It is easy for me to remember the night before my first Grand Canyon Double Crossing (aka Rim-Rim-Rim). Early December of 2005, living out of our Xterra, driven south and west by cold and the Grand Canyon as our last stop before the true lowlands of Vegas, Death Valley, and J Tree. We slept outside the park and it was cold, which made it hard to not bring too many clothes on what ended up being a 45 mile, 15 hour hike. A corroded battery terminal kept our home stuck at the South Kaibab TH and with me, unable to walk, we spent the night in the El Tovar, which checked that off the list before I knew enough for it to get very long.
Before that day I had never walked 40 miles in a day; very possibly I had never walked much beyond 30. It was long, mentally, and it was hard, physically, and the recollection of the rim lights appearing out of the dark as I ascended the final switchbacks of the Bright Angel hours after sunset still comes instantly to mind. It was my introduction to the world of ultraendurance, my first best lesson on exactly why and how long pushes in the mountains are difficult. It has also inculcated in me a virulent and abiding dislike of accounts which willfully portray ultraendurance as hyperbolically difficult, or that only scrape the surface of just how a 14 hour continuous effort is hard.
REIs “A Walk in the Park” is a good example of storytelling which tries to lean on and exaggerate the weaker parts of interest. 46 miles of road biking on a flat bike path is not that hard. Climbing (hiking) Teewinot isn’t that hard either, though it is a big hill with a telegenic summit. Open water swimming is probably pretty tough; having never done it I couldn’t really say. What is without question quite brutal is turning left when you finally get back to the Lupine Meadows TH and hiking back along Jenny Lake only to swim across it, rather than staying straight and walking the ~mile of road back to your bike.
This isn’t to say that the physical aspects of this Teton Triathlon aren’t hard, it is to say that the extent to which they are or are not within the capacities of the “average” person is irrelevant. The hard part about being about in the woods and exerting yourself for 12+ hours straight is keeping present, eating and drinking, and directing your mind to relish everything in the moment, even the blisters and lactic acid. This is especially tough when, like this Teton Triathlon, the route is contrived and has easy bail points. WZRD et al get into that in the final minutes, but the hyperbole which permeates the first half takes the edge far off.
Giving the mental struggle full credit is not an easy thing to do in any medium, and making a film that keeps backpacking interesting for 17 minutes is just as hard, which is why I was so happy to see that Dean Leslie and pro skier come stinky Instagram sex kitten Kalen Thorien did both in their film on backpacking the Sierra High Route. Leslie is, quite simply, the best adventure filmmaker working today, and Thorien’s dedication to self-filming in the difficult and boring moments provided him with ideal material. It takes a lot of perspective to realize and say that backpacking and endurance stuff in the wood doesn’t teach you anything, it just provides a still enough mirror, and that while out there fear almost never has anything to do with bears or lightening or running out of food or how difficult that next pass is. Difficulty has to do with what you expect of yourself, and how willing you are to bend your will to make that happen.