Surviving the Sufferfest

How to keep spirits high when you’re getting beat-down

My friend Alia staying stoked after we took a very long wrong turn and accidentally ended up at the base of Mt. Baker. (Not taken on the Wonderland Trail)

I was 5 days into hiking the Wonderland trail, a 93 mile loop that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier. My friend Alia and I planned to complete the trail in 9 days, so we were just over half-way done and stoked about the prospects of actually finishing the whole loop. That night we were staying at a camp called Devil’s Dream, “more like Devil’s hell,” two ladies had told us when we passed them earlier on the trail. We laughed and kept on hiking, not knowing that we would soon learn the painful truth behind their ‘joke’. When we got to camp we set up our tent in a nice flat spot and went to bed early. We wanted to get some rest for the big mileage we were putting in the next day. 

My body felt like lead from hiking 5 days straight, but I woke up feeling as if I was floating on air. I blinked a few times as I opened my eyes, unable to tell the difference between the pitch black of night and the dark veil of my eyelids. It was 2am and raining hard. The sound of rain falling on my tent was soothing. But, before I let it coax me back to sleep, I quickly reached out of the warmth of my sleeping bag to check if any water had accumulated in the tent. My hand immediately sunk, completely submerged in water up to the wrist. I suddenly realized that the illusion that I was floating on air was real but, instead of air, I was floating in a big pool of rainwater. 

    I immediately emerged from a state of being half-asleep into a full-on panic. I scrambled to find my headlamp and turned it on, only to confirm my worst assumptions: everything was wet. My backpack, my gear, my sleeping bag — all the things I had strategically positioned underneath the tent so that they would not get wet. This was bad. This was really really bad. The only other time I had been this hopelessly wet in the wilderness was when I got hypothermia, and I was determined to never experience it again.

I looked over to Alia, sleeping soundly right next to me. She was half-submerged in water and totally ignorant to the fact that she was nearly a drowning victim. “Alia,” I half-whispered, half-yelled, trying not to sound as panicked as I felt.

“Alia,” I repeated,

No response.

“Alia wake up!” 

She groaned.

“We are in a pool,” I said, the panic starting to reveal itself in my voice.

“What?” She finally responded. 

“We are in a pool of water!”

In a tired confusion, she suggested that we block the rain from coming into the tent. Considering that we were already practically swimming, I told her that our only option was to move. 

Reluctantly, we both got out of our warm, wet sleeping bags, put on our wet shoes, and went through the painstaking process of moving a tent while half-asleep in a torrential rainstorm. We made it out of the rain-pool, but now faced the issue of how to stay warm in our wet gear. By some miracle, the inside of my sleeping bag was only slightly damp. Alia’s sleeping bag, on the other hand, was completely soaked through. So, in an attempt to get some sleep, I spent the night curled up in the tightest ball possible and Alia spent the night wrapped in the emergency blanket that we threw in our packs last minute (thank god). Somehow, we fell back asleep while covered in wet gear and slept until the first light of the morning. It was still raining. We quickly packed up our wet gear and practically ran 6 miles to Longmire, the nearest ranger station. There, we dried out our gear and enjoyed the rare luxury of indoor heating while on the trail. 

Warming up and drying off our soaked shoes next to the glorious heater in the ranger station. We are wrapped up in our new favorite piece of gear: our bright orange emergency blanket.

Unfortunately, the rain was not the only trouble that we faced on the trail. In a tragic case of miscommunication we lost our water filtration system and accidentally messed up our itinerary so that we had two heinous days of mileage. However, despite our repeated misfortune, we managed to complete the trail on time. Looking back on it, we easily could have let the trials of the trail put us in a bad mood.  If so, I have no doubt that we would have become frustrated and bailed. However, we didn’t even consider bailing an option. There was really no need to bail because we were still having a good time! 

Proudly holding the gallon of water that we hustled off of some car campers after we realized that we lost our water filtration system

Now that I consider myself a quasi-expert in getting seriously beat-down in the outdoors, I compiled a list of the things that were critical to keeping our spirits high on the trail. Hopefully this can help others, who, like me, have a deeply concerning version of fun, and often find themselves struggling in the wilderness. 

How to Stay Stoked on Your Sufferfest 101:

1. Singing songs: my personal favorite is making trail-themed parodies of popular songs. There’s nothing like the reassuring words of your favorite pop artist to keep you going on the trail. Some of our greatest trail hits included: 

  • “Take Me Home, Wonderland” – John Denver
  • “Rolling in the Deet” – Adele
  • “Woman of Constant Sorrow” – The Stanley Brothers
  • ”Baby got Pack” – Sir Mix-a-lot

2. Laughing at yourself. Laughing at yourself when you trip. Laughing at yourself when you spend an hour filtering water just to get ¼ liter in your bottle. Laughing at yourself when you spill piping-hot oatmeal all over your lap. Laughing at yourself when you sit down at the place you were convinced was top of a gruesome climb, only to discover that you were at the false summit. Laughing at yourself a lot.

3. Chocolate. Lots of it. As often as possible and in as much quantity as you can possibly carry.

Fruit snacks also kept us motivated on the trail. Here I am holding our prized last package.


4. Brainstorming lists of all the things that make your sh*tty situation great, in order to pass the time spent in said sh*ttiness. For example, we kept a list going for a couple of days about why hiking in the rain is great. Here is a sample:

  • The rain cools down the hot air.
  • The humidity soothes our scratchy throats that had been dried out from the thin alpine air. 
  • We get to see new wildlife that come out only when it rains, like frogs and slugs!
  • We actually get to put to use the rain gear that we were carrying all this time.
  • We get to find out/test by force which pieces of our gear are actually waterproof.
  • The cooler temps means that we don’t have to drink as much water. . . i.e. we don’t have to treat as much water. . . i.e. we don’t have to boil as much water (our solution to losing our water treatment system).
  • Our chocolate won’t melt.

5. Bursting out in random exclamations of “WHOOHOO!” when you’re feeling your worst.  In this case, “woohoo” is a call and response which your hiking partner repeats back. A response indicates that, they too are in great suffering, but, they too are stoked to keep going. Suffering in solidarity is much better than suffering alone. 

6. Taking a break when you feel your worst, and looking around to remind yourself of the beauty that surrounds you. Your issues suddenly don’t seem so bad when you let yourself feel small and be humbled by nature.

Stopping to smell the alpine air.

There’s many more things that I could add to this list, but, overall, they come down to the same thing: attitude. One of the biggest lessons I learned on the Wonderland trail was that when you face great difficulty, your attitude can make or break your success. In this case, our positive attitude was the key to our success, especially when we were suffering the most. At the expense of sounding like a corny high school football coach, I truly believe that a positive attitude is one of the most powerful means to achieving your goals. 

It is important to note that a positive attitude won’t get you through every challenge, so it is crucial to know when to bail. Also, I recognize how hard it is to maintain a positive attitude when you are being physically and mentally challenged to your max capacity — I, myself, have bailed out of multiple epic outdoor adventures due to my own negativity. Furthermore, I am not the kind of person to think that there has to be epic suffering involved in order to have a legitimate wilderness experience. There’s many ways in which we can meaningfully engage with the wilderness at no expense to ourselves. However, the more you engage with the wilderness, or any unpredictable experience, the more likely it is that you will face a situation that will make you uncomfortable. So, when that time comes, it is good to be prepared not only with your gear, but also with your attitude. The sufferfest may be inevitable, but you can choose how to respond to it. If you respond with optimism the suffering may feel less painful, and the memories will definitely be sweeter. 

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