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Extreme day hikers go light, go fast, go far

It sounds like an action sport that didn't quite make the X Games cut. "Extreme day hiking" is, after all, just a fancy name for walking.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It sounds like an action sport that didn't quite make the X Games cut. "Extreme day hiking" is, after all, just a fancy name for walking.

But that's precisely the beauty of this not-so-extreme sport: Anybody who is reasonably fit can do it., a Web site devoted to the extreme day hike, describes it as a hike that is at least 14 miles round trip, with an elevation gain of 4,000 feet or more. It "consumes most of the day in a challenging adventure in a spectacular natural setting."

OK, so there's nothing particularly new or unusual about the extreme day hike; people have been taking long walks in pretty environs since the beginning of time. Rather, it was the DayHiker credo that caught my eye: "Go early, go light, go fast, go far, go high, and achieve a personal best in one day, returning to a hot shower, a gourmet meal, a fine wine, and a comfortable bed."

No tent-pitching, no powdered eggs, and no 40-pound backpack add up to a perfect day on the trail for me.

And for many others, it turns out.

David Howard, senior editor of Backpacker magazine, says extreme day hikers are people "who don't have a huge amount of time and are going to want to maximize the amount of stuff they do in a day, just squeeze every drop of fun and adrenaline out of the day."

Catering to that segment of its readership, Backpacker recently featured the nation's toughest day hikes. No. 1 on the list: the famed 41-mile Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, Ore., which features 12,000 feet of elevation change and is usually done in four days.

Now, that's extreme.

My friend Andrew and I began our decidedly less extreme day hike in the tiny village of Port Clinton, at the foot of Blue Mountain, a long Appalachian ridge that slashes through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

(Full disclosure: In vertically challenged Pennsylvania, whose mountains are really molehills, there is no place you can climb 4,000 feet. But even DayHiker concedes that "extreme" is a subjective term, and for someone like me who is relatively sedentary, the hike I had chosen - a rocky 15.1 mile section of the Appalachian Trail in eastern Pennsylvania - certainly qualified.)

Soon we were chugging up the first of two steep ascents. This one was 900 feet, and I was breathing hard when we finally got to the top of the mountain, near Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where thousands of migrating raptors pass by each spring and autumn.

The view of the Schuylkill River and forested rolling countryside would have been impressive, but thick clouds had shrouded the ridge, dramatically reducing visibility. It was pea soup up there, and the oppressive August humidity made it feel like we were walking through water.

I struggled to keep up with Andrew, a lanky guy with strides to match. After a while, I stopped trying, and every so often he'd stop and let me catch up to him.

Continuing through thick woods, we clambered over an endless series of lichen-covered, ankle-twisting rocks. Little ones, big ones, sharp ones, slippery ones - including the one I slipped on, causing me to fall and painfully bang my elbow. Not for nothing is Pennsylvania derisively dubbed "Rocksylvania" by Appalachian Trail through-hikers.

About seven miles in, we began another ascent, this one 1,000 feet. Our reward at the top would be Pulpit Rock, the first of two scenic overlooks along this section of the trail.

Andrew kept up his impossible pace, seemingly oblivious to the steep grade. I, on the other hand, was beat, and had to stop every 10 feet or 20 feet to catch my breath and take a gulp of water. Contemplating my throbbing feet, burning quads and aching shoulders, I wanted to tell DayHiker to shove it.

The view from Pulpit Rock wasn't great (those pesky clouds again, with lots of haze thrown in), but at least we could see the River of Rocks, a mile-long Ice Age boulder field on the valley floor. We stayed a half-hour, munching on sandwiches and fruit.

After a two-mile scamper over more rocks, Andrew and I arrived at the jewel of this hike: the Pinnacle, a rocky outcropping more than 1,600 feet above sea level that serves up one of the best views in Pennsylvania - on a clear day, that is.

We plopped down, and took in the (limited) view, a still-sublime patchwork of farmland and forest. We could see the curvature of the earth. Two enormous turkey vultures floated before our eyes, left to right, right to left, wings splayed out to catch the updrafts and downdrafts. Forgetting my weariness, I vowed to come back on a nicer day, when this scene would be even prettier.

The rewards of Pinnacle made the final five miles of our hike seem easy. Nevertheless, I was never so glad to see my car. My watch said we had hiked more than 15 miles in 7 1/2 hours - a full 90 minutes faster than the guidebook said it would take.

We ate pizza for dinner. Not exactly gourmet, but after a hard day on the trail, the pie tasted just as good as filet mignon.

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