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To Pole or Not To Pole

Okay, I confess. My friends and I are (were) hiking pole snobs. For many years, we've always had some snarky, under-the-breath comment when we see someone who isn't of a certain age or visibly out of shape or injured using hiking poles. We've prided ourselves on our toughness and speed up 14ers. Several years ago, I was dating someone who my feelings were already waning for and he used poles on a hike we did. It drove me insane. The little tap tap tap for hours on end. That sound bored into my brain relentlessly. I had to hike ahead of him on the way up and run down the last few miles alone to get away before I grabbed a pole and drove it through his heart. 

Then I signed up for a crazy ultramarathon this year (which I'm not running after all, but that's a different post) and from the message boards, it was clear that everyone runs it with poles. I have an acquaintance who is super-fit and always uses poles. She swears by them and gave me some recommendations. So, I bought a pair and reluctantly started to use them. If I wasn't training with them, I wouldn't be able to use them come race day. 

Well, in California, everyone used poles for hiking. Just as they all seemed to wear long sleeves and long pants when hiking in triple-digit weather, they all hiked with poles, no matter their age or fitness level. Poles and tons of protective clothing are appropriate for the biggest nanny state in the union. Extra cautious and protective fits right in with everything I know about Californians and how they expect the government to look out for their interests instead of being responsible for themselves. So I didn't feel out of place using them there. I watched a few videos on proper technique and started taking my poles on all my hikes over five miles long. 

But then I got back to the rugged, desolate, every-man-for-himself true west that is Nevada. On my hike to the 13,065 summit of Wheeler Peak in Grand Basin National Park, only I and one dude (who was definitely not fit) were using poles. That's it. Out of the 40 or so people I saw that day. 

woman in a baseball hat in front of a mountain

Ugh. I was that person I used to make fun of. To be fair, I am firmly middle aged now and I do have minor knee and hip problems at the moment. But still, I felt a little unhappy with myself. I started to wonder if poles maybe didn't make such a difference after all. 

For my first big hike in Silverton, Colorado, I went for the 6.2 mile, 2,700 foot gain trek up to the 13,087 foot summit of Spencer Peak. Without poles. I would not be using poles in Colorado. 


Instant regret. The trail was steep and slick and muddy from all the rain that week. Well, what actual "trail" there is. This is a very lightly trafficked trail, so much so that any trail is often invisible. If you don't have the route loaded on to your GPS, you have no hope of finding it. And even with the GPS, it was so easy to wander off into tall grass. It was difficult and slow-going, and poles would have improved the experience greatly, especially coming down. 

woman with mountains and forest and lake behind her

Also, I'd like to point out that poles serve several additional, very useful purposes. As someone who hikes alone and often starts early in the morning when the man-eating animals are still out and about, having poles to clack together periodically is not a bad idea. I'm not talking to anyone, so the risk of sneaking up on a bear is high. It's good to alert the wilderness to my presence. And, not nearly as relevant in southwest Colorado, poles come in handy for encouraging rattlesnakes to get out of the path. I have first-hand experience with that now both in Oregon and California. And using poles helps prevent sausage fingers since your arms aren't hanging down.

So I'm getting over the embarrassment of not being that hard core Colorado person anymore. Here's me (and my poles!) on the Uncompahgre trail the day after Spencer Peak. Even though that summit was a brutal 14,309 feet, I had a much more pleasant hike indeed. 

woman in front of a trail sign