There I was, standing at the edge of the cliff, my body on the brink of collapsing. The wind blew strong gusts through my sweat-soaked hair. I welcomed the chilled breeze. My toes jammed together at the foot of my boots as a thin stream of blood trickled down my ankle. My shoulders ached with the weight of what felt like the world, but in reality, it was my backpack containing my depleted water source. More than once I had questioned my sanity. Why was I here? Why was I pushing my body to the point of absolute collapse?
But then I looked up. I could almost touch the clear blue sky as the wind calmed my shaking body. Although it was mid-July and the temperature was over 30 degrees, the top of the mountain was glistening with snow.
Grasping the chilled mountaintop snow in my hands, I placed it on my neck to cool my sunburn and rejoiced in the chilled water dripping down my back. The mountains stood strong before me, basking in the sunlight as I took in the breathtaking view.
This is it, this is why I do it.
I’m not the only one who enjoys an invigoratingly challenging hike. Thousands of people all across Canada strap up their boots, grab their hydration packs and hit the trails every day, despite the excruciating physical demands. A Journal of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychology article written by Magdalena Gawrych and Robert Stonka suggests that hiking, particularly mountain hiking, is a form of therapy.
The pair say this is because of the stimuli being activated while on a mountain hike, as we breathe the fresh air, take in the mountain scenes and touch all the beautiful flowers. The strength of the stimuli firing in the human body is so substantial it strengthens our psychophysical state, making that tough run-up to the top of the mountain all the more worth it.
Meghan McDonough, professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, says that the physical movement of hiking can improve mental health and prevent future issues related to it. Being outside can increase one’s mental wellbeing, says McDonough.
At the top of Beehive Mountain, I turn to my friend and smile. Her hair dances across her face as she wipes sweat off her forehead and exhales deeply. She puts her hands on her hips and turns to take in the view, a smile plastered on her face. My legs burn as I bend down for more snow, the cool, sharp crystal pleasantly scratching my fingertips.
Standing back up, knees crackling, I reach out to grab my friend’s sweaty palm with my snow-chilled hand and we stand, taking in the view we’ve worked nearly ten hours to see. I deeply believe that there is no better way to bond with a friend than by pushing each other to the very edge of exhaustion, lungs gasping for air as you match each other, breath for breath, step for step.
An American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine article by Denise Mittin, Jillisa Overholt, Francis Haynes, Chiara D’ Amore and Janet Ady shows that I’m not alone in my belief. The article suggests that spending time in nature with friends and family can not only strengthen bonds but also increase one’s psychosocial experience. The increased stimulation of hiking and being surrounded by loved ones can only result in a general increase in one’s mental health, which makes the physical exertion of hiking that much more worth it. If being outdoors and hiking is something one finds enjoyable, says McDonough, then the shared experience with a loved one can increase one’s psychosocial wellbeing.
My friend and I slowly make our descent from the top of the mountain, taking one final breath of clean, pine-scented air. My scuffed boots grip the rocks as I tread past a purple wildflower blowing in the breeze. Hiking isn’t just about walking. Ian Sherrington, a professor at Mount Royal University, says that there are, “Layers to this incredibly complex and diverse activity that on the surface just looks like putting one foot in front of the other, but really when you drill down, it could be whatever you make of it.”
The concept of layers sticks out as I head toward my car, noticing the height of the mountain I just climbed. My friend smiles triumphantly as she high-fives me. My achy body feels rewarded despite the physical difficulties that came with the climb.
Hiking is more than just a walk. Hiking gives me an emotional outlet, an escape from the hardships faced in everyday life. The physical exertion of hiking clears my mind, allowing me to notice all the layers that make up this beautiful earth. As I close my car door and take a final look up at the mountain, I make a mental note to thank my friend for joining me on the challenge.