Finding a Love of Backpacking

by Zachary Gorman | 4/11/18 2:15am

At a college in the middle of New Hampshire’s scenic mountains and verdant forests, students have the freedom to spend as much time as possible in the surrounding environment. From the moment students begin their Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips, Dartmouth can bring about a new appreciation for activities in nature.

Trips can spark an enjoyment for hiking and backpacking through the wilderness. Dartmouth’s outdoor-friendly culture allows students to continue those activities after Trips, whether as a casual participant or a hard-core outdoors person.

Zoe Yu ’19 has grown to enjoy hiking more at Dartmouth after Trips despite not having been on many hikes prior.

“I really didn’t hike that much when I was growing up, and I haven’t been able to hike that much at Dartmouth either, just because hiking is super time-consuming,” Yu said. “To actually drive there and hike and then drive back is something that I’ve never had very much time to do … but I think that I really began to enjoy hiking after Trips.”

At Dartmouth, Yu has had an easier time gathering a group to go hiking.

“In high school, I didn’t have very many friends who I could find to go hiking with me, but that definitely isn’t the case at Dartmouth, which I’m super grateful for,” she said.

Despite previously living in an environment that was somewhat similar to Hanover’s, Cathy Li ’19 had a similar experience getting into backpacking and hiking after her Hiking 2 Trip. Li is still new to backpacking, but she looks forward to her future adventures.

“I also lived in a rural, mountainous area before … but my friends there weren’t outdoorsy, so I never really was outdoorsy there,” Li said. “But being here at Dartmouth, there [are] a lot of outdoorsy people. And being with people who like to do stuff outdoors makes me want to do stuff with them … I’ve made some new friends who are really into backpacking, and I’ve always been pretty active, so I think this is something that will be fun.”

Especially in an environment with constant elevation changes, some enjoy hiking and backpacking as means of staying fit. Many Dartmouth students, however, enjoy these hobbies on a mental, emotional or social level.

“I like that you’re just forced to be outside and disconnected from everything,” Yu said. “Most places don’t have cell service, and it’s super relaxing and meditative … and you really have no choice but to just keep walking, which I find super calming.”

Dartmouth students’ love for hiking and backpacking is demonstrated through The Fifty, one of the College’s most storied yet challenging traditions. Sponsored by the Dartmouth Outing Club multiple times each year, The Fifty is a fifty-four mile-long hike from Hanover to Mt. Moosilauke. The hike, over two marathons long while winding up and down mountains, usually takes longer than twenty-four hours to complete. As participants fight to stay awake and motivated through their hike, volunteers set up stations to provide the hikers with food and water. While such a daunting endeavor may seem like a challenge that only a select few would dare to attempt, there are so many applicants for The Fifty that the DOC has to turn some students away.

Isabel Hurley ’19, who was selected to participate in The Fifty this past summer, recalls the DOC’s convoluted selection process.

“It’s a lottery system, but it’s a weighted lottery,” Hurley said. “You get more points and your team has more weight if there are seniors on your team or if someone on your team has volunteered [for The Fifty]. The more people who have volunteered more times, the better your chances are of getting selected in the lottery.”

Yu, who also participated in The Fifty, considers herself lucky to have been selected.

“I really didn’t think that I would get [into] The Fifty in that lottery because I was in a group of people who had never volunteered before,” Yu said. “So we had absolutely no points.”

To the average person, it might seem a bit curious that some students would go to great lengths to be able to go on such a difficult trek. Yu states that one of the key contributing factors to her decision to apply to The Fifty was because of the hike’s legendary status at Dartmouth.

“I see it as one of Dartmouth’s weird and unique traditions, and I really just wanted to participate in as many of those traditions as possible,” Yu said. “It’s something that only people at Dartmouth really get to experience.”

Dartmouth students only find out if they’ve been selected to hike The Fifty six weeks prior to the event, but once they are selected, it is time for them to ramp up their training.

“I would do maybe two hikes a week on average, and I worked up to doing the [Presidential] Traverse, which is a twenty-something mile hike,” Hurley said. “And I’d never hiked anything more than ten miles before the term that I did The Fifty. The StairMaster at the gym was also a great way [to practice] when I couldn’t get out and actually hike.”

Though The Fifty is clearly a tremendous challenge, Yu and Hurley both found the experience to be worth the effort and pain.

“It was definitely incredibly difficult, and I was super unprepared for it,” Yu said. “But I really appreciated that I hiked with three of my friends, and I felt like I got to know them a lot better and became better friends with them because of this.”

Yu also said that she wouldn’t have attempted to undertake a hike of this magnitude without the support of the stations and volunteers along the way. The Fifty can have significant effects on participants’ bodies. Knees, ankles and feet can be seriously worn out for a long period of time after the hike.

“I didn’t realize leading up to The Fifty that I have weak ankles,” Hurley said. “My ankle has still not recovered back to where it was before I hiked The Fifty, so I’m doing quite a bit less hiking hoping that it will heal so that I can continue hiking for many more years.”

Though she is excited to begin backpacking and hiking more than before, Li is hesitant to take part in an event like The Fifty after hearing stories from her friends who participated in the hike.

“They said it was really difficult mentally and physically, and they were kind of broken after — their knees hurt a lot for several weeks,” Li said. “And I would like to be not broken.”