Someone posted a link to Outside Magazine’s 10 most Dangerous Hikes on my Facebook Timeline a couple of weeks ago, which got me thinking about what my version of that list would look like. Weather and lack of preparation can combine to make almost any hike dangerous, but when The mountains are beautiful and amazing, but they should always be approached with respect, proper preparation, and a malleable plan so that you can adapt and deal with the unexpected. When I think back on the last 20 years of hiking and backpacking that I’ve done around the country and around the world there are a some hikes that stick out in my memory as having filled me with awe… Here is the list of my top 10 most awe-inspiring hikes:
1. The Daikiretto in the Japan Alps
I was awed by the heights, the exposure, the foreignness and the beauty of this trail. The Daikiretto in Japan is a climb along one of the most beautiful, most exposed, and most adrenaline-inducing knife edges in the world (from Mount Hotaka, 10,466′ to Mount Yari, 10,433′). Full of tough rock scrambles, skittering scree, precipitous drop-offs, rusty iron chains to grasp, and blasted footholds in sheer cliff faces, it manages to get everyone’s adrenaline pumping for the hours it takes to get from one side to the other. Accidentally kicking a rock and watching it go careening down thousands of feet reminds you that if you don’t respect the mountain and your position on it you’ll end up like one of the dozen or so hikers that die there each year.
2. The Bisse du Ro in Switzerland
I was awed by the heights, the exposure, and the history of this route. The Bisse du Ro carried water through the mountains to Crans-Montana from the 15th century until the 1940’s and was maintained by local villagers throughout that time. Crouching under the overhangs with nothing more than two wooden planks separating you from the sky is not for the weak at heart (they even have a sign posted to that effect at the beginning of the trail). Plaques commemorating both the people that died while maintaining the aquaduct and the people that died hiking it are inset along the cliff-face with dates ranging from the time it was constructed through the present, and provide a not so gentle reminder about why your adrenaline is pumping.
3. Crater Lake, Oregon.
I was awed by the solitude and the sheer volume of snow on my midwinter backpacking trip. Crater Lake in the Southern Cascades of Oregon gets an average of 44 feet of snow each year as it is transformed into a winter wonderland. Setting off into a world of white and shadows in the middle of a blizzard made me pause, our car sat alone in the parking lot, letting us know that we truly would have the park to ourselves as we set of into the expansive white nothingness. There was no trail, no road, no views, just white shadowy dunes of snow constantly shifting and sliding around us and transforming the world into a winter wonderland of it’s own design.
I was awed by the freshness of the mountain, still glowing red and venting ash, and the contrast between it and the surrounding glaciers. Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption, less than a year before I visited, had caught the world by surprise. Surrounded by ice and fire, hiking over such newly formed mountain was a truly incredible experience! Realizing at the end of the day that the soles of our shoes, the tips of our hiking poles, and in some cases even our packs had been singed or melted as we hiked added some sobering perspective. Retracing our steps on a night hike later that evening revealed that the trail was still glowing red hot in many places!
5. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
I was awed by the strangeness, the altitude, the beauty, and the people. At over 19,000 feet, the sheer altitude of Kilimanjaro sticking up out of the surrounding plains is awe-inspiring. Struggling for breath as you wander through her glaciers at dawn with everything sparkling from the ice, the light, or perhaps just a pinch of hypoxia is truly amazing. I found that Kilimanjaro also left me in awe of the giant chasms in privilege and wealth between those climbing the mountain and those living in the surrounding areas.
6. Rätikon Höhenweg Nord, Switzerland and Austria
I was awed by the history, the scenery, and the weather. The Alps are the birthplace of mountaineering, and as a mountain climber, I had been hearing about them since my childhood. Hiking in the alps was, as I anticipated, breathtakingly beautiful, and arriving at mountain huts and being offered cold beer and fresh cheese was certainly awe-inspiring. The summer blizzard that rolled in as we were hiking, quickly concealing the trail and any sign of other hikers or civilization inspired an awe of a different sort. As we hiked along bouncing between the border of Switzerland and Austria, I concocted my worst case survival scenarios, which included using the sound of the distant cowbells to guide me off of the mountain and enacting a scene similar to Luke Skywalker and the Tantuan’s Belly… Somehow I managed to keep us on the trail and get us out of the mountains, but I hope to never be in a position of seriously considering a Star Wars based survival plan ever again!
7. Cerro Chirripó, Costa Rica
I found being able to see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the summit of a single mountain to be awe-inspiring. Most of the hikes I do somehow make the world feel like a impossible big place, standing on one place and seeing both Oceans seemed to make the world feel a little bit smaller and more connected and in a good way. Though the elevation Costa Rica’s tallest mountain, Cerro Chirripó, at 12,533 feet doesn’t land it amongst the tallest mountain I’ve climbed, going from swimming in the ocean one day to the summit of Chirripó less than 48 hours later made the altitude (and it’s effects on my body) more obvious than on some of the much taller mountains that I’ve climbed. The changes in the flora, fauna, and terrain as you hike can be as stunning as those on Kilimanjaro.
8. Mount Rainier, Washington
The glaciers and snow on Mount Ranier (14,409′) as well as it’s spectacular beauty were awe-inspiring. Watching the sunlight hit the glaciers at dawn while roped up to your closest friends to make sure that nobody disappears down into the crevasses is an amazing experience. The sheer beauty and power that the glacier, the ice, and the cold have to shape our world is awe-inspiring. The fact that these glaciers are slowly melting or sublimating away and may not be there for the next generation helps me face the cold (I hate being cold) and inspires me to do my part to preserve them.
9. The Appalachian Trail (Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine)
Doing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail has to be in your list of most awe-inspiring hikes if you’ve done it. During my five months of hiking there were so many amazing moments with amazing people at amazing places that I can’t list them all here. There are moments that push limits you didn’t even know you had, and moments that you just sink into and enjoy. There are a few places and moments on my journey that stood out as getting my adrenaline pumping more than others: the Tornado Sirens and thunderstorm I got caught in outside of Pearisburg, VA, severe weather on Mount Washington, NH, crossing through Mahoosuc Notch, ME with a full pack right before/after it turned to ice (but not during!), attempting to ford the Carrabasset River, ME after a flash flood, and summitting Mount Katahdin after walking there all the way from Georgia.
10. The Grand Canyon, Arizona
Heading into the Grand Canyon for a backpacking trip I was filled with awe at the sheer immensity of it. Seeing it on TV and standing on the rim only doesn’t prepare you for how amazing the canyon really is. Spending a night or two down in the canyon at Indian Garden Campground or Bright Angel Campground as you hike rim-to-rim-to-rim is a joy as long as you remember to carry enough water and don’t burn yourself out on the way down because the only way to go from there is up!
I consider rockclimbing and caving to be close relatives of hiking and mountaineering and couldn’t finish this post without these two honorable mentions:
11. Red Rocks, Nevada
Rockclimbing at Red Rocks I found that both the terrain and the exposure were awe-inspiring. It was three pitches up on a climb at Red Rocks that I learned that I have a fear of heights. It was beautiful and exhilarating, and I was absolutely terrified. I was dangling off of the cliff face, responsible for both my life and the life of my climbing partner, hanging from a bolt in the rock, and it was a very *very* long ways down.
12. Grutas Calcehtok, Mexico
I find that the complete absence of light and sound deep within the heart of a cave is awe-inspiring. As the guide turned out the lantern in a cavern deep within the Calcehtok caves we were enveloped in complete darkness and an almost oppressive silence. We sat there in awe, there were just three of us and the only noise was that of our heartbeats and our breath. There was absolutely no light. If our guide abandoned us there, would we be able to find our way out? We’d been on an adventure in the caves for well over an hour at that point, simply following the guide with his gas lit lantern as he led us through countless turns, intersections, and obstacles. Most of my caving adventures have been done with Spanish speaking guides, and I’ve learned that the darkness and silence are eerie, but I don’t get really spooked until the guide utters the phrase “pecho a tierra,” chest to the ground. When the only way to get through a passage is by wriggling or squirming on my belly, I can’t see where the rock opens up on the other side, and I’m not confident that I could successfully wriggle backwards out of the crack, that’s where I start to dislike confined spaces.
These ten hikes (and two honorable mentions) are the first ones that come to mind when someone asks me about my most awe-inspiring, incredible, and/or adrenaline-inducing hikes. The thing that unifies them all is that they forced me out of my comfort zones and helped me to think about myself and the world in new, beautiful, and amazing ways.