined there would be a window large enough to make the trip in. So we loaded up the soccer van, and headed to Arkansas. After several hours of riding, talking, laughing, and generally having a good time, we found ourselves arriving at Caney Creek Trail Head (roughly N34.347103 W093.984343) late in the evening. We setup our first camp near a friend in his camper/truck outfit, and slept.
To give you some context to my sleepless nights, I had been reading up on the trail as I regularly do. The trail report that most stuck out to me was a group that started with 8 people, and finished with 3. Most left the trail injured. Everyone in that team was experienced. I was awake a long time thinking through various scenarios, bail points, and alternate plans. Once asleep, it didn't feel all that long before I was getting up again.
My friends and I were excited to get started. After a quick breakfast we loaded up and headed out on the trail. In order to ensure we got off to a good start, we immediately overshot a trail junction, and got lost. After hunting for the trail, backtracking multiple times, and one hilarious fall later (he was fine, and even posed royally and asked for a picture), we found the trail and got back on track. The plan was to hike the first 11 miles or so and find a place to camp near the river. The hope was to find a waterfall to camp near. We lost nearly an hour on our little side adventure, but spirits were high. We nearly bounded down the trail.
As the light began to fade, we were coming down the final mountain for day 1. Each step felt heavy, and painful, each breath labored. Several members of the party were limping (myself included). No injuries as of yet, just fatigue. Happily, everyone was still smiling also. We are after all climbers, we know how to enjoy ourselves while in pain. We began looking for a camp site, having just passed the 10 mile mark. We were still a bit short of a little field I had mentally marked off on my map as a potential camp site, but when we found a little field just off the river we couldn't resist stopping (read: collapsing) to setup camp.
Dinner consisted of the usual suspects, re-hydrated spaghetti, lasagna, Thai noodles, and the like. That is up until someone brought out a re-hydrated cake and passed it around to the tune of happy birthday. Three of us had birthdays within two weeks of the trip (one was the day we started out). The cake was probably mediocre at best, but out there, around a camp fire after a day of ups and downs (pun intended) it was possibly the best cake I have had all year.
Day two started out pretty well. We were rested, spirits were again high. Camera's were out, and we started down the path, determined to press on. Very quickly though we became concerned for one member of our team. She began to limp more and more, and her pain was evident. A little after midday, we all came together and made a decision. She and one other would stay behind and the rest of us would make a push for the cars. We planned to be back the next day to pick them up. We left them behind in a campsite were the worst of the flood had happened years ago.
We now needed to make up time we lost during the day, as well as the time needed to backtrack in the vehicles to pick up our two stranded friends. So the remainder of the group pressed on hard and fast. We pushed on and made it just past the location we initially intended to camp. In stead we camped riverside again about a quarter mile further on. It was already dark when we selected our campsite, made our dinner and collapsed into our tents.
That night, I woke the sounds of mother nature gently tapping on our tent a few hundred thousand times... it was raining, and we had left our team mates in and then subsequently setup our campsite in the flood plane. We got up earlier than we hoped, and jumped into action. Camp was dismantled and we were on the trail eating a cold breakfast and moving even faster than the night before. We scrambled quickly over rocks and downed trees. Over the remaining mountains and finally found the trail back to our cars. As we topped the last mountain I remember looking up the last 50 feet and wondering if we would make it back in time.
As we stepped off the trail and onto the road that would lead us back to our trucks, it was nearing 1 o'clock. We hastily dropped our bags into the soccer van, and jumped into the two vehicles. The roads were wet, and mostly mud. Where the mud ended, holes began, and the going was slow. We rounded a corner and there before us were two wet and bedraggled hikers. Our two friends had bailed when the rain started, and began making their way to the cars, hitch-hiking and when necessary walking.
With the party reunited we began the trip home. Stopping of course for the obligatory burger and fries overload. I think we may have gotten an ice cream at some point.
Initially my fear told me this trip was a bad idea. I was actively campaigning against it. However everyone involved had a great time. All things being equal I would have missed out on a great trip had I let my "Experience" rule out this trip all together. That is not to say we should throw caution to the wind. We had several bail points, and the elevated risk of minor injury was worth the potential pay off of a great trip. Experience is what provided the insight on how to asses this risk.
Many times I feel we mistake panic and fear for experience. We hear an idea, fear the change it will cause, and reject the idea before really assessing it. In business, experience tells us that change can be good, fear tells us to stay the course. One of the biggest flags for me is when a quick decision is made when speed is not a factor. Sometimes decision must be made on the fly. All to often however a decision is made in the heat of the moment that could be given some consideration over a few days, or even weeks (depending on how big a decision it is).
Slow down and give some thought to what is driving your decisions!