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Hiking for Beginners: Perspectives from a 50-Something-Year-Old Who Set, Achieved Her Mount Everest Dream

In her guest post, “What’s Your Summit?”, hiker and climber Karen Whelan shared her seven-year journey toward achieving her dream of climbing Mount Everest amid the twists and turns of living a full life. Wanting to know her thoughts about where, how, and why we, too, could experience our own hiking adventures, I asked Karen via email several questions to give us an idea of how and where to start.

Karen Whelan posing at Calico Tanks trail head marker

Karen at the Calico Tanks trail head (Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Las Vegas, NV) circa 2004.

While growing up in the Pacific Northwest you hiked and backpacked in the lush fir and hemlock forests of the Cascade mountains. Did that experience help prepare you for your hikes in the arid Spring Mountains and Valley of Fire State Park trails outside Las Vegas?

Other than to just enjoying walking outside, no. But I was also sort of out of my active life for some time. When I got off the couch and started getting ready for Everest Base Camp, I started by joining rock climbers on approach hikes to the walls they would climb in Red Rock. I learned very quickly about hydration.

While training for your Mt. Everest adventure, what did you learn about hiking – and yourself – that you believe contributed to your successful climb?

I learned about foot training and care. After a particularly awful toe banging and heel-blistering hike, I searched for information on blisters. I found a community called Trail Space. Real gear heads and avid packers. I learned about boot fit, sock systems and lacing. I learned about how to condition your feet. Something I had never considered before.

I learned a lot about myself. More so on the actual trek than getting ready for it. I had joined a CrossFit gym during the prep months. I learned I could push further than I knew. I learned there was more in the tank than I thought. I learned that at 50, the young folks encouraged me and pushed me to be my best. There were days on that trek that I would just remember [back to] throwing that ball up on the wall 1,500 times in a row [with] sweat rolling. I [kept] putting one foot in front of the other.

I also learned that as social as I am, the solitude of being the slow, alone hiker was refreshing. I could stand my own company!

Karen Whelan stands next to several Machu Picchu place plaques

In 2014, Karen trekked to the ancient capitol of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu.

For women who’d like to go on a hike but think they’re too old, overweight or out-of-shape, what would you like them to know?

First: do not wait until you get in shape/lose weight to start doing things. You never will if you take that approach. Lace up some boots; throw on a pack and go. Maybe you will only go a half mile. So what? It is your half mile. Next time will be further.

Second: Do it BECAUSE of your age. We need to move or our later years will only be smaller and harder. Use the pain of gaining fitness now to prevent the pain of being even older later. The joy of getting up and just doing instead of the sorrow of realizing we cannot do anymore, is indescribable.

Do women need any specialized or expensive footwear, clothing or equipment in order to go on an easy hike?

There are many good boots/shoes that won’t break the bank. First, if you are heavy, don’t use trail runners or shoes. Use at least a mid-height boot. You need your ankles to have support to carry your extra weight. Keens are a good choice for wide feet as they have a wide toe box. Buy your footwear a size larger than your regular shoes. Feet swell when hiking.

IF you spend any money at all, footwear is the place to put it. You can buy boots at the Big 5-type stores. But if you are able, go to REI. As a member you can bring boots back and get a refund for ANY reason. It helps as you learn what actually works for you. I love Merrell [hiking] boots and they can run 100-150 [dollars]. But get anything that is comfortable. In the beginning you are not going to be putting on a ton of miles. Once up and hiking, you can home in on what works best and spend a little more.

So in short:

  1. Beginners [should] get something that feels comfortable, one size bigger, and socks that are NOT cotton. I use silk liner and a light wool hiker. [This] “double system” [of wearing] socks helps prevent friction and therefore, hot spots and blisters don’t come up.)
  2. As you gain experience spending more is spending less because the boots will support you longer and for more miles, necessitating buying fewer pairs over time and saving money.
Karen Whelan holds trekking poles overhead at Everest Base Camp in 2012

Hoisting her trusty trekking poles overhead, Karen celebrates being at Everest Base Camp in 2012.

Are hiking sticks or trekking poles necessary?

Yes. They are not for weenies! They help with balance and they help distribute the work. As we age, our balance can be impacted. They help [us] descend which can be the time [when] more injuries occur. I never hike without taking my poles. And you can stow them on your pack if you want to go without for some of the hike.

What key characteristics should a beginner look for in when choosing a hiking trail? If “easy” trails aren’t readily available in their area, what options does she have?

Look for how much elevation gain. Always remember: you can turn around and go back.  A medium hike at a short distance can be challenging but rewarding. Look for nature walks or parks with trails to get out and start moving as well. There is an app called AllTrails that will reveal lesser known gems in your area discovered by users. Also, Trails.com is a good website to find things to do.

What questions do you think hikers should ask park staff that beginners (and even more experienced hikers) often don’t ask?  

If dogs are allowed and on/off leash requirements. Trail conditions. Water requirements. Park closure times. Whether water is available along the trail. Any wild animal concerns? How long does it take for people to hike a trail? Is the trail a loop or an out and back? Confirm the distance one way and round trip.

Karen Whelan at the terminus of the Calico Tanks Trail.

With the Las Vegas valley in the background, Karen stands at the terminus of the Calico Tanks Trail, circa 2012.

Many of my gal pals will run or bicycle alone to enjoy quiet time and their own thoughts. What do you think women should consider if they rather hike solo than with a friend or group?  

I don’t think hiking alone is any problem at all. Take the same precautions you would take for anything else. Be sure to let someone know where you are going, [the intended] trail name and when you expect to be back. Take a whistle and a “moon blanket” [popular name for emergency heat reflective/thermal Mylar blankets]. Don’t wander off trail. Have a first aid kit in your pack as well as layers. Rain can come up suddenly. Have your rain gear.

Lastly, what is it about hiking that you find so satisfying and that others will too?

IT is a time away from the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day grind. It is a chance to breathe deeper, see further and climb higher. It is YOUR hike and you do it how you want. There is a sense of accomplishment when you have completed the hike and rather than having been on a treadmill, you get to see the real beauty of this planet.

 

karen whelan

Read more of Karen’s hiking and outdoor adventures at WhelanTrek.com.

 

 

Disclaimer: I love and wear Keen hiking boots as well (often wear ’em when working on home improvement and landscaping projects, too). I’m also a fan and member of REI. As of the date of this posting, neither Slowpoke Divas nor I had any affiliate relationships with the companies or groups mentioned in this article.

About Bonnie Parrish-Kell

Publisher & Chief Diva here at Slowpoke Divas. I always feel better after a good workout or race...no matter how sore I am afterwards. Tweet me @bparrishkell or @slowpokedivas. Instagram: @slowpokedivas