Strategies for Achieving a Seemingly Impossible Goal…The “Obstacles” Update

Vernal Falls, above Yosemite Valley

Just over two months ago, I stated my goal of doing a solo hike of the John Muir Trail in California this summer. (See Putting the Strategies to Work…) The trail starts in Yosemite Valley and ends at Mt. Whitney, some 220 miles later. In that 220 miles, the trail goes up and over eleven mountain passes, with a total gain and loss of over 50,000 feet of elevation. It’s no small feat for these feet on the path!

I have secured a permit to start my hike August 10,  exactly two months away.  I am growing increasingly excited, yet still trepidatious. I have made steady progress in putting my strategies to work to turn this goal into a reality.  While successfully knocking off many obstacles, some still remain, and some will be with me until I show up at the trailhead. This post will outline and update the obstacles that exist for achieving this goal, and the progress I have made in the two and some months of working on them (steps 1 – 4 below).

First a recap of the strategies, with a few additions to incorporate in a long-range goal (* indicates addition):

Strategies for Achieving a Seemingly Impossible Goal

  1. Ponder ALL apparent obstacles.
  2. Identify THE most daunting obstacle.
  3. Knock off as many lesser obstacles as possible.
  4. Strategize specific steps to overcome the most daunting obstacle.
  5. Make a step by step plan of action. *
  6. Visualize yourself achieving your goal, doing your thing. *
  7. Ask for help when necessary.
  8. Be prepared.
  9. Be realistic, flexible, and willing to adjust your expectations if necessary.
  10. Check in with yourself often as you go.
  11. Enjoy the process! *
  12. Celebrate your success!

Step 1 —  Ponder all apparent obstacles

In pondering my obstacles, I’ve put them into two distinct categories: Actual Obstacles and Fear-based Obstacles.

Actual Obstacles —  Interestingly, I could only identify two actual obstacles when I got right down to it:

  1. Orthopedic Challenges. This list includes a severely arthritic knee and a recent round of multiple foot and ankle surgeries from which I am still recovering. It also includes a history of chronic back and neck pain, including previous back and neck fusions.  Without a relatively healthy body, I cannot go on this trip.
  2. Equipment gaps and insufficiencies. This list includes acquiring items I did not have in my backpacking repertoire, as I had previously backpacked with a partner, and necessary gear upgrades to increase comfort and workability on the trail. Without the right equipment, I cannot safely go on this trip.

Fear-based Obstacles — The more I thought about and looked at my apparent obstacles, the more I realized that most of them are about fear. Hence, this is a longer list:

  1. FEAR of backpacking alone.   Simply put, I have never backpacked alone. I have hiked alone extensively, but all of my backpack trips have been in the company of others. To go solo for three weeks is scary for many reasons, including fear of sleeping alone, fear of encountering “dangerous” wildlife, and fear of loneliness…to name just a few.
  2. FEAR of planning alone.  Again, I have planned for and done hikes in conjunction with another, including the John Muir Trail last summer with a partner. But the details of planning transportation to and from the trail, planning and mailing food drops, and insuring I have everything necessary but not anything unnecessary…that seems daunting and overwhelming when I think of doing it all on my own.
  3. FEAR of finding the balance…between what is enough and what is too much.  With that abundance of orthopedic issues, I want to make sure I am comfortable. That means extra pillows, and a thick sleeping pad. The tendency to get cold means extra clothes and a heavier sleeping bag. A high metabolic rate means extra food. ALL those things make for extra weight. How to balance the need to carry less weight for the sake of my back, neck, feet, and knees, with the need for ENOUGH of what I need to be comfortable…this is a delicate balance, and I am fearful I will go too far into the realm of carrying too much.
  4. FEAR of pain as the dominant factor.  I very much want this hike to be about something much greater than pain management. I know and expect that pain and discomfort will be a part of it, as pain is simply a part of my everyday life. And the trip is challenging, as I know from experience having done it last summer. But there are steps I can take and things I can do to lessen the degree of pain and discomfort I expect to experience.  My strong desire is to embrace the beauty and magnificence of the trail first, explore all there is to gain from the adventure from a personal growth standpoint second, figure out how I can and will write and share about my trip third…and successful pain management as a distant fourth at best. In other words, my intention is to somehow place pain into a manageable place…as a fellow traveler on the path, but not one who overrules all other aspects of the trip.

Which leads naturally to the next point…

Step 2 —  Identify THE most daunting obstacle

This is easily the orthopedic issues. As mentioned earlier, these include severely arthritic knees, one of which (the right) has undergone four surgeries. Nothing short of a knee replacement can help the right knee now. And the left, while less severe, is bone on bone in the patellar region. This makes going up and down hills painful and I must use poles and exercise great care with every step. I have also undergone five surgeries in both feet and ankles in the last 18 months, including three fused joints, a removed bunion, an ankle tendon and ligament repair, and, most recently, a hardware removal and ankle arthroscopy to deal with residual issues from a previous surgery. The foot and ankle issues are complex and ongoing to say the least. Further, I have chronic back and neck pain and have undergone three separate spinal surgeries to alleviate herniated discs and degenerative disc disease, including three fused vertebrae.

About this time, you may be asking WHY I am even considering this trip. There is only one real answer, and it’s a theme that will come up again and again throughout this journey.  I do not as a general rule let pain or discomfort keep me from doing what I love, because my spirit thrives on being out in an environment that takes me to a place of such peace and happiness. If I can successfully put pain and ailments into a place where they are workable and not dominant, then it’s a go. Then the beauty, wonder, and pure joy of such an adventure will outweigh the costs endured to do it, and it will all so very worth it.

Step 3 — Knock off as many lesser obstacles as possible   


This is where the fun starts! In looking at my list of obstacles, I can see I have made great progress in the last couple of months.  In the Actual Obstacles department, I have acquired almost all the gear I need. I bought (and practiced setting up) a new tent, a stove, and a new backpack to deal with some significant discomfort and chafing issues with last year’s backpack. I have gradually increased my repertoire of other gear that I need as well,  such that my backpacking preparation area is filling up. It’s been fun acquiring gear, and each purchase, large and small, helps build anticipation and excitement for the upcoming adventure. Doing it over several months has also helped to ease the financial burden of buying everything all at once

In the Fear-based Obstacles department, I have found this to be much more challenging. I don’t think it’s possible to knock off the fear-based obstacles altogether, as they are mostly in my mind. What I CAN do is to confront them to whatever degree is possible before I go, know that they will still be with me as I travel, and trust that the intensity of my anxiety will lessen with practice and time.

  1. Fear of backpacking alone….This fear will lessen with each solo trip that I do to prepare for the big one. I plan to go overnight for the first time on my birthday, towards the end of this month. A great birthday present to myself! I will plan for at least one other solo trip in July before I go. My fears of sleeping alone, wildlife, and loneliness cannot be directly addressed, except to be as prepared as possible for whatever may come up with this. See step 8 in an upcoming post.
  2. Fear of planning alone….There is no way around this one other than to just jump in and do it. Some of the plans have been made, some may potentially involve others and await their confirmation of schedules. I may be lucky enough to get a ride to the trailhead from my daughter and her boyfriend, and I may be able to secure a pick up at trails end from a friend. The locations and logistics of food drops needs to happen in the next month, after I am able to achieve 100% certainty that I am indeed going.
  3. Fear of finding the balance….between having enough and carrying too much weight. This will get tested when I do my first solo trip. I also have a four-day, three-night trip planned with my daughter and her boyfriend over July 4 weekend. For this trip, I will carry all my own gear and food to see what it’s like to plan for several days. Some of this will always remain, the uncertainty of whether I’m in balance, as I know my tendency to pack heavy. Last year, I carried a maximum of 50 pounds on the John Muir trip, even with a partner. I am not sure I will be able to go much (if any) below this. That is a lot of weight to carry for 220 miles…
  4. Fear of pain….Carrying around 50 pounds will lead to discomfort, no question. How much discomfort, and what I can endure, is an ongoing issue of uncertainty. I am not sure how to alleviate this fear, as pain is a very real part of my existence. I have been doing things like regular hiking, biking, and yoga to make sure I am as physically prepared as possible. Conditioning can only go so far to counteract the orthopedic challenges. BUT, if I know I can do the distance, or the activity with a modicum of success now and in the coming months, it gives me confidence that I will be able to overcome this fear-based obstacle enough to at least show up at the trailhead and get started!

Step 4 — Strategize specific steps to overcome the most daunting obstacle

Much progress has been made in the orthopedic realm in the last two months. A month ago, I had troublesome hardware removed from my right foot and an arthroscopy of that ankle to remove bone spurs and “clean things up.” I can now wear hiking boots, which I was not able to do with the hardware still in. This is huge…wearing hiking boots adds stability for my chronically vulnerable-to-twist ankles and adds a firmer surface on which to walk. One of my biggest foot problems remains an inflamed and super sensitive bone in the ball of my left foot, a holdout from December’s bunion surgery. Wearing firm surface shoes dramatically helps this problem, as has the acquisition of new orthotics. I am deeply appreciative of my physical therapist, who continues to work with me diligently to tweak and modify my orthotics based on my specific and ever-changing foot and ankle needs. Getting back to yoga, while it is painful and difficult, is helping with balance, stretching and building strength back into my feet and core.  I am back to hiking elevation and even in snow,  while challenging, this also helps get my feet and ankles back to semi-full strength.

As for the knee…this one remains a problem. The only solution I have been able to come up with is to see if my doctor will give me a cortisone shot for pain relief a few weeks before my scheduled trip. I fully realize that this is not a long-term solution, and I know knee replacement is not far away. But I very much want to get through this trip with a manageable amount of pain, and I am not sure I can do that without relief of some type.

So that’s the update! I have knocked off a bunch of obstacles, apparent and otherwise. I am currently 95% confident I can start the trail in August. What will it take to get to 100%? A couple of solo backpack trips, a conversation with my knee surgeon, and several more challenging day hikes to test the progress of the feet. I will also continue putting the strategies to work in steps 5 – 8. Stay tuned for updates on this, as well as more trip reports as the journey continues…

Kathie on JMT 2015…looking forward to 2016!

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