fitness · Guest Post · hiking

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Volcano (Guest Post)

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Image description: A landscape shot of a section of the track. The earth is mostly rocky and is a light brown colour. Steam is coming from geothermal vents on the mountain. In the bottom right corner of the photo is a shadow of the photographer and the ridge she is standing on.

I recently had the opportunity to tramp (that’s what New Zealanders call hiking) the Tongariro Northern Circuit in the Central North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. The TNC is a four-day, three-night 43.1 km loop that partially overlaps with the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The TNC takes place in the shadows and volcanic fields of the mighty active volcanoes Ngāuruhoe (which you may recognise as Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies) and Tongariro. While I had done plenty of day hikes and a handful of overnight trips before, this was my first multi-day trip, and I decided to do it solo. Aotearoa New Zealand has several tramping tracks that are billed as Great Walks, which means they are well-maintained, monitored by rangers, and usually well-equipped as far as huts and campsites go. The TNC is one of those walks, and as such, is well-populated with trampers and rangers alike. That made me feel fine about going solo. I had previously spent a long time wishing I could do something like this, but it wasn’t until I saw these wise words of a kid from the hilarious blog Live From Snack Time that I decided it was time to go do it: “You can make a wish, but then you have to do the wish. It doesn’t just happen.” I decided it was time to do the wish.

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Image description: A 360-degree panorama of a section of the track. It is the very early morning and the sky is still dark. Large rocky formations stretch along the length of the photo and they are backlit by a small patch of sunlight peeking up on the left side of the photo.

Here’s the thing about tramping in Aotearoa New Zealand compared to other places: pretty much nothing here will kill you except the weather. There are no large predators like bears or mountain lions, there are no snakes, there are no particularly venomous spiders. The water is usually clean and plenty of trampers just go ahead and drink it without treatment and are usually fine. (Note: that’s risky. Don’t do it. Or do. But also, don’t.) What puts people at risk in the New Zealand backcountry is when weather closes in quickly—particularly common in alpine environments—and natural disasters like avalanches, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. (There are also risks like falling and breaking your leg and being unable to get to shelter.) Those are serious risks, and I don’t mean to be flippant about them. You must prepare for them as much as you are able. Now, admittedly, there’s not a whole lot you can do if a pyroclastic flow is headed your way, but I’m of the mind that life is inherently risky, and if the only thing that ever figured into your decisions was how risky an activity was, you’d never get off the couch. That’s not the life I want, so I’m prepared to accept some calculated risks. I went to an outdoor equipment shop and asked for advice from them and from experienced friends, rented and borrowed the gear that I could, bought what I couldn’t borrow, and set out.

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A closeup of small, white flowers growing between stones. Mount Ngāuruhoe, a symmetrical cone-shaped volcano, is visible in the background.

The track was absolutely incredible and the trip was well worth it. I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to make it happen. The photos don’t capture the scale and vastness of the landscape. They don’t capture that mixed-up feeling of achievement, relief, and “Well, that wasn’t so bad!” that rises up when you arrive at the hut. It’s hard to explain the introspection that goes on when it’s just you, your boots, your pack, and a volcano to keep you company. It was transformative. Really.

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Image description: a landscape shot of a part of the track. On the left of the photo is a 29-year-old white woman with short blonde hair. She is wearing grey shorts and a white shirt. In the distance is a cliff and a thin waterfall coming off it.

But a peculiar thing kept happening while I was tramping, and kept happening after I returned and told people about having gone. People seemed very concerned that I, a woman, was doing this tramp solo. At first, I thought it was a bit funny. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it reflected some weird assumptions people have about women’s ability to manage risk. When I told others about the experience and wondered whether people would have said the same thing about a male soloist, a male friend was quick to tell me that “it wasn’t about gender” (a bold assessment from someone who wasn’t there) and that going solo was “potentially foolhardy.” He’s right, in some sense: the risks of tramping—things like avalanches and volcanic eruptions—aren’t about gender. The volcano does not care about the genders of the trampers walking on it when it erupts. Dehydration and hypothermia don’t care about your gender. Venomous snakes don’t care about your gender. Flash floods don’t care about your gender. I’m totally with him on this one: the risk is not about gender. But if that’s the case, then why were the comments? Why were so many of the comments of the scandalized “A woman, alone?” variety? What is it about being a woman that leads people to assume you can’t look after yourself? (If I sound annoyed, it’s because I am.)

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Image description: A photograph of two of the famous Emerald Lakes, one behind the other. The earth in the foreground is golden brown and rocky. The lakes have vivid green water. A slope rises up behind them. The sky is blue with wispy white clouds.

I want to be clear about something: I certainly don’t think I know everything about tramping. I’m still very much a novice and will be for a long time. But I’m a sensible novice: I consulted experts while planning my trip, followed their advice, and did every single thing I possibly could do to mitigate my risk. I left detailed trip and route plans with a trusted contact, and I carried a personal locator beacon, a first aid kit, emergency shelter, all-weather clothing, an extra day’s food, and so on. I also respect the power of nature and know that ultimately, sometimes things go wrong and no amount of preparation can save you from that. Nevertheless, I did what was, by any reasonable metric, a good job of making sure I was going to be okay, barring a volcanic eruption. (And let’s be real, having a buddy isn’t really going to help you much in that situation.) It struck me as odd that my friend immediately concluded that what I was doing was foolhardy, when he knew nothing about the precautions I’d taken, and made no effort to ask.

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Image description: A panorama of a volcanic landscape. The earth is reddish-grey. There are two lakes with green water on the left of the photo, and an uphill scree slope to the right. Three distant people are standing at the top of the slope. The sky is blue with a few long white clouds.

A couple of women tramper friends of mine say they’ve had similar experiences. One says she, too, finds that people are either amazed or concerned when they find out she’s tramping alone, and that something about it rubs her the wrong way. How about you, fellow women soloists? Have you had this kind of experience? How does it make you feel?

I’ll finish off with this photo of sunrise on the ascent to the Red Crater of Ngāuruhoe. I left my hut dark and early to catch this special sight, all by myself. It was glorious.

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Image description: A panorama of sunrise on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. The sun is peeking up on the left side of the photo. The lower section of the photograph is dark rocky earth, not yet lit by the morning sun. In the distance are two peaks (one is Ngāuruhoe) that are a deep rusty red in the sunlight.
cycling

Risky business: Cycling, coyotes, and working out alone

Two events in the news this week, one local, one not, have made me think a bit about risk and exercise safety.

First the local: A coyote attacked a woman walking on a local trail. We know that coyotes are in our city. In fact, there are signs like the one on the left on our multiuse pathway.

Here’s the news:

“Police are asking area residents to be on alert after a female was injured by a coyote early Friday. A male and a female were reportedly walking through South Branch Park around 8:30 a.m. when a coyote jumped on the female from behind, knocking her to the ground. As she struggled, she suffered injuries to her arm and face, fortunately her friend was able to pull the coyote off of her, preventing further injury. She was treated in hospital and released. Anyone using the trails in the park on the north bank of the Thames River between Adelaide Street North and Egerton Street are reminded to be cautious. Police say the area is populated by coyotes and people should avoid travelling through the area alone.”

Since I’m friends with lots of runners and cyclists who use that path in and out of the city, my social media news feed was full of fear and speculation.

But interactions between urban coyotes and runners are pretty rare. How much should the risk of coyote attack affect when, whether, and where you run? Some people later said it was actually a dog but I’m not sure why that ought to make anyone feel better. Dog attacks are more common than coyote attacks.

“Coyote attacks on people are very rare. More people are killed by errant golf balls and flying champagne corks each year than are bitten by coyotes.” – Humane Society

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Second, not so local, there was the tragic case of the tech executive Dave Goldberg who died after hitting his head on a treadmill. Surely running on a treadmill is safer than running on a path where there are coyotes? But no, people worried that he was exercising alone. See CNN’s The risk of the lonely distance runner: “Goldberg’s death is a wake-up call to be more aware of the risks of training alone and, when I do, to adhere to my own safety rules and take no shortcuts. In all exercise, proceed cautiously, for the sake of those who love us and our own love of life.

I’ve written before about the risks of cycling. See Sitting more dangerous than cycling!

The study I talk about in that blog post compares the dangers of riding a bike to the very real risks of a sedentary lifestyle. But one could object that that’s a false choice. You could do something, rather than nothing, but pick something safer than riding a bike.

Fine. Maybe we all owe it to ourselves to to the absolutely safest form of exercise.

I am not sure just what that would be but my first reaction is: YAWN!

Many people advocate walking as a safe form of exercise but the thing is I know two women locally who’ve been killed while out walking. There’s a race at the Forest City Velodrome named the Mary Kelly Memorial. Mary was a fellow cyclist at the velodrome and you might think she died on her bike. Cycling is so dangerous after all. But no. She was killed when she was out walking, hit by a car. Another woman I know from church was also killed while out walking her dog at night.

I’m not saying that walking is more dangerous than riding a bike. I am saying that for me, these stories loom large. They remind me that life is all about risks.

Tracy has written about doing what brings us joy, what makes us feel like kids again.

For me, that’s riding my bike. Wheee Zoom!

I pay attention to risk. I wear a helmet. I obey the rules of the road. But over attention to danger can suck all the joy out of life. I risk bears when I go camping. I’ll risk a few coyotes on the local pathway. I’ll even run on a treadmill alone.

How about you? How do you balance risk and joy in your physical activities?

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